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It’s Early, But It’s Clear that Dallas’ Annual Budget Drama Is Going to Be All About Cops

Early Tuesday morning, as the newly inaugurated Dallas City Council started feeling its way through its first real meeting, South Oak Cliff representative Casey Thomas recited the obligatory post-election refrain.

"Campaign season is over," Thomas said. "We're here to govern now."

Whether that's true — a handful of his colleagues will see their reelection fights get rolling about a year from now, whether they like it or not — it was clear Tuesday that the biggest point of contention for the new council is going to be the same as the biggest issue of Dallas' municipal election this spring.

The first term for this council, and the budget battle they'll have this fall, is all going to be about police — how many Dallas should have, how the city should keep the ones it's got and how the city should hire as many new ones as it can, as quickly as possible.

The basics, city staff and Dallas police Chief U. Renee Hall revealed Tuesday, remain largely the same as this time last year.

Dallas Police Department staffing is still hovering around 3,000 officers, down about 700 from its peak in 2011. Despite an across-the-board pay increase that guarantees every officer in the department at least a $60,000 salary, DPD is up only a net of 29 officers in the current fiscal year. The department's long-awaited staffing study, Hall said, should be ready for public release in early August.

Several members of the council seemed confused Tuesday, despite the study having been in the works for almost two years, about what exactly it's supposed to tell the city. The study is about telling DPD brass how many officers the department needs and how to use them, not how much those officers should be paid.

"We want to make sure we address not only hiring and retention by addressing the pay structure, but also to address the correct number of officers" with the staffing study, Assistant City Manager Jon Fortune said.

Fault lines over the best way to take on the city's public safety issues formed quickly among the new members of the council. Cara Mendelsohn, Sandy Greyson's replacement in Far North Dallas' District 12, said she isn't sure the amount Dallas spends on public safety — more than 60% of its annual budget — is enough.

"When you're showing that the community says only 30% on public safety, the question was not asked properly," Mendelsohn said, referring to a community survey that showed Dallas residents believed about 30% of the budget should go to public safety. "You didn't know that for 30 cents, you wouldn't be getting the services you expected, you wouldn't be getting full public safety."

The 60% number, she said, is misleading because it also includes non-police spending like Dallas' community prosecution program. In total, the Dallas police and fire departments' budgets eat up about 57% of the city budget overall.

Adam Bazaldua, newly elected to represent parts of Fair Park, Far East Dallas and South Dallas, said the city should focus more on the root causes of crime when it makes its budget.

"I want to make sure that we identify the concentration of poverty that we have and its role in public safety," Bazaldua said. "With 60% of our budget going to public safety and only 21% being identified for quality of life and human and social needs, I'd like to see us kind of balance that out a little bit better, so that we can address the core problem ... addressing the core issue rather than going to what we all think of as public safety when we hear that term."

Tuesday was just a preview of what's sure to be months of debate. Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax will present his budget to the City Council in August, with the council expected to vote on it sometime in the next month. 

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