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Local Government

A First Look at Dallas’ Budget, Crafted During a Pandemic Amid Calls for Police Reform

It doesn't "defund" the police and the shortfall isn't as severe as what was expected. Let's look at how the city manager wants to spend your tax dollars.
t c broadnax dallas city manager

The Dallas City Manager released the 2020-2021 fiscal year budget this afternoon, and at first glance, the city’s financial plan for the coming year appears to perform a delicate balancing act between managing the difficult realities of an economic downturn and responding to calls to reinvent the way the city funds public safety.

In the budget, City Manager T.C. Broadnax lays out a suite of new initiatives, departments, and programs intended to address public safety by reorganizing policing and investing in promoting equity. These include a citywide expansion of the RIGHT Care program, a partnership with Parkland that dispatches mental health experts along with police to deal with some 911 calls. The program is a success story in Oak Cliff and southern Dallas, which has resulted in fewer arrests and helped steer thousands of residents to mental health services. The budget expands it across the city, more than quadrupling its current budget of $900,000 to $4.7 million by 2022.

The budget pays for the creation of a new “Mobile Crisis Response Team” that will support police officers on calls by directing residents to food, housing, transportation, shelter, or other services. It sets aside money for new community-based services intended on addressing challenges facing formally incarcerated individuals. It includes money for two new staff positions for the staffing for Office of Community Policy Oversight, an intake specialist and a mediation coordinator.

The budget slightly reduces the number of uniformed officers and includes a plan to transition more police duties over to civilian personnel, one of the recommendations KPMG made after studying the department last year. COVID-19 has already reduced the number of new officers training at the police academy, and the Dallas Police Department will finish the year with 55 fewer officers than originally budgeted. This new budget doesn’t plan to restaff those positions, and it plans to transition the duties of an additional 55 officers to non-uniformed employees by 2022. In total, that will remain a reduction of 110 police officers over two years – or around a 3 percent reduction of the force. It’s a cut, but not exactly a “defunding.”

The police department actually gets a small bump in funding, a result of federal dollars covering salaries for officers responding to COVID-19 related matters. In a press conference unveiling the budget, Broadnax said taking money from the police department was never a goal.

“I’ve said very clearly that was not our mission or intention, particularly given the challenges we’ve historically had with hiring and the direction that the council had given,” he said, regarding the “defund” movement. “It was really about, how do we expend the resources in areas of focus that really help solve some of the community problems that law enforcement should or should not be involved in and figuring out creative ways to do that.”

The budget also diverts funding for programs intended to boost equity and reduce blight. It creates new “Financial Empowerment Centers” that will offer coaching, employment referrals, mental health services, and housing support to residents. It pays for three new mow and cleaning crews to assist with enforcing code compliance. It creates an urban agriculture plan.  It also commits capital funding to expand water and sewer infrastructure to every area of Dallas within 10 years.

It does not, however, include money to remove Shingle Mountain, the 10-story illegal dump that’s been plaguing a neighborhood in southern Dallas for three years. The city is being sued to remove it, so Broadnax spoke carefully.

“There is no specific line item identified in the budget. Secondly that particular issue is in litigation at this point,” he said. “However, I know we are committed to resolving that issue both in court and, once that is completed, to determine how in fact we go about cleaning up that particular nuisance in our community.”

Mayor Eric Johnson’s public safety priorities as defined by his appointed task force—remediating dilapidated buildings, installing additional lighting in targeted areas, hiring ‘violence interrupters’ to interact with teens in the community—has money allocated in the budget. The city also plans to spend $5.8 million on improving streets, alleys, sidewalks, and other infrastructure in “underserved areas.” Infrastructure is a big part of this budget: another $9.4 million is set aside to update sidewalks across the city so they meet standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act. As you can see from our longstanding series “Dallas Hates Pedestrians,” the city has a lot of work to do.

How is all this being paid for during a pandemic, particularly considering the expected shortfall? Well, it’s not all bad news. The budget estimates increased revenue over the next year despite the economic fallout of the coronavirus shutdowns, and it does so without proposing a property tax rate hike. Instead, Dallas expects to collect around $58 million in new revenue mostly through a $40 million increase in property tax. Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Reich says the increase mostly comes through new construction being added to the tax roll.

The city also benefited from federal help, allowing the budget to skirt by without sweeping layoffs or pay cuts. Reich said the feds provided $234 million, much of which covered public safety salaries related to the coronavirus response. Because of that help, the city saved $25 million and set it aside in a fund. It didn’t expect to have that money to play with.

Although Mayor Johnson called for across the board reductions in employee pay, the city manager’s budget doesn’t call for any at all. It does eliminate some positions and prohibits merit-based raises for the next two years. Market raises for police officers also will not happen. The current hiring freeze will be lifted on October 1. The library system and Office and Arts and Culture will be hit hardest through cuts and extended furloughs, which is due, the budget says, to lingering COVID-19 related shutdowns.

Those furloughed will remain through September, and some jobs won’t come back. An assistant city manager and chief position will also be cut. Overall, the budget expects the total number of employees to be reduced by 149. Hourly workers will see a boost in pay as the city moves to step-up its minimum wage to $15/hour.

Broadnax said the budget’s primary focus was to improve the level of services the city provides, particularly in areas that have been overlooked by the city in the past.

“To those communities that have been underserved historically that have asked and requested additional resources around many of the things we have provided for in some measure in this budget, they can expect to see a city reaching out and being closer to them as far as trying to meet many of their needs that may not be met today,” he said. “We can’t do it all, that should not be an expectation, but we can do our part.”

There are still many questions surrounding this budget—it’s more than 600 pages and was made public this afternoon. It also includes changes in how police are trained, particularly “enhancing external review, expanding programs to reduce implicit bias, and requiring annual training in alternative solutions, de-escalation, and less-lethal tactics.” How does that differ from the current training? How does the city define the “underserved” areas that will receive targeted funds? What do the activists who have been marching in the streets for months think about the budget?

The City Council will be formally briefed on Broadnax’s plan on Tuesday. We’ll have more on this as the weeks progress.

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