Creating Alcohol-Free School Zones in Dallas

This week, DISD requested that the City of Dallas create alcohol-free school zones around the more than 180 DISD schools in Dallas. The Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission (TABC), which regulates alcohol licenses in Texas, gives cities the authority to create these zones to keep liquor (and its patrons) away from kids.

We at the city talk a lot about supporting our schools, and here is a perfect opportunity. The schools hardest hit by nearby bars and liquor stores are those in poor areas. Those kids in particular need every bit of assistance we can give them, and this is one small way we can help.

Are there some areas where a school can co-exist with alcohol businesses? Probably so, and we can exempt those schools, such as Booker T. Washington High School in Downtown and Sam Houston Elementary School in Oak Lawn.

By and large, however, alcohol establishments near schools, and the customers they bring, don’t create a safe environment for our children, and the City should work hand-in-hand with DISD on this issue.

The Council’s Quality of Life Committee voted unanimously to approve the measure. This will now go before the full Council for a vote.

Great Graffiti News!

I’ve got two — no make that THREE — great pieces of news about our efforts to wipe out graffiti in Dallas.

First, for the last year, I’ve been working to get Dallas to develop a comprehensive plan to address graffiti, along with hiring a clean-up crew (patterned on Phoenix’s) that will assist in cleaning up graffiti. I’m very pleased to announce that we were successful in getting this program included in next year’s budget!

The new program will provide a city crew to clean up graffiti on PRIVATE property. Before, if your fence were spray-painted by a vandal, you’d come home to find not just the graffiti, but also a notice from the city telling you to clean up the graffiti or get fined. So you essentially get punished for being a victim of a crime.

With the new program, you would also get a note explaining that you have the option of having the city clean up the graffiti for you, FOR FREE. That’s right, FREE. A great, and much-needed city service that will help clean up Dallas. Special thanks go to Gary Griffith for working with me to advocate for this program.

SECOND great piece of news: We’re looking forward to a great graffiti wipe out in East Dallas in October:

Saturday, October 14, 2006
9 am -12 noon
DPD East Dallas Storefront, 4545 Bryan St.

We’ll be cleaning up the area bounded by Central, Mockingbird, Skillman down to Gaston, over to Abrams/Columbia/Main, to Haskell.

THIRD, if the satisfaction of knowing you played a key role in cleaning up East Dallas isn’t enough to get you out there, you should know that Carrabba’s Italian Grill Lakewood has AGAIN generously decided to serve us lunch. That alone is worth spending a few hours cleaning up graffiti!

For more information, contact:
Lisa Fullerton
Graffiti Abatement Coordinator
(214) 670-5647

Kiosks, Cameras, and Casinos: Why Dallas Shouldn’t Sell Itself for a Quick Buck

You’ve seen them. They’ve got Anthony and Opie’s smug visages plastered on them. They’re cylindrical monsters gobbling up the tiny wedges of concrete we call sidewalks in Dallas. And they’re coming to a sidewalk near you.

The advertising kiosk fiasco started last fall, when the council was asked to approve a contract with CBS that would let them put advertising kiosks up in our city for 20 years, paying the city a total of $22M over that time. I objected to the program at a committee briefing and at the subsequent council meeting, arguing that our sidewalks are already cluttered with light poles and traffic signals, signs and sandwich boards. We didn’t need yet another obstruction. I asked for a two-week delay to address those concerns.

At the following council meeting, I raised my concerns again and was assured that the kiosks would have “7 foot of clearance.” To me, that meant there would be 7 feet of space left on the sidewalk after the kiosk was in place. That sounded reasonable, because that meant that the kiosks couldn’t go on the itsy bitsy sidewalks in most of Dallas, but only on wide sidewalks – downtown, primarily — that could accommodate a kiosk plus have 7 more feet left over.

When I saw the first kiosks going up in the middle of a six-foot sidewalk with no 7-foot clearance, I contacted city staff and was told that there was no 7-foot rule. What??! I pulled the tape of the council meeting to make sure I didn’t mis-hear something. Nope. I had been assured there was “7 feet of clearance.” When I asked city staff about this, I was told I had been given the wrong information at the council meeting, and there was no 7-foot rule in the contract.

The Mayor has requested a briefing for the city council on October 4 to explain the kiosk program and discuss our options. Our contract with CBS allows the city to get out of the contract with no penalty, other than paying back any money that has already been paid by CBS. I will be pushing for us to get out of this contract immediately and remove all of the kiosks.

We don’t need these kiosks. They are ugly billboards cluttering our sidewalks. We’re trying so hard to become an urban, pedestrian-friendly city. To allow this visual clutter to be placed in areas already lacking in sidewalks was a bad decision that needs to be undone.

