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While acknowledging the gravity of Dallas' financial woes, many City Council members balked Wednesday at specific budget cuts that City Manager Mary Suhm says are necessary to close a massive deficit.

From senior services to swimming pools, council members defended the importance of pricey programs that Suhm has targeted to balance the city's books for the upcoming fiscal year.

"There are some things I cannot live without," said Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia, who will leave the council before September's budget vote.

Libraries, cultural centers and recreation centers - all in line for some kind of draw down - "are the vital signs of our community," she said.

Council member Carolyn Davis called for the city to maintain hours for utility pay stations that allow residents to pay bills in person but cost Dallas taxpayers $150,000 a year.

She also asked for restored funding for demolition of abandoned houses, minority contracting management, police school crossing guards and other programs.

"We really need to find some money to keep that in" the budget, she said of demolition funds.

In a preliminary recommendation to the council, Suhm has already identified $66 million in cuts and some $24 million in other savings.

Even if the council agrees to those, the original $1.9 billion operating budget remains $100 million in deficit.

About the only thing the council could agree on Wednesday was that a tax increase was not an acceptable way to close the gap.

But even as they defended a variety of programs, council members agreed that simply finding more money isn't likely this year and that residents should prepare to lose at least some of the services City Hall now provides.

City staff and council members alike also generally concur that preserving - even enhancing - public-safety services in the next budget is the chief priority.

"The message I have is that we've got the right focus, and keep the focus on public safety, code and infrastructure," Suhm said after a council budget briefing that lasted more than four hours. "It is going to be a challenge. But we're on the same page going forward."

The council plans to add another 200 officers to the police force to maintain the city's gains in stemming crime.

A majority of the council sounded support for several measures that could either earn or save the city money in coming months.

Those include an increase in parking-meter and parking-citation fees, approval of two furlough days in the current fiscal year for civilian city employees, and a suspension of a $10,000 police recruitment bonus.

Most council members also appear to support delaying a $6,000-per-year increase in property tax exemptions for residents 65 or older and for disabled residents.

The current senior/disabled exemption is $64,000 in property value, and the city had hoped to increase that to $100,000 by 2015.

If approved, the delay would allow the city to collect an additional $2.6 million in property tax revenue for 2009-2010.

Those measures are scheduled for a vote Wednesday.

Mayor Tom Leppert urged his fellow council members to publicly identify potential savings in the budget as well as programs they hope to restore.

"We've got to work as a team and make sure that as we put things back in, we take things out to keep a balance," he said.

Council member Mitchell Rasansky, well known for his tight-fisted approach to government spending, said the city has no choice this year but to "cut, cut, cut."

He pointed to an $18,000 expenditure for public art at the Dallas Farmers Market as an example of why the city is in the red.

"We spent $18,000 on fiberglass peaches! Hello? All this stuff starts adding up, and now we're having to pay the piper," said Rasansky, who will leave the council in June because of term limits.

At a time when the city is looking at laying off some 350 employees, Rasansky's message seemed to resonate.

Council member Ron Natinsky said the time has come for the city to review its policies on purchasing public art and other cultural programs, things Suhm has already scheduled for a reduction in the next budget.

Natinsky also encouraged Dallas residents who shop in other cities to choose Dallas stores instead. Lost sales-tax revenues to the suburbs cost the city tens of millions of dollars a year, he said.

The council will discuss the budget again Wednesday, when a public hearing is scheduled at City Hall to receive residents' input.

After that, the council will next meet about the budget on June 17.

; rbush@dallasnews.com

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