By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The swimming pool controversy was a canary in the coal mine. We're going to have swimming pool-type issues all across the board in the next few years.
Ever wonder why the city had to close nearly 100 pools? Kids haven't stopped wanting to swim. One West Dallas kid has already drowned this summer because he and his buddies broke into a closed pool to swim.
The city wants to shut down the pools and fill them with dirt because the city has allowed its public pools to fall apart so badly that it can't afford to fix them.
The police force is the next swimming pool-type issue. Within the next few months, some members of the Dallas City Council will start talking bad about Dallas police officers, deliberately working to erode the public's faith in them.
Why? Because the same civic leaders who have allowed the pools to fall apart and who have allowed the city's streets and bridges to fall apart have also botched and mishandled the police department salary structure so badly that they can't afford to fix it.
So they are already beginning to say that the city's cops are a bunch of greedy suburban carpet-baggers trying to bankrupt the city with a bogus lawsuit.
We'll get into all that. But first, we have to keep one thing firmly in mind. Cops and firefighters risk their lives for the rest of us, right? In order to be decent people ourselves, we have to pay them a certain debt of respect, right? So, just about the time the city's political leadership starts tearing them down publicly over a money issue, you need to know how and why this city is really in the ditch.
Two weeks ago, Madeleine Johnson, the new city attorney, had a truth session with the city council--in secret, so we're not supposed to know all this stuff--in which she told them she was radically changing the way Dallas has been handling a 7-year-old series of lawsuits over back pay for police officers and firefighters. Under former City Attorney Sam Lindsay, who is now a judge (oh, joy) on our federal bench in North Texas, the city had pursued a strategy of stupid management tricks.
The suit revolves around pay differences between pay grades, and it was the un-brilliant strategy of Lindsay and former City Manager John Ware to even things up by inventing a make-believe pay grade with no people in it. The judge was neither fooled nor pleased by the ghost-pay-grade trick. (I've tried it at a couple of birthday parties, and the kids didn't like it, either.)
In fact, the judge in that particular piece of the legal action has already ruled against the city in a way that could eventually cause a hit of as much as $800 million on the city budget, if judges in other parallel lawsuits take this first ruling as a strong precedent. It's all on appeal.
Under Lindsay, the city's legal position was that the whole thing is bogus and the city will never pay a dime. The reason Johnson had her de-programming session with the council was to tell them to get ready for a dose of reality. The judicial decisions so far are an indication that these lawsuits have a serious shot and that the council needs to start thinking in terms of settlement.
How big a deal is that? Here's how big: The total potential loss to the city is more than three times the city's annual income from the property tax.
And guess what? The property tax is going to wind up being the main way to pay it off. It's very unlikely the city would be able to sell bonds to pay for stuff like this.
One way or another, it comes out of our hide.
Let's say the cops and firefighters don't get the full $800 million. Let's imagine they settle for 25 cents on the dollar. That's still one and a third times the entire annual property tax collection.
There are legal caps on how much money the city can capture from the property tax in a given year, and there is a constitutional ceiling on how high the tax rate can go. But here is one way to look at it: If the city couldn't borrow to pay off the settlement, and if it had to pay it all off in one year, the city ad valorem tax bill on a $200,000 house that year would go from $1,335 to $4,060.
I am told by people involved in the plaintiffs' legal strategy, speaking on background, that a settlement cannot go lower than nine figures, assuming the first case is upheld on appeal.
"Those police officers and firefighters just aren't going to accept anything under that," a source close to the cases told me.
The lowest nine-figure number is $100 million, which is almost 40 percent of the city's annual revenue from property taxes. That's two-thirds of the money the city raised with bonded indebtedness to do the Trinity River project. It's well over the entire amount the city spends in a year for libraries, parks, and cultural facilities.