Brad Watson reports
DALLAS - Dallas City Hall is no stranger to booms and busts, but even longtime hands at city business say the latest budget deficit is shaping up like nothing they've seen before.
Council members, special interest groups and others already are scrambling to promote - or salvage - pet programs. But unlike past years when some victories were scored in the final budget, the bleak economy may scuttle those lobbying efforts.
"This is an extreme case this year, and everything except for police services and code [enforcement] will be scrutinized very heavily," said council member Linda Koop, who represents North Dallas. Already, city managers have trimmed or saved $90 million in their planned $1.9 billion operating budget next year. Yet the budget remains nearly $100 million in the red.
The first round of proposed cuts has put the jobs of nearly 350 city employees at risk and placed everything from police overtime to Dallas Zoo exhibits on the chopping block.
Though City Manager Mary Suhm has said she is not prepared to propose a tax increase, she is considering raising two fees, including 6 percent on average for water service and 9 cents a month for trash pickup
At City Hall, preliminary deficits aren't uncommon, and as recently as last year council members were $50 million down when they began to craft a final budget.
But that early gap proved manageable - even inflated in the eyes of some council members - when managers filled it through a mix of higher fees, minor program reductions and new revenue streams, such as selling ads on city vehicles.
In the end the city avoided significant layoffs or deep cuts to social services, zoo exhibits, library hours, recreation centers and other important programs.
This year, there doesn't appear to be an easy way out.
"We haven't had this present kind of economy for 25 years. We're going to have to adjust for this economy in ways we've never had to in a long time," said District 13 council member Mitchell Rasansky, who is term-limited by law and must leave the council in June.
That doesn't mean there won't be pressure on the council to restore certain programs that Suhm has already determined need to be cut.
Those cuts include the planned layoff of 347 civilian city employees and a six mandatory furlough days this year and next year.
A spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union, which represents some city employees in the Sanitation, Water and Streets departments, said her group is working with Suhm to find creative ways to save money.
"What we're hoping is this dialogue will help save as many jobs as possible," said Monica Alvillar.
The city also has decided to trim 25 percent of police overtime and a $10,000 recruitment bonus for new officers.
Other cuts include popular services like operating hours at the Dallas Public Library, park maintenance, cultural programs and social outreach.
David Kusin, chairman of the Friends of the Dallas Public Library, said his group will work hard to stem proposed reductions in library operating hours, including eight hours a week at the main library and up to two days a week for many neighborhood branches.
"We understand the enormous pressure the city is under," Kusin said.
But libraries are most helpful to people during hard times, when they might not be able to pay for Internet access or educational materials, he said.
Kusin said that while he hopes the city reconsiders limiting library hours, he realizes it might not happen.
In response, his group is forming a plan to approach Dallas businesses for help in bridging funding cuts, he said.
When it comes to social services, city managers are seeking to gut City Hall's senior affairs department, as well as funding for HIV/AIDS education and substance abuse treatment.
Zachary Thompson, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, said the impact of a proposed $325,000 cut in HIV funding will be serious.
About $44,000 of city money funds tracking of new AIDS cases in Dallas. That tracking is used to leverage federal funds aimed at treating the virus and preventing infection, he said.
For seniors, particularly those without means, the city has long provided an array of services, from installing wheelchair ramps to having caseworker homes.
Under the proposed budget, those services will no longer be available.
Sydney Kay, a member of the City Council's Senior Affairs Commission, said his group plans to do anything it can to restore funding.
From the way things look now, with property and sales tax revenues spiraling down, the only new money available would have to come from a tax hike.
According to several council members, that won't happen.
"It's such a tough year for Dallas residents financially. So many people have been laid off or lost their jobs or had other financial struggles; it's just not the year to add to that" said council member Angela Hunt.
Dallas faces an anticipated $100 million deficit for the next fiscal year, even after accounting for tens of millions of dollars in proposed cuts that include employee layoffs and trims to popular city programs. The original proposed operating budget for Dallas in the next fiscal year was $1.93 billion, a figure all but certain to change as the budgeting process continues:
Wednesday: City Council briefing on the budget deficit
Thursday: Preliminary tax rolls released by appraisal districts
May 27: A public budget hearing before the City Council, consideration of meter fee hikes, suspension of police hiring bonuses and civilian employee furloughs
June 17: City Council budget briefing
Aug. 10: City manager's proposed budget will be presented. Budget town hall meetings begin.
Aug. 26: Public budget hearing before the council
Sept. 14 and 16: Budget amendment workshops
Sept. 23: Budget adoption vote and setting of the city tax rate