The Truth About the City Budget

Last month, the city manager presented next year’s proposed budget to the Dallas City Council. As I always do, I reviewed her budget line by line, cover to cover, analyzing the expenditures and trying to find more savings.

What I found were some difficult, but necessary, reductions: across-the-board pay cuts for city employees, the elimination of less essential city services, and painful reductions in every city department. Tough cuts, but necessary in this economy.

But I also found troubling reductions to basic city services like streets and parks and libraries. When I met with constituents at recent budget town hall meetings, they echoed this concern. They’re tired of crumbling roads and don’t want to see essential street maintenance eliminated for the third year in a row. They don’t want 2/3 of our city pools closed for the summer. They don’t want hours, staff, and programs at our rec centers and libraries eliminated. They don’t want our parks filled with litter and overgrown grass.

So yesterday, seven of my colleagues and I put forth a proposal that will restore some of these basic city services to next year’s budget. I’ll have more to say about this in the coming days, but here’s the short version: We’re restoring services without raising property taxes. Property values have gone down, so we’ll be bringing in less property tax revenue and doing more with less. Salaries will still be reduced across the board and employees and services will still be cut in less essential areas. The budget, even with our modest service restorations, will still be smaller and leaner than last year. But our parks and libraries will stay open, and our infrastructure will not continue to deteriorate.

The amendments to the budget that my colleagues and I have put forward are targeted, prudent, and necessary. If our goal is to maintain city services while not raising property taxes, the amended budget solves this difficult problem.

And yet the mayor attacked our proposal even before it was put forward. He disingenuously cautioned his supporters that “we must not start the habit of raising your taxes” — surprising coming from someone who’s never met a tax increase he didn’t like or a pet project he could do without. But then it hit me. There are two Tom Lepperts: Candidate Leppert and Mayor Leppert.

Candidate Leppert pledges no new taxes. Taxes are for the the fiscally-irresponsible. Remember his famous campaign mailer back in 2007 with the ATM on the side of city hall, mocking the mayoral wannabes who would raise taxes? He looked us all square in the eye and pledged he’d never do that.

Until he got elected. Then the first thing Mayor Leppert did was raise your taxes. By over $65 million.

But that wasn’t enough. He dug into your pockets again the following year to grab another $39 million.

And now he’s got the gall to criticize our modest proposal to restore basic city services to keep our city from deteriorating even further without raising taxes. Of course Leppert knows we’re not raising taxes — that the increased tax rate we propose brings in LESS money to the city than last year. He knows property values have gone down and that the average property owner will pay less in property taxes to the city this year. He’s a smart guy — he knows all this.

But now he’s in Candidate Leppert mode. He’s running again for mayor or perhaps U.S. Senate or maybe both. He’s struggling to get some street cred with his key demographics and make you forget that he raised your taxes by over $100 million in the last three years. He also doesn’t want you to remember that he increased our city’s debt by $500 million while funding vanity projects like extravagant bridges and city-owned hotels, not to mention his dreams of a submersible toll road.

So Candidate Leppert will say what he needs to say to get re-elected and win the hearts and minds of his base. But don’t be fooled into thinking that his spin in any way represents reality. The majority of this city council heard you when you said you didn’t want to further cut basic city services like park maintenance and street repairs. We heard you when you told us not to shutter your pools and libraries. And we’re restoring these important services while lowering taxes.

And let me make my record clear: When Mayor Leppert was going on his tax-and-spending sprees, Councilmember Mitchell Rasansky and I staunchly opposed him. We, alone, pushed to hold the line on taxes. We recommended cuts and savings and better uses for your tax dollars. But Mayor Leppert, like Candidate Leppert, would not be deterred. He is adept at spinning, and so he spun. And got his additional $100 million in property taxes from you.

So the next time Leppert tells you something, ask yourself, is this Mayor Leppert talking or Candidate Leppert? Because I’ve figured out the difference and I’m going to make sure you know it, too.