"Painful. Painful, painful, painful, painful."
That's what City Manager Mary Suhm said when I asked her earlier today how it's going as she works to gut the budget before council's return next month.
As I noted below, I wanted to talk to Suhm about some e-mails I received this morning dealing with cuts to the Dallas Public Library system's budget. One said that according to the latest figures floating around City Hall, the new-materials budget -- close to $4 million only a couple of years ago -- had been knocked down to $167,000; another had it closer to $100,000. Suhm dismisses both and says that right now, she's got $1 million penciled in for materials. But, she advises, that number -- like all numbers -- is changing "every day," so it's not worth discussing till at least month's end, when Suhm receives the property-tax figures. (Update: Suhm sends word that floors three through eight at the downtown library will be open 26 hours, not 24.)
"I can't be specific about the numbers," she says. "We have meetings on a daily basis, and every time we have some more information, and stuff changes. Yesterday we got a good sales tax check -- not wonderful, but at least it's not going down -- so that changes stuff a little bit. Right now [materials] is close to $1 million. I'm not expecting it to drop to $100,000. But if it does, you do without.
"I don't get the property tax base till the end of this month, and if it goes lower than I think -- and I think I was pretty conservative to begin with -- there is no breathing room. I am asking police and fire to cut their salaries. They're grouchy about it, but everyone else has taken a pay cut. So where else do you go?"
I spoke this morning with David Kusin, former chair of Friends of the Dallas Public Library, and he suggests just shutting down the libraries till there's money enough to run 'em properly. Far as he's concerned, keeping the research floors downtown dark all but 24 hours a week "turns it into a blight, the equivalent of a rundown parking lot in the center of the city -- across from City Hall." Kusin doesn't blame this on Suhm, but instead on Mayor Tom Leppert and other council member who refuse to even consider raising taxes.
"There are those on the city council whose ideology may or may not be well placed at the national level, but it's harmful and irrelevant at the local level," he says. "We're allowing this investment to go to pot. That's the scale of what they are abandoning, and Tom Leppert knows this, but he's made the mistake of thinking what may or may not be appropriate at the national level should be applied at the basic level of civic survival. Tom knows better than that."
One e-mail this morning suggests that Suhm's cutting the budget so much it threatens the system's accreditation with the Texas Library System. According to Suhm's latest budget proposals sent to the council, the Dallas Public Library needs to have at least $17.5 million budgeted to maintain its accreditation, which does allow for state and federal funding should it become available during the fiscal year.
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"There is some risk of the accreditation issue," Suhm says. "Normally, though, they put you on probation." She says she hopes some donations or other funding could make up the difference, should the budget come up short of accreditation.
I also asked her: Since she's considering taking the Farmers Market and Fair Park and perhaps even the city pound to private operators for bids, how about the Dallas Public Library system. No way, she says: "Somebody would have to make me do that."
And so, to our final question: At this point in the process, is she starting to think a tax hike might be necessary?
"We're gonna see," she says. "If I can't do this without a tax hike, if I think it's the end of the world, I'll propose one and come to work with you next year."