It was standing room only last night as approximately 200 folks battled the heat at White Rock Lake's Winfrey Point for the final of four community budget forums, where several city staffers were on hand to get input on how best to address the city's $190 million budget shortfall. City Manager Mary Suhm, who has whittled the deficit down to $38.6 million, told Unfair Park after the meeting that the forums gave her a couple ideas to cut costs such as implementing weekly garbage pickup throughout the city, but nothing that will make a huge dent in the budget.
"Across the board in all places, I've heard: 'We want to still hire police, but let's do something about staggering that or stretching that out a little bit longer,'" she says. "We didn't hear a lot about tax increases, although we did hear it here more than other places."
Indeed, one of the eight groups huddled at tables with a city staffer writing cuts and keeps on oversized notepads suggested raising taxes, which received the only applause of the night. So, will Mayor Tom Leppert ever budge from his refusal to raise taxes?
"No, and I don't think the council will either," Suhm says.
But surely Suhm has some tricks up her sleeve to tackle that $38.6 million. Right ... right?
Her answer reveals why last night was really an exercise in futility.
Suhm began with a PowerPoint presentation, which you can see below, outlining exactly how the city got in this mess in the first place. Of course, as we've been telling you all along, the short story coming from the city is plummeting revenues. She breezed through bulleted items as the crowd awaited their chance to weigh in, with virtually no reaction as she explained that the city's tax base has grown 34 percent from 2005 to 2009. (Imagine how bad things would be if that wasn't the case.)
Then came the real fun. Residents were given sheets of 10 red stickers and 10 green ones. In separate groups, they were instructed to head over to six boards representing key focus areas, where they would place the red dots next to services they wanted to ax and green ones next to services they wanted to save.
People had much more fun using the green, as the Trinity River Corridor Project was the only program dominated by the red dots, although there were strong concentrations in cable access, mayor and council expenditures and vendor and business development services. The greens were predictable: cultural services, preservation and historic development, arts, and parks and recreation.
Perhaps most frustrating was seeing numerous red dots in the section for golf and tennis centers, yet these are self-sustaining and actually make money for the city. It sure would have been helpful to have one of the many city staffers there pointing that out to people.
During and after everyone was going dot crazy, groups headed by city staffers were formed to come up with four to five ideas to keep and cut from the budget. Of the eight groups, six of them cited libraries among the high-priority services to retain followed by senior services and programs, recreation centers, dental and health services and preservation.
Half of the groups were receptive to delaying the hiring of 200 more police officers, with another suggesting to stagger the hirings and one hoping federal stimulus money could pay for them, which Suhm said is not likely. Of course, there were also votes to stop spending money on the Trinity River Corridor Project and the convention center hotel, with one person asking for another vote on the Trinity and another asking why "Leppert's hotel" wasn't on the list of possible budget cuts.
Suhm addressed the Trinity question as stating the city has had "two or three" votes on the Trinity project before finally settling on two. We'd respectfully like to remind her that the 2007 referendum was on the road, not the project, but details, schmetails. As for the hotel, Suhm gave a brief explanation that the hotel is not part of the general fund budget.
"The hotel is on our list because it's frivolous and ridiculous," one resident said.
In the end, this was merely a forum for residents to sound off about some projects they remain unhappy about like the Trinity and hotel, but have no real bearing on the budget. They got their dots and had a chance to have a say in what they wanted to keep without addressing the real issue at hand: The city doesn't need to find any more ways to spend money; it needs to find ways to save 38 million bucks before September 23.
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And when things get worse -- and make no mistake, they will get worse -- the city can say, Hey, remember the dots? You were part of this process too. Sorry, but we're all in this together now.
At the end of the meeting, city plan commissioner Neil Emmons asked Suhm: "Are we going to get to see the results of the dot race?"
Suhm explained that staff would compile the data from all four meetings and make it available online, which sounds like the city is setting itself up for another Cesar Chavez incident.