Sigh, here we go again. It’s time for the same old post about how Dallas likes to brand itself as the Big Things Happen Here, Can-Do World Class Metropolis of the Future, and then we look at how, beneath the veneer of BS, this place is falling apart.
So, what will we focus on today?
Will it be Dallas’ huge income inequality? Or its lingering racial segregation? Or the way philanthropists take tax payers for a ride with their gifts and partnerships? Or maybe we’ll focus on the failing police and fireman’s pension fund and the ensuing bank run that may result from members fleeing the system with their money? Or, is it the perennial incompetence of DISD? Or that the Trinity River still won’t die? Or that DART is useless?
Or should we focus more on the fact, when it comes to Dallas’ government, we can hope for all the change in the world, but the city bureaucracy knows how to reward and advance its own? Or — and this may strike a little close to home, dear readers — should we rant about how when this magazine launches an online voter poll to determine the greatest Dallasites of all time, Juanita Craft — the first African-American woman to vote in Dallas, the woman whose protest movement ended the State Fair’s “Negro Day,” who kick-started legal cases that led to the desegregation of UNT and UT’s school of law, who helped desegregate DISD, who staged pickets and protests at segregated lunch counter and theaters in Dallas, who served on the Dallas City Council, and was hand-picked by the city archivist as one of five greatest Dallasites — can’t even get voted into the top 100?
What will be?
Well, how about we turn to the most basic thing of all, the most fundamental function of city government: setting a budget. The Dallas City Council is set to approve a budget tomorrow. That should be an exciting thing, especially during a year which has seen huge increases in tax revenue (though let’s forget for a second that those tax dollars are disproportionately sucked out of the pockets of the middle class as the tax system leaves commercial property owners off the hook). This is the time of the year when the council can line up all their pet projects and public priorities and find out how Dallas can invest its tax revenue to make even bigger things happen here.
Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is Robert Wilonsky has done a pretty through job digging through the numbers, which is helpful because we’re shipping a magazine this week and who has time to comb through a municipal budget? The bad news is all Wilonsky has found is bad news and badder news. In fact, you know that litany of dysfunction with which I started this post? Well, all of that has pretty much contributed to leaving Dallas in a spot in which it can’t afford to pay its police and firefighters, fix its streets, invest adequately in quality of life, or shore up its commitments to all the other things cities are supposed to do to foster functioning, productive societies.
It’s all pretty depressing. I mean, according to Wilonsky, the city is so short on cash it is plopping $600,000 of Community Block Grant money into a fund to fix potholes. Community Block Grants. Those are the dollars that are supposed to go to making small improvements that help to turn around neighborhoods. I’m sure a lot of people have forgotten it by now, but Bishop Arts basically exists as a success story because of a $10,000 Community Block Grant that cleaned up the intersection of Bishop and Davis and kick-started reinvestment in the area. Dallas will now take 60 of those kinds of potential community investments and use it to fill potholes.
Which, on a level, I get. We all know the city’s streets are in absolutely dreadful condition and need to be fixed yesterday. I have the mechanic bills to prove it. This budget does try to fix the streets, but it does so with some goofy math and assumptions. For example, a big bucket of money allocated in the budget towards fixing streets — some $20-odd million — isn’t even from the general fund; it consists of projected revenue from the city’s next bond package which hasn’t even been compiled, let alone voter-approved. And even then, what the city proposes to spend on fixing the streets — $128 million — is only a drop in the bucket compared to the $3.62 billion in needed street rehab and major maintenance. According to this bond briefing, it would cost $103 million per year to make Dallas’ streets one-percent better.
Don’t worry, Walt Humann’s Fair Park money is in there, even though that deal isn’t done, as is the annual $1.5 million no-strings-attached increase of funding to the AT&T Performing Arts Center — literally a case study in philanthropic over-promising and under-delivering — which can’t pay its own debt service.
In short, Dallas simply can’t afford to keep itself together:
Dallas’ property tax revenue is at an all-time high — $608 million and then some. Means nothing. That doesn’t even cover the bill for cops and firefighters.
“It takes money from sales tax, franchise fees and other revenue to just pay for public safety,” Jordan reminded me the other day. “And you haven’t even gotten to streets.
In the end, this budget doesn’t even cover everything — it leaves a $93 million hole.
Anyway, go read Wilonsky’s piece. He talks about this all much more soberly, lucidly, and in detail than I can. All I can say is welcome to the hole in the doughnut.