The Dallas City Council held a virtual discussion Wednesday on the city's upcoming budget.
The meeting was littered with technical difficulties, angry comments from the public and warnings from the city's chief financial officer that COVID-19 is going to have lasting effects on the future of Dallas.
The meeting started late due to technical issues, which continued during the public comment period when citizens could barely be heard.
"I'm sorry," Mayor Eric Johnson told callers who had waited for up to an hour to speak. "I think we just have too many. And I apologize for that."
Those who could be understood talked about everything from funding mixed-income housing to clearing a 70,000-ton pile of garbage nicknamed "Shingle Mountain."
"We're asking the city council to find the money in the budget to remove [Shingle Mountain]" said former city councilman Erik Wilson. Wilson is a member of the executive committee for the community group Southern Sector Raising. "It is a monstrosity sitting in the backyard of Marsha Jackson and her neighbor."
The most common proposal lofted at city council from commenters was a suggestion to divert funds away from the police department.
"The current proposed budget allocates 60-percent of it’s funds to public safety, with 31-percent of [those funds] specifically going to the police. Totalling $542 million," said Kellie Barrett from District 9. "Meanwhile, 23% of children in Dallas County are food insecure."
Barrett and others pointed out that they do not want to eliminate services like 911. And most of the commenters who wanted to "defund police" merely pointed out that they thought funding other services more robustly could lead to a "real solution" to poverty and crime.
"Crime is typically committed when a person isn’t able to meet their basic needs through other means," said Barrett. "It is time for our city to believe in its community and invest in the services that help meet those needs."
"There are going to be some very, very difficult choices for the council," Elizabeth Reich said on Wednesday. The city's chief financial officer said Dallas is facing a $12 million shortfall for the current fiscal year — and could see a $100 million revenue gap the next fiscal year.
Federal dollars could help with some of that, but Reich said it's likely that it won’t be enough.
"We have a $61 to $101 million gap in revenue. [And] $16 million in tornado expenses to pay," she explained. "I believe that federal money that we have will help us significantly blunt that effect."
So, does the city of Dallas have enough funds to do the things citizens are asking for, like increasing social programming?
"I cannot say that we won't have service cuts next year," she says. "I cannot say that the federal money will entirely fill the gap next year. And so, when I look at the largest departments — in terms of public works, libraries, parks, police and fire — I cannot say they will be unaffected next year."
The "real trouble," Reich says, will come in 2022. She said, it'll be hard because we won’t have any federal funding to help with the recession caused by COVID-19.
"That's what we need to be planning for, so that we are able to be sustainable in that year when we’re on our own," she said.
"I expect that we'll have a tough budget process because there will not be additional funds available for new programs or additional programs that many in the community have asked for," she said.
Sales tax revenues have been plummeting during the coronavirus pandemic. The city has already furloughed nearly 500 workers, mostly affecting the parks, libraries and cultural departments.
The council expects a budget proposal from the city manager's office on Aug. 11. The council's expected to approve the final version in October.
While the council is hammering out a budget for the rest of 2020 and the first part of 2021, Reich said city leaders should also be concerned about the financial picture for 2022.
Revenue lost amid the pandemic will have lasting effects for the city, she said.