Budget Blues

It's easy to spot the city's most pressing issues. In fact, it's impossible to miss them when you're driving to a city council member's Town Hall meeting. The experience of jerking into and out of potholes, rolling past piles of uncollected garbage, and dodging three-legged, mange-ridden hounds shows you exactly what most people want done in their neighborhoods.

It seems perfectly plain to you and me.

But for some reason, our Dallas City Council members need to know more; pitted asphalt, reeking garbage, and stray hounds will not suffice. That must mean it's budget time, and the annual round of interminable Town Hall meetings established to provide public feedback while the council mulls its new budget. In theory, but not really, comments from Town Hall meetings will inspire changes in the budget, which is set for a council vote on September 27.

Check out any one of these well-publicized but sparsely attended events, which each council member must hold in his district, and you'll find Dallas' hidden demographic: the Gripe-ocracy.

There, sitting in the back for Councilwoman Barbara Mallory Caraway's fourth Town Hall meeting, is Sylvia Morris. She is one of four citizens in the audience at Roosevelt High School's cafeteria. She has no questions about the budget, only a list of neighborhood concerns: a vacant lot being used as a neighborhood dump, the lack of sidewalks, and a clogged and polluted creek.

"If you're in North Dallas and a tree falls in the street, by the end of the day it's gone. It's not like that here. You have to call, call, call. You have to call constantly to get things done. How do you think that makes me feel?" she says. "Most people don't come [to the Town Hall meetings] because they figure, why talk? The city won't do nothing. They're going to do what they want to."

Complaining, Morris has found, is the only way she can influence the political process--apart from donating gobs of money. Public meetings, no matter what they're about, become magnets for people to plead for help in things the city should be doing without asking. Like scooping up garbage and stray dogs.

There are others like Morris whose political involvement consists solely of getting the city to do what it should be doing anyway. Asking citizens to comment on the budget is a farce; how can anyone expect a 9-to-5 worker to trek to a library to examine the inch-and-a-half-thick budget book and offer suggestions?

And those who think citizens can rely on the budget pamphlet--produced and distributed by the city--as a basis for meaningful debate are mistaken. The city presentation of the budget is orchestrated fluff that highlights a handful of rocks in a landslide of spending. What's more interesting is what isn't mentioned.

The city pamphlets--titled "Dallas, the City that Works"--mention the replacement of security at Love Field with uniformed cops but omit the plans to build their $4 million headquarters. The budget also contains other Love Field improvements, such as a new parking garage, plus $562,000 set aside for marketing.

Spending that much wooing customers makes it difficult to quell the fears of neighborhood types who are worried about the impact of a busier airport. With all that money in play, there better be an increase in activity. But try getting a politician to admit that to someone who lives near Love Field.

Oh, and for those who worry about the financial sinkhole called Redbird Airport, don't fret. It's getting money to finish its "master plan." Marketing for the airport will cost $114,000; landscaping for the underused airfield will run you $500,000. "I mean, how many airports does the city need?" asked Stan Aten, one of the few citizens who bothered to do a line-by-line analysis of the city budget. Aten spoke at Councilwoman Donna Blumer's Town Hall meeting.

Speaking of foliage, the city's pamphlet proudly announces that the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center is getting $2.5 million for "maintenance and repair." But crack open a budget book, and you'll see $40,000 earmarked for "ficus tree replacement" at Meyerson. And we're cutting 540 city staff positions?

The huge, smelly gorilla in the corner that everyone wants to ignore is an enormous lawsuit filed by public safety officers claiming they're owed hundreds of millions of dollars in back pay. A 1979 referendum stipulated that any pay raise had to be shared by the entire police and fire departments, from the top brass to rookies. But only top-ranking officers got raises. Thus, the city owes decades of back pay--from $200 million to $800 million.

That last figure is about half of this year's proposed budget. Yes, half.

There wasn't much talk about this. Why ruin everybody's civic fun?

Don Hill ran a typical Town Hall budget meeting.

The councilman strutted into the Janie C. Turner Recreation Center in Pleasant Grove 10 minutes late, tossing apologies. He launched into a simple greeting and statement of purpose, using his most lawyerly tone of voice. "It is always a great opportunity for me to let you know what we as a city are doing, and to hear issues of concern," he said.

His "issues of concern line" was more than prophetic. He knew the budget would receive scant attention compared to nickel-and-dime local complaints, and that this gathering would devolve into just another neighborhood meeting with pathetic attendance.

Hill fled center stage to make way for a dry intonation of the budget by Assistant City Manager Charlie Daniels, who regaled the crowd with tales of the city's new hot-mix asphalt silos and other such life-changing innovations. Elderly citizens dozed in plastic chairs as Daniels read the budget details verbatim from an overhead projector, seldom pausing to explain the rationale behind any changes.

After that, it was time for Q&A. Someone asked why money was being allocated to the Pegasus art project, which will culminate in decorated winged horses sprouting from Dallas street corners, when there were so many other pressing concerns in District 5. "That's the mayor's project," Daniels said, spreading his hands wide, palms up.

A woman complained about the damaged curb in front of her house, another about the scarcity of animal control officers. Names and numbers of city employees were exchanged.

Here's how Hill and his colleagues face the rabble: first a gripe, then Hill makes friendly, vapid comments and passes on the query to a city employee who explains "the process." This is always followed by pledges of future contact and action.

It was politics 101: Delay, mollify, and crack jokes. Always smile. Let the city wonks do the real talking, using enough muni-babble and regulatory-speak to discourage any resident from trying to change anything. (Though even the wonks that want to help often can't follow a resident's grotesquely convoluted soliloquy on the height of his neighbor's fence.)

Not every city council member was as gung-ho for the budget as Hill, who brought up no concerns, no explanations, no details on how any of this would impact his district. He was a salesman for the budget.

Town Hall meetings aside, the truth is, no matter how aggressive or aggrandizing the council members, the city government is too big to turn at their whims. Every district has its own slow-moving pet project: rec centers, road reconstructions, hiking and biking trails, branch libraries. Behind each project is a community group or gaggle of senior citizens waiting for their representative to bring it on home.

Council members, beholden to the glacial pace of bond-financed projects, are at a loss to explain why the pork takes so long to reach the table. "Why don't you get on the stick and help out? Every time we come here, you say the same thing--it's a bond issue," said venerable City Hall crank Mary Fields to Councilman John Loza.

Loza did a Clark Kent adjustment of his glasses and began his spiel. "I know there's frustration..."

It was hard not to feel bad for the guy, one city council member trying to pry city money for his bitching constituents and reduced to making apologies about why it takes years to make any progress. And all for $50 a meeting, a Dallas City Council member's princely pay.

The cynicism is deserved. "Town Hall meetings are a time for everyone to blow off some steam, for council members to act like they care, and for the public to ask questions to city staff who furrow their brow and act concerned," says Tim Dickey, a vice president for the Bachman-NW Highway Community Association. "This city is in the sad state it's in because we deserve it. It's us."

Here's an ugly truth: Big money and old people have hijacked city politics from top and bottom, respectively. The same mix of beady-eyed homeowners and codgers with high-pulled pants represents the "average citizen" at Town Hall meetings. Appeasing the few that show up to gripe about the length of their neighbor's grass becomes a top priority and an easy task. The politicians here get off cheap.

After all, less than 7 percent of registered voters bothered to go to the polls in 1999's city council elections. It's no wonder that pandering to the elderly is so popular among council members--they're the only ones hobbling to the voting booths.

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Joe Pappalardo is the former editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Joe Pappalardo