Dallas projects raise frivolous spending concerns

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by By BRAD WATSON / WFAA-TV

wfaa.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:46 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 11:17 AM

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Brad Watson reports.

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DALLAS - The recession is forcing cuts in the Dallas city budget. This year's budget is already about $41 million behind, prompting cuts in fire, police and the sanitation department.

There is a $100-million gap forecasted for next year.

But, while some items are cut, the spending goes on for other things that might surprise many Dallas taxpayers.

Large-money spending in the Dallas city budget must be approved by the city council. Build a street and the council must say "yes."

However, when it comes to items less than $25,000, the council leaves it up to the city staff. The purchase orders are called "administrative actions. News 8 looked at administrative actions made January through March, which was when the city came under sharp budget pressure.

Much of what was approved by the city manager's office appeared to follow the rules for flexible or streamlined spending.

"Every conversation that we have is about responsible spending and recognition that everybody is having to cut back," said City Manager Mary Suhm.

But, there were still signs that some recent spending appears less urgent.

For example, two signs already identify theRenner Frankford Branch Library in far North Dallas. Yet, the library felt people couldn't see the signs and wanted a third sign. So, the city staff signed off on spending $12,250 for a monument-type sign to be placed out front.

"You could put up a metal sign or a cardboard sign, but the community, I believe, wants the surroundings of their public buildings to look appropriate to the public building," Suhm said.

The city staff also wanted the bronze steers at Pioneer Plaza to look appropriate and approved $19,750 to clean the statues this spring and fall.

The Economic Development Department's page on the city's website has been redesigned several times in the past three years. But, even with money tight, the staff felt it needed another redesign and hired a consultant to make an appealing image of the city to recruit companies at a price tag of $24,384.

Assistant City Manager A.C. Gonzalez explained why he signed off on the spending.

"We have to make some of those choices about whether or not it makes sense to go and be more aggressive about getting more revenue into the city," he said.

The city staff spent thousands of dollars on artists and art.

One artist was hired for $3,025 for a neighborhood art program called "Speaking with Beads."

A sturdy plain bench wouldn't do for seating outside Shed No. 2 at the Dallas Farmers Market. The staff spent $18,240 for three big fiberglass peaches to be used as stools and a stainless steel basket to be installed later this year.

When the artist, whose work will go above the doors at Fire Station 42 near Love Field, wanted extra lights to shine on his project, the staff said sure at an added cost of $3,700.

"But, it also provides extra lighting for the firefighters as they get in and out of that particular facility," Suhm said.

However, lights are already just above the doors.

The staff also opened the door to a $24,900 survey of 13,000 city employees since they wanted to know "how engaged city employees are in performing their jobs."

Suhm justified that spending.

"And that gives us some feedback among what issues and concerns are not only safety issues but benefits issues, workplace issues," she said.

The survey is just finishing up, and that's likely a good thing since their attitudes may be changing. Job cuts may be around the corner as the city looks to reduce spending.

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