Join Me at City Budget Townhalls

I will be holding two townhall meetings to discuss the City Manager’s proposed budget for 2012-13 (our fiscal year starts in October).  I hope you’ll join me and tell your neighbors:

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Budget Townhall Meetings for District 14

I will be holding two townhall meetings to discuss the City Manager’s proposed budget for 2012-13 (our fiscal year starts in October).  I hope you’ll join me and let your neighbors know.

Thursday, August 23
6:30 – 8pm
Arlington Hall in Lee Park

Tuesday, August 28
6:30 – 8pm
St. Thomas Aquinas, Drama Room (joint meeting with Councilmember Sheffie Kadane)

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.


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.

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.

City Should Show More Fiscal Restraint With Bond Program

Today the council approved the issuance of $164.5M in bonds in March 2010. We will also issue $350M in commercial paper in October. Borrowing this money is going to increase our debt payment next year by about $6.8M. At a time when next year’s budget is facing critical cuts, I cannot support the extent of this bond sale.

We need to move forward on bond projects which are critical to maintaining and improving our city’s infrastructure. We’ve seen what can happen when we are derelict in our upkeep — we face more expensive fixes in the future. We can also recover substantial savings on projects we undertake right now while construction costs are down. But we must be very judicious and conscious of what our city budget will look like next year, and borrow only the amount of money we can afford. This year’s budget cut not just fat, but muscle and bone. We laid off employees, cut city programs and reduced services to our citizens. For next year’s budget, we’ll have to cut even deeper if we don’t want to raise property taxes. Given that reality, it doesn’t make sense for us to dig ourselves $6.8M deeper into the hole.

Instead, we should borrow slightly less money this year so that we won’t have to pay more in debt payments next year. We could reduce the March tranche of bonds just slightly (to eliminate the $1.3M in next year’s additional debt service) and reduce the October commercial paper sale a little more (to eliminate the $5.5M in additional debt service). When we get a better idea of our financial condition in the coming year, we can consider rescheduling any delayed project as soon as it’s financially responsible and we can afford it.

For these reasons, I voted against the city manager’s proposal, which will increase our budget expenses by $6.8M next year. (All other councilmembers supported the proposal.)