How a few passion projects distract from the $3 billion issue

Keys are magnificent inventions. It’s not the ingenuity of their sharp contours, precisely serrated to lift their lock’s pins. It’s that they are the perfect tools to distract crying babies. More than once have I dug into my purse, whipped out my key chain and jangled my mass of keys in front of my little ones’ tear-streaked faces, just long enough for them to forget what it was they were crying about in the first place.

For years, City of Dallas management has used this same technique on the Dallas City Council during budget season. When council members ask too many questions or dig too deeply into the numbers, when they challenge spending choices or criticize allocations to particular departments, the jangly keys come out.

The keys usually take the form of a couple of million dollars that the city manager just happens to have lying about, unallocated to any particular department and aching to be spent. This pocket change is dangled in front of the council to distract it from questioning the much bigger $3 billion budget picture.

I’ve watched some council members spend weeks agonizing over how to spend that money — debating endlessly, running back and forth between council offices to achieve consensus, setting aside $50,000 for this and $275,000 for that, confident that they’ve done something meaningful and statesmanlike by moving around pennies and dimes while generally ignoring the other $2,998,000,000 that make up our city’s budget.

I’ve got a theory about this, and I believe it’s the premise underlying city management’s key trick: It’s that council members, being human, find it incredibly difficult to fathom large sums of money. Amounts over a million dollars quickly become play money, meaningless figures that bear no relationship to actual dollar bills. I suspect the cut-off amount for fiscal reality is somewhere in the range of a nice car or small mortgage — amounts that most of us have some real-world experience with. Go much above that and you’re dealing with hypotheticals.

Council members, being human, find it incredibly difficult to fathom large sums of money.
You can see the Monopoly-money effect in some of our city’s biggest capital expenditures. The horse park, the fancy bridges, the convention center hotel, all of these things cost massive sums, tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. The majority of past councils happily allocated funds to these arguably questionable projects because the vast amounts of money involved were never real in the first place.

But propose how to spend a few hundred thousand dollars, and you’ll have a knock-down, drag-out fight on your hands. Hence, the ingenuity of the jangly keys trick.

This year, though, city management took a slightly different tack. Instead of offering a few million dollars for the council to fight about, the city manager went a slightly more passive-aggressive route. When asked to find additional funds for street repairs, City Manager AC Gonzalez offered to cut neighborhood libraries instead.

The proposal came across as disingenuous and hostile, and was soundly rejected. But purposeful or not, the maneuver diverted the council’s attention from the larger budget picture. That is a shame, because the singular moment that council members are most critical to the functioning of our city is when they vote on the budget.

Our city’s budget reflects our values. If we’re spending our tax dollars ineffectively or focusing our limited funds on big fancy projects to the detriment of our streets, parks and libraries, then we are not valuing our neighborhoods no matter how much lip-service we’re paying.

The good news is, despite city management’s distractions, Councilmembers Kingston, Griggs, Medrano and Clayton are going through the budget with a fine-tooth comb, proposing smart cuts and demanding explanations for increased expenditures.

It’s probably naïve to hope that their proposals will be embraced and adopted by city management, but at the very least, I hope they are not met with the tinkling sound of jangling keys.

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