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Dallas public safety plan would increase firefighter hiring

The city plans to hire 241 firefighters, three times more than the average annual amount


By Tristan Hallman
The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — Dallas' budget next year could include significant increases in pension contributions, hiring of firefighters, new traffic signals, city employees' minimum wage and homeless encampment cleanup — all without a tax rate increase.

But City Manager T.C. Broadnax's first proposed budget — he gave council members a glimpse at it on Friday — does not appear to have any significant service cuts next year because of police and fire salary savings. He said Friday that city leaders, for now, can cool it with talk of fiscal doomsday and service cuts over the poor conditions of the pension and streets.

Dallas police and firefighters fill the gallery for a city council budget meeting at Dallas City Hall, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Dallas police and firefighters fill the gallery for a city council budget meeting at Dallas City Hall, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

"The sky is not falling," Broadnax said. "We're going to figure it out."

But Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Reich cautioned that trouble could still lie ahead in the coming years. The state Legislature is considering changes to the property tax laws that city officials believe could hamper their ability to budget. 

And, she said, the exodus of hundreds of police officers and firefighters is a short-term buoy for the city.

"That is the difference," Reich said. "When we have those salary and personnel cost savings, that's the only way we're able to fund the pension contribution."

Once the city is able to hire enough police and firefighters to catch back up to where city officials want to be, Reich said, "we may have to make some very hard decisions about service cuts or tax rate increases."

The current pension deal sets the city's minimum pension contribution amount at nearly $151 million next year. That is an an expected increase of roughly $40 million from this year. The new money would in theory eat up the entire $39 million expected increase in general fund revenue next year. 

But it won't. Salary savings, and the fact that the city will now be able to spend money on overtime without making pension contributions on it, gives the city budget more flexibility. Broadnax's proposed budget calls for more than $732 million to be spent on the police and fire departments — effectively flat with the current fiscal year's expenditures.

Reich said the city is still "working hard to recruit for public safety purposes." But it will take time to hire officers back. This year's plan to hire 400 new officers fell far short. 

Next year's proposed budget calls for the hiring of 250 police officers, which would be a small step toward bringing the department's staffing back up if attrition returns to normal levels of about 200 officers a year. Broadnax hopes incoming Police Chief Renee Hall will be able to slow attrition, which has been fueled in recent years by pay, pension and morale concerns.

But a plan to hire 241 firefighters — a threefold increase over the average year — is particularly ambitious. In an ordinary year, the department would hire in the ballpark of 80 firefighters.

Dallas Fire-Rescue Chief David Coatney, who also hopes to add a new full-time and a new peak-time ambulance to this year's budget, is optimistic that he can find a way to hire the firefighters. He said he's looking at targeted recruiting, creative scheduling for academy classes and adjusting civil service rules to lower requirements for military veterans without college credit.

Dallas Fire Fighters Association President Jim McDade called the hiring plan "a pipe dream."

Coatney acknowledged that the goal "is going to create some challenges for us." But he said he believes the department can get there.

Infrastructure is also a continuing challenge. But city leaders hope an upcoming bond package of more than $1 billion — more than half of which is dedicated to streets — will help address sorely needed fixes for facilities, parks and streets across the city.

Assistant City Manager Majed Al-Ghafry said he hopes the budget and the bond will mean street improvements. But he said residents can count on "at least" no net degradation "for the next five years."

The budget also promises several other new smaller items, such as:

  • Raising the city's minimum wage to $10.94, which puts Dallas in line with the requirement for city contractors.
  • $800,000 for Next Generation 911 technology, a priority after the city's struggles with 911 issues this year.
  • Increased spending on maintenance of city facilities and "enhanced security" at DPD headquarters and substations.
  • The hiring of four new 311 staff members.
  • An increase in funds available for home repair.
  • An increase in $1.3 million for homeless encampment cleanup and new barriers to keep encampments from popping up again.
  • An increase of $250,000 for senior programming at recreation centers.
  • Opening 14 libraries for six days a week instead of five.
  • An increase in funding for English as a Second Language, commonly known as ESL, programs at the city's libraries.

All the increases will come despite the city forgoing $8.3 million in revenue this year after the council upped the homestead exemption for residents who are disabled or older than 65. Residents will probably see small increases in fees for sanitation.

Council members haven't had much chance to digest the full budget and all the details in it. They'll be briefed on the budget and have a chance to discuss it Tuesday.

But White Rock council member Mark Clayton said he is pleased with the budget highlights and his conversations with Broadnax. Clayton, who pushed for more ESL funding last year, said the proposed increase "definitely warmed my little Grinch heart."

But Clayton said he likes that the budget process appears different than in years past, when the city management would appear to leave council members to argue over the scraps.

"I always feel like it's The Hunger Games," Clayton said. "It's, 'Hey, we don't really care about your opinion and we'll throw a little bit of money into the pot and you'll feel good about yourself.'"

Clayton said Broadnax seems to have a real plan in place and "made his very best effort that may need a little smidgen of tweaking here and there."

Broadnax also plans to launch Dallas 365, an online service performance tracker that allows residents to see how the city stacks up against its service goals.

Northern Dallas council member Jennifer Staubach Gates said she was pleased with the service-focused philosophy of Broadnax's first proposed budget.

"It's a budget that continues to address some needs in our city," Gates said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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