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We Need a Mayor Who'll Cut Up City Hall's Credit Card.

Of the top three mayoral candidates, Ron Natinsky (left) is gung-ho for the Trinity River toll road. David Kunkle (right) is down on it. And Mike Rawlings (center) is too smart to say.
Sam Merten

Honest question. Are you even aware there is a race going on now for mayor of Dallas? Honest answers only, please.

It's OK. Especially in the early phase, the mayoral election is a boring thing. I don't expect you to be on the edges of your seats clicking updates every two minutes like you did for the tsunami.

But think about it like this. Dallas is such a great place in so many ways, so much fun with so many things happening—a great leg-up market, great place to break in, good weather, lots of bars—and then why is the city itself such a piece of crap?

I'm talking about potholes so bad they give you that jangled-head feeling like somebody just punched you in the helmet. I'm talking about city parks with litter blowing through unmowed weeds. Or you go to the Bachman Lake Public Library on Monday, and the damned thing is closed for the day.

So what's the deal? With all of this action going on, why can't the city keep up? Do we not pay enough taxes?

We could talk all day on that one. We pay high fees for things like water and city permits. Our property tax rate is lower than Fort Worth's, but it's substantially higher than the rate in Houston and way higher than the rate in Austin.

I don't think that's it, and here is where we circle back to the mayor's race and why you might actually want to pay a little bit of attention. The answer is buried somewhere in this election.

Last year city council member Angela Hunt (known here as "the smart one") did a very interesting analysis of the city's money problems. Hunt said it's not an issue of the tax rate, exactly. It's not spending, exactly.

Those things are factors, but they're not the fundamental drivers giving us crappy streets, worn-out flood control and shuttered libraries in a city that ought to be doing a lot better.

It's debt.

In the last 10 years, Dallas has borrowed money without raising taxes to pay for it. So if you keep a flat tax rate but you keep borrowing more money, then you have to take money away from running the city and use it to pay back your debt.

Bought a BMW? Didn't get a raise? That means you can't pay the plumber.

That's what Hunt found we have been doing. She compared the city budget for 2000-2001 with the budget for 2010-2011 and found that debt payments have gone from 14 percent of the overall city budget to 21 percent. Before you decide that's not so awful, please allow me to tell you what it did to the rest of the budget.

Let's talk about those potholes. The amount of money the city has for streets has been cut in half in the same period. Hey, as the city ages and the streets get older, it should cost more money, not less, to maintain them. But we've cut the streets budget in half.

Libraries: cut in half. That's why doors are closed. Parks: from $83 million to $50 million a year. And they're telling us they want to build a huge new park along the Trinity River. Who's going to operate and maintain it, the Boy Scouts?

It's not that we are not paying taxes. We pay taxes, but we're shifting too much of the city's financial burden from operations and maintenance to debt.

So next question: Are we just idiots? How did this happen? Aha. Back to the mayor's race again. The phrase you would listen for, in relation to this issue, is "big ticket items."

Big ticket items are major fancy public works projects that we don't absolutely need but somebody for some reason very badly wants to build for us—the whole Trinity River project but especially the zany underwater toll road they keep talking about, the deck park on the Woodall Rodgers Freeway downtown, the arts district, the faux suspension bridges over the Trinity.

For decades city politics in Dallas has been dominated by the public works construction lobby, expressing its will through groups like the Dallas Citizens Council and handing out money through various law firms and political consultants.

Are these all bad projects, bad for the city, a total waste of money? No. Not all of them. We voted for them. Were we wrong? No. Not always. But here's the key. The trick. The angle.

The same people who push the big ticket projects always fight against any tax increase to pay for them. You heard as a mantra from our former mayor, Tom Leppert, that we just cannot raise taxes under any circumstances.

So how do we pay off our loans? The only answer acceptable to the big ticket lobby is that we will make our bigger and bigger loan payments by getting richer and richer. By "growing the tax base."

 

Put yourself in the uncomfortable chair in front of the loan officer's desk, and try that one on for size in your own life. He says, "Mr. Schutze, here on the application under current debt, you have written 'eyeballs.' I suppose you mean as in, 'up to.' Can you tell me then how you would pay back this new $50,000 loan you want us to give you?"

"Sure. I'm gonna get richer."

The problem is that it has never worked. In 10 years the city has never gotten richer fast enough to feed its debts, so it has been devouring its own flesh instead.

What's the other way? Easy. They come to us and say, "You should vote for this bond proposal so we can borrow $30 million for solar-powered water taxis on the river. And if you vote yes, we'll need to raise the property tax rate a penny to pay off the loan."

Gonna be way fewer yes votes for solar-powered water taxis if they put it like that, and believe me, the people pushing these deals know that. So they just say, "Vote for the taxis," and then they start clapping their hands, nodding yes at us and not blinking their eyes. Got that mojo workin'.

Take the Trinity River toll road as a marker for all of this stuff about debt and big-ticket projects. We haven't built it. We don't have the money. Theoretically we could bail on it.

Candidate Ron Natinsky, a city council member from North Dallas, says the toll road is still a great idea and we should just do it. So we know where he stands on big ticket items.

Candidate David Kunkle, the former police chief, has said no and no way. Waste of money, forget it. Mark him down as basically not a big ticket guy.

Candidate Mike Rawlings, a former corporate chief executive and civic leader with major Citizens Council support, has said maybe, maybe not. Mark him down as too smart to say.

Last week I attended a "mayoral forum"—a thing so dull they should have posted warning notices. "Do not operate heavy equipment immediately after attending." What I wouldn't have given for a Red Bull. I went to hear more hints about the big ticket thing.

For me, big ticket is a proxy for debt, and debt is a proxy for how the candidates view the city's destiny. They're all against a tax increase, by the way. So if one of them wants more debt and no tax increase—betting that we'll pay for everything with "growth," by getting richer—then he is willing to gamble that we may wind up paying off our loans instead with more library closures and even crappier streets.

I don't offer my own view here as the right one, by the way. I'm a middle-class guy. I think you have to pay off the plumber before you can afford to park that Beemer out front. But I have friends who are entrepreneurs who sneer at me as hopelessly risk-averse. I question how entrepreneurial and risk-taking we need be about keeping the sewers flowing smoothly, but there you have it.

Kunkle, who is not always eloquent, spoke eloquently at the forum about the need for new priorities at City Hall. He called for a focus on the basic needs of neighborhoods, and he expressed skepticism about big ticket projects and some corporate tax abatements.

Rawlings, Mr. No-Say on the toll road, was eloquent about the city's gravely wounded school system. I know, I know—the mayor has nothing to do with the schools, but it's good to hear somebody in his position at least express empathy and concern.

But it was Rawlings' sign-off that caught my ear at the end of a very long evening:

"Every year I write objectives for myself from a business standpoint," he said, "no more than six or seven, because they become a laundry list beyond that. As mayor I would have about that same number. Objective Number One would be economic development. Objective Number Two would be economic development. Objective Number Three would be economic development. Objective Number Four is our schools, because it helps economic development."

So what do I hear in all that? I hear Natinsky saying, "Borrow the money," clap-clap, nod-nod, no-blink. I hear Kunkle saying, "Pay off the plumber, then we'll talk." And I hear Rawlings saying, "Let's get richer, and then we won't have to talk."

Who has the best line? I don't know. People just love the thing about rich and richer. And does anybody pay anything off any more? Then again, KA-CHUNK! Just hit another pothole.

The election is May 14. It'll get interesting in the last two weeks. You might enjoy listening up. But keep a Red Bull handy at all times.


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