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Mayor Eric Johnson Says Dallas Will Be Safest Big City in America

Madam Secretary, City Manager Broadnax, City Attorney Caso, City Auditor Swann, members of the Dallas City Council, I want to thank you for joining me this morning. I also want to thank the distinguished elected leaders who are in attendance today. It takes partnerships to get things done at every level of government, so I want to say that I appreciate you being here.

By City of Dallas, Office of 60th Mayor Eric Johnson

On November 17, 2021, Mayor Johnson gave his State of the City address to city officials and stakeholders. / Credit: Elias Valverde II,  The Dallas Morning News,  Staff Photographer
On November 17, 2021, Mayor Johnson gave his State of the City address to city officials and stakeholders. / Credit: Elias Valverde II, The Dallas Morning News, Staff Photographer

State of the City Address

SECTION I.

Madam Secretary, City Manager Broadnax, City Attorney Caso, City Auditor Swann, members of the Dallas City Council, I want to thank you for joining me this morning. I also want to thank the distinguished elected leaders who are in attendance today. It takes partnerships to get things done at