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Dallas Won't Be Filling Its COVID-19 Budget Hole With Emergency Property Taxes

Hundreds of Dallas employees have been placed on furlough during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hundreds of Dallas employees have been placed on furlough during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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When it came down to it last night, 10 or so hours into Wednesday's City Council meeting, the political will just wasn't there. Despite the novel coronavirus, the pandemic that's followed its arrival on U.S. shores and the inevitable hole it will tear in Dallas' current and future budgets, the Dallas City Council cut itself off before it could even consider raising property taxes beyond the 3.5% cap on revenue growth the Texas Legislature set during its last session.

Under state law, any increase above 3.5% would require approval by the city's voters. Wednesday's resolution would have allowed the council to take advantage of an exception to the law that applies when cities are operating under an emergency declaration, if it decided to do so later this year. City staff has estimated that Dallas could face a budget shortfall of between $73 and $114 million during the next fiscal year.

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, along with a majority of the council, felt that it just wasn't right to even consider raising property tax revenue by as much as 8%, not when the city's residents are suffering.

"I really do get wanting to have the flexibility in our budgeting process. I get that," Johnson said. "I'm willing to put everything on the table during this process, but I will say I was not thrilled to see this resolution on the agenda for today. I'll tell you why: I just feel like we don't even really fully understand and haven't gotten our arms around how badly this has impacted the folks in our city."

Given the pain Dallas residents have felt, Johnson said, now was not the time to stir the fear of a potential tax increase into their lives.

"I think the respectful thing to do for our residents would've been for us to talk about all the things that we're willing to do as a government first (to repair the budget)," he said.

Arguments from much of the rest of the council fell along similar lines. There's was no way, the members said, that they would consider as big of an increase as would've been allowed by passing the resolution, so there was no point in leaving the possibility open.

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Adam Bazaldua, who represents neighborhoods in South Dallas and around Fair Park, was one of the few voices in favor of looking at the resolution. If the council is forced to make deep budget cuts, he said, it's his constituents who will suffer most.

City services like libraries and parks are necessities to the residents of his district, Bazaldua said, not luxuries.

The council's resident fiscal hawk, Lee Kleinman, said even a 3.5% increase would be too much.

"It's unsettling to me that we're not even talking about a tax reduction," Kleinman said. "We're just talking about how big the increase is going to be. (It can't be) a foregone conclusion that we're going to raise people's taxes and that is exactly what we're talking here. We need to show our residents that we're serious about supporting their needs during a time of crisis."

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