City Hall's Debate Over the Tax Hike Was About More Than Curtailing City Services.
So, just for grins, let's do this. Let's take off our war helmets, put down our skull flails for maybe 10 minutes on this whole Dallas property tax hike issue and talk about something bigger.
I like the tax increase adopted by the city council last week. But I not only can see the other side of the question: I was on it a week earlier. I was against this tax hike before I was for it.
So maybe if there's really such a thing as a culture war we can declare a culture truce. Let's bury the hatchet just long enough to ask the larger question: What do we want local government to do? What is it for?
Tax hike, no tax hike, whatever: Once local government gets our money, what should it spend it on?
In a way, the most important argument and presentation in the whole debate got passed over and sort of smushed out of view because people were so focused on the tax hike itself. I'm talking about the analysis city council member Angela Hunt presented on her website and again at the council horseshoe dealing with where the money goes.
Not how much money City Hall gets total. More a question of how City Hall divvies up the dollar bill once the dollar bill gets into City Hall's hands.
And before we get all wonky here, allow me to tell you in advance what we're going to see in Hunt's analysis: From 2001 to 2011 (projected), we will see a steep fall-off—almost off the edge of a cliff—in City Hall's budget for basic stuff like streets, parks and libraries. But, wait, that's only half the story.
We're also going to see a real spike—a growth by half again—in the amount of debt in the budget.
Let me point out another thing, before we get into the numbers. The question of debt and new construction was the one area where I thought the two sides probably exchanged the most truth and candor with each other.
I watched the debate at City Hall the day they voted. Hunt was forceful in making the case that borrowing for big-ticket items over the years has seriously eroded the city's ability to provide basic services.
Mayor Tom Leppert was equally forthright in saying he thinks debt and big-ticket items are the real determinants of the city's destiny, not the money the city spends to provide services and maintain the basic plant day-to-day:
"The choice is very clear," Leppert said. "We can put resources into short-term, into operating dollars that don't produce returns, that don't build the city, that are shortsighted." Or, he said, the city can invest in big long-range projects.
That may sound reasonable or unreasonable to you, I don't know. But in order to know what he's even talking about, we have to look to Hunt's numbers.
She did some real work. She searched city budgets back 10 years. She consulted the city's chief financial officer for advice on how to adjust the numbers—not with a common consumer-oriented inflation algorithm but with a formula devised especially for local government.
So with the numbers adjusted to reflect inflation, what Hunt found—and showed on charts last week at the council horseshoe—was that the total amount of money City Hall has on hand each year to spend on operations decreased by 17 percent from the 2001 budget to the 2011 upcoming budget.
But now look within that: The amount of money the city spends on street repair and maintenance decreased by 50 percent in 10 years. Half! Do you feel the warm glow of a great big light bulb going off behind your head?
Look, you have to think what I think, what everybody thinks when we drive down Dallas streets anywhere but in North Dallas residential areas. What the hell! How can it be this bad?
But there is the answer right there. We've cut the streets budget in half. We've cut the budget for parks and recreation by almost 40 percent, Hunt found. Libraries are down by almost the same amount.
This is the stuff that Leppert calls "operating dollars that don't produce returns, that don't build the city, that are shortsighted."
Where did that money go? The city didn't give it back to us. Hunt also showed that Mayor Leppert, in his first two years in office, presided over hefty tax hikes. So what did they do with the money they took out of streets, libraries and parks?
It went to debt. The share of the local tax dollar soaked up by debt repayment grew by half, from 14 percent of the total to 21 percent.
I believe I did begin this exercise by saying we would slip our blood-stained ball-peen hammers into our belt-loops and try to be fair to both sides, so I guess that means I have to be fair to Leppert.
He pointed out that the lion's share of the 2006 bond issue, which produced a lot of this debt, went to projects in the southern sector. It's not as if every penny of it went to rich-people playthings like the arts district.
But here is where it all does go. It all goes to construction. It all goes to building new stuff, not taking care of old stuff.
Leppert is the former CEO of an international construction company. He was a candidate with no experience in politics or public leadership, brought forward from political nowhere by the Dallas Citizens Council, a private group with strong ties to public works construction interests.
He honestly believes that pothole repairs are "short-sighted." Libraries are "short-term." Recreation centers "don't build the city."
What does? Construction.
Leppert's point of view—the Citizens Council point of view—is not absent of merit. There is a value in new construction. But how much value? How should that value be balanced against the worth of a healthy and sound community?
One of the more compelling citizen speakers at an earlier City Hall hearing on the tax rate reminded the city council that in 2001 The Boeing Company chose Chicago over Dallas as its new corporate headquarters, going to a city with higher taxes than Dallas. As the speaker pointed out, Boeing cited basic amenities and cultural life as reasons for its decision.
I almost hate to mention that, however, because I am sure the Citizens Council types will say we took care of all that with the Calatrava fake suspension bridge. I don't think that's what Boeing was looking for.
This same larger question is beginning to be very important to the public school system. There is a keen awareness in the new anti-establishment coalition on the board that the school district has been too dominated for too long by people whose main interest is building new buildings.
This moment in the city's history may well be a kind of tectonic divide between two legitimate worldviews. On the one hand, you've got the people who agree with me. And then you have the screwballs.
Oh, no, wait, that was totally wrong. I'm trying to be fair. It doesn't come naturally. I can do better than that.
On the one hand, you've got people who really believe that quality of life is about new stuff. (Better? A little better? I'm not even going for 100 percent fair, anyway. Just fairly fair.) And then you have people who believe that the future, the glory and the destiny of the city are in rec centers, in libraries and, dare I say it? Potholes.
How do you do things their way, the pothole way? You take scabby old school buildings. Maybe fix them up a little. You hire great teachers and pile the classrooms full of books. You provide clean, open, safe parks where a working-class family can spread a blanket on the weekend, grill sausage and fly kites.
You keep lots of good cops around. You create well-stocked and staffed libraries that kids and adults and senior citizens can think of as extensions of their own private personal realms.
You put teeth and personnel behind code enforcement (and make it fair, so it can't be used as a political goon squad). And, by God, you fix the damn streets, so people aren't ashamed to drive through their own neighborhoods.
Those values do not make Mayor Leppert's values illegitimate. Values are seldom a zero-sum contest. Nor do those values diminish the importance of having people with business experience at the table.
What Hunt's analysis shows, I think, is not that the values of Tom Leppert and the Citizens Council are no good. It shows that things around here are seriously out of balance.
Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway, in the final debate, tried to explain how expensive new big-ticket luxury items such as the Calatrava Bridge and the Woodall Rodgers Deck Park look to people in neighborhoods where the infrastructure is falling down around their ears.
"When you look at Woodall Rodgers in that direction," he said, gesturing north, "it's beautiful. When you look at it in this direction (gesturing south), it's not."
Notice that Caraway didn't say the Woodall Rodgers Deck Park sucks (the line that came to my own mind). He didn't say people who like the deck park are stupid. He really only asked that they have some respect and a little understanding for people who do not see the city's destiny as determined by deck parks.
When all the dust and blood of the tax hike battle has fallen to the ground and the ground is quiet, then we should look at City Hall from arm's length. We should look at the school system. And we should ask ourselves if maybe we need a change of balance.
And then? Grab those skull-flails back up, people!
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