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New Zoo Review: Or, Mary Suhm Wrestles With An Underfunded Budget

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Right now, the Dallas Zoo is closed but one day a year: Christmas Day. But that may change if the city can't make up for its budget shortfall, which right now stands at, oh, $25 million, give or take. City Manager Mary Suhm will present the city council today with yet another sneak peek at the new budget, during which she will suggest that the city consider closing the zoo one day a week in order to balance the books. Also among the suggestions: shuttering for good the Dallas Aquarium at Fair Park, which has been open since 1936 -- and which appears to have been last updated somewhere around 1937. Other money-saving suggestions: scaling back 311 services, eliminating repairs to city building elevators and escalators and doing away with myriad other city services, including routine street repairs and street-sign replacements. It also involves breaking plenty of other promises to the Dallas Museum of Art, the Dallas Independent School District and other organizations.

Oh -- and there could also be a property tax hike.

It's all hypothetical, for the moment: These are just suggestions, says Suhm, who spoke to Unfair Park about the budget on Tuesday afternoon. The way she figures it: "My guess is the council wouldn't be interested in that happening," referring to her suggestion to close the zoo one day a week. "But we don't want a tax rate increase, so you look at the day with the least attendance and try to decide if that's the thing to do. Truth is, closing the zoo for a day has been part of the discussion in many budget years, and it may not have ever materialized at a public level, but it's something we look at on a regular basis."

Earlier in the process, Suhm had guesstimated that the city would be short some $50 million. At that point, there was the suggestion to trim library branches' hours significantly. That's off the table, Suhm says.

"When we took that to them the first time, the council said, 'We don't want to do that," she tells Unfair Park. "This is an iterative process. The council wants to be involved early on, and this is the last time they'll see this before I bring the recommended budget in August. So you're saying: 'This is where I am, what do you want to do?' The nice thing is you can see the list of services that are unfunded and go, ' Well, I'd get rid of this before I close the zoo.' But it's hard. There are hard decisions to be made here: What are the most essential services?"

So, then, how did the budget shortfall get cut in half? By cutting and then delaying pay increases for city staff, for starters. (She still wants the Dallas Police Department to hire more officers -- and to pay them.) Suhm is also factoring into the new budget substantial (and, so far, hypothetical) increases in revenue -- from things like selling ads on city-owned vehicles (garbage trucks, even) and downtown bus shelters (a partnership with Dallas Area Rapid Transit) to getting rid of some "non-aviation" land around Dallas Executive Airport to increasing water and garbage collection fees.

The city also expects to make significant money from red-light cameras: "Addition of cameras at new intersection approaches during current fiscal year has increased the revenue estimate shown in May’s briefing." By some $3.2 million. And she's also suggesting the city increase parking fees in the Arts District parking garage -- from $5 to $10. (The skeptic will argue that this isn't necessarily going to accomplish much, as the city's proven it can't even collect money from Fair Park's parking lot or Live Nation for rent.)

Keep in mind, the numbers are all preliminary and subject to change. But among the suggestions for bolstering revenue: upping zoo admissions by one dollar a ticket. Except on the one day a week that it's closed.

"The suggestion to close the zoo leaped out at you," Suhm says, "and a lot of those other cuts leap out at different people for different reasons. For some people, closing the zoo one day a week is not a crisis, and for some folks, it is. But it may come down to a choice between closing the zoo and repairing the roads, and that's where we are right now ... balancing the must-do's with the like-to-do's." --Robert Wilonsky

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