A week after indicating support for increasing a proposed bond package to $1.25 billion and placing the matter on the May ballot, the Dallas City Council met again on Wednesday to get closer to determining how that money will be spent.
The Council operated as a committee of the whole, so all decisions made during the briefing were non-binding. Council members have until February 14 to firm up those allocations and vote on the language appearing on the May 4 ballot.
What happened yesterday? There are about a dozen buckets into which the $1.25 billion can be divided—including the city’s arts programs, parks, housing, building maintenance, and streets. Wednesday’s discussion lasted from 9:30 a.m. to around 3 p.m., with about 80 registered speakers voicing their opinions before council members engaged in a lot of back and forth about how much money to park in each bucket. Wednesday’s 9-6 straw poll favored a proposal from Mayor Pro Tem Tennell Atkins, which allocated $310 million for parks, $500 million for road projects, and $61 million for housing. His proposal also increased funding for parks, libraries, and city IT needs. It divided $75 million in discretionary funds among the 14 council members and the mayor, freeing them to spend that money how they see fit.
Why was the vote 9-6? A separate proposal favored by several council members would have allocated $100 million for housing, $27.9 million for City Hall upgrades, $20 million for projects related to the city’s homeless population, and $45 million for economic development. The sticking point for several was the $75 million in Atkin’s proposal that gives each council member $5 million in discretionary funds to spend in their districts.
Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who did not support the final proposal, said it would send the public the message that “I’m not concerned with everything we’ve learned on the needs of our city, but I am more concerned with having autonomy with millions of dollars.”
Councilwoman Jaynie Schultz questioned the smaller allocations for housing and homelessness projects, and whether such a large discretionary fund was serving the city well.
“I would like to see the justification, particularly for the discretionary fund, on how everybody’s discretionary fund is actually going to move this city forward and be worth borrowing the money for,” she said.
Atkins, on the other hand, said that council members could use their discretionary money in ways that benefit their districts, targeting projects that might not otherwise get included in a bond package. He says he’s experienced it in the past with projects in his own district.
“If I had no reallocation, those projects would still be sitting on the shelf,” he said.
Who was disappointed? Really, almost everyone. The city has $17 billion in needs, so this bond won’t fund many projects.
Housing advocates were probably the most disappointed; the $61 million proposed for affordable housing projects fell well short of the $200 million they were asking for. Councilwoman Paula Blackmon pointed out that it’s still the most significant bond allocation for affordable housing the city has ever considered.
“This is a lot of money, and I feel like I’m giving keys to a Corvette to a new driver, and I just want to make sure that we’ve got guardrails,” she said.
Parks advocates may also be a little disappointed. They pushed for $350 million in bond money, and the Council may have an appetite for less than that, with proposals ranging between $300 million and $310 million.
People who have to do business at City Hall may miss the upgrades scuttled in Atkins’ proposal in the long term. And the drop from $20 million to $8.5 million for homelessness programs also disappointed many.
What happens next? Council will discuss the specific projects funded in each bucket within the next two weeks. And a lot could change. The council can continue to submit amendments until they vote on February 14. If they do so, the matter will go to voters in May.
“Anything can still be amended,” said Councilman Omar Narvaez, who voted in favor of Atkins’ proposal. “This is my second bond, and in 2017, I remember right before we were going to approve $1 billion, another $25 million came through at the last second…anything can happen, but this is a good starting place.”
The city will hold town hall meetings in April before the election.