To look at the ugly 9-6 split vote and the very real, if short-lived, danger that the Dallas City Council would fail to approve its budget, you would be forgiven for thinking a lot was at stake Wednesday when our 15 leaders determined how to spend your tax dollars
But no. This was a vanilla city budget, not unlike so many other budgets before it.
The police were not defunded, despite a loud activist crowd that showed up to virtual City Hall demanding a ridiculous $200 million be stripped from the police department —enough to ensure that a quarter of the police force was out looking for jobs.
In the end, those activist voices weren’t nearly as loud as the legions of residents telling council members that public safety remains the single most important concern in our city — a message that every City Hall survey and town hall meeting has driven home year after year.
The only cut of any substance — $7 million from police overtime — was advertised by Mayor Eric Johnson as a “defund” effort. That was, at best, mistaken and, at worst, cynical, stirring residents' fears over what actually might be a beneficial reform.
Most of that $7 million is going to hire civilian employees in the police department who should free officers from desk jobs. Will it work? Time will tell. But in a $500 million police budget, redirecting a few million hardly amounts to defunding, and the mayor should never have told residents it did.
Which brings us to the mayor’s unhelpful leadership this budget cycle. Johnson dug in early on a poorly conceived and poorly executed plan to “defund the bureaucracy” by slashing City Hall salaries. Using the term defund was a mistake. Targeting — across the board — the city’s lawyers, accountants, planners and other professionals (who have job options even in a pandemic) was more slogan than strategy. And failing to communicate with fellow council members and instead creating a public fight only compounded his folly. In our system, the mayor will never be successful leading this way.
What’s worse, the mayor’s approach wounded this council’s ability to function cohesively for the greater good. Not that the council did not return the favor. This vote never needed to be a 9-6 split. It was because a pettiness set in that saw small dollars stripped from things that matter to people around the horseshoe — like memberships in inter-governmental agencies such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
This was much ado about almost nothing. But the political damage matters because next year, when we expect the federal dollars to dry up (if such things ever happen anymore), the city will have a budget gap in the tens of millions of dollars if not more. That will mean real pain and real decisions over how to shrink the size of local government.
It won’t be time then for “defund” slogans. It will be time for painful decisions about people’s careers and about the services residents have come to depend upon.
At that time we will need a better functioning City Council. Let’s hope we get it.