Can we finally talk about the elephant in the room?

Enough of this foolishness. Let’s get down to the real issues in the mayoral campaign, and they’re not animal shelters or the DISD or any of the electronic chaff the candidates have thrown out to confuse voters’ radar.

The issue in this month’s runoff between park board boss Mike Rawlings and former police chief David Kunkle is the budget. Still. As it has always been. And as the candidates have pretended it wasn’t.

So let’s not pretend any more. Let’s acknowledge that the city is broke and that significant changes need to be made in how Dallas is run. The candidates, in the couple of weeks before the runoff, must show us they can deal with this reality:

• The projected deficit for the 2011-12 budget has been as high as $120 million; currently, it’s between $60 million and $80 million. That’s almost 5 percent of the current budget. One doesn’t cut a 5 percent gap with wishful thinking, which seems to be the city council’s preferred form of action. One does it with layoffs and service cuts. Just as a point of reference, Rawlings’ old boss, the company that owns Pizza Hut, laid off 7 percent of its work force in 2008 when sales fell 16 percent in the third quarter.

• Dallas’ revenues have receded to 2005 levels, and the experts who don’t work for the city manager, like Jim Gaines at Texas A&M’s Real Estate Center, expect that to be the new normal. If we’re lucky. In other words, one can’t make a budget based on an improving economy, which seems to be the city manager’s preferred form of action.

• There isn’t much easy stuff left to cut. Which is what we’ve done the past two years with libraries, rec centers, and street repairs. In the next budget, a 5 percent deficit means we’re not just cutting muscle, but arms and legs. We spent about $214 million on the police field patrol item in the current budget. In the 2005-2006 budget, where revenue was about the same as it will be 2011-2012, we spent only $155 million. How much can we juggle in other city departments to keep those $60 million worth of cops on the street?

• The old ways of doing things — luring big companies to town with tax incentives — aren’t going to work any more. Those kinds of companies don’t exist in the 21st century economy. There are no GMs left to open plants in Arlington, and there is no guarantee that the Blockbusters of the past will continue into the future.

These are the facts that the candidates can no longer ignore. One of the first things the new mayor is going to have to do is to wade into the budget, which will be approved at the end of September. That’s 90 days from taking office, which isn’t a lot of time in the best of circumstances. And these aren’t the best of circumstances.

That’s why Kunkle and Rawlings need to address the budget now. They need to outline what they think our best options are, so that we can pick a mayor intelligently and not the way they want us to pick one. Which is with sound bites and other silliness. You’ll hear a lot over the next couple of weeks about how neither man will vote to raise taxes. I’ve got news for you — the budget crisis is so bad that the council can’t legally raise taxes enough to solve it. So we’ll have to find another way.

Hopefully, one of these two men will be able to help us find that way.

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