Mayor Eric Johnson was embarrassed by his colleagues on the City Council last week. This week, it happened again, and the Council went on the offensive.
Last week, the City Council unanimously voted down the mayor’s amendment to order the city manager to cut staff salaries by $6.5 million, freeing up money for infrastructure improvements, among other things. They instead voted to take $7 million from police overtime. After the defeat, Johnson left at lunch and didn’t return to the meeting, which dragged on late into the night. Then he spent the week telling anyone who would listen that he was up against a City Council seeking to “defund the police” instead of the bureaucracy. Johnson went on a tour of local outlets: the Morning News editorial board, conservative talk radio, television news stations, his 35,200 or so Twitter followers, subscribers to his email newsletter.
But the Council refused to let Johnson control the narrative of this budget cycle, refuting the idea that they were defunding the police department. They also sent a message to activists that the current City Council will not adopt sweeping reforms to police funding in next year’s budget.
What they are willing to do is take $7 million from the line item for police overtime — just under a third of its total budget for overtime — and spend it on more civilian positions in the department, adding lighting in neighborhoods that need it, funding infrastructure improvements, and building more bike lanes. Council and the mayor are aligned on what to fund, but not how to fund it.
Johnson instead wanted to direct City Manager T.C. Broadnax to cut $6 million from the salaries of city staffers, leaving the particulars to Broadnax to figure out. (His second attempt was $500,000 less than his first.) His colleagues on Wednesday refused to do so, voting Johnson’s amendment down 13-2.
“Those are city employees who earn right around $60,000 a year; they’re our most vulnerable city employees,” said Councilman Chad West, who represents North Oak Cliff. “My [Housing and Homelessness Solutions] committee assists families who make $60,000 a year and try to live off that and we try to find them affordable housing. This could put many of our employees into that category.”
It’s worth noting that $7 million is pennies in the context of the entire general fund budget, which totals $1.4 billion. The budget for the police department is $514 million, about 40 percent of all the city’s general fund spending. There remains $17 million left for police overtime spending, even with the cuts. Opponents to the mayor noted that, in 2010, the police department spent $12 million in OT when it had hundreds more police officers on the force. They believed cutting salaries of employees could have a far more significant impact on their households than it would the operations of the police.
Cuts will have to come. This year’s budget is balanced. The city got help through federal coronavirus relief funds and a healthier-than-expected commercial property tax roll. But next year, the city’s chief financial officer says she expects a $62 million hole in the budget, mostly a result of cratered sales tax. So if public salaries get cut now, what will it look like when the wound gets even deeper?
Last week was the first set of straw votes to figure out how the Council wanted to change the city manager’s proposed budget, a final version of which will be voted on September 23.
During that meeting, the Council unanimously shot down the mayor’s budget amendment that would’ve ordered the city manager to cut staff salaries by a total of $6.5 million, a progressive cut for employees who made $60,000 or more. Johnson wanted the city manager to take 25 percent from the city’s highest earners. Those who made less received less of a cut; the mayor’s desire for the lower end of staff salaries was a 1 percent cut. He said his plan would affect just 10 percent of City Hall employees.
This is apparently the hill that Johnson will die on during this budget cycle, arguing it is necessary to send a message to the private sector that public employees are sharing in their economic pain.
Council hasn’t agreed.Read More