Council Doesn't Want to Raise Taxes, Cut Key Services to Trim Budget. Good Luck With That.

The Dallas City Council yesterday afternoon wrapped up a lengthy discussion on how best to tackle the city's $190-million budget deficit by agreeing that a tax increase and making cuts to the police and fire departments are not the answers. Council members opposed several of the proposed cuts by City Manager Mary Suhm and her staff, yet were unable to provide alternative solutions to offset their requests to remove services from the chopping block.

Suhm's proposed slashing of the current $190.2 million deficit includes $66.3 million in "lower priority" cuts and $99.5 million in cuts to "higher priority" services, along with $15.7 million saved by delaying for six months a $370 million bond issuance from the 2006 bond program and $8.7 million in other savings. Most of the council members fought to keep higher priority items, but, as Tennell Atkins pointed out, it will prove difficult.

"I don't know how we're going to do it without raising taxes," he said.

Ron Natinsky explained how dire the budget situation is by pointing out that if police, fire and code costs are untouched, the council essentially has to find a way to cut the remaining services in half.

"I wouldn't disagree with that assessment," replied CFO Dave Cook.

Only Dave Neumann expressed reservations about cutting back on police costs, saying he's not 100 percent on board with hiring another 200 police officers. While looking at Police Chief David Kunkle, he explained that crime in his district hasn't seen the decrease experienced by the city as a whole.

Several council members were unwilling to make cuts to code enforcement, which Suhm explained were positions given to building inspectors who were temporarily transferred because of slowed construction.

Mitchell Rasansky thanked Suhm for her hard work, but he said cuts should have been made five years ago and told her she needs to find another $50 to $75 million in savings. He also disagreed with a statement Suhm made earlier that revenues were the problem as opposed to expenses, pointing out that the city recently paid $18,000 for fiberglass peaches at the Dallas Farmers Market as part of a public art initiative.

"F-I-B-E-R-G-L-A-S-S P-E-A-C-H-E-S," Rasansky said. "All this stuff starts adding up, and now we're having to pay the piper,"

Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway said he didn't want the peaches issue to become a sound byte and questioned why Rasansky hadn't mentioned it earlier. He also expressed concern regarding cuts at the zoo because he wants to be able to compete with Fort Worth, and he also urged everyone to find creative ways to fill the revenue gap. Caraway tossed out a couple ideas of his own: selling advertising on floors of recreation centers and rooftops of city-owned buildings.

"I'm with whatever we need to do to make the city work," he said.

There was very little discussion regarding the 347 potential layoffs, with Vonciel Hill voicing the most concern, suggesting that other employees become part time to keep as many as possible. While merit increases for civilian employees will be put on hold, Natinsky said non-civilians should also face merit freezes to avoid layoffs.

Carolyn Davis provided her usual dose of humor by asking: "Do we see that there's still a need for crossing guards around schools?" She then asked Suhm what happens if the council cuts the cable TV contract.

"Y'all wouldn't be on TV," Suhm said as the rest of the council laughed.

Sheffie Kadane also invented a new word: "partnershipping."

Mayor Tom Leppert instructed his colleagues to make their stances clear on four areas: increasing rates by $.25 per hour for parking meters and fines for parking citations, eliminating the $10,000 police recruitment bonus, approving two furlough days for civilian city employees, and approving an increase to the tax exemption for seniors.

Furlough days are mandatory days off when civilian employees are not paid. The senior tax exemption, which also includes disabled residents, would allow eligible homeowners to deduct $6,000 per year of their home's value in addition to the $64,000 already on the books until it reaches $100,000. This would cost the city $2.6 million this year for a savings of $44.87 to the homeowner.

Some council members made their opinions known; others, not so much. The result was a complete clusterfuck at the end of the meeting as Caraway (acting as mayor with Leppert headed to D.C. to talk about municipal bonds and Dr. Elba Garcia also not in the room) conducted a straw poll on the four issues.

After several attempts to get a vote on the senior tax exemption, which council members Hunt, Hill and Neumann voted to delay for one year, Caraway aborted and told Suhm to put all four items on next week's agenda for a vote. Adding to the chaos and confusion was Jerry Allen, Davis, Kadane, Natinsky and Caraway himself had all made statements supporting a delay.

With terms like "revenue erosion" thrown out by Cook and assurances from Suhm that she wants to find ways to keep several of the higher priority services, balancing this year's budget without raising taxes will prove to be painstaking task. And, as far as Linda Koop is concerned, she wants to hear feedback from the public sooner than the regular town hall meetings. Instead of explaining to the community what the budget will look like, citizens could potentially have input in the process.

For those not holding their breath that Koop's idea will come to fruition, fret not as a public hearing is scheduled at next week's council meeting where any and all hot sports opinions are welcome.

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Sam Merten
Contact: Sam Merten