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Angela Hunt on City's Budget Crisis: "We're Cutting Muscle; We're Cutting Bone."

As we mentioned yesterday, the city council's Quality of Life & Government Services Committee got a look-see Monday afternoon at some of the proposed budget cuts before the full council is updated in a June 17 briefing. To close the $190 million deficit, City Manager Mary Suhm is recommending significant reductions in funds set aside for public libraries, swimming pools and cultural centers.

"We are not trimming fat," Angela Hunt stressed in the meeting. "We're cutting muscle; we're cutting bone."

Several committee members directed city staff to provide specific information related to the reduction or elimination of services, but the majority of their questions went unanswered. Apparently, the city has not yet determined specifics such as how many animals will be sold resulting from closing 19 Dallas Zoo exhibits or which pools will be closed.

"I can sit in a position much better informed to ask questions and then in turn communicate with my constituents when I can look at what Park and Rec is today versus what Park and Rec is supposed to be based on $15 million of reductions, which is X number of people and X number of services," Dave Neumann said. "From what we've got thus far, we can't see that."

Carolyn Davis said residents at the June 3 community budget forum wanted to eliminate funding for golf and tennis centers. Dave Cook, the city's chief financial officer, explained that this is one of few services that brings in more revenue than its operating expenses, but Davis was undaunted by his statement.

The committee appears committed to keeping the funding for the Bahama Beach Waterpark intact, with chair Pauline Medrano calling it "a big quality of life issue." Although it loses approximately $350,000 annually, Medrano said it serves a large number of area youths. "I would not like to see this cut at all."

Sheffie Kadane expressed concerns regarding the potential zoo exhibit closings and funding reduction for the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts. He was assured by city staff that the zoo exhibits on the chopping block are among the "least interesting," and the opening for the performing arts center will not be delayed. He also mentioned the 79 percent reduction in funding for library materials, which Cook described as "substantial."

Hunt said the recommendation to terminate the city's contract with the Thanks-Giving Square Foundation surprised her since she and other council members had previously directed staff to do so, only to be told the contract couldn't be terminated. Interim Assistant City Manager Forest Turner said city staff recently realized that it could not be terminated, and the $350,000 needed to be found someplace else.

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The city entered into a 75-year agreement with Thanks-Giving Square in 1972 to lease downtown land, which Steve Salazar calculated will cost the city roughly $12 million until the contract expires in 2047. "Why don't we pay a lawyer a million dollars to get us out of that contract?" he asked.

Hunt pointed to approximately $4 million in public health services that should be the county's responsibility and said the city must focus on providing "core competencies" to its residents. She also asked for a budget analysis by department, which drew a head nod from council member-elect Ann Margolin, who sat in the audience taking notes. Margolin later addressed the committee and asked for a column to be added to the budget spreadsheet showing the difference between the bid amount and city's recommendation.

Several members of the arts community were on hand, including former council member Veletta Forsythe Lill, executive director of the Arts District. After she was told to introduce herself, she said, "How quickly we forget." Lill then told the committee to focus on the long-term ramifications of their actions.

Cook repeatedly referred to the figures presented as a "snapshot" and at one point said it was "old information." Because the city won't receive the certified tax rolls until July 25, the council won't have a detailed budget until August 7, which will be presented publicly at an August 10 briefing.

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