Suhm's Looking for Quarters in Dallas's Couch

In recent days, sources inside Dallas City Hall have told Unfair Park they've been warned to expect the worst as City Manager Mary Suhm wrestles with the next fiscal year's budget. Which comes as no surprise: At this moment, months before Suhm and the council finalize the 2009-2010 budget, city officials estimate a $100 million deficit -- a number not even as solid as Jell-O, as Suhm explains it to Unfair Park.

Indeed, it won't even become a tangible figure till well into the summer, after at least eight more budget workshops with council members during which they will begin to prioritize what must stay and what can go. And before that, Suhm must also wrestle with this fiscal year's budget and the fallout resulting from declining sales tax and property tax revenues, the latter of which she won't even receive till July. She acknowledges that she's asking departments to see how much they can trim from the $2.7 billion FY2008-09 budget -- and, yes, 5 percent is a good number to start with.

"When somebody asks, 'What's the gap?' it's really counterproductive to talk about it," Suhm says. "I will be conservative, but these are tough times."

Which bring us to next year's budget. Suhm says that at the moment, everything's on the table -- to the tune of 15 to 20 percent in budget cuts. But, she cautions: "I am asking staff for next year to plan for 15 percent, but, again, it's about planning. It's not about people setting their hair on fire. It's about dealing with tough decisions."

This much is certain, Suhm says: She is committed to "public safety and carrying out the bond program." Those things, she says, "are important -- especially because the bond program is essentially your local stimulus, and, man, we're getting good prices." But everything else is on the table -- from the old familiars (closing the Dallas Zoo once a week, scaling back city services, raising taxes) to the new and painful realities of a broken economy. Merit raises may have to be withheld. Departments may have to be trimmed. Layoffs may be an inevitability.

Suhm says it's not the first time she's seen it this bad at City Hall. Only last year, after all, there was a $50 million budget gap close to its final approval by the council in September. And former Mayor Laura Miller recalls that during her first year in office, the council was wrestling with making up a $95 million deficit till almost the last minute.

"During the time I've worked here, there have been two or three serious times when people were worried about their jobs," Suhm says. "Remember, the early '90s weren't much fun." But, she acknowledges, this year's different. This year, on a regular basis, she will see someone on the elevator, and they will ask her what's become a troublingly familiar question: Am I about to be laid off?

"And I can't give them an answer," she says. "We have a pretty good record of giving people options. I don't know if I can do that this time. I am not in the business of putting people on the street. My methodology is to talk as honestly as I can without scaring the fool out of them. I tell you everything I know and the decisions I think will have to be made. I tell them, 'This is not cause to scream and run out the door. When that happens, I will let you know.'

"Everybody thinks it's weird. I get a lot of commentary and hear a lot of gasping going on --not from my staff, because they seem to recognize there's a challenge here," she continues. "And it's not from people who work from the city. But people who work for the media seem to think there's something wrong here. But there's not something wrong. It's planning, looking ahead, being responsible for folks' taxes. I don't like people being scared, but I can't talk to all 13,000 employees. Hopefully the message gets out: Yeah, we need to think about what can do less of and what cuts we can make."

Suhm says she won't know what the books look like till early in the summer, when she gets a better handle on the so-called Price of Government. During that waiting period council members will begin making lists of their priorities -- itself a painful and highly political process, if the past is any indication of the future. She will provide updates along the way: There will be several more budget workshops during council briefings, and more than likely, extra sessions will be penciled in as what's left of the economy falls through the bottom line.

"You give me your money," she says. "You pay my salary. I ought to think about, 'Are you happy about how I spend your money?' All 1.3 million people won't be happy with it, but I hope we're balancing immediate needs with long-term vision. Right now, I am at my worrywart stage -- then again, I am usually at this stage at this time of the year. I can see more challenges on the horizon than I usually see, but I work with and for talented people and see solutions and believe we can work though this. But we can't continue doing everything we do to the extent we do. I used to tell Laura I was looking for quarters in the couch."

Perhaps she ought to think about finding silver dollars.

"Right now," she says, "I'll take the quarters."