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POLITICS Their Fair Share

How to solve Dallas’s taxing problems? Bill the burbs, baby.
By Dennis Holder |

GEORGE ALLEN IS AN OFFICIAL

Dallas legend. The city council said so in a ceremony in 1987. He was honored for his accomplishments, but his ideas are what we need now.

Allen was the first African-American ever elected to the city council and the area’s first black justice of the peace. He guided Dallas toward the nation’s earliest municipal civil rights laws and drafted the city’s open housing ordinance. He was a lion of a leader in the days when Dallas still had leaders.

Almost exactly 20 years ago, Allen presented one of his many ideas that were too early for their day: Suburban residents should pick up some of the tab for Dallas city services. After all. Allen reasoned, folks who work in the city but bundle in the burbs help keep traffic cops busy and tear up roads and enjoy amenities that Dallas taxpayers provide. They ought to go Dutch. It was one of the few ideas ever to come out of city council that could actually save residents a little money.

Taxing income earned in Dallas by those who live elsewhere was one approach that Allen recommended. Tacking user fees onto serv-ices that suburban residents actually receive was another. Tax them or charge them, it didn’t really matter. Just make the burbers pay.

The idea didn’t fly in the 1970s, perhaps because whites were in full flight and wanted nothing to do with Dallas, perhaps because the economy was looking up and the city didn’t really need the money. But times have caught up with George Allen’s idea.

In four of the past six years, Dallas property taxes have risen while services have declined. And no relief is in sight. When council members next month begin scratching their heads over the 1991 budget, you can bet your last buck another tax increase will lie ahead.

Allen’s idea, taxes or fees for suburbanites, might not produce enough revenue to fully satisfy increasing budget demands. But it could pump several millions of dollars into the city kitty. And it would be eminently fair.

When Piano goes out to present itself as a location for new business, the proximity to Dallas is a major selling point,” says Harold Gross, Ph.D., of the University of North Texas Center for Economic Development and Research, “People there benefit not only from the jobs the inner city provides for them, but from the quality of life that Dallas represents. The city needs to find ways to get those suburban residents to share the cost of city services.”

Burbers, of course, dislike the idea of a commuter tax in any form. Carrollton Mayor Milburn Gravley argues that non-resident taxes or fees could stunt his city’s growth because newcomers to the area might locate inside Dallas to avoid the extra bite, “It’s a reciprocal situation, and we would have to look at the possibility of charging a similar tax.” says Gravley. Richardson Mayor Charles Spann fears a commuter tax might “create a perception that some people are of a lesser status than others.”

As last year’s budget wrangle began, city council members briefly dusted off Allen’s idea for a new look. Some of them expressed concerns that a commuter tax or non-resident user fees might scare away business from the inner city. But the entire council agreed that the idea deserved careful consideration. The council instructed the city staff to study possibilities and report back.

The city’s budget staff did, in fect, conduct a study of some sort. Assistant City Manager Ted Benavides says researchers dredged up information about such cities as Wilmington, Del., Detroit, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia, where various forms of commuter tax already are in use. Staffers also checked out regional tax sharing systems in St. Louis and Minneapolis.

All that was done, but no one outside of the city budget department knows what the research turned up. With the arrogance common in our city manager form of government, Benavides and his cronies decided not to present the study to the council. City council members, after all, earn only $50 a meeting. They aren’t paid to think.

So the council never received information it asked for, and Dallas residents were slapped with hikes in their own animal control fees, park and recreation charges, etc. And, of course, a property tax increase of almost seven percent.

Still, Allen’s commuter tax idea is not dead. “It’ll probably come up again this year when the council gets to work on the budget,” says Benavides. “I imagine we’ll dig out our report and try to present it to the council. I imagine they will want to see it.”

And so they should.

In Houston, where a study of commuter taxes not only was conducted, but also was turned over to the elected council, the budget staff found that the city could raise roughly $36 million a year by charging each person who works in the city but lives elsewhere $1 a day ($240 a year) for the right to earn a living. The same kind of tax in Dallas, where a much larger percentage of the workforce lives in the suburbs or the Park Cities, could produce roughly $84 million a year. That would be more than four times the revenue generated by the 1990 properly tax increase.

Council member Max Wells, who represents North Dallas, including the parts of the city that lie in Collin and Denton counties, fears such a tax might discourage businesses considering Dallas as a relocation site. “Taxes are always something that a company looks at,” says Wells. “A commuter tax would require a lot of study before I could be satisfied that it would not be counterproductive.”

Despite his concern, Wells concedes that “we have to come up with some new sources of revenue. We have to look at this.”

If the council concluded that a commuter tax would, in fact, drive business away, the other part of Allen’s idea still could help bail the city out. At least six members of the current council have spoken in favor of nonresident fees for use of such city amenities as the zoo, the art museum, and the symphony center. They point out that nonresident fees charged by Dallas public libraries-$100 a year for unlimited checkouts-apparently have been successful.

Among Allen’s suggestions was a 10-cent surcharge on every car parked in a pay lot. Though this kind of user fee would lax every driver, not just those who come in from the burbs, it would, nevertheless, force burbers to pay some of the city’s costs.

Given the estimated number of cars parked in Dallas on a typical business day, Allen’s proposal would raise $3.6 million a year. If the surcharge were a quarter, the revenue could reach $9 million.

Probably the most attractive non-resident user fees available are surcharges on parking tickets and traffic violations. There is a kind of ironic humor in the thought of a Highland Park dandy in a BMW paying an extra fee of, say, $10 as he enjoys the benefit of being pulled over by a Dallas cop. There’s nothing funny, though, about the estimated $3 million such a surcharge on parking tickets and traffic violations could add to the city till.

According to Benavides, state law prohibits instituting certain kinds of user fees. For example, he says, the city could not charge non-residents extra for accident reports. As far as he knows, however, there’s no reason Dallas couldn’t bump the price of a speeding ticket issued to a Piano matron. “We didn’t look at those kinds of fees when we did our study,” says Benavides. “Maybe we ought to.”

The fact is that Dallas desperately needs new revenue if it is to increase the number of police officers on the streets, expand the pothole plugging brigade, and fight the endless court battles city officials seem to love. Last year’s Dallas First report, co-authored by Gross and Bernard Weinstein, concluded, among other things, that: “Providing top quality services to residents and businesses, along with keeping the city’s infrastructure in good repair, will have a much greater impact on Dallas’s appeal than the offering of tax incentives.”

Among the Dallas First report’s recommendations: “Dallas should consider additional user charges or taxes for services provided to suburban residents and commuters.”

It is an old idea, one introduced to Dallas by George Allen 20 years ago. But it is an idea that is, well, sound as a dollar. Bill the burbers, baby.

George Allen today is gravely ill, recovering slowly from a debilitating stroke. But according to his son, George Allen Jr., Allen still believes in his plan. “It was a good idea when he first introduced it,” says the younger Allen. “It’s an even better idea in this economy. My father still talks about that.”

Listen to George Allen, Dallas. It is not for nothing that he is an official legend.