Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said on Thursday that he opposes cutting police overtime to fund budget programs and will continue pushing for pay cuts to the top City Hall earners.
A majority of council members on Wednesday night supported slashing $7 million from the Police Department’s overtime budget to pay for various services. Hours earlier, they unanimously rejected the mayor’s plan to save $6.5 million by cutting “bloated” salaries of the top 10% of civilian earners.
Johnson said this year’s budget showdown will come down to a stark philosophical difference: defunding the police vs. defunding the bureaucracy.
In an interview with The Dallas Morning News editorial board, Johnson indicated his strategy is to put pressure on council members to see things his way rather than try to compromise. He also defended his leadership style, saying his popularity at City Hall matters little and that “personality politics” should not factor into important budget decisions.
“It is clearly, clearly not in the best interests of the city in the middle of a violent crime uptick to be defunding the police,” he said. “My approach is go to the people … and hopefully alter the balance.”
The amendment to cut more than a quarter of the proposed $24 million police overtime budget came from seven council members: Adam Bazaldua, Adam Medrano, David Blewett, Paula Blackmon, Chad West, Tennell Atkins and Omar Narvaez.
The savings would go toward bike lanes, street lights, civilian police employees, affordable housing and solar panels for low-income residents.
Bazaldua, the primary sponsor, said Wednesday night that replacing hundreds of high-paid officers in clerical positions with civilians would free up those cops so they can go to patrol — thus reducing the need for overtime.
“We’re going to continue to perpetuate a vicious cycle that is almost going to be impossible to break unless we actually make a bold decision … which will allow us to make some change,” he said. “Or we can just keep talking about it.”
West said overtime is needed but also abused.
“Not by everybody … but there’s no accountability,” he said. “No checks and balances.”
Police Chief U. Renee Hall told council members Wednesday night that her staff regularly monitors overtime and that she needs to be able to handle major incidents. The department so far this year has spent $31 million on overtime, she said, surpassing the $26 million they had budgeted for that. That was mainly due to the coronavirus pandemic, the social justice protests and a tornado, she said.
“We cannot control what crime sprees happen,” she told the council. “We have to be able to respond to that.”
Hall said she has to pull officers from regional substations to respond to incidents if overtime isn’t available, and that leaves those areas with fewer officers.
The council’s 11-3 informal straw vote to cut police overtime came late Wednesday during a budget briefing that began in the morning and wrapped at 1:30 a.m. the following day.
Some council members warned that they might have to dip into reserves next year to pay higher overtime costs if needed for unplanned emergency situations.
“There’s a little bit of irony that a number of the people who are sponsoring this are the very ones who have asked for additional [police] support in their district,” said council member Cara Mendelsohn.
Dallas Police Association President Mike Mata on Thursday called the council’s overtime proposal “a bit disingenuous.” He said overtime is needed for unforeseen incidents.
“We have limited resources,” said Mata. “They’re giving the public a shell game.”
Johnson was not there during the council’s overtime discussion or when members debated more than 80 budget amendments. He said he had to leave after lunch to deal with a family matter but did not elaborate. Johnson said on Thursday that the feedback he’s getting from residents is that they don’t want to see the police budget slashed.
When asked how he would try to build coalitions on the council, the mayor said he will not engage in “backroom dealing” because he wants to avoid running afoul of the state’s open meetings law. That law prohibits elected officials from privately discussing official business in small groups.
“My job … is to represent the interests of the people of Dallas and to be their voice,” he said. “Not the voice of any one district.”
The mayor wants to find $6.5 million from cuts to the top 10% of civilian earners. But with a final vote on the 2020-21 budget scheduled for Sept. 23, it’s unclear whether he will have enough time to change the tide.
“The conversation is not over,” he said.
The mayor acknowledged he has an “uphill slog” ahead of him in “taking on the bureaucracy” because his proposal would involve cutting his colleagues’ salaries on the City Council, as well as the $406,850 yearly salary of City Manager T.C. Broadnax.
“We’re talking about something that nobody in … modern Dallas history has proposed,” he said.
Johnson defended his record, saying he has won victories since taking office a year ago and reached consensus with the council on many issues during a difficult year that’s been upended by a deadly pandemic, large social justice protests and an economic crisis.
But on the more contentious issue of where to find budget cuts, he stands alone.
During Wednesday’s budget briefing, not a single council member voted with him. Few were even willing to discuss it. None offered an alternative proposal involving salary cuts.
Johnson called the council’s vote to cut police overtime on Wednesday an “about-face.” He said he was proud of the budget he helped pass last year, which bumped pay for midcareer police officers.
The mayor, while not a big fan of Hall’s leadership during the downtown protests, is a strong supporter of the police at a time when calls for reform and defunding law enforcement have rallied across the nation.
Dallas has not seen an appetite for the slashing of police resources like some other U.S. cities have, including Austin, whose leaders recently voted to cut their police budget by a third.
Johnson faulted the city manager for not trying to come up with an alternate pay cut approach in his $3.8 billion proposed budget and acknowledged their communication could improve.
City spokeswoman Catherine Cuellar said Broadnax did not recommend pay cuts because demand for city services is higher now than ever. Also, jobs have been frozen and some employees have been furloughed, she said.
“We are understaffed relative to population growth,” she said.