Dallas City Council Talking Tax Hike

Half a dozen Dallas City Council members publicly endorsed Wednesday a property-tax hike to solve a $131 million budget shortfall.

Councilman Steve Salazar proposed a tax rate increase of at least 2 cents during a budget briefing.

“One for safety and one for service; we cut to the bone last year,” Salazar said.

Councilman Dwaine Caraway suggested a rate hike as much as 8 cents may be justified after several years of rejecting tax hikes.

“If we do raise taxes, I want you to know I’m going to raise them as high as we can raise them,” Caraway said. “I just want to deal with this one time.”

City officials said each 1-cent property tax rate increase would provide the city with about $7.7 million dollars in additional revenue. It would cost the owner of the average Dallas homestead about $17 per year.

Mayor Tom Leppert said the 15-member City Council should avoid a property tax rate hike and the city should live within its means.

“We’re going to have to focus on what we can do, what we can do well, and understand that there’s some things that we’re not going to do,” Leppert said.

During the briefing, City Manager Mary Suhm gave council members detailed ranking sheets for services she proposes to eliminate in the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

“The fundamental issue with this budget is not about increased spending," she said. "It’s about decreased revenues."

Dallas property and sale tax revenues have fallen sharply and are expected to remain weak through 2011.

Suhm said more than $81 million of the future budget shortfall is high-priority service that should somehow be restored.

More than $49 million is considered low-priority, but it still includes closing 14 pools, nine recreation centers, closing the central library two days per week, laying off up to 500 civilian employees and ending a police force expansion, among other cuts.

Supporters of a tax hike say the city has already made deep cuts in past years and that balancing the budget without more property-tax revenue would be a mistake.

They also say a hike would be cushioned by falling property values in Dallas.

Leaders of Dallas police and firefighter employee groups have been discussing the budget with Suhm for several months.

Richard Todd, of the Dallas Fraternal Order of Police, said police and firefighters understand they may be forced to take a greater burden of the budget problem this year.

“Everybody’s going to have to share part of the budget and, unfortunately, the economy the way it is, other cities are feeling it," he said. "We’re feeling it as well."

In recent years, sworn public safety employees had been protected from layoffs and furlough days.

Glenn White, president of the Dallas Police Association, said officers expect the city to spread the pain around.

“If you’re going to keep cutting services, keep cutting employees, now reaching into public safety, you’ve got to say, 'Hey folks, it’s time for a tax increase,” he said.

The budget debate will continue through the summer as the council works to adopt a final spending plan before the next fiscal year begins Oct 1.

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