Money Talk

Top 5 moments from the Dallas City Council's budget bender

Top 5 moments from the Dallas City Council's budget bender

Dallas City Hall
The city of Dallas 2015-16 budget is about to be wrapped up. Photo courtesy of Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau

The city of Dallas 2015-16 budget is about to be wrapped up. The city council has met, chewed over a draft from the city manager, and will give it the final OK on September 22.

On September 16, they spent five hours sifting through the $3.1 billion budget submitted by A.C. Gonzalez. You can watch it yourself, now that city meetings can be viewed online. But 5:04 hours is a long haul. For you, we offer these highlights:

Carolyn Arnold likes catch phrases.
Carolyn Arnold is the new council member for District 4, replacing Dwaine Caraway. She's already mimicking his theatrical flair, and she seems to like repetition. For example, in her remarks about Dallas Animal Services, she used the phrase "pick up the dogs" 15 times.

Arnold and fellow council member Tiffinni Young went out the day before with a DAS officer, following his workday. "I've walked in their shoes," she said.

But her solution for dealing with stray dogs, which she has subsequently presented in an amendment, seems to miss an important beat. She's budgeted money to "enhance shelter capacity" — IE, store dogs in re-purposed buildings in southern Dallas — but offers no provision for staffing or expenses.

Death by a thousand cuts
City council member Philip Kingston offered at least 30 amendments that would have cut the budget by around $8 million. Most seemed sensible and painless; for instance, many suggested that staff stay at 2014 levels instead of adding expenses by hiring new people.

His amendment to reduce the number of "floaters," or backup employees, working for the mayor and city council did pass. But none of his various other money-saving fixes scored enough votes to pass. Why wouldn't the other city council members support small innocuous cuts to the budget?

The longevity of Forest Turner
Mark Clayton, council member for District 9, found a way to save $532,780 by cutting out increases that had been plotted for the city's wellness program. The wellness program was created to address the obesity suffered by many city employees and more importantly, to find a place to park former assistant city manager Forest Turner.

This is the same Forest Turner who was in charge of Code Compliance, under which the animal shelter falls, when a cat was left to die in the wall at the shelter in 2010. It caused a major shakeup at the shelter. He subsequently became an assistant city manager, and was given the plum wellness gig in August 2014.

Clayton determined that the program, which has three employees, could do without the secretary and program coordinator positions being added, as well as other unspecified special programs.

"Is this more zumba classes or more 'you should eat better' classes?" Mayor Mike Rawlings asked Gonzalez.

"Eat better," Gonzalez said.

Kingston said it made no sense to keep a "half-assed wellness program" that "warehoused" a highly paid manager who could be doing something else.

"It leaves us again for another year with a wellness program that costs us about $200,000 for the salary of one person who is being warehoused, who is not being given appropriate authority for his experience level by the manager's office," Kingston said. "The manager cannot come to us and say, 'Here's our best crack at a budget,' when it has a senior level manager without a real portfolio of responsibilities. Until that man is given appropriate work that is commensurate with his experience and skill, I’m going to be wanting to plug him in somewhere else and move whatever money we save into streets."

Clayton's amendment passed. But on September 18, Carolyn Arnold added another amendment calling for the creation of a "healthy food cafeteria" to the tune of $300,000. More inexplicable job security for Forest Turner.

The Gates Amendment
Council member Scott Griggs suggested taking $958,000 from the Convention & Event Services Fund and add it to the office of Cultural Affairs, even as he noted that any discussion about convention center funds was always met with fear.

"But the convention center serves visitors," Griggs said. "We've got an obligation to the arts, to our streets, to our libraries, to our parks. We have all these quality of life issues. No one wants the convention center to fall apart. But if you look around, our recreational centers, our streets are falling apart."

Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates pointed out that Griggs might reduce his figure, since an amendment she'd presented already allocated $300,000 to Cultural Affairs.

"Certainly, if you would support this, I'd reduce it to $656,000," Griggs said.

"I still wouldn't support it," she said quickly. "I think it could have a detrimental effect on our general fund."

"I will call it the Gates amendment because of your good work, and then we can vote up or down the Gates amendment," he said, joking.

Amendments TBD
Among the other amendments still to be resolved: reassigning some duties of the Public Information Office, and a possible cost-saving merger between the Dallas Municipal Court and Dallas County's Justice of the Peace Courts.