No one left City Hall completely satisfied last night, not the protesters outside chanting, “No justice! No peace!,” nor the City Council members who’d spent the last month debating Dallas’ budget. Nevertheless, the council finally found its way to a final vote approving the $4 billion spending plan around 10:40 p.m.
Some ideas prevailed, like hiring more civilians in the police department to free up officers and cutting overtime for police. But others, like significantly lowering the tax rate and cutting the Dallas Police Department budget by some $200 million, didn’t. The city is looking at $62.6 million less revenue than anticipated thanks to the pandemic, but $1.4 billion of the overall budget is going toward services like fire rescue, streets, parks and libraries.
Protesters marched through the streets of Dallas during Wednesday's budget talks in response to a Kentucky grand jury's decision to not return charges against the two Lousiville police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor in her home in March. A former Louisville detective was charged with reckless endangerment for firing rounds that entered a neighbor's apartment during the botched drug raid.
Council member Lee Kleinman called the budget, which he opposed in the 9-6 vote, a failure on the part of the council. Kleinman’s eight-year run at City Hall will come to a close next May because of term limits.
“I’m gone. Good luck with the new [police] chief,” Kleinman said. “Tell them all of the new reform ideas that you have, but then come into the budget and give us the same shit different day. That’s what this budget is. It’s a shame.”
Council member Cara Mendelsohn was not in favor of slashing police overtime and said she also believes the budget is a failure because it puts money into some council members' favored projects that the city doesn’t need. Mendelsohn and the mayor wanted to back to the city manager's original budget but didn’t receive any support from the rest of the council.
"We'll figure out how to make this budget work," City Manager T.C. Broadnax said.
Following George Floyd’s death in May at the hands of Minneapolis police, cries for major reform and cuts to law enforcement budgets echoed throughout the country. The budget that passed last night was a missed opportunity to listen to these cries, Kleinman said. Dozens of public speakers turned out ahead of the final vote to urge the council to consider cutting a couple hundred million dollars from the police budget.
This year more than ever, Kleinman said, the City Council had the chance to break the inertia of DPD and the stranglehold the police unions have on its members but chose to fold instead.
Leading up to yesterday’s meeting, Mayor Eric Johnson spent much time urging the council to “defund the bureaucracy” instead of the police. The city has already furloughed hundreds of city employees because of the pandemic, but Johnson wanted to trim the salaries of the city's highest-paid staff by $6.5 million in total. The mayor found no support from the rest of the council.
“Ultimately, in this pandemic, I could not support a budget in which we didn’t touch the bureaucracy and failed to share in the pain with residents in any discernible way," Johnson said in a statement after his casting his "no" vote.
Johnson opposed the cuts to police overtime, citing a violent crime spike. "This is merely an effort to cut police overtime for its own sake,” the mayor said. “That's not heeding our residents' concerns. It's a shell game."
Despite the overtime cuts, the DPD budget will still hover around $500 million. Because of amendments and amendments to those amendments, the exact number of dollars headed to the police department in the next fiscal year is still unclear.
While Dallas’ law enforcement budget went virtually untouched, Austin voted to cut about $20 million from its own police department budget last month, according to The Texas Tribune.
Gov. Greg Abbott promptly announced a proposal to punish cities that defund their police departments by freezing the property tax revenue of any Texas city that does so. The next legislative session begins in January, when Abbott's suggestion could be considered.
Council member Adam Bazaldua said the changes enacted in the budget are small, but he thinks they can still have a significant impact. “Incremental change now is monumental change,” he said.
Council member Omar Narvaez said this was the hardest budget he’s ever worked on and that no one came out on top in the final vote. But he applauded the $31 million more going toward social services, increased civilianization and a new focus on the environment that the budget provides.
As the council wrapped up its meeting, protesters continued marching the streets, calling for reform they largely won’t see in the next fiscal year.
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