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Council Members Wrestle Over Park Clean-Up, Pothole Fixing and Cleaning Up After TxDOT

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A little after 9 this morning, the city council just took up those budget amendments we mentioned Saturday morning. First up was the slam dunk: the en masse suggestion, led by Mayor Mike Rawlings, to eliminate one more city-worker furlough day, fill those five pools and up funding for the library materials and cultural programs -- which the council endorsed wholeheartedly to much hand-clapping by the arts supporters in attendance. Which clearly tickled the mayor: "Let the record know there was applause for city council and staff."

After that, Delia Jasso got what she wanted: a restoration of the West Dallas community prosecutors. No surprise there, as it was a concern of several council members during earlier budget workshops. Next up: Scott Griggs and Angela Hunt's suggestion that the council charge more to Dallas residents who use the most water -- which isn't really a budget amendment, more like a wholesale policy redo.

Said Griggs, the city hasn't reviewed its water-pricing and tier structure in a decade, which is important since "10 percent of our resident use one-third of our water. Our tier structure right now is our largest crop in Dallas is St. Augustine, and we're subsidizing that. With 10 percent of our users using 30 percent of our water, it's time we look at this." Council didn't seem eager to get into it -- since it's a policy issue, after all, in need of significant staff review before it comes back to council.

Hunt, though, made her own push: "Scott, I seem to remember on the chart you showed me six percent of the water users use 20 percent of our water. That was the number that blew me away, and I want that to sink in. Six percent of our water users are using one-fifth of our water supply. ... This deserves thoughtful scrutiny. But I think it's also critical for us to remember our water conservation work has been successful, but we could do so much more."

Rawlings seemed a bit .. skeptical: "Conservation is one thing, revenue generation is another thing, and punishing people is another thing." Nevertheless, said City Manager Mary Suhm, this'll come back to council "January-ish."

Then it was time for Hunt, Griggs and Sandy Greyson's contentious proposal to reroute that money the $3.2 million the city will spend this year to clean up Texas Department of Transportation-controlled rights-of-way toward park maintenance and pothole repairs.

Last year, the city agreed to take over from TxDOT the mowing and maintenance of it rights-of-ways, some 4,000 acres of property the state says it doesn't have time or money to tend to. Some on the council never liked that to begin with -- like, say, Linda Koop, who said this morning that, look, that's a state issue, not the city's problem. And Ann Margolin said this morning she's "horrified" that the city had to take over the state's work.

That said, the Southern Dallas council members -- Vonciel Jones Hill, Tennell Atkins and Carolyn Davis, especially -- quite like the city's having taken over the ROW clean-up, because, they insists, the city's done a better job than the state. And, as Atkins said, "It's very important for me and Southern Dallas in order to get developers in Southern Dallas. Just keep my neighborhood clean. If we don't keep Southern Dallas clean, we won't get developers." Margolin also said it's not just a commuter problem, but a concern of the citizens -- as much a quality of life issue as parks and potholes. "This isn't highway maintenance, we're talking about the quality of life in our neighborhoods," Hill added.

TxDOT does reimburse the city some money: So far this year, Suhm told the council, we've received $200,000 to mow (every 28 days during "the growing season," in the words of Assistant City Manager Forest Turner) and pick up trash; the city should -- but don't hold your breath -- get around $800,000 from TxDOT total, after the city spent upward of $3 million just to clean up what TxDOT let go to seed. (Last year's total budget put $6.5 million toward TxDOT ROW maintenance.) Should the city yank its dough, TxDOT will still mow -- three times a year, which is nothing -- but as far as Hunt, Greyson and Griggs are concerned, the $3.2 million left in this year's budget isn't money the city should be spending any longer.

Hunt spoke first, insisting that "as I drive around the city and try to get all around on our TxDOT freeways, I do not see an incredible difference between the maintenance TxDOT had done and the maintenance we're doing, and I am not sure why the city of Dallas would continue to want to take on that burden and have taxpayers pay additional dollars when we're not going above and beyond what TxDOT is doing. ... I think this is something we can turn over to the state. I don't think they can do a worse job than we have seen and can use the $3.2 million to restore park maintenance in the Park Department.

"We're also talking about retaining 70 positions in the Park Department, which is critical. Those are the folks who do the park clean-up, and if we privatize it we have less quality control. We've also seen in other cities that sometimes when park maintenance is fully privatized, they come in with a really low number, then you get rid of your equipment and personnel, and the cost skyrockets, and you're in a bind."

The current budget proposed trimming park mowing cycles -- from an average of every seven to 10 days to 12 days "during peak season," per the budget, while reducing trash pick-up. And the city has issued requests for proposals to see if it's possible to privatize park litter clean-up and mowing -- and if the city receives bids it likes, it could RIF dozens of Park and Rec workers. As it stands now, the Park and Rec maintenance budget will be reduced by $2 million.

Greyson and Griggs followed up. Keeping parks clean and fixing potholes is "a neighborhood quality of life issue," said Greyson. Asked Griggs: "Do we want a plesant residental experience or larger commuter experience? ... We need to refocus ourselves on our residential experience, and this money goes a long way to fixing parks and potholes."

Dwaine Caraway was a bit mixed on the the subject. Far as he's concerned, this is a state problem -- one the state continues to ignore. He pointed to the 8th Street exit off IH-35, near Townview, which remains covered in high weeds and trash; Delia Jasso would later back that up, calling that "gateway ... litter-strewn." Caraway pointed out: That's by Royce West's office "and the responsibility of the state, don't beat me up about it." Far as Caraway's concerned, "The state's not doing their job: They need to make a commitment they are going to do what's needed to take place." Then, he backed off: The city needs to keep paying for it "till we get a commitment from [the state]."

Hunt also wanted to know: What's the deal with N. Central Expressway, which "looks as bad as it ever looked" Turner said, look, it's a separate contract, and the city's just as unhappy as she is with TxDOT's work to yank the dead vegetation and replace it with native, drought-resistant plants. Said Turner: "We share your frustration." Hunt asked when Central will be done; Turner didn't know. Answers forthcoming, at some point.

They've been talking about this for an hour. How will they vote? Answer coming in the comments.

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