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Editorial: Dallas County Needs Leadership on Budget Cuts

The Dallas Morning News, February 26, 2009

The world would be a simpler, happier place if its economies weren't in meltdown, with ripple effects through the U.S. financial system to spiking unemployment and all the way down to your spending and taxes on your home.

That's not our world, at least not for the foreseeable future. Ours is a far more difficult and complicated place that requires sacrifice and leadership.

Every public budget that relies on tax revenues feels the pinch. Dallas County, for instance, is working with a $58 million budget shortfall that could shoot higher if property values fall. County commissioners have requested that each department, including the district attorney's office, cut 10 percent from current budgets. A property tax increase, especially problematic in a recession, is not out of the question.

District Attorney Craig Watkins' budget is about $36 million, a big slice of the county's $512 million pie. Watkins, understandably, would rather cut nothing, but that's not a realistic option. Watkins has exceeded expectations in his maiden term, gaining national attention for pushing his office from a single-minded pursuit of convictions to a relentless focus on justice. We praised his efforts in naming him 2008 Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year and remain solidly behind his reforms.

Now we ask him to show similar leadership on his budget, to offer the difficult but necessary choices that fit difficult fiscal times. Unless he's prepared to ask other departments to cut deeper or raise taxes more on his constituents, his options are few.

His role model could be no-nonsense state District Judge Mike Snipes, who suggests thinking beyond personnel cuts and exploring ways to operate the courts more efficiently. His cost-saving specifics include devising payment plans for fines; grouping hearings for defendants who need interpreters; asking court reporters to pay for substitutes; using public defenders more often; and paying defense attorneys by the trial, instead of the hour.

Rare is the public official who looks forward to slashing his or her budget. The true leaders recognize reality and work constructively for the greater good, hoping, as we all do, that this is a temporary bump in the road.