Mayoral candidates discuss Dallas spending at WFAA debate

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by BRAD WATSON

WFAA

Posted on April 30, 2011 at 10:11 AM

Updated Monday, Apr 9 at 6:06 PM

DALLAS — Early voting starts Monday in city elections across North Texas, including the race for Dallas mayor.

While Dallas must deal with a budget gap and spending cuts are a top issue, city debt came up during a taping Friday for Inside Texas Politics among the four candidates.

In 2006, voters approved the biggest bond election in Dallas history —  $1.35 billion. Since then, the City Council sold bonds for long-term costs — like streets — increasing the portion that property taxes must pay back in debt from one-fourth to one-third.

Has Dallas taken on too much debt?

In a taping of Inside Texas Politics, two candidates for mayor indicated it has.

"I've seen many projects in Dallas that we've taken a loan out, we do something and we can't even operate it, so it's irresponsible financial management," said  Mike Rawlings, former CEO of Pizza Hut and ex-president of the Dallas Park Board.

Former Dallas police Chief David Kunkle agreed. "Yes, too much debt on big projects and not enough investment in our street systems and other basic infrastructure," he said.

The Council's rationale for the debt —  especially during the economic downturn — is that the city saves while interest rates and construction costs are lower and there's risk of failing to maintain infrastructure.

City Council member Ron Natinsky has supported taking on the debt. "The reality is, we have about $10 billion worth of needs that we need to do — everything from flood control to streets to facility replacements and improvements," he said. "We've had a careful balance of that over the years."

Businessman Edward Okpa is the fourth candidate.  "If we can free some of the obligations on our real estate, we will have about $150 million that we can deploy into some other services," he said.

The city maintains an exceptional AA+ bond rating. But the political question for voters is: How much debt is too much?

The entire mayoral debate can be seen on Inside Texas Politics Sunday morning at 9 a.m. on Channel 8. The broadcast will also be available to view on WFAA.com.

E-mail bwatson@wfaa.com

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