No tax-rate increase, no defunding of the police department — much — and added revenue from increased property values are among the highlights of the proposed Dallas budget for 2020-21.
City Council members got their first chance to probe City Manager T.C. Broadnax’s budget plan during a briefing Tuesday. Starting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, residents can give their opinions about spending priorities at a series of online "town hall" meetings. Virtual meetings are scheduled throughout the month in place of in-person gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Broadnax told the council Tuesday that his staff was able to balance the budget with help from federal assistance from the CARES Act's pandemic relief, increased property values and new properties added to the tax roll.
Holding the line on the tax rate wasn't enough for council member Cara Mendelsohn, who wants to see it cut. “Our residents are struggling due to COVID-19, and the last thing we need to do is ask them to pay more for less services,” she said.
Mendelsohn also questioned the budget’s claim that $22.7 million in added revenue will come from rising values and $34.7 million from new property since local appraisal districts have not completed certifying property values.
The proposed budget includes funding to create a “mobile response team” to assist the Dallas Police Department with homelessness and mental health calls. Assistant City Manager Jon Fortune said the target date for the team is March 2021.
The budget also calls for an expansion of the RIGHT Care pilot program, which sends social workers on police calls to assist the mentally ill. Fortune said that while there aren’t any official agreements, ideal partners for expanding the RIGHT Care program are Parkland Hospital and the North Texas Behavioral Health Authority.
One initiative proposed in the budget looks to divert public intoxication cases to a recovery service center by March.
“I’m excited for this progressive change,” council member Adam Bazaldua said. “Public intoxication will be a citable offense, preventing unnecessary criminal records, overcrowding our jails and bogging down our law enforcement resources. This is a big win for our city that I’ve been waiting for.”
This and other efforts outlined in the budget proposal aim to reduce the burden on police officers, Fortune says. The city can do this in part by placing civilians in some police roles, but Bazaldua says he doesn’t see a big enough push toward more "civilianization," as it's called.
District 11 Councilman Lee Kleinman pointed out that consultants from management company KPMG last year advised the city to hire more civilians to take over some police tasks, but the results so far have been lackluster. The city contracted with KPMG to perform a staffing study for the department as the council considered expanding the number of officers.
When City Hall released the staffing study last August, the Observer reported:
Throughout KPMG's report, the firm repeatedly recommends that the police department use more non-sworn personnel for things like investigating misdemeanors, crime analysis and help resolve calls that don't need to be addressed by sworn officers. Only 17% of those employed by DPD are civilians, far fewer than those in other cities looked at by KPMG.
The Las Vegas Police Department, for example, has a 34% civilian workforce. In Fort Worth, almost a quarter of those employed by the department aren't cops.
Since the KPMG study, the department has added 23 civilian positions to a department with around 3,500 employees, sworn and unsworn. Fortune said the city will work toward increasing civilian staff.
Broadnax has said he never had any intention to defund the police, and with CARES Act aid, proposed police spending is slightly higher than in this year's budget. Adam McGough, chairman of the council's public safety committee, argued that the department has been defunded in a sense, since it's not growing as the council intended.
“There are clearly areas, a large number of areas, where we are not funding the police department at what we had projected and believed we would,” McGough says.
The DPD could have 50 fewer officers under Broadnax's plan, and pay raises to get the department in line with other cities aren't in the proposal.
Councilman Omar Narvaez, who objected to a $500,000 cut to bike lane funding, said the city might need to dip more deeply into its reserve funds.
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Former council member Philip Kingston echoed this during the meeting on Twitter.
“The city has an extravagantly funded operating reserve, otherwise known as a rainy day fund. Is it raining yet? Are we waiting for Noah's flood?” Kingston wrote.
The proposed budget includes general fund reserves equivalent to 59.9 days of operating expenses. The city must maintain at least 40 days expenses in its general operating reserve but its policy is to set aside 60 days worth, which is considered best practices for municipalities. The city also doesn't use the term "rainy day" fund.
A schedule and links for the virtual town hall meetings can be found online. The council has until Sept. 23 to approve the budget.