Eliminating Graffiti

I hate graffiti. It makes our city look terrible, it makes our neighborhoods seem unsafe, it discourages economic development, and it promotes crime.

A few years ago, my husband and I started a graffiti removal program in the M Streets to get rid of graffiti on street signs and other public areas. In the last couple of months, East Dallas residents Jeff Bryan, Sandy Graham, and Bill Peterson have organized graffiti removal days with volunteers.

Graffiti removal in Dallas is dependent upon volunteers because the City doesn’t have a real graffiti abatement program. Other cities, such as Fort Worth and Phoenix, have very successful programs. I asked City staff to brief the Quality of Life Council Committee on how those programs are run so we can look at adopting those graffiti abatement measures.

On Nov. 3, the Quality of Life Committee received a briefing, and the information was very enlightening:

  • If graffiti is removed within 24-48 hours, the likelihood that it will return is almost zero.
  • Most graffiti in Dallas is done by “taggers” who consider themselves “artistes,” not by gangs.
  • The Phoenix program costs $1.2M a year and is paid for through city funds and federal grants (community development block grants). It includes 8 full-time employees who go out and remove graffiti, a portable paint-matching machine (so there are no blotchy patches of over-paint), a non-toxic chemical removal system, and high-pressure sprayers.

(Read the briefing)

Because the City’s budget has already been approved for this fiscal year (Oct. 2005-Sept. 2006), we don’t have the money allocated to do this type of extensive program right now. However, I have asked city staff to investigate creating a database of volunteers, creating a database of release forms from businesses that are frequently tagged (allowing volunteers to remove the graffiti), and having a full-time staff member who could organize graffiti abatement days and acquire supplies.

I am also investigating ways that businesses in our city can assist with this effort. I met today with some business leaders to discuss a more comprehensive graffiti abatement program, and hope to have some good news in the coming weeks.

Why Don’t We Hire More Police?

We need more police officers, so why doesn’t the City hire them?

We’re among the least safe cities in America. We’ve got one of the highest crime rates in the country. I’ve held a dozen listening sessions throughout District 14 for the last two months, and our need for more police officers ranks as one of the top two priorities consistently. Every neighborhood I’ve been to, every resident I’ve talked with, has expressed the exact same frustration: Why don’t we hire more police officers?

I don’t know. I don’t know why we don’t discuss this problem for an hour at every council meeting. I don’t know why we’re talking about pocket bikes in our Public Safety Committee meetings for two hours and not focusing on a long-term PLAN to hire more officers and make our city safer. I do know that I’m frustrated.

Here’s what I have been told: We’ve got a “plan” to hire a net of 50 additional officers a year for the next several years. To get that additional net of 50, we’ve got to hire 250 (we lose 200 a year due to attrition — retiring, firing, resigning, etc.). To get 250 qualified police officers, we have to sift through about 2,500 applicants.

I’ve asked our Police Chief, other councilmembers, and our City Manager why we’re only hiring 50 net new officers a year. Why not 600 or more? I’ve been given various reasons: We can’t recruit more than 250 qualified applicants AND/OR our DPD can’t “assimilate” more than 250 new officers a year AND/OR our DPD can’t put more than that many new officers through training.

Somehow, though, the discussion seems to end there. Here’s the problem I have with that: The question doesn’t end there, it starts there. The obvious next question is WHY can’t we recruit more than 250 new officers a year? WHY can’t we assimilate more than that, and WHY can’t we expand our training facilities/trainers/equipment to accept more recruits?

I haven’t gotten satisfactory answers to these questions, but one of the responses I’ve heard about recruiting is that it comes back to money. Apparently, we don’t pay our new officers (years one through five) enough compared to surrounding cities. And it seems to me, we’d not only have to be on par with our neighboring cities, we’d have to pay a little more to make up for some morale issues that continue to linger. From what I understand, officers in years seven or better are doing well financially. Pay and benefits are GREAT. It’s the young officers that aren’t making enough money. So, the most obvious solution in my mind is PAY OUR YOUNG OFFICERS MORE MONEY. Better pay equals more, better-qualified recruits.

