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Economy Project: Texas Cities Cutting People, Programs

By Shelley Kofler & BJ Austin, KERA News

Dallas, TX – It's been the toughest year in decades for cities trying to balance their budgets. In today's economy segment we'll take a look at how that will affect Texans. Shelley Kofler talks to the executive director of the Texas Municipal League. But first, BJ Austin sits down with Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm. Suhm proposes balancing Dallas' budget by cutting 450 employees and services in almost ever city department.

Mary Suhm: Clearly we're deferring some of our maintenance. Now the good news is we have a bond program that we're going to continue with. While the day-to-day maintenance is going to be reduced somewhat, the ability to maintain that infrastructure can be continued through that bond program.

BJ Austin: The things that people see are park lands, medians, things like that

Mary Suhm: The median maintenance has been maintained. I am concerned about the park maintenance. We're having discussions with the Council. I would say next to the rec hours, which have been reduced, the concern I would have about the budget is park maintenance. And that also means that we're going to have to ask all our citizens when you finish your picnic, let's police the area and take your litter home. Let's be conscious about not littering. When you look at some of the litter in our parks, you go now someone could have taken that with them. On our side we could provide larger barrels to put litter in. So, all of us are going to have to make a partnership that is aware that we don't have as many resources as we had to dedicate to that.

BJ Austin: Is there going to be a campaign, a PR campaign or public service ?

Mary Suhm: Well, we're beginning that conversation. And I think Paul Dyer, the Parks director is having some training in these upcoming weeks, talking to community groups. You know in smaller communities the Lions Club or the Rotary take care of a local park. And so, we're hoping we can stimulate some of that. We have really good volunteerism in the library and parks. And you know, we're going to ask them to step just a little bit more during this time.

BJ Austin: Everybody wants to know about streets.

Mary Suhm: We're maintaining the operating maintenance level that we had last year, which is not the best in the world. But we're not cutting it any more. And we have 140 million in the bond program for streets work. That's another area that does have concerns for me. But we will absolutely have to have some more money in that next year.

BJ Austin: What about delays in hiring and furlough days in the police department?

Mary Suhm: The city has made a huge investment in public safety over the past three to four years. Huge. I really view this as all of us taking a part in approaching these problems. But I would assure the citizens that public safety has not been cut in any way that's gonna reduce their safety. It's not. We went through a meet and confer process, which means the associations of the police and fire department had a conversation about how they would like to participate. The furlough days are not at such a level that I think will have such a huge impact. The attrition hiring this time next year we'll have more officers on the streets that we do now because we've hired so many and have them in training. Dallas should never be criticized, the community, the city, the council for not investing in public safety, and we've had record years of crime reduction to show for that.

BJ Austin: That's Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm. The final vote on the budget comes late next month after more than three dozen town hall meetings. Citizens are being asked if they want a tax increase rather than deep cuts to programs. But Suhm says the city couldn't raise taxes enough to cover all the cuts, including hundreds of layoffs.

I'm BJ Austin.

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This is Shelley Kofler.

The employee layoffs and service cuts in Dallas are symptomatic of what's happening in most Texas cities planning to adopt new budgets by September 30.

Some examples:

Fort Worth expects to cut more than 200 positions and completely close three libraries.

Plano is considering a property tax increase for the second year in a row

Keller laid of 6% of its employees in May and will make more cuts

Even Arlington with revenues from the new Cowboy Stadium has less revenue and doesn't plan on filling job vacancies for the third year in a row.

The main problem for many cities is a drop in their two major revenue sources: sales taxes which still lag behind last year; and property taxes, which have fallen as property values have plummeted.

Frank Sturzl, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, says the financial picture for cities hasn't been this grim since 1987.

Sturzl: The number of cities that are seeing an absolute drop in general fund revenue, it is the worst we've seen in decades.

Kofler: I'm not sure citizens under what this means in terms of how we live. What do you see happening?

Sturlz: When there is a revenue shortage the first thing cities do, they will cut spending on capital items like streets and roads and buildings and so on. You can do that so on for a while without that being painfully obvious. Sooner or later the roads deteriorate and the bridges deteriorate and so on. The second thing they'll turn to is libraries, parks, layoffs and decreased spending in those areas. Then just general operations: doing furloughs, hiring freezes or wage freezes. The last thing they will do and only when it becomes absolutely necessary is turn to cuts in public safety. Taxpayers do not want public safety cut.

Kofler: So for the most part citizens across Texas are going to living with fewer municipal services this coming year.

Sturzl: I think that is correct. I don't think that will change unless the economy improves a lot or there is a push back from citizens saying these are all the cuts we want and we would live with a property tax increase of some size to do certain things.

Kofler: You've said that when the Texas legislature meets next year, 2011, some legislators will be pressing for things that will make it even tougher for cities. What do you mean by that?

Sturzl: Well what happens, sometimes, when the state finds itself in a budget crunch and apparently there will be one of some indeterminate size they are tempted to push down to local government unfunded mandates which require the cities or counties or both to undertake activities that normally the state has paid for. That's number one. Number two, the state has commonly turned to cities and counties to raise money for the state either through municipal courts or other mechanisms. There have been attempts in the past to require cities to add a state fee onto water bills or wastewater bills and then give that additional money to the state. None of those efforts have succeeded in the past.

Kofler: You've fought these battles before. You've fought tax revenue caps where the legislature would mandate cities can't spend or raise more than they have previously. Why is that so bad?

Sturzl: Again if you cap local government revenue you commonly will see the kind of cuts people are concerned about particularly in public safety. And there is one other thing. Cities typically contribute lots of money to carrying out functions that are for the most part state functions. Highway construction is a good example. When TxDOT builds a highway they do not use exclusively state and federal funds. They use large amounts of money donated by local governments. I think it's clear if cities get their revenue capped enough one of the first things they are going to cut is infrastructure and one of the things that is going to suffer is the state highway system. We are going to be looking closer than ever and working harder than ever to make sure that what is a budget at the state level doesn't in the end make it worse for us.

That was Frank Sturzl, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. I'm Shelley Kofler

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Texas Municipal League:

.PDF Of Dallas Meetings:

Proposed Dallas Budget: