Eeek, the Facts!

The city council fears mice in corners whispering truth

"Processed potable water has a retail value," the auditor said. "The DWU management should concentrate on ways to market water that is produced in excess of demand in lieu of downplaying its value."

You're trying to understand this, right? Let a City Hall veteran give you a hint: If it sounds like Alice in Wonderland and it walks like Alice in Wonderland, it's Alice in Wonderland. Don't try to make it more complicated than it is.

There is a dimension in all of this where one can begin to see a certain rhyme, however, illustrated by the remarkable decision to put one-quarter of one person in charge of leak detection (later, we'll guess which quarter they were using). City Hall veterans and people who have left city employment say that years of ruthless payroll slashing to keep tax rates down in Dallas have left many departments absurdly understaffed.

Guy gives Mary Poss really bad news about City Hall bookkeeping. Poss says, "Well, it's so nice to see you," and splits.
Peter Calvin
Guy gives Mary Poss really bad news about City Hall bookkeeping. Poss says, "Well, it's so nice to see you," and splits.

Kelly McCullar, who was in charge of DWU's accounting and finance division until leaving the city two years ago, told me that management at DWU, like management in most city departments, knows what it would have to do to run departments responsibly. He said management also knows that current budgets will not allow that to happen.

"The people in management positions, the directors of operations, realize that they have a lot of outstanding needs that are continually building up that they just can't get to because they don't have the budget."

But McCullar said talking honestly about it is a career-killer. "It's highly political. The people in charge definitely know, but it's hard for them to talk about because they don't want to get in trouble."

Reynolds, the auditor, told me there is no way DWU has cleared up the problems cited in the audit, because DWU still does not come close to having an internal financial staff capable of making necessary fixes and running things properly. I asked him what that winds up meaning in practical terms: What is it that DWU cannot do because it lacks the budget and staff to do it?

"The idea," he said, "is that if you don't have the total of the detail agreeing with the master account, you don't have any control to see if things are being done correctly. In other words you can't say, 'Give me a list of everybody who was billed today and what that totaled up to. Give me a list of everybody who paid today and how much that totals up to.'

"When that's not done, you're out there with nothing. You cannot defend any number. It's like just putting all the numbers in a pot and then throwing them out and saying there it is, whatever it is."

Reynolds echoed what McCullar had said: Years of budget cuts have denuded City Hall of the staff it needs to do things properly. But the heads-up ambitious executive is the one who helps his boss, the city manager, promote the Big Lie--that everything is copacetic.

So they're not stupid. They're just cynical.

They tell the council what the council wants to hear. The council wants to hear it, because they believe you and I want to hear it. That's what we vote for in Dallas--cheap taxes.

I know we have our reasons. Dallas thinks cheap taxes are good for the economy. It's a religious faith. Dick Lavine, senior fiscal analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, points out that the really hot growth in the nation in recent times has been in very high-tax climates like Silicon Valley and Boston, driven by the great infrastructure and excellent public education for which high taxes pay.

"It's very clear that when businesses are choosing new sites for location or expansion," Lavine said, "tax is only a minor factor. The important things are access to markets, educated workforce, good transportation system and quality of life, which may be why we didn't get Boeing.

"They [Boeing] were in Washington, which has no state income tax. They could have come here, where we have no state income tax. Instead they went to Illinois, which has a pretty high state income tax, because it had various cultural amenities they were looking for."

The political reality in Dallas is that we vote for the people who promise us either cheap taxes or cheaper taxes. And we get what we pay for--a crumbling infrastructure operated like a junkyard by a bunch of smiling con artists.

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