City Hall

A Few Points to Ponder When Dallas City Hall Tells You It's Short of Cash

Here are some observations that may help you put the city’s projected budget shortfall of $19 million for 2016-2017 into a proper context. In a total city budget that was something over $3 billion last year, a $19 million shortfall will amount to about 0.6 of one percent of the total budget.

In a household with an annual income of $75,000, that same percentage would produce a shortfall of $450. Not all that much, you might say. Yeah. So why can’t they figure it out?

In a household, for example, you could cover that amount by reducing weekly expenses by about $8.65. I don’t think you would have to swear off Starbucks entirely, maybe just think twice about that slice of lemon cake, which you really don’t need anyway. Maybe a cheaper bottle of wine. But it’s not like you have to murder your spouse for the insurance, in other words.

I have another point I want you to consider. This year we have been afflicted by a series of reports from the city auditor in which major city departments were found to be unable to say with much clarity what they had done with their money, in some cases tens of millions of dollars.

For example, an audit of the housing department found that officials had handed out $29.9 million to housing contractors over a three-year period but had forgotten to check to see if any of the housing got built.

They also forgot to keep any records to show how they decided who got the money. They forgot to keep any records to show if the federal money involved was spent according to what the law says federal housing money must be spent on. They forgot to keep any records to show if the prices being charged by the contractors were reasonable. They forgot what the prices were.

Not done. Last point. Promise. After four years on the job, City Manager A.C. Gonzalez has announced he will retire next January when his pension reaches its theoretical maximum so he can get his life back, as he put it. The Dallas Morning News editorial page has scolded the younger members of the City Council for hounding Gonzalez with too many mean questions about money.

So let me just run this back for you. They’re looking at a budget deficit of $19 million, serious money to you or me but only sofa-cushion change in terms of their total budget. The city manager was unable to figure out on his own how to scrape that money up somewhere without making a big political rhubarb out of it.

But after budgets are set and during the rest of the year, they don’t really count the money, as in, you know, one, two, three. They may do some sort of aerial photography of it or maybe they run the money in bales over a truck weigh scale, but they don’t do actual arithmetic on it.

If you ask them arithmetic questions about the money, you are ruining their lives. They will have to retire. Not just right now, but quite soon, when that golden ting-a-ling rings on their pension, which, we notice, they seem to be able to keep very close tabs on — a lot of excellent sharp-pencil arithmetic going on there so we know the problem isn’t a learning difference.

One more point. Sorry. I know I promised, but I can’t walk away without at least observing that, as we told you here yesterday,  Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, in effect the mayor of the county and a card-carrying Democrat, is saying that all the local governments in Dallas County including his own should consider a tax cut because of the windfall they are reaping based on rising property values. 

So the local official with the broadest constituency in the county is looking at the biggest single economic reality on the map — soaring property values — and urging that taxpayers be given a break instead of the scolding and a kick in the pants they’re getting from City Hall. I just wanted to throw that out there to demonstrate that it can be done. Local officials can count the money and even make change. Some of them. Well, one.

That’s it. Just trying to provide perspective.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze