Dallas City Council passes budget that leaves police funding in place

The budget passed narrowly, by the thinnest margin since 2010, amid loud calls to slash it


By Kevin Krause
The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — The Dallas City Council passed a new budget late Wednesday that keeps police funding in place despite loud calls to slash it, and while a crowd of marchers assembled outside City Hall to protest police violence.

Hours before the final vote, news broke that no officers would be held accountable for the shooting death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. At one point, the meeting was briefly halted after protesters reached the City Hall parking garage.

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson opposed a budget amendment that passed that will cut $7 million from police overtime and reinvest it in public safety, including the hiring of 95 civilians to replace officers in desk jobs. (Photo/Juan Figueroa/Staff Photographer)
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson opposed a budget amendment that passed that will cut $7 million from police overtime and reinvest it in public safety, including the hiring of 95 civilians to replace officers in desk jobs. (Photo/Juan Figueroa/Staff Photographer)

The budget passed narrowly by a 9-6 vote after a more than 12-hour budget meeting and a bruising battle over conflicting priorities. The budget process was notable this year because it unfolded via remote telecommunication as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. It also stood in stark contrast to last year’s unanimous vote, passing by the thinnest margin since 2010.

Mayor Eric Johnson voted against it.

“Ultimately, in this pandemic, I could not support a budget in which we didn’t touch the bureaucracy and failed to share in the pain with residents in any discernible way," he said in a statement issued close to midnight.

In passing the budget, council members spoke about working together and thanked residents for the overwhelming public input into this year’s budget process. But the vote largely came with a collective holding of noses.

Due to multiple amendments to the overall city budget, a final number for the police budget was unavailable late Wednesday night. But the more than $500 million approved for police is about a third of the general fund — the city’s discretionary budget that also pays for firefighters and other services for residents. City officials said the police budget is higher than the current fiscal year.

A majority of council members led the charge to cut police overtime by about a quarter — the most hotly-debated item. That amounted to $7 million, and it was chosen over Johnson’s proposal to slash “bloated” salaries at City Hall, a move he has called “defunding the bureaucracy.”

Johnson and police commanders said the city won’t be able to keep up with officer attrition from coming resignations and retirements because the coronavirus pandemic has restricted academy class sizes.

But under the overtime amendment, $3.8 million will be used to hire 95 civilians to replace police officers at desk jobs so they can return to street patrols. The rest of it will be used for other public safety measures such as street lighting, attempts to stop illegal dumping and addressing the drivers of poverty.

But the mayor and some other council members said crime won’t wait for the police department’s transition.

“Civilianization on this scale will take time, and our city needs help now,” Johnson said.

Local activists in Dallas had put forth a counter-proposal to cut $200 million from the Dallas police budget that received no support. About 70 people spoke on the budget Wednesday, the vast majority of them blasting the council for ignoring their calls to slash police funding.

Many had wanted to reinvest that money in social programs to target poverty, homelessness and other social ills that contribute to crime. And they angrily vowed to vote members out of office for not listening to them.

Some comments were heated. One speaker called the council “cowards” who only listen to “rich white people.” Another said he was “maced” in the face, unprovoked, by an officer during a protest march onto the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge on June 1 during which hundreds were arrested.

“This is how the police operate because they know you will allow them to operate with impunity,” the man said.

Council member Lee Kleinman issued a scathing rebuke to his colleagues over what he called their failure to make real change within the police force. Kleinman, who failed to win approval for cuts to police special operations, said officers have a culture of “closing ranks,” intimidation and indoctrination “and we are taking a victory lap.”

He chided his fellow council members, saying “we had chance to break the inertia of our police department.”

But many council members said they heard overwhelmingly from residents who opposed any cuts to police funding.

Dallas has largely fallen in line with most other large Texas cities that increased money for police, despite loud calls for “defunding” them. The Houston City Council approved a $20 million increase for police, while San Antonio city leaders added $8 million to police spending.

In addition to adopting the roughly $4 billion budget, the Dallas City Council also passed a tiny tax rate reduction amounting to 0.02 cents. Some council members and the mayor wanted bigger tax relief. The city next year is likely facing a significant budget hole due to tanking sales tax revenue and less federal coronavirus relief money, officials said.

Although sales tax revenue was down this year due to the pandemic, money from the taxing of new construction helped limit the damage.

Dallas' tax rate remains among the highest of Texas large cities. But the city has generous tax exemptions for elderly and disabled residents that provides some relief.

Despite the fight over the police budget, millions of dollars were allocated to address some of the root causes of crime like poverty, which both activists and council members supported.

One of City Manager T.C. Broadnax’s key priorities was to “reimagine” public safety by transitioning some duties from police to civilians and focusing on programs like affordable housing and job training.

“Incremental change now is monumental change,” Council member Adam Bazaldua said about the budget.

The city budget will also attempt to lessen the chance for police intervention by transferring some low-priority calls to other city departments.

And it places an emphasis on ending historical inequities by injecting more money into disadvantaged southern Dallas communities. Millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief for programs like rental assistance has already filled some of those gaps.

When a resident asked during a recent budget town hall meeting how the police budget will be changed so “weapons of war” will never be used to assault peaceful protesters, Broadnax said the budget includes money for de-escalation training.

And Police Chief U. Reneé Hall, who is leaving at the end of the year, has previously said her agency is buying fewer vehicles and planning to hire fewer recruits.

Council member Cara Mendelsohn, who voted against the budget, said she agreed with Kleinman that it represents a missed opportunity.

“We funded a lot of pet projects we didn’t need to,” she said.

©2020 The Dallas Morning News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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