Saddam and City Bonds

Go ahead and vote for all the stuff on the city's half-a-billion-plus bond proposal. They'll call you a rat if you don't.

Obviously, The Dallas Morning News is going to run an op ed piece every other day between now and the May 3 election telling people that good citizens will not pick and choose through the list of 17 propositions on the ballot but will just pony up and buy the whole thing.

Ring it up, brother! Ring it all up!

Henry Tatum, a senior editorial writer whose persuasive writing style I very much respect, said in the News last week that a lack of enthusiasm for the Dallas bond package might even be linked to Saddam Hussein. As a lifelong horse-feathers merchant myself, I have to just take my hat off and admire that one. Tying criticism of the bond package to Saddam! That's a record, even for the News.

Hank, I'm jealous.

So go ahead and vote for the bond package. Do. I'm cool with it. I just wonder if it would be acceptable if I were to offer the following very minor cautions. For example: The bond campaign calls for building all kinds of new stuff, even though Dallas lacks the operating budget to run what it's got. And I'm not talking about the current downturn, which we all hope is temporary and which I believe can be linked to Saddam Hussein.

Dallas hasn't had the money to run what it's got even since the fat years.

You and I could argue why. I say it's because we elect leaders who lack the guts to raise the property tax. Maybe you believe the property tax is maxed out and we need a new mechanism. OK. But the question of the day remains: Why would we build hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of new facilities when we can't run what's on the ground today?

For example, this bond program commits us to building seven additional branch libraries. We have 21 now. But the library department's staff is down almost 14 percent since 1997. For the first time this year, branch managers are being split between branches. Of master's degree librarians in particular, the system now has 115 on staff compared with 129 in 1997.

Isn't that the wrong direction?

Why do we want to spend our money on bricks and mortar anyway? Isn't it in the nature of a library system that the really big bucks should go to books and librarians, and who cares about the plant? I don't want to be unkind, but in the 1980s Dallas took money out of the account intended for buying books and spent it instead on bricks and mortar at the fancy new Central "Research" Library. Now what we have down there is a hotel for the homeless that is palpably dis-inviting to people who actually want to do research.

Take the fancy furniture out; deep-six those damned game-playing computers (cut the wolves from the sheep by bringing back the card catalog); cram the place with dusty books in crowded stacks; and maybe the shopping-cart brigade will move across the street to City Hall. Talk about chickens going home to roost.

If you talk to Ramiro Salazar, director of the library department, or his boss, Mary K. Suhm, first assistant city manager, they're going to tell you what they told me: The reduction in staff in the library department has been the result of increased efficiencies. Suhm explained how the city has worked to cut librarians from administrative posts in order to leave people in place to deal with the public: "The idea of all of this is to make the budget cuts with having a minimal effect on the service levels," she said.

Sure. We appreciate all that. But by now most of us have heard those phrases where we work--increased efficiencies, lean and mean, out-sourcing, reduction in force. They all mean the same thing: less money coming in the front door, more employees going out the back. I don't know about you, but having lost jobs before myself, I would much rather not be told I was being made more efficient by being out-sourced. "Sacked" would do nicely.

The big disappointment in the May 3 mayoral campaign is that we have two candidates who are equally chicken-hearted about this. Incumbent Laura Miller has her line about how the voters aren't ready to give the city more operating money until City Hall demonstrates its virtue--the Hell Freezes Over approach. Challenger Mary Poss says there are still major efficiencies that can be achieved first--a frightening thought.

But school superintendent Mike Moses just got done selling the same city on a tax-hike bond issue for the school system. Neither Miller nor Poss is willing to take Moses' gamble. Too bad. Myself, I definitely think a lot of their negativity can be linked to Saddam Hussein.