Friday, August 15, 2014

Dallas Budget Town Hall Toodle-Loo: “They’re Still Out There”

Interior of Frontiers of Flight Museum: As empty as it was when I walked inside this evening

It’s that time of year again: That time when the serious, award-contending movies start being released, when students prepare for the start of another school year, when the minds of young men turn to football and the minds of older, out-of-shape, guys turn to fantasy football. Yep, it’s that time again: That time when those elected to the Dallas City Council venture out to greet a microscopic representation of their constituency during that annual rite of late summer known as the Budget Town Hall Meeting. That’s when the council member hosts a representative from the City Manager’s office who narrates a slide show (you can get your own copy of it before the meeting begins so you can follow along) outlining, in the sketchiest of terms, the budget the city manager has proposed the City Council adopt. Then, after that, advocates of arts groups and the libraries get up and complain how they were shortchanged, other citizens will ask questions that have absolutely nothing to do with the budget, and then everyone disperses until the same time next year.

City Manager A.C. Gonzalez
At least that’s how it usually goes. This year, however, I thought things might be different, In the first proposed budget A.C. Gonzalez has submitted since being named city manager, he made some recommendations his predecessor never dared to suggest, namely slashing funds from the police department and turning them over to (What’s this?) arts groups and the city’s libraries!!!

I ventured out this evening to my first budget town hall meeting of the current season, this one hosted by District 2's Adam Medrano at the Frontiers of Flight Museum.

First things first: The Frontiers of Flight Museum is, if not the worst place ever to hold such a meeting, a location that ranks right up there. The museum is rather large and spacious — at least it seems that way when you walk inside at dusk and there’s not another soul to be seen in the entire joint. But of course, there must be a sign somewhere to direct constituents to where the meeting is being held. Surely. Somewhere. A sign. Maybe just a paper arrow. Something? Nothing. I spent a lot of time walking around that empty place before I finally ventured upstairs to a landing that led nowhere. Took the stairs back down and this time I took an elevator up to an entirely different level than the stairs took me to. Still no one around. Then I spotted a gentleman in a semi-dark blue suit rushing down the hall pointing his finger in the direction from which he had come. I thought, "My heavens. Is he running to summon aid for a fallen companion?" So I picked up my pace in the direction from which he came and, waddya know, found myself at the site of Medrano’s town hall meeting.

Dallas CFO Jeanne Chipperfield
By the time I walk in, the somewhat less-than-dynamic chief financial officer for the city, Jeanne Chipperfield, is on about Slide 16 of her 36-slide narration giving me the impression that she would rather be anywhere else than where she is. But I’m going to give her some leeway here. Being the chief financial officer, she has been in closer contact with this budget than anyone else in the city and the document is, in fact, a comparatively boring budget. So I guess Ms. Chipperfield had every right to act as though she was suffering through a blind date with a turnip. One other thing: Has anyone else noticed she begins the answer to every question with the word "So."

But Ms. Chipperfield had one weapon at her disposal that no one else in the room had — a microphone. You could hear her. After she finished her presentation and it came time for the questions from the microscopic representation of you-know-who, all sound disappeared. Well, not all sound — the hum of the air conditioning system was quite audible. But the voices of humans? I might as well have been in a sound proof booth. That second floor auditorium at the Frontiers of Flight Museum has the worst acoustics of any public meeting room I have ventured into in my considerably long life.

Now what I expected to be a loud and boisterous crowd defending our men in blue didn’t materialize. In fact, to my great surprise, no one expressed any concern at all for the recommendation that the police department’s budget be cut by $2 million. But I guess when you have a budget of $438.1 million (38 percent of General Fund expenses), what’s a measly $2 million? Right? Not only that, it would be impossible for anyone to be loud and boisterous in the Frontiers of Flight Museum .auditorium.

But I did, however, pick up some morsels. Three people spoke out in favor of more money going to animal control. Not for the spade/neutering or adoption programs that need more money, but for capturing the millions of wild dogs apparently running amok around Love Field. To hear some of these people (or at least what I thought I head) there’s some kind of conspiracy afoot that involves all loose dogs in the city and surrounding areas being driven to and them dumped in District 2. Imagine that!

But the real surprise came when this lone advocate for the library stood up in effort to prove the gospel of Gordon Gekko is as alive today as it was in the Reagan era: "Thanks for the chump change," she seemed to be saying, "but we want more, more, more, MORE!!!!" Never mind that the Gonzalez proposed budget pays for the phase-in of 12 branch libraries and the Central Library being open longer every day, seven days a week. It also pays for the 15 remaining branches to be open six additional hours each week beginning next year. "We want more, more, more, MORE!!!!" Then someone from the cultural arts got up and made the same complaint about how their increases weren’t nearly enough. Now I will admit, most of the increases here are going to pay for the utility bills at the Fair Park Music Hall and the Sammons Center, but I’ve always maintained government shouldn’t be that heavily involved in subsidizing arts groups to begin with — that should come from private donations and these groups should be getting off their duffs and soliciting those donations.

Council member Adam Medrano
But the fact that the library and arts groups are still screaming for more, more, more, wasn’t the ultimate shock of the evening. That came when I spoke to Councilman Medrano after the meeting and discovered he stands right alongside them. I asked him directly what he thought about the budget and he said "It doesn’t do enough directly for the citizens." When I asked him to be more specific he told me directly and without hesitation "I intend to seek more money for the libraries and the arts." Then I asked him where he plans to subtract funds to pay for the library and arts additions. He said "The City Manager’s Office and the City Attorney’s Office. I asked the city attorney at the beginning of this whole process if he needed any additional attorneys on his staff and he told me he didn’t. But this budget pays for the addition of five more attorneys."

So there you have it. Oh, yes, the vivacious Ms. Chipperfield also told the assemblage something I had not heard before, but may be common knowledge and that’s the fact that the city will submit a "close to $1 billion) bond package to the voters in November 2017. So get ready for that.


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