But there’s a problem: A lawsuit.

Back in 1979 there was a police pay referendum. Voters passed it, giving the police a raise. But there are some former police officers who have sued the City, claiming that the referendum meant that the city was supposed to “lock step” officer pay raises forever and ever. So if you give a year-one officer a $10,000 raise, you’ve got to pay a year-two officer $10,000 more, all the way up the chain of command. Incredibly expensive and unnecessary: Year-seven and above, they don’t need the same exact pay raise that new recruits need. But that issue is being litigated right now, and frankly, I don’t see an end in sight.

So does that mean that we can’t increase the pay for officers years one through six? I don’t think so, but I also don’t agree with the interpretation of the 1979 pay referendum. I say we do whatever we need to do to get more officers, and if that means we “violate” this imaginary restriction that’s keeping us from increasing police pay, so be it.

I’ve asked city staff to research the following: Pay scales for Dallas Police compared to surrounding cities, including benefits packages. When do our officers leave and why (already completed)? How much would it cost to increase police pay for years-one through -five to be comparable with surrounding cities? There are also some other things I am researching that I can’t discuss now.

Here is my challenge to you. Help me develop a plan to increase our police force by at least 600 officers. A pay increase is one idea. We could eliminate City of Dallas property taxes for officers. We could help police officers purchase homes in Dallas.

I need your help to expand this list. Got ideas from other cities? I want to hear them. I would also really like your opinion on the pay referendum issue.

But first, let me tell you some of the the things the city IS doing to try to get more officers:

In the Spring, the DPD began allowing 4 years active military service in lieu of college requirements in the hopes of getting more recruits. The DPD has also doubled its recruiting staff this year, to 12, and is taking the following steps to develop a formalized recruiting program:

Vigil for Slain Officer Brian Jackson

Dallas Police Officer Brian Jackson was killed in the line of duty on Sunday. A candlelight vigil in his memory will be held on Wedesday night, Nov. 16 at 7PM at the central police patrol station at 334 S. Hall St.

My deepest sympathies go to Officer Jackson’s wife and family for their loss. No words can express the sadness we all feel about the death of this young family man who died while protecting the residents of our city. We owe a debt of gratitude for his bravery and service to our City.

From the Dallas Morning News:
The 28-year-old Rhode Island native died early Sunday from a gunshot wound to his underarm that he suffered in a gunbattle with a man who had threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend.

Officer Jackson, who was working late to help homicide detectives canvass bars, was among the officers who had responded to a domestic disturbance in Old East Dallas. He was the 76th Dallas officer to die in the line of duty.

The man accused of killing Officer Jackson remains in the Dallas County Jail on charges of capital murder and aggravated assault.

Council Approves Neighborhood Stabilization Overlay

I am pleased to report that on Wednesday, Nov. 9, the City Council approved the Neighborhood Stabilization Overlay by a vote of 11-4. The overlay will give neighborhoods a tool to address incompatible, overly massive new construction in established neighborhoods.

The ordinance did not change substantively from what was posted on this website over the weekend. Here is a summary of the overlay tool:

Petition Requirement:
There are three ways to initiate an overlay:
1. Collect between 50%+1 to <75% of property owners’ signatures; get on the City Plan Commission agenda by paying a fee (like other zoning cases).
2. Collect 75% of property owners’ signatures or more; get on the Plan Commission agenda with no fee.
3. Get a Plan Commissioner or Councilmember to put the overlay on the agenda with no fee.
Time limit for collecting signatures:
0-49 homes: 3 mos.
50+ homes: 6 mos.
Minimum Area for Overlay:
50 lots – contiguous and compact area
Issues Addressed by Overlay:
–Height may be regulated if 60% or more of the property owners sign the petition.
–Height may NOT be regulated if less than 60% sign the petition (but the area may still get an overlay and regulate setbacks and garage placement).
–If the typical height of the homes in the overlay area is less than 20′, then the overlay area may select that as the maximum height. The area also has the option to select a height ranging from 20′ to the maximum allowed by zoning.
–If height is regulated, a “height slope” is required. (See the term sheet for a diagram.) This allows higher construction towards the back of the house but maintains the lower height at the front of the house.
>Front yard setback:
–Menu options range between typical setback and max allowed by zoning
>Side yard (right and left) and corner setbacks:
–Menu options range between typical setback and max allowed by zoning
–Entry: Rear/Front/Side
–Connection: Attached/Detached
–Location: Front/Rear/Side

