Budget Blues

This year's round of Town Hall budget meetings shows we get the government we deserve

It's easy to spot the city's most pressing issues. In fact, it's impossible to miss them when you're driving to a city council member's Town Hall meeting. The experience of jerking into and out of potholes, rolling past piles of uncollected garbage, and dodging three-legged, mange-ridden hounds shows you exactly what most people want done in their neighborhoods.

It seems perfectly plain to you and me.

But for some reason, our Dallas City Council members need to know more; pitted asphalt, reeking garbage, and stray hounds will not suffice. That must mean it's budget time, and the annual round of interminable Town Hall meetings established to provide public feedback while the council mulls its new budget. In theory, but not really, comments from Town Hall meetings will inspire changes in the budget, which is set for a council vote on September 27.

Check out any one of these well-publicized but sparsely attended events, which each council member must hold in his district, and you'll find Dallas' hidden demographic: the Gripe-ocracy.

There, sitting in the back for Councilwoman Barbara Mallory Caraway's fourth Town Hall meeting, is Sylvia Morris. She is one of four citizens in the audience at Roosevelt High School's cafeteria. She has no questions about the budget, only a list of neighborhood concerns: a vacant lot being used as a neighborhood dump, the lack of sidewalks, and a clogged and polluted creek.

"If you're in North Dallas and a tree falls in the street, by the end of the day it's gone. It's not like that here. You have to call, call, call. You have to call constantly to get things done. How do you think that makes me feel?" she says. "Most people don't come [to the Town Hall meetings] because they figure, why talk? The city won't do nothing. They're going to do what they want to."

Complaining, Morris has found, is the only way she can influence the political process--apart from donating gobs of money. Public meetings, no matter what they're about, become magnets for people to plead for help in things the city should be doing without asking. Like scooping up garbage and stray dogs.

There are others like Morris whose political involvement consists solely of getting the city to do what it should be doing anyway. Asking citizens to comment on the budget is a farce; how can anyone expect a 9-to-5 worker to trek to a library to examine the inch-and-a-half-thick budget book and offer suggestions?

And those who think citizens can rely on the budget pamphlet--produced and distributed by the city--as a basis for meaningful debate are mistaken. The city presentation of the budget is orchestrated fluff that highlights a handful of rocks in a landslide of spending. What's more interesting is what isn't mentioned.

The city pamphlets--titled "Dallas, the City that Works"--mention the replacement of security at Love Field with uniformed cops but omit the plans to build their $4 million headquarters. The budget also contains other Love Field improvements, such as a new parking garage, plus $562,000 set aside for marketing.

Spending that much wooing customers makes it difficult to quell the fears of neighborhood types who are worried about the impact of a busier airport. With all that money in play, there better be an increase in activity. But try getting a politician to admit that to someone who lives near Love Field.

Oh, and for those who worry about the financial sinkhole called Redbird Airport, don't fret. It's getting money to finish its "master plan." Marketing for the airport will cost $114,000; landscaping for the underused airfield will run you $500,000. "I mean, how many airports does the city need?" asked Stan Aten, one of the few citizens who bothered to do a line-by-line analysis of the city budget. Aten spoke at Councilwoman Donna Blumer's Town Hall meeting.

Speaking of foliage, the city's pamphlet proudly announces that the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center is getting $2.5 million for "maintenance and repair." But crack open a budget book, and you'll see $40,000 earmarked for "ficus tree replacement" at Meyerson. And we're cutting 540 city staff positions?

The huge, smelly gorilla in the corner that everyone wants to ignore is an enormous lawsuit filed by public safety officers claiming they're owed hundreds of millions of dollars in back pay. A 1979 referendum stipulated that any pay raise had to be shared by the entire police and fire departments, from the top brass to rookies. But only top-ranking officers got raises. Thus, the city owes decades of back pay--from $200 million to $800 million.

That last figure is about half of this year's proposed budget. Yes, half.

There wasn't much talk about this. Why ruin everybody's civic fun?

Don Hill ran a typical Town Hall budget meeting.

The councilman strutted into the Janie C. Turner Recreation Center in Pleasant Grove 10 minutes late, tossing apologies. He launched into a simple greeting and statement of purpose, using his most lawyerly tone of voice. "It is always a great opportunity for me to let you know what we as a city are doing, and to hear issues of concern," he said.

His "issues of concern line" was more than prophetic. He knew the budget would receive scant attention compared to nickel-and-dime local complaints, and that this gathering would devolve into just another neighborhood meeting with pathetic attendance.

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