So what do these kiosks have to do with “cameras and casinos”? Easy money. The pattern I see is that when the city sees fast cash waved before its eyes, it jumps on it like a drowning man struggling for a life preserver.

Red-light cameras: easy money. But is the technology proven to save lives and improve public safety, like it says on the box? The studies I’ve seen contradict these claims, but we nonetheless moved forward with a contract for the cameras, despite my “no” vote. The city will install the cameras at 60 intersections, bringing in an estimated $8M. (I was successful in getting staff to undertake a one-year comparative review of the program assessing accident types and severity, pre- and post-camera.)

Casinos in Reunion Arena: easy money. But what about the studies that show that tax windfalls from casinos rarely meet proponents optimistic projections? And that crime and poverty increase when casinos come to town? And that the “revenue” casinos bring in doesn’t offset these costs?

I could be wrong on both of these issues. Red-light cameras may end up saving lives and casinos may be fun, family-friendly revenue-generators that put Dallas on the map.

I’m just proposing that every time “easy money” is waved in front of us at City Hall, that we don’t become so hypnotized that we’re willing to sell out our city for a few lousy bucks, at the expense of the long-term welfare of Dallas.

Why the City Needs to Support Urban Market

On Wednesday, the City Council will vote on whether to provide a loan of $550,000 to Downtown’s only grocery store — Urban Market — to keep the store open. Private investors would match that amount.

So why should the city subsidize this business? Four reasons.

First, in 2001 the city REQUIRED that the developer who renovated the Interurban Building put in a grocery store in order to get historic tax abatements to rehab the vacant, dirty building. That’s right. The developer didn’t come up with the grocery store idea, the City did. The City knew exactly how many apartments and condos were going to be built over the next few years, what the surrounding population would be to support the market, and knew that it would be hard for the grocery store to scrape by. But the City saw the grocery store as a necessary amenity to lure residents to Downtown. Now that the City required this significant investment, it would be wrong to shrug and say, “Oops, sorry it didn’t work out.”

Second, Downtown business leaders and developers are stepping up and putting in money of their own. They understand the Market is a huge draw for new residents, and an important amenity for those already there. Losing the Market could impair developers’ ability to sell units. They have seen the population growth expected for Downtown over the next couple of years, recognize that it will likely be able to sustain the market in two years, and they’re willing to make that investment. If the private sector steps up and believes that this project is indispensable to Downtown, the City should step up as well, considering we’re the ones who mandated it.

Third, if Dallas is going to meet its goal of tripling the population of Downtown over the next several years, the City MUST support “meat and potatoes” businesses in Downtown. It’s the little things, like grocery stores, that help transform a group of city blocks into a neighborhood. The Council’s Economic Development Committee has requested that city staff focus less on high-end, esoteric shops in Downtown as it has done in the past, and more on residential necessities like drycleaners, grocery stores, and other neighborhood shops. Time and time again, residents tell me how important the Market is to their experience of living Downtown, and we need to support one of the pioneering stores at this crucial time.

Fourth, the Market opened to great fanfare. It was to be a harbinger of great things to come for Downtown Dallas. Letting it close now would send a signal that our Downtown is stumbling.

As more residents populate Downtown in the next two years, they’ll bring their dollars with them and help make the Market self-sustaining. It’s also important to keep in mind that the City and the private investor group will have the authority to approve and oversee the Market’s operator, will have financial oversight, and will reevaluate the Market’s financials in a year to make sure we’re on track. If not, we won’t continue to financially support the Market, and will have only invested $225,000.

A strong, vibrant Downtown is the key to a strong, vibrant city. Our Downtown is at a critical stage in its infancy. It’s still a toddler struggling to stand on its own, and there will be times when we have to intervene to support it. Now is one of those times. For a small investment, we can keep the doors open for this important Downtown amenity that has become a symbol of Downtown revitalization.

What’s the City Doing to Make Dallas Safer?

I share the frustration that, yet again, Dallas appears at the top of the pack for crime. But I take issue with the argument I’ve read elsewhere that “the City of Dallas won’t dedicate the resources necessary to reduce the crime rate.”

The issue is not one of funding. The Council is adding $40M in next year’s budget for 100 more cops, new police cars, a new computer dispatch system, and more 911 operators.

But, you say, we need even MORE cops. And you’re absolutely right. But the problem isn’t that the Council won’t fund more police. The problem is that we can’t get that many QUALIFIED recruits to fill more than 100 positions a year (assuming we can fill that many).

Keep in mind, we lose about 150 cops a year to retirement, resignations, etc., and we’ve got to fill not only their positions, but hire an additional 100 on top of that. In years past, we just haven’t had enough qualified recruits to fill the positions.

