Dallas’ Budget: Doing What’s Right for Our Future

I got a call from a friend yesterday.  A smart, fiscally-conservative businessman.

He said he’d just gotten an email from Tom Leppert saying I wanted to raise taxes, and my friend wanted to understand why.  He recalled that I have a track record of being fiscally prudent, even when the mayor has not.  totaloperatingexpenses.2010-2011He knew I’d stood against the mayor when he raised taxes by $100 million his first two years in office, and that I’d warned against his crusade to run up too much debt, too fast.  So he figured I wouldn’t be supporting a tax rate increase without a good reason and he wanted to know what that was.

So I’m going to tell you what I told him.

We’re at the point where further service cuts will damage our city.  Our streets are in terrible condition, our parks are overgrown and unclean, and our rec centers, pools, and libraries have been cut to the bone.  And that’s before the proposed cuts for next year.  Continuing on this path will do long-term harm to our city.

Taxpayers rightly want our city government to be efficient and hold the line on expenses.  And adjusting for inflation, our operating budget is the lowest it’s been in at least ten years — even when you include our proposed tax rate increase.  Copy-of-parksandrec.2010-20112 At the same time, funding for basic city services has taken a nosedive over the last decade.  Our streets have become littered with potholes because we’ve cut the budget for street maintenance in half over the last ten years.  Our parks budget has gone down by 38% and our libraries have been reduced 48% over the same period of time.

All these cuts have taken a toll on our infrastructure and will end up costing taxpayers more in the long run.  For example, if we don’t invest at least $12.3 million in basic street maintenance this year and instead defer it for the third year in a row as the mayor proposes, it’ll cost taxpayers nearly double that the following year — $21.3 million — just to catch up.  If we put it off another year after that, it’ll cost us almost triple — $36.1 million.  Now that’s just penny wise and pound foolish.  Putting off maintenance only makes sense if you don’t plan on sticking around when the bill comes due.  But for those of us who intend to stay and raise our families here in Dallas, we’ve got to put the long-term health of our city first — and put political ambitions aside.

While our investment in basic city services has plummeted over the last decade, our debt has grown at an unprecedented rate.  As a result, we’re paying as much as 62% more to cover our debt compared to ten years ago.   While the mayor has consistently voted to borrow more and more money (increasing taxes as a result), I’ve voted against borrowing too much, too fast, particularly in a bad economy, noting that basic city services could suffer as a result.  Those concerns have proved prescient.

A decade ago in the 2000-01 budget, we were spending two-thirds of our operating budget on debt, police, fire, and sanitation, leaving one-third for everything else — streets, parks, libraries, code, etc.  But today, the proportion we’re spending on debt, public safety, and sanitation has grown, now taking up over three-quarters of our budget.  That leaves less than a quarter of our budget for everything else.  In real dollars, we’ve got $154 million less to pay for “everything else” than we had ten years ago.  Add to that a shrinking overall budget — $1.2 billion instead of $1.3 billion — and we’ve got ourselves a serious threat to basic city services.

Copy-of-fy.2010-2011

If you’ve driven our streets lately or visited a park, you know we’ve got to turn this ship around.  In the late 1980s, the city deferred maintenance with long-term, devastating results.  01-parks-295Today we are still trying to dig ourselves out of that hole to the tune of an eleven billion dollar needs inventory.  We cannot make the same mistakes again.

The service restorations that the majority of the council supports are prudent, focused, and necessary.  They address our most basic needs while ensuring fiscal responsibility:

  • Street maintenance: We’re restoring $15.2 million for basic street maintenance, allowing us to maintain 500 lane miles instead of only 123.
  • Roadside clean-up: Instead of mowing and cleaning our 5408 acres of roadsides only 4 times/year, we’re adding $6.4 million to mow and pick up litter a total of 22 times.
  • Park mowing: Instead of mowing our parks every 28 days, we’ll mow them every 10 days.
  • Park clean-up: We’ll pick up litter 4.5 times/week instead of only 1.5, and we’ll clean up graffiti rather than let it mar our parks.
  • Rec centers: Our large centers will be open 55 hrs/wk instead of 45, our small centers 40 hrs instead of 30, and we’ll maintain all current rec center programs.
  • Swimming pools: We’ll keep 16 neighborhood pools open instead of just 7, and they’ll be open three additional weeks (until school starts).
  • Libraries: We’ll maintain staff and programs at our neighborhood libraries.

03-parks-320To preserve roughly $40 million worth of basic city services, we propose raising the tax rate $.0491.  Though the city will actually be taking in less property tax revenue due to falling property valuations, these service restorations will cost the average homeowner an additional $64 on their tax bill.  The average business owner’s taxes will actually go down.

To ensure your tax dollars get spent exactly as we have proposed, we will provide quarterly reports on the city’s website detailing how much has been spent on each service, details about the expenditures, and how much is remaining for each.

Despite these restorations, the city is still tightening its belt.  Our operating budget will be the smallest it’s been in the past decade.  We are making reductions in every department, lowering every employee’s salary, and cutting city staff.

Let’s be frank. It’s never politically popular to suggest a tax rate increase. Some of our city’s political leaders are now trying to feign fiscal conservatism after years of raising taxes, running up our debt, and funding elaborate bridges, government-owned hotels, and submersible toll roads. But it’s time to put politics aside and do what’s best for Dallas, not what’s best for one person’s political career.

To that end, we cannot simply close our eyes to the deteriorating infrastructure around us and do nothing. The modest restorations that we have proposed balance long-term fiscal responsibility with essential city services, allowing us to keep our streets maintained, our parks clean, and our rec centers and libraries open. It’s the right thing to do for Dallas.

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