Opponents to the overlay wanted to delay the vote so the council could (once again) be briefed on the issue. I argued that we had already had four public hearings on the issue, that the City had worked on the overlay for more than a year, and that it was time to move forward and vote on the overlay.

It really seemed that the only purpose of the proposed delay was to try to defeat the overlay or further compromise it. Proponent held firm, and when the opponents moved to delay the vote, they lost by a 6-9 vote (Voting to delay: MR, SS, BB, RN, LM, GG).

After several hours of discussion, I moved to approve the overlay ordinance. The ordinance passed by an 11-4 vote:
Voting in favor of the overlay: AH, EG, PM, EO, LK, GG, LM, DH, MTR, LC, JF
Voting against the overlay: MR, BB, SS, RN

This has been a long and difficult fight. I was troubled that a realtors representative, who has been actively involved in two meetings with me, two meetings with Councilmember Garcia, whose consultants had helped draft the compromise, and who was present at the final discussions on Monday, told the Council that his group had not been involved at all in overlay discussions and that they wanted more time to have input before we approved the overlay.

We drafted a compromise that, while imperfect, incorporated the concerns that were conveyed to us by realtors and builders. We now have an overlay tool that will allow neighborhoods to protect themselves from incompatible growth, if they choose to do so and if the overwhelming support is there.

The Development Services Department is going to prepare a packet of materials over the next month, and neighborhoods may begin applying for overlay status after mid-December.

My sincerest thanks to all of the neighborhood folks who turned out to support this, and to everyone who has been working so hard on this for many months. Your hard work and perseverance paid off!

Verified Response: A Good Idea?

Dallas Police Chief Kunkle has recommended that the City go to a verified response system for burglar alarms in order to free up police to respond to other crime. The proposal is to require alarm companies to respond first to their burglar alarms, then contact the police only after verifying that an actual crime is occurring. The city would still respond immediately to burglar alarms that are the result of someone pressing a panic button. Residential alarms would no longer require a permit fee. Commercial alarms would still pay a permit fee.

The verified response proposal arose due to the incredibly high rate of false alarms. In 2004, the DPD received about 62,000 burglar alarm calls. Of those, 97% were false alarms (60,100). Responding to these false alarms took approximately 47,000 police officer hours, which equals about 41 full-time police officers at a cost of approximately $3.485 million in police time. This takes our officers away from responding to real crimes in our city.

Many residents have written me to suggest that the City increase the false alarm fee. Unfortunately, the State Legislature has taken away a city’s ability to set false alarm fees, and cities may only charge $50 after the first three false alarms.

I was initially very supportive of the verified response system, given the remarkably high number of false alarms. However, residents have raised some important questions, such as how other cities that have adopted verified response have fared, and I am looking very closely at this issue.

The City Council will likely vote on this issue before the end of the year, though no date has been set yet. I have heard from a lot of folks who have burglar alarms (14% of Dallas residents), but I would like to hear from those who DON’T have burglar alarms (86% of Dallas residents). What are your thoughts on verified response? Please shoot me an email.

What’s on the Nov. 8 Ballot?

Please let your voice be heard on election day, November 8. There will be a referendum on proposed Dallas City Charter changes, a City bond initiative for a homeless assistance center, and proposed State Constitutional changes.

There has been a lot of controversy the last few days about some councilmembers withdrawing their support for the stronger mayor proposal on the ballot. I just wanted you to know where I stand.

