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.
Now you can understand why people at City Hall would have a motivation to talk bad about the cops and firemen. And in fact, Glenn White, president of the Dallas Police Association, tells me that's just what city officials have been threatening.
"The staff has a need to blame us instead of blaming people who should have stepped up to the plate and dealt with the problem a long time ago," White said.
What people? Council people and mayor people and city manager people. That's who could have given the staff direction to take care of this thing way before it had ballooned to such a size. (The total hit goes up every year it isn't settled.)
These suits could have been settled years ago for much less money. And the lawsuits grew out of something we citizens decided and voted for and laid down the law on more than 20 years ago.
In 1979 we voted for a pay hike for police and fire. The proposal we approved included a specific provision that the city could not give raises to the top brass unless they gave the same percentage raise all the way down the chain. It was a deliberate departure from the traditional Dallas top-down way of doing things. We, the people, wanted to make sure this money we were voting for would go to the cops and the firemen, not the brass.
So what did the city do? It gave raises to the brass and not to the cops and firemen. The gigantic Bozos! The city just ignored the language of the referendum and gave pay hikes at the top that added up to twice the rate of the increases further down.
What would have been the motivation of the mayor and city council not to come to grips with the police and fire pay lawsuits long ago? Well, I know what I think it was. During the period when they might have taken this on responsibly, bit the bullet and squared with the voters on what we owe, the Ron Kirk leadership at City Hall was busy selling us a new downtown sports arena, the river project, and the 2012 Olympics.
Kirk doesn't want people thinking about closed swimming pools, ruined streets, and screwed-up lawsuits when he needs us to go to the polls and vote to spend millions of tax dollars on the private ventures sought by his rich Republican handlers.
The plight of the police and fire forces, meanwhile, like the swimming pools, just gets worse the longer the city fails to act. I spent some time recently with officer Ernest D. Sherman, a trustee of the Dallas Police Patrolman's Union (different from Glenn White's group). Sherman has been doing comparative research on pay levels in Dallas, the suburbs, and other cities as well as on turnover, and he has come up with some very interesting numbers.
Starting pay for a cop in Plano is 127 percent of the same pay rate in Dallas. Sherman argues this kind of pay differential makes it hard for Dallas to hold on to good cops. Sherman offers other data that he says show that a quarter of the police department has turned over in the last five years because of low pay and that the city wastes tens of millions of dollars on training because it can't keep good officers.
In the last couple of months, the city manager's office has spent a lot of time compiling numbers for the city council to refute the information Sherman has been making public. But the manager's office concedes, on the other hand, that police and fire pay is low in Dallas and that some kind of raise, between 5 percent and 15 percent, is crucial.
The few council members who would discuss this stuff with me even off the record said they were going to try to offer the cops and the firemen a tit-for-tat deal: You people get a raise if you drop that nasty lawsuit.
But that's just not going to happen. We're talking different apples for different people. The pay raise is what the city needs to do to hold on to rookies. The lawsuit is a potentially major payday for people who have been around a long time. The two things don't connect.
The week after the city voted to let Councilwoman Laura Miller use private money to save a couple of swimming pools, park board member Dwaine Caraway drove me around town to show me how crappy the pools are and why they need to be plowed in. What I saw, again and again, was filtration equipment lying in rusty pieces on the ground, peeling paint, un-repaired cracks, and broken glass and litter six inches deep where the kids walk to porta-johns.
That's maintenance. That's the city allowing its basic plant to rot, while the mayor and city council talk us into spending millions on hockey arenas and make-believe lakes.
As bad as closing the pools on little poor kids may be, a deliberate campaign to undermine public confidence in the police and fire forces will be even worse, especially when the only goal is to dodge blame for a money problem.
Sometimes living here feels like being homeless in a BMW.