Last night, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins pleaded his case against Dallas County-wide budget cuts in the Garland City Council chambers, where a town hall meeting with Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell, held in front of some 300 audience members, devolved into a scene from The Jerry Springer Show. The moderator was the mild-mannered publisher and executive editor of The Garland News, Jay Jones, who sat between Watkins and Cantrell and, by way of introduction, correctly forecast the brewing storm. "Tonight's forum may be forever known as the smackdown in downtown Garland," said Jones, to a round of laughter that, for a moment, eased the tension.
"In this corner, Dallas County District Attorney, the honorable Craig Watkins," said Jones, and two-thirds of audience stood and cheered. "In this corner, Dallas County Commissioner, the honorable Mike Cantrell," and a smaller percentage from the front two rows stood and pumped their fists. Watkins, in black tie and black suit, leaned back in the chair; Cantrell, clad in a gray suit and red tie, face the audience with both elbows on the table and his fingers crossed. And among those in the audience: none other than Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price.
The Dallas County Commissioners Court is facing an expected $60 million budget shortfall, which it hopes to deal with by reducing county expenses rather than raising taxes. But Watkins has quite publicly denounced a proposed 10 percent budget cut for his office, insisting it would cause the crime rate to increase and cause cutbacks on the kind of DNA testing that has made Dallas County (in)famous for freeing so many wrongly imprisoned men. Cantrell disagrees.
"This is not personal," said Watkins, who spoke first. "It's not about the fact that I get to be on TV every other night or I have a TV show." Some audience members chuckled at that. "I apologize for the fact that not only do the citizens of Dallas County and Texas pay attention to what we're doing, but the nation and the world." This has nothing to do with all that, he repeated, but "everything to do with what's best for all of us."
Watkins argues that the DA's office cannot afford to make cuts. His administrative attorney, also a CPA, is Lincoln Monroe, and he stood on the sidelines most of the night ready to present papers from the manila folder he clutched to prove there's no fat here to trim. One such sheet was projected on a large screen and showed that although Dallas County is the second biggest county in the state, we are spending the least amount per citizen on prosecution -- $13.19 per person. And Watkins added that last year, his attorneys performed about 17,000 hours of uncompensated overtime, the equivalent of 10 free employees.
Watkins followed this data presentation with this: "So the question becomes of our good commissioners, have you prioritized?" Watkins paused for a moment. "We've done a good job in two and a half years, and they're punishing us for it."
When Cantrell finally took the podium, Watkins had long passed his allotted time to speak.
"Well, I can honestly say I'm not on TV every other night," began Cantrell. A man in the back of the auditorium said in a low voice, "Thank God," and the small group around him laughed.
Cantrell began his own PowerPoint presentation. Dallas County is projecting a $64 million shortfall due to a decrease in property valuations; a decrease in property tax collection; loss of investment income; and a decrease in fines and cost. When he sent out the 2010 budget manuals, he asked departments and elected official to "work as a team" and come back with at least a 10 percent cut. Most every department did so; some cut more than was required. But the DA's office returned with a proposed 3 percent cut.
Besides painting Watkins as uncooperative, Cantrell slung more damaging information his way. One slide showed a graph charting a total of $2.3 million sitting unused in the DA's account. "These are funds that the DA has in his account right now, this very day," said Cantrell.
"Mr. Watkins, if you're saying that we have a problem with our court system and you have a problem with your office, I am picking up the problem and I'm laying it at your feet tonight," he said. "If there are people sitting in our jail that are not going to trial, why are you sitting on $2.3 million that's totally at your discretion at how that money is spent?"
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"That's not true," yelled various people from the audience. A heckler on Cantrell's side accused Watkins of having a drinking problem because he spilled his water, and Watkins took a few steps toward him, calling him "purple shirt guy," before a staff member intercepted Watkins by physically holding him back.
Cantrell seemed flustered. His face became red and he took a strained sip of water. "I didn't invite staff like you did out here to be your support team."
The moderator tried to be heard over the clamor, telling one woman who kept screaming on Watkins's behalf that he would ask her to leave the room if she could not be quiet.
It was time for questions. One Garland citizen stood up and introduced himself then said: "We've got to manage the budget. I can't prioritize, all I can do as a citizen is say, work together and resolve this solution and quit fighting like kids!"