M Streets councilwoman Angela Hunt, who has always said she wasn’t interested in running for mayor, appears to be changing her mind. Her public comments over the past week, when it became clear that Mayor Park Cites would not run for re-election, showed she was thinking seriously about it. In addition, two candidates have declared for Hunt’s city council seat, one of whom seems to have her blessing.
Hunt stands a chance of winning without Leppert in the race; the mayor would almost certainly have been re-elected. For all the animosity Leppert aroused in so many of us, he was still enormously popular north of Northwest Highway, and that’s where mayoral elections are decided. Far North Dallas councilman Ron Natinsky, who has at least the lukewarm support of the city’s elite, is a much less formidable candidate than Leppert. The other declared candidate, businessman Jim Moore, is a political unknown.
Nevertheless, Hunt should not run for mayor. This has nothing to do with whether she can win or not, but with what’s best for the city. Given how bad things are going to be over the next two or three years, with ever more budget cuts, reduced revenue, and council in-fighting, no mayor can make the situation better. So let someone like Natinsky, who supported Leppert and his soon-to-be failed policies, sink in the quicksand he helped to create. Then, in four years, when the voters in Preston Hollow, Lake Highlands and Far North Dallas are tired of police and fire layoffs and Volkswagen-sized pot holes, Hunt should run. Only then will the voters north of Northwest Highway be ready for change.
More, after the jump:
How bad will the next two or three budgets be? Apparently, even worse than I thought, and we know what a pessimist I am. Let me repeat what I wrote a couple of weeks ago, quoting Jim Gaines at the Texas A&M Real Estate Center: If property values have reached bottom, it’s going to be a long, drawn out bottom that is going to last two or three years. And when property values rebound, they’re not going to hit their 2007 and 2008 peaks, but what Gaines called normal levels, circa 2004 and 2005. And those normal levels generate about 15 to 20 percent less income.
You can do the math yourself. Go to the city’s budget Web site, click on the respective budget in the left hand column, and then click “Financial Summaries” on the budget that comes up. That will yield a PDF; look for the page that says “General Fund” and the line that says “Ad Valorem Taxes.”
Given that the property tax accounts for 43 percent of city revenue, there are only two ways to deal with the 15 to 20 percent decrease. You can cut services or you can raise the property tax rate, which the council did last summer. If they had not, the property tax would have brought in about the same amount of money it brought in for the the 2006-07 fiscal year. Which pretty much demonstrates what Gaines is talking about. (There is a third way to boost property tax revenue, of course: economic expansion. But given the recession, I doubt we’ll see much of that.)
So what will the council and the new mayor have to do when they discuss the budget in August? Raise the tax rate again, or cut services again. And if you thought last year’s budget debate was messy, this year’s will be worse, because there will be less money to spend. If current trends continue, we won’t be asking cops and firefighters to defer raises; we’ll be laying them off. And forget about fixing pot holes and not closing rec centers. Those will be givens in the new budget reality.
Want to know why Leppert isn’t running for re-election? Because he could, and then resign to run for the Senate (which is what Ron Kirk did). Or why none of the other downtown hotshots, like park board boss Mike Rawlings, are running? Because they don’t want to preside over budgets that lay off cops. Where is the political capital in that?
Which is why Hunt should stay as far away from the mayor’s office as possible. Why put yourself in the middle of an unwinnable situation that was caused by someone who wanted to use the mayor’s office as a stepping stone to higher office? Let Natinsky (or whoever gets the city elite’s backing) take responsibility for the problem they created. They were the ones who were spending beyond our means.
The Wall Street collapse that started the recession began in the spring of 2008, about the same time as preparation for the city’s 2008-09 budget. Mayor Park Cities, the city manager, and their allies on the council not only ignored what was going on with Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and the rest, but told us it wouldn’t affect us. The budget they passed for 2008-09 was apparently the biggest in city history — and occurred in the wake of the biggest economic meltdown in U.S. history since the Depression.
Sadly, though, Dallas ain’t ready for reform. My gut, after watching the last two budget processes, is that voters north of Northwest Highway don’t see the situation this way, and they’re the ones that any mayor has to play to. Dallas may be close to a majority minority city, and it may elect Democratic county officials, but the Anglo, Republican residents of Lake Highlands, Preston Hollow, and Far North Dallas, who vote in substantially higher numbers than anyone else, decide mayoral elections.
And they don’t yet think we’re in a budget crisis. Leppert has been telling them for two years that things will get better any day now, and they have believed them. It’s going to take another couple of years of budget cutting and tax rate hikes before they’re ready to accept the changes that a candidate like Hunt would make. Yes, she could get elected this spring, but it would be almost impossible to accomplish anything.
Which is why Hunt should run for mayor in 2015. By then, every Dallas voter should be fed up with the way the city has been run. That’s when they will be ready to elect a mayor who wants to fix things and not paper them over with political-speak and sunshine and blue sky promises. Until then, we’ll just have to hunker down and hope for the best.