Couple weeks ago, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings gave City Manager A.C. Gonzalez and his top staff an unusual if very velvet-fingered push-back for showing the council a video presentation about how the next city budget will fix the streets when in fact it won’t. Uh-oh. It’s not nice to tell the city manager you don’t like his budget.
So this Wednesday when Gonzalez presents his answer to the mayor’s mild criticism, the mayor will get a velvet finger right up the old shnozola. In a record-setting $3.1 billion budget, almost 10 percent bigger than last year’s and buttressed by record high property and sales tax revenues, the only way the city manager says he can scrape together the additional $7.3 million the mayor requested for streets is by doing stuff like slashing emergency home repairs for indigent seniors (no new roof for grandma) and cutting back on hiring firemen (no ladder truck for gramps).
This is after the council suggested at its August 19 budget briefing that the manager toy with some more systematic approaches to raising money for street repairs like capping the total growth in wages for all city government at 3 percent.
Nope. Can’t do it that way. Even though the money the mayor was looking for is around two-tenths of 1 percent of the overall budget, the only way the manager can find the money is by … hmm … let’s see what else he could do … Oh, sure, how could we have overlooked that old favorite? He says he will have to slash the budget for neighborhood libraries.
In other words, the only way to come up with the money the mayor wanted for streets — which, by the way, is the tiniest of Band-Aids on a total ticket of $900 million to fix what we’ve got — is by going out and nailing people’s pets to telephone poles by their ears.
“Not enough streets fixed yet, Mr. Mayor? You still want more streets repaired? Hey, Pete, take a crew out and look for some rich ladies walkin’ poodles, willya? The mayor is calling for more pet crucifixions.”
The whole thing only came up a couple weeks when Scott Griggs, the council member from Oak Cliff, sat through the staff’s video on how they were going to fix everything. Griggs took some notes and then asked some questions.
Was it not true, he asked, that Dallas streets, already devastated by decades of “deferred maintenance” (“Screw payin’ the rent, baby, get me some more wine”), will continue to “degrade” (turn to shit) under the staff’s current budget plan?
“We’ve got this beautiful video presentation up, and everything is leading the taxpayers to think that we’re making a a big enough investment in our streets that at least this next year they won’t get worse,” Griggs said. “But they are going to get worse.
“I am concerned that we are not being completely transparent in this presentation, completely transparent to the taxpayers when we go out there.”
When Gonzalez’s staffers told Griggs he was right, the streets will continue to turn to shit under the existing budget, Mayor Rawlings was clearly thunderstruck.
“For the record,” the mayor said, “this presentation did not say that. That just was not very clear. I thought we were holding our own with our current budget.”
Now, Dear Reader, you and I need to do two things vis a vis City Manager Gonzalez in this predicament. We need to give credit where credit is due. And then we need to snatch credit back from him where credit is in no way shape or form due him.
On the due side: Gonzalez did admit to something I had not heard said publicly before — that decades of the less-rent-more-wine deferred maintenance plan have rendered the city’s street system terminally blighted.
On the not-due side: He did not say what’s really required to do anything effective about this or the many other staggering infrastructure challenges faced by the city, which is that we need to turn our priorities upside down. Less wine, more pay the rent.
Mayor Rawlings, who is, after all, a veteran CEO of national corporations, looked at the real numbers, when the staff finally ponied them up, and pointed straight to the underlying reality:
“There’s just no way this [repairing the streets] can be accomplished unless we want to make major changes in the city,” he said.
Yup. That’s it all right. This deal with the streets is only a window on what we’re looking at in terms of getting our city’s house in order and doing something about a multi-billion dollar list of deferred infrastructure needs. It’s the flip side of the “Project X” story we talked about last week and the growth Ponzi scheme story we discussed here a few days before that: Landowners in the southwest corner of downtown want us to believe the best investment the city can make with its resources is give all the money to them for casinos and baseball stadiums. Landowners in West Dallas insist we’ll come out way ahead by giving them our resources so they can build more auto-centric, low-rise, stick-built apartment buildings, like those are so hard to get without massive public subsidy.
And this is not to say they’re wrong. It’s just to say we need to put a sharp pencil to what they tell us before we write them a check. We need to test these ideas for building the tax base, and here’s the biggest part of the test: Does it build the tax base to pour resources into a destination development for suburbanites or into more 10-year-half-life apartment complexes if it means we have to continue to let all of the city’s streets turn to shit?
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Would it not build the tax base to spend our money instead making this one hell of a tight ship — a well-run city where everything works even better than it does in the ‘burbs? Wouldn’t that attract a lot of people and business?
But that’s not a debate the city manager’s staff ever wants to hear. Their modus operandi, their core mission, their culture has always been to work for and hand-in-glove with the city’s land-flipping developer class. They will always see any talk of dedicating resources to basic infrastructure as being about diverting those resources away from big spec development deals.
Hence, when the mayor asks for a jar of money for streets out of an ocean of cash in the overall budget, what he will get back Wednesday is the city management staff’s time-honored tactic — digging up every single eye-gouging, ear-ripping, snout-smashing insult to the taxpayer they can scrounge in order to make him the bad guy for daring to question their budget.
Let’s watch. Spoiler alert: It usually works.