Taxpayers, Arise!

A little-known chapter of the city charter says we don't have to take it anymore

Don't tell me we can't fight City Hall. So what if they're all a bunch of suits down there, they're goofballs, they're numbskulls, they're going to do what they want to do anyway, so it's useless, and it's boring. Great. Please do not allow me to waken you from your coma.

But I have certain information that you might find--how shall I say?--awakening. Buried in our crusty, time-dishonored city charter (the local version of the constitution) is a very nice little political bombshell that you and I might have fun setting off under certain people's desks.

I'm talking about...KABOOM!

First off, you may or may not have snapped yet to the fact that the Dallas City Council is going to pass one heck of a stink bomb of a budget when it gets back from summer hiatus in Biarritz or wherever they go to relax. These are the same geniuses who just gave away $43 million to a couple of billionaires. Now they're going to shut down our libraries, halt our street repairs, toss our kids out of swimming pools and worse, because why? Because they just found out they're short of money!

Instead of globetrotting this summer, it would have been nice if the council could have gone to some kind of Financial Camp. Maybe at Financial Camp they would have devoted a whole day to "Not giving away all your money when you are already broke."

The worst two parts of what they are going to do to us when they get back from their adventures are these: They are going to raise our taxes, thank you very much. And then they are going to cut the pay of city employees.

We have a city manager system here. City employees don't work for the politicians; they work for a hired professional. It's a bad system with too many downsides to list. But the upside is that we do tend to wind up with a generally superior quality of folk working in the ranks of city government--more professional, less hacky.

Slashing the pay of these people is a terrible mistake, especially when a lot of them are right there at ringside watching the council screw things up by giving away the store. They know exactly where the money went. Out the window. And now the staffers have to pay. Talk about a devastation to morale.

I called David Cook, the city's chief financial officer, and asked him to tell me exactly how much tax hike and how much pay cut we're looking at. He said there were three scenarios on the table when the council packed its tuxedos and blew town.

The lowest tax hike we could see is about 2.76 cents per hundred dollars of value (please ignore these terms, because they're too boring, and I'll get to the damn point in a minute). The highest is 5.52 cents.

At the highest tax hike, city employees still take a 4.5 percent nick on their pay. At the lowest tax hike, they get hit for a 10 percent pay cut.

OK, pretend you're not on the Dallas City Council, so you have to have a real job. One year they give you a 10 percent pay cut. How many years do you figure it will take to get that back? You know how it goes, right? Next year they call you in, tell you things are looking much better, and they appreciate your loyalty, and they are pleased to announce you are getting a 0.92 percent raise. Stay with them long enough, and you'll wind up paying them a salary.

You quit. You go. Vamoose. It's a bad place. It's run by losers. This is a free country. You fly.

Now, there are just a couple of other little wrinkles I need to toss in before I get to my bomb. For starters, I think the council will go for the highest tax hike--or higher--because of the composition of the council. Without going too far into political science, we did see a certain alliance form on the $43 million-for-billionaires thing. On the one side you had the south-of-the-river bloc, who had been promised contracts and other goodies from the billionaires and who figure that the tax burden is mainly paid for by the North Dallas middle class anyway, so who cares? On the other side you had the rich social climbers and favor-curriers who figure that the tax burden is mainly paid for by the North Dallas middle class anyway, so who cares?

Each side has its own sacred cows and cash cows: $800,000 from the taxpayers last year to keep the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund afloat, for example; $2.5 million to keep the doors open at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, with a much bigger hit ahead when the cosmopolite crowd sticks the taxpayers for operating expenses at the new performing arts center.

They will all come back together on this budget crisis, and those two sides will both gang up against the mayor and the middle of the council to push a big tax hike. And a pay cut.

Forgive me. You hand a guy a hundred dollars, he tosses it out the window. When he asks for another hundred, I think it's highly counter-intuitive to give it to him.

But both sides of the coalition will blah-blah-blah and blab-blab-blab about how we have no choice. In that, though, they will have two problems. The mayor. And Councilman Mitchell Rasansky.

I spoke to both of them last week. Both are honing lists of cuts--painful cuts, maybe, but cuts you can do instead of raising taxes and slashing pay. Mayor Laura Miller is already scouring out places in City Hall like the five-person Office of International Affairs. She thinks one person could handle the burden of greeting foreign dignitaries, a savings of $400,000. She's got an idea from other cities about declaring some kind of amnesty day to encourage people to pony up unpaid fines without having to fear arrest. She said it's worth more than a million bucks to the city. She also said the city pays $15 million a year in Christmas bonuses.

Do you get a Christmas bonus?

Rasansky is very interesting on this topic, because he's a business guy, and he has that instinct that successful business people have for cost cutting. He knows that the margin between success and a mess is often in fractions of pennies. He told me about a manipulation of 20-year bond financing that I did not understand at all. He said he had described it to another council member, whom he did not name, who probably didn't get it any better than I did, but whom he quoted as saying, "Well, Mitchell, maybe you could save a couple million with that, but so what?"

Oh, my. There are certain things I don't even want to hear.

So here's the point. I predict our local political coalition, the Dallas Party-Time Party, will push the council to seek a tax hike that will be above the so-called rollback rate. And if they do, that will allow the citizens of the city to force a rollback election. This involves a bunch of calculations and state laws way too arcane to go into here, but it paves the way for my grand discovery.

Da bomb!

Rollback elections are pretty stupid. If the council goes above the rollback rate on a tax hike, then we would have to go through all this rigmarole with petitions and so on. And the best we could do, even if we won, is force the council to go back to the rollback rate, not even the old rate. Difficult to follow? Yeah, now try to imagine mounting a big campaign about it.

"BACK TO THE ROLLBACK RATE!"

A massive glazing-over of eyes.

But guess what? A sort of accidental clue caused me to spend an afternoon poring over our venerable City Charter, adopted in 1907 in the glory days of the original Muckrakers and Progressives. And guess what we have? It's not a part of Texas law. Only certain home-rule cities have it.

Initiative and Referendum. It's in our charter.

It's waaay better than a rollback election. We can pass laws. We can pass any laws we want. Let's say a heads-up group got together and agreed on the following ordinance: "The city council shall hereby take its heretofore aforesaid notwithstanding tax hike and put it where the sun doth not shine. Then the council shall go back to the drawing board and come up with enough cuts to cover the entire shortfall without raising taxes, cutting salaries, giving away any more money to that son-of-a-bitch in Hawaii or taking any funds at all from the following services (a list follows)."

They have to call an election on it. It's the law.

According to the charter, it takes certified signatures on petitions from 10 percent of the city's "qualified" voters to force a referendum. I checked, and that would be about 60,000 signatures, according to the last election results. You have to notify the city secretary you're going to circulate petitions, and then you have 60 days to get it done.

OK, six teams of 10 workers, each team with a leader. That's 66 people. Each team member has to get 1,000 signatures. Over 60 days, that's about 17 signatures a day. The team leaders are working to check voter registration numbers and make sure the signatures are all copacetic.

You telling me that couldn't be done? You said we can't fight City Hall, they're all a bunch of suits down there, they're goofballs, they're numbskulls, they're going to do what they want to do anyway, so it's useless, and it's boring. But wouldn't this at least be fun? There are plenty of smart people out there like Pat Cotton or Lorlee Bartos who could run the election campaign.

So what's the holdup? Middle-class taxpayers of the city, arise! You have only your tax liens to lose!

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