The most important budget item on this month’s City Council agenda is not how much money the City doesn’t have to spend, or even how the City will spend what’s left of a once-plump pie.

The most important item will be the battle to take credit for the budget.

Skeptics may wonder why anyone will want to take credit for a budget that will cut City services – including, reportedly, the previously sacred police and fire departments – while keeping property tax rates at the higher levels that were adopted over the past couple of years to make up for the City’s declining tax base.

In fact, those nagging budget details are exactly the reasons why there will be such a battle to take credit for the budget. This is the first time in a decade that everyone involved in the process – Council, mayor and city manager – had agreed, in public, that the City is broke and that the budget must reflect that.

Past budget sessions consisted of three parts:

  • First, the city manager would wave a fiscal wand and apparently turn lead into gold.
  • Second, the Council would wrangle over closing swimming pools that no one had any intention of closing, since to delve any more deeply into the budget might lead to the discovery that you can’t turn lead into gold.
  • Third, the mayor would go on TV and proclaim that the City was on a fiscally sound footing and that all was right in the world.

This time, we’ve skipped all of that. City Manager John Ware knows that no financial equivalent of the philosopher’s stone exists. When is the last time the city manager emphasized City services instead of the City’s bond rating? Ware is so refreshinglly open and honest that he is almost enough to restore faith in Dallas’ worn-out council-manager form of government.

Meanwhile, the Council has spent the past two years facing facts that Ware refused to hide from them. To their credit, this Council was also willing to ask more questions, and might have forced the issue even if Ware had not been around. There are people on this Council who actually want to represent their constituents.

Even Mayor Steve Bartlett, who wouldn’t seem to have much incentive to acquiesce in this bottom-line approach, has a reason to go along with it. On the other hand, Bartlett was elected because he believed in the old system. On the other hand, this is a City obsessed with the appearance of leadership.

Bartlett will look awfully tall in the saddle if he can claim that he saw this predicament coming and faced it down, six-shooter in hand. The state and national media would love it: a Republican mayor who forced a multi-cultural coalition to pull the City together in time of crisis. That certainly won’t hurt whatever political aspirations he may have (especially if Kay Bailey Hutchinson isn’t re-elected this fall).

Yes, this budget debate will be messy, and the usual mud will be slung. People will stomp out of meetings, names will be called, and charges will be hurled.

But what won’t be under discussion is that the City is going to cut back because it needs to – all of the City, from Preston Hollow to Oak Cliff, from West Dallas to Pleasant Grove, from East Dallas to North Dallas.

Anyone who doubts this didn’t notice where the City last tried to close swimming pools: one in each quadrant of the City.

That’s certainly not the solution to our problems – the eighth-largest city in the country shouldn’t have to threaten to close pools at all. But it’s a start to finding a solution.

And the person who finds the solution is the one who will really deserve the credit.

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