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After almost 7 hours of debate only a fraction of city of Dallas budget amendments made the cut

The City of Dallas seal near city hall Wednesday, Aug 16, 2023, in Dallas.
Yfat Yossifor
/
KERA
Over 60 budget amendments were submitted by Dallas city officials. Only a fraction made it past the council member's votes.

After hours of discussion between Dallas City Council members over 60 budget amendments, only a few were saved from the cutting room floor. Those include reallocation of funds from multiple departments to lower the tax rate, fund other initiatives or even create a new city office altogether.

That’s what came out of a nearly seven hour — and at times tense — discussion during Wednesday’s city council meeting. 63 budget amendments were submitted ahead of the meeting. But dozens of those failed the final vote.

Those proposed reductions include funding from the Small Business Department, the city’s communications team and eliminating many unfilled city positions. As the discussion played out, city staffers were called up one by one and asked what impact the proposed cuts would have on their departments.

“I would be eliminating two to three teams that are filled. That have people in them,” Director of the Office of Data Analytics and Business Intelligence Brita Andercheck said. “Things like our GIS team, that provides all of our maps, our place based data…the first thing that happened when a 911 call comes in is they access our datasets that we maintain to get them to where they need to go.”

Many city officials have expressed their concerns over the financial state of the city. Some have called it “a financial cliff.” Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson compared the trajectory of the city to the Titanic hitting the iceberg.

But during the meeting, Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax vehemently disagreed with the sentiment.

“The dollars we have been investing are the number one, two, three and four priorities of this community and this council,” Broadnax said during the meeting. “So, the money has been invested where the council has asked for it to be invested, 90%...the budget is sustainable, it will be sustainable.”

What passed and what didn’t?

Out of 63 budget amendments that were submitted by city council members, only six of them were adopted, according to Chief Financial Officer Jack Ireland.

“Some items get double counted as we transfer them between different funds,” Ireland said. “Your actions today reduced the tax rate by an additional 0.36 cents for a totally tax rate reduction from the current year of 1.01 cents.”

Most of the amendments were geared toward reducing the property tax rate. That comes after District 12 Council Member Cara Mendelsohn expressed her concerns over the spending of the city and the need for a lower tax rate.

Some of the amendments that made it through the vote include an amendment that would create a City Marshal’s office to support the Dallas Police Department and other law enforcement activities. Another amendment would reallocate over $600,000 from the city’s communications department to be used for street repairs.

“The fact that we even know that people want more money on streets has to do with the fact that our [communication] department helped promote this survey,” District 11 Council Member Jaynie Schultz said. “We may have frustrations with the department, or any department, in the way it’s being run, but I don’t think being punitive financially is a way to manage that challenge.”

There were many examples of council member backlash at what some called drastic cuts to the recommended budget.

One amendment proposed by District 14 Council Member Paul Ridley would have reduced the Office of Equity and Inclusion’s budget to the forecasted costs from a previous budget. That’s after city council members pledged to address historic inequity throughout the city.

Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Carloyn King Arnold represents council district 4. She says the proposed amendment could put the city two steps back in terms of equity.

“If we begin to turn back the hands of time, we’re going to roll ourselves all the way back and we’re going to put legs on Jim Crow,” Arnold said. “And he's going to be right back here in Dallas, Texas.”

Arnold said the city could not afford to adopt those types of cuts that “hold back momentum” the city has been able to gain.

“When you see folks in some of these major cities, where they are just shooting people because of their race and color, its real,” Arnold said. “That same mentality approaches us when folks try and start a business, they move into a new neighborhood. This is real.”

The amendment failed to gain enough votes to pass.

Ridley was able to gain enough votes for at least two of his amendments. Those include a reduction to both the Human Resources and Public Works departments to decrease the proposed property tax rate even more than other council members have suggested.

District 7 Council Member Adam Bazaldua’s amendment to reduce numerous departments funding in order to allocate more money for funding for more than just property tax cuts, passed council votes. That included more funding for the Keep Dallas Beautiful program and money for street maintenance.

But many other amendments did not make it.

One amendment to reduce a $30,000 dollar city sponsored luncheon for board and commission members to $15,000 failed.

“If we’re going to do something that reflects our appreciation for 500 board members,” Broadnax said. “To do it on the cheap, I’d rather we just not do it, and don’t do it if that’s the city’s history of not wanting to recognize people.”

Mendelson submitted numerous budget cuts that would achieve different property tax rate reductions. Most of those were rejected by her colleagues. That includes on amendment to eliminated employee positions that have been vacant for six to 12 months.

“I think six months to hire someone is reasonable these days,” Mendelsohn said. “This would save us quite a bit of money. $5.7 million dollars.”

That amendment failed due to other council members and city officials being hesitant about how to entice people to come work for the city.

“We’re always going to be in competition with smaller cities, one because I think that they pay more,” Broadnax said. “I think the work is more challenging here…the expectation is higher.”

Another Ridley amendment called for the elimination of two vacant Park and Recreation positions that are geared toward the maintenance of the city’s golf courses and over 400 other parks.

Council members pointed to the fact that the budget for parks is big — even though staffers had submitted a reduction scenario that laid out what funds could be cut from the department.

“Unfortunately, I think that this should not have been submitted,” Director of Parks and Recreation John Jenkins said. “This goes totally against what I need when it comes to the maintenance operations.”

Broadnax says every year different departments submit ways their individual budgets could be reduced — to balance the budget. But he says this year was different.

“John and his team and Parks, quite honestly, typically do not participate in that process,” Broadnax said. “For the first time…in the history of this city those pre-development worksheets were shared with the city council…I don’t know why.”

Broadnax says his office usually takes the information and uses it to create the budget, but that council members don’t usually see them.

What’s next?

The council will debate yet another round of proposed amendments, according to city officials. Officials will have another chance to introduce and debate proposed amendments before adopting the final budget. City officials hope that can happen at the end of September.

Some city officials say they hope to reduce the budget even more than they have during Wednesday’s meeting. That’s in an effort to lower the tax rate even more than they already have.

Council members will be asked to approve a first reading of the budget and a public notice about the appropriation ordinance will be published in “the official newspaper of the City,” according to Broadnax’s memo.

After the required amount of time, the council will approve the final budget on September 20 — along with the property tac rate ordinance and “other budget-related action items.”

“I want to thank staff for their very hard work for getting us this far,” West said. “This is an additional roughly $5 million dollars more than was proposed for tax savings for our constituents.”

City officials say they will update the council on exactly which item were passed and how they would affect the upcoming budget, on Friday.

Got a tip? Email Nathan Collins at ncollins@kera.org. You can follow Nathan on Twitter @nathannotforyou.

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Nathan Collins is the Dallas Accountability Reporter for KERA. Collins joined the station after receiving his master’s degree in Investigative Journalism from Arizona State University. Prior to becoming a journalist, he was a professional musician.