Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson says he’s more optimistic about the city’s future than he’s ever been.
During his third State of the City address, Johnson touted Dallas’ latest budget, which increased investment in the police department and public safety. He also talked about focusing on economic and workforce development that prioritizes southern Dallas and tackling ethics reform to weed out City Hall corruption.
The first-term mayor also praised residents’ resilience amid the COVID-19 pandemic and February’s winter storm.
The mayor said the city would release a report Thursday on how the city can foster more workforce development opportunities and programs for residents. He said he planned to appoint an advisor early next year to ensure recommendations are implemented.
But the city has also been slow to recognize serious problems in its own backyard, the mayor said. He said backlogs and delays in the permitting office, deteriorating roads and other issues have lured people and businesses to neighboring cities instead of Dallas.
He also mentioned how the city’s poor management of data and technology have led to concerns about the integrity of police criminal investigations and the fire department’s ability to respond to emergency calls.
Despite that, Johnson said, he believes he and fellow elected leaders are on the right track to improve the city.
“If we continue to get back to basics here at City Hall and we continue to build for our future, we can trust that the people of Dallas will take it from there,” Johnson said inside City Halls’ council chambers. “They’ll roll up their sleeves and do what they’ve always done since this city was founded, they’ll make their own luck.”
Dallas’ charter requires the mayor give a State of the City speech every year to update the public on accomplishments, plans and future needs. The speech was delayed two weeks until Wednesday after Johnson tested positive for COVID-19 last month.
Johnson’s latest speech struck a different tone than last year visually and thematically.
In December 2020, with the first COVID-19 vaccines a month away from being released in Texas, Johnson stood alone at a lectern inside the Hall of State at Fair Park to give his public speech.
Last year, he did not mention any other city official by name and praised residents and emergency responders dealing with the pandemic. He urged the public to help the City Council hold the city manager and other top officials accountable. And he distanced himself from the majority of the City Council for approving a budget that he didn’t feel set aside enough money for the police department to combat violent crime.
Johnson delivered his address this year inside a packed council chambers at City Hall, standing at a lectern with the majority of the council and several top officials sitting behind him. He shook their hands before and after his speech. He namedropped several of them on either accomplishments from this past year or initiatives they’re working on.
He praised Police Chief Eddie Garcia, who was hired in February, on the results thus far with his plan to reduce the city’s violent crime. Police department statistics through October showed overall violent crime down around 7% compared to last year.
Murders and robberies through October are lower in 2021, while aggravated assaults were up slightly compared to 2020. Johnson said the results were “nothing short of remarkable.”
Johnson expressed support for this year’s budget, saying the current crop of elected leaders “made a greater commitment to keeping our neighborhoods safe than any other City Council in recent history.” They adopted a $4.35 billion spending plan in September with $500 million more than last year’s adopted budget due to an influx of federal COVID relief money as well as increased property and sales tax revenues. The overall police budget was adopted at nearly $566 million this fall, more than the previous budget of $513.5 million.
He highlighted plans since October to hire 250 more police officers and the same amount starting next fall, increased minimum pay and salaries for first responders, and hiring efforts in the city’s 911 call center and code enforcement departments.
He noted the city’s $25 million contribution to a $72 million regional rapid-rehousing program that aims to help more than 2,700 people experiencing homelessness get apartments. He also mentioned plans to repave hundreds of miles of roads over the next two years.
Johnson said he was asking council member Cara Mendelsohn to lead the development of a process to periodically review city departments, offices and programs to determine if they’re running efficiently.
The city needs to create an Inspector General office, Johnson said, which would oversee the investigations of ethics and city waste complaints, and council member Paula Blackmon would spearhead that effort and other proposals meant to strengthen the city’s ethics code.
The creation of the office and other recommendations were part of a mayor commissioned-task force report released last month.
Driving the economy
Johnson said Dallas needs to be more aggressive in its economic development efforts to be a statewide, national and global leader, saying he believed continuing to focus on regional efforts “will leave Dallas in the dust of new construction to the north.”
The city should cut the property tax rate, he said, which is among the highest in the state. He said the city should also do more to prioritize growth in southern Dallas, boost ways to foster more entrepreneurship in the city, find ways to bring in more international tourism and business ties, and revamp the convention center to drive downtown redevelopment.
“Dallas is the economic engine for this entire region and, my friends, we need to start acting like it,” Johnson said.