There are two keys to addressing this problem. First, we have to increase bonuses/other benefits to lure recruits. This year, the council approved a $10,000 recruit bonus (which they get over 18 months), and this has already resulted in a significant increase in applicants. (In my opinion, if recruits don’t remain with Dallas, and head to the suburbs after we trained them, they should pay us back.)

Second, we must increase police benefits and pay to make their compensation comparable to surrounding areas. Again, the council approved a good compensation package for police and fire earlier this year, which was supported by all the police associations.

We can and must go further with a strong compensation package for our DPD, to retain and attract the best police officers, and these measures are a good beginning.

Lastly, Dallas’ crime rate is going down. I know this doesn’t change the fact that compared to other cities, we have a long ways to go. But the fact is, the efforts of our new police chief and investment by the Council are paying off.

If you’ve got ideas about improving public safety, I welcome them.

Council Approves Red Light Camera Contract with ACS

Last Wednesday, the City Council narrowly approved Dallas-based ACS to administer a new red light camera system in Dallas. Dr. Elba Garcia, Gary Griffith, Pauline Medrano, Linda Koop, James Fantroy, Leo Chaney, Bill Blaydes, and Ed Oakley voted in favor of ACS.

I did not vote for ACS, and would not have voted for the other competitive bidder, ATS, because the studies I have reviewed indicate that red light cameras do not improve pubic safety. In fact, some studies indicate that accidents actually increase at interesections with red light cameras.

At the Council meeting, I requested that city staff keep statistics at all intersections with red light cameras, including the type of collision (broadside or rear-end, for example) as well as the severity of the accident. In a year after installation, we will be able to compare data from before and after installation of the red light cameras to determine whether they have improved the safety of these intersections.

City Budget Amendments

The Council is working towards finalizing the City’s budget for 2006-07 (our fiscal year runs October 2006 to September 2007).

The way this works is, the City Manager provides the City Council with her proposed budget. The Councilmembers hold townhall meetings, listen to residents concerns, gather input, and then we submit and subsequently vote on any amendments on September 27.

This year, the budget is aligned with the City’s new strategic plan, and the budget was built from the ground up. There are also objective measurements for each and every program and project in the budget to determine whether that program is effective and efficient.

Right now, the City Manager’s budget would reduce the tax rate by .25 cent., to 73.92 cents. This would be the first tax cut in eight years, while increasing the amount spent on public safety by nearly $40M (to hire 100 new officers, purchase new police cars, get a new computer dispatch system, and hire more 911/311 operators).

Over the last month, I’ve held four townhall meetings to provide more information to residents about the proposed budget and get your input.

Based on your input, I joined with eight other councilmembers in proposing an additional tax rate reduction of one cent on top of the .25 cent reduction proposed by the Manager, resulting in a 72.92 cent tax rate. (Signators to the budget amendments include Dr. Elba Garcia and Ed Oakley who led the effort, myself, Pauline Medrano, Gary Griffith, Bill Blaydes, Linda Koop, Leo Chaney, and Don Hill.)

At the same time, due to a greater than expected sales tax forecast for next year, we were able to include several programs that had not been included in the Manager’s budget. For example, the anti-graffiti program that I have been working on over the last year was not included in the Manager’s budget. Based on the positive input I received from residents, as well as from those in the private and non-profit sectors, Gary Griffith and I proposed adding this important program so that we can comprehensively attack and eradicate graffiti in Dallas.

Other programs added include the ex-offender re-entry program, an additional community prosecution team, four additional animal control officers, enhanced neighborhood street-lighting at 60 locations, enhanced cross-walks/reflective pavement/road humps, new guardrails/pedestrian count-down signals in cross-walks, and increased DCTV funding and arts funding.

Please take a look at the proposed budget amendments and give me your feedback. The Council will have a budget meeting to discuss the amendments on Monday.

I had initially been troubled by the budget’s lack of funding for single-room occupancy units (SROs), which are integral to our plan to end chronic homelessness. Gary Griffith and I requested a briefing before the Quality of Life Committee to get more information about the city’s strategy to address homelessness. During that meeting, staff explained that more than $2M remains in the Homeless Assistance Center bond funds that are earmarked for SRO use. Those funds have not yet been tapped, and staff is working on getting more SROs built in Dallas. The bottom line is that this year, we’ve got SRO money available that’s not yet used, so we don’t need to put it in the budget. Next month, I will be meeting with City Manager Mary Suhm to discuss how we plan to include SROs in the following year’s budget (assuming the $2M in bond funds have been used).

Thanks again to everyone who attended my townhalls and who have been offering great suggestions on the budget. I appreciate your help and welcome your input!