Last week, we revisited the Trinity River toll road and convention center hotel referendums with mayoral candidate Ron Natinsky because, well, there just wasn't enough space to explain it all in last week's cover story. Much like we quickly glossed over those issues, there was also a brief mention in the piece of "a startling admission" by Natinsky, who said last year's tax increase was unnecessary because cuts could have been found and money could have been raised to close the $40 million gap.
Natinsky didn't find that dough because, as he claims, some of his colleagues were hell-bent on raising taxes no matter what.
Our conversation about the issue easily became one of the most confusing I've had with a public official in my four-plus years covering Dallas politics.
Judge for yourselves.
As a council member, you've supported a couple of tax increases, yet...
One, I think.
'05 and '07 were tax increase years.
Right. OK. Maybe there was two. Yeah.
Two-point-two cents in '05 and 1.87 in '07.
On the campaign trail you talk about being a neighborhood guy and maintaining quality of life. Had your side won [last year], park and rec and street repairs would have been slashed by $40 million. How do you reconcile wanting to enhance quality of life -- or at least keep it as is -- with your stance now of not raising taxes no matter what?
[Pause.] The cuts that were on the table I believe we could have figured out a way to make up that shortfall. Now, whether we made up 100 percent of it or we made up 95 percent, would have been in the same ballpark for me.
You've got an economic downturn. I serve on the board of directors of National League of Cities. Just came back from a board meeting. There are cities that close their libraries. There are cities that close their rec centers, lay off cops and fireman, really decimated the operations of their city to keep themselves afloat. And so when you get down to some of the decisions we had to make, parks and rec and all those things are used more heavily when the economy turns down, so I certainly don't want there to be a negative impact when people need those facilities more than in good times. But, at the same time, we've got a budget we have to live in.
The city gets its money from two places: property taxes and sales taxes. The fees aren't enough to shake a stick at. So sales tax is way down because nobody's spending money anymore, and property taxes have taken a dive because in our own way real estate values are going down. We're fortunate they didn't go down like they did in Florida by 40 percent. They went down 3 1/2 percent. And our residential last year held at about even. So at that point you have to make a decision. Should you pick up the trash in the parks four times a week or should you pick it up six times a week? And I think in the short term those are the kind of decisions you have to make to get yourself to live within your means.
The other is, in the conversations I've had with people in the corporate world -- and I know the mayor [Tom Leppert] had some -- there were other dollars that could have been brought to the table to help shore up some of those perspective cuts. But as soon as word got out that there's a huge -- over 6 percent -- tax rate increase, I don't mind telling you, I went to some of those people and said, "You guys better save your money to pay taxes." It was a little disingenuous to me to say, "OK, we're going to accept your money to help shore up the city's park department or the libraries, and, by the way, there's probably enough votes to raise your taxes by 6 percent." They just seemed to be at odds with each other, and I didn't see any reason to keep pushing the issue.
You think there was $40 million in the budget that could have been cut that wasn't?
The goal was 40, but if it had been 35, I'm sure that somewhere in our multi-billion dollar budget, we could find $5 million to even things out. When you've got an operation with a more than $1 billion general fund and the biggest portion of it, unfortunately, is people, and then you've got some other levels in there you're spending money on, you can't tell me that we couldn't have found a couple of percent to save in our budget.
If there was a way to find that money and not raise taxes...
That would have been preferable.
Then why didn't you do it?
Well, because you had both of these things converging at the same time. And I just didn't feel good about asking for corporate contributions to help keep, for example, the research floor at the downtown library open every day, knowing that it appeared to me that the iceberg was coming toward the Titanic, and we were gonna have a tax rate increase. It was real clear that there were enough votes to do it.
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So, rather than try to find a way to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish -- they weren't trying to accomplish raising taxes. They were trying to accomplish closing the gap.
I can't speak for all of them, but I think there were certain elements within that that were destined to force a tax increase.
So you think some council members just wanted to raise taxes no matter what it did?