I opposed the Blackwood strong mayor proposal in May because it was a poorly thought-out Charter amendment that lacked checks and balances. I pledged to support an alternative proposal and bring it before the voters. I stand by that pledge.

I believe that Proposition 1 will make our city government more accountable and responsive to the residents of Dallas. In particular, it will let the Mayor hire and fire the City Manager and increase the Mayor’s authority over the budget. We need to have a form of government in which our chief administrator is directly responsive to our top elected official. It is important to take personalities out of this issue, and focus on what is best for the City of Dallas in the long term. I encourage you to vote in favor of Proposition 1.

Our Charter is like our city’s constitution: it dictates how our city is governed and how the power is divided among the different branches of government. The proposed Charter changes are set forth in 13 separate propositions on the ballot. I’ve put together an explanation of the ballot initiatives in plain language.

I support all of these changes to our City Charter except for Proposition 10, which changes the name of the Fire Department to “Fire and Rescue” Department. Firefighters tell me they don’t want the name change, and kept silent until now out of respect to the former Fire Chief who supported the change. I think our first responders should choose the name of their department, and if they want it to stay “Fire Department,” then so be it. I urge you to vote “no” on Proposition 10.

You can see a redlined version of the Charter here.

Proposition 14 is for a $23 million bond package to build a homeless assistance center (the location for the center is not part of the election). The assistance center is not a shelter, but a facility to help the homeless get off the streets by providing mental health services, drug rehabilitation resources, job training resources, and other services.

Dallas has failed for too long to address our homeless problem. While the assistance center is not a complete solution by itself, it is an important step in the right direction, and I support it. We must get our homeless of the streets, both for humanitarian reasons and to lessen the detrimental economic and public safety effects on our city.

You can early vote through November 4. Check out http://www.dalcoelections.org for locations and times. To see the proposed changes to the Texas Constitution, go to the Texas Secretary of State website: http://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/voter/2005novconsamend.shtml.

Final Council Meeting on Overlay

On November 9, the Dallas City Council will vote on whether to create a “neighborhood stabilization overlay” — a tool that will help neighborhoods address teardowns and McMansions. If adopted, the overlay will allow neighborhoods to regulate height, front yard and side yard setbacks, and garage placement for new construction in their neighborhood.

It is important to note that the overlay is a tool, not a zoning change. Not a single home in Dallas will be affected if the City Council creates the Neighborhood Stabilization Overlay tool next Wednesday. If a neighborhood wanted to become an overlay district, it would first have to submit a petition signed by at least 60% of the property owners. Even then, the overlay district would have to be approved by the City Plan Commission as well as the City Council.

If adopted, the overlay tool will give neighborhoods across Dallas the option to require new construction to be more sensitive to the context in which they are built.

If you care about this issue, you need to come to City Hall at 1:30PM on Wednesday, November 9, and show your support.

The overlay discussion has been going on for over a year now. First, the City’s Single-Family Housing Standards Taskforce (made up of residents, builders, realtors, architects, and planners) developed a proposal working in concert with the City’s Comprehensive Plan work group.

As it was originally envisioned by the Taskforce, the overlay would allow a neighborhood to apply to become an overlay district with the support of 50%+1 of the property owners in the area (the same standard for all other zoning changes in Dallas). After the neighborhood petitioned for consideration to become an overlay district, the City would provide an interim set of building standards based on what is typical to the neighborhood. These “prevailing standards” would regulate new construction while the neighborhood met with the City for up to 18 months to determine permanent standards. The prevailing standards would be based on the neighborhood’s typical number of stories, front and side setbacks, garage placement, and percentage of front yard impervious coverage. The purpose of the prevailing standards period was to immediately address the teardown and McMansion problem and give a neighborhood breathing room to develop permanent standards for new construction.

Under the Task Force’s proposal, a neighborhood’s permanent overlay ordinance could address height, stories, front and side setbacks, garage placement, and percentage of front yard impervious coverage. After the ordinance was finalized by the neighborhood, with assistance from the City’s Planning staff, the overlay ordinance would then go before the City’s Plan Commission for approval. If approved, the final decision would be made by the City Council.

After the Taskforce made its recommendation on the overlay tool, the City’s Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee (ZOAC) reviewed their proposal. After considering it for months, ZOAC revised the overlay tool and forwarded its recommendation to the City Plan Commission.

At the Plan Commission, the overlay tool was again substantially revised. Now the issue is before the City Council for determination on November 9. Unfortunately, each time the ordinance has come before another layer of city bureaucracy, the overlay has become less neighborhood-friendly.

Look at this comparison table to see the differences among the various proposals, and how much the neighborhoods have ceded to the opponents.

This issue first came before the City Council in September, when Councilmembers were briefed on the issue. At the briefing, the Mayor proposed an alternative overlay tool that compromised the neighborhoods’ needs even further. Most importantly, the “prevailing standards” interim period was stripped away, height and stories were removed as options, and the minimum percentage was increased from 50%+1 to 67%-75%.

I and neighborhood leaders in attendance at the meeting objected to the alternative proposal. As a result, the Mayor created an ad hoc council committee to develop a compromise. The committee was comprised of Councilmembers Ed Oakley, Bill Blaydes, Elba Garcia (later replaced by James Fantroy), Leo Chaney, and me.

The ad hoc committee met to discuss the overlay issue. Director of the City’s Development Services Department Theresa O’Donnell walked us through the different iterations of the overlay. At the meeting, I was elected chair of the committee. I asked from input from each member of the committee. Councilmembers Oakley and Blaydes both stated that they opposed allowing a neighborhood to address height in the overlay, and that they would not move from requiring 75% of all owners to agree to the overlay. (This is in stark contrast to every other zoning change in our city, which requires a threshold of only 50%+1).

After hearing from each committee member, I proposed a compromise between what the original Taskforce had proposed and what the Mayor had come up with: >50% to sign the petition, 1 year to gather signatures, and allow neighborhoods to address height, front and side setbacks, garage placement, and front yard pavement. In exchange, I proposed giving up regulating the number of stories, doing away with the prevailing standards interim period, and increasing the minimum district size from one blockface to 50 homes. The committee passed the recommendation by a vote of 3 to 2, with Mr. Oakley and Mr. Blaydes voting “no.”

Despite the many concessions made to the opponents, the Mayor wanted the supporters to further compromise, and asked Councilmember Garcia to try to develop a new proposal.

Because I want to see an overlay tool created, I will support a reasonable compromise. I will support a compromise that would increase the petition requirement to 60%, decrease the time to collect signatures from 1 year to 6 months, allow standards for height, setbacks, and garage placement, and increase the minimum area from one blockface to 50 homes.

I will therefore be supporting the following neighborhood stabilization overlay proposal at the Nov. 9 Council meeting:

Petition: 60%
Time limit: 6 mos.
Area: 50 lot – contiguous and compact area
Issues addressed:
Typical height OR 20′, 25′, 30′, 36′
Front yard setback:
Between 10′ – 70′ OR typical setback
Side yard setback (right):
Between 5′ – 40′ OR typical setback
Side yard setback (left):
Between 5′ – 40′ OR typical setback
Cornerside yard setback:
Between 5′ – 40′ OR typical setback
Entry: Rear/Front/Side
Connection: Attached/Detached
Location: Front/Rear/Side

Many councilmembers are supportive of the Neighborhood Stabilization Overlay. However, it is a grave disappointment to me that other councilmembers do not want to give neighborhoods even a small voice in their future development.

If you think this is an important tool for neighborhoods, let your voice be heard. If you already enjoy the protections provided by an historic or conservation district, let the Mayor and Councilmembers know how it has positively affected your neighborhood, and show your support for creating the overlay tool.

Write, email, call and fax the Mayor and councilmembers and attend the City Council meeting at Nov. 9 at 1:30PM at Dallas City Hall, 1500 Marilla Street, 6th floor. Tell them you support the above proposal.