Somebody needs to wake up before the bottom drops out.

The numbers are quite depressing. The city is collecting sales tax revenue, thanks to the recession, at 2004-05 levels, which is about one-third more than it spent in 2004-05. I realize I am regulary accused of being entirely too negative, but sometimes there is a reason.

Yet no one Downtown seems especially concerned, and that may be even more depressing. When is the last time we heard the mayor, the city manager, or the silent majority on city council express any concern about this? Instead, we get platitudes from Mayor Park Cities: “If you’re not with me, you’re not for Dallas.” We get even more platitudes from the city staff: “This budget positions us well fro the future.” And we don’t even get that from most of the members of the council, who have seemed remarkably untroubled during the past 18 months.

Well, now is the time to speak up, because this is a crisis. You can find the numbers on the city’s website with a couple of clicks – start on government, and then click on chief financial officer. All of the budgets since 2002-03 are listed in the upper left-hand corner. We spent around $2.0 billion in the 2004-05 fiscal year; we’re budgeted to spend $2.7 billion in 2009-10. The sales tax accounts for about 22 percent of that, while another 43 percent comes from the property tax, and the rest comes from fees and charges. One tiny bit of good news: The property tax revenue situation isn’t quite as bad, since the real estate market looks like it has only fallen to 2006 or 2007 levels (as measured by the Advocate Home Price Snapshot) and we’ve had rate increases since 2004-05 as well.

Still, that’s not much help. As bad as the current budget is, the next one will be worse. We made the easy cuts in 2009-10, as painful as they were – the furloughs for city employees, the reduction in street repairs, the library and rec center closings. There will be no easy cuts in the 2010-11 budget, only painful ones. Unless there is a dramatic surge in revenue over the next six months, this is when the cops and firefighters get laid off. This is when we consider mothballing libraries and rec centers. This is when we don’t find a way, through some paper shuffling, to re-hire the hundreds of other city employees who get laid off. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

And, frankly, we have no one to blame but ourselves. We voted for these people – or we didn’t bother to vote at all. And I include myself in this, because I’m the one who is supposed to be paying attention. Yes, I have been writing about this since the crisis started, but I also assumed that someone Downtown had to have some inkling about what to do once they accepted that there was a crisis. That’s the main reason why I supported a property tax increase last fall; we’d paper over the 2009-10 deficit with smaller cuts and the increase, and then we’d be in a better position to address 2010-11.

My mistake was that I assumed someone would acknowledge the crisis. I have no idea why no one Downtown wants to admit that we’re on the edge of the cliff looking down, but they don’t. Maybe it’s hubris. Maybe it’s that they’re not as good at their jobs as we’re told they are. Or maybe they genuinely believe that tax money will appear like manna from heaven.

Whatever the reason, though, they’d better do something quick. I was here at the beginning of the century, when we went through this the last time. And no one wants to go through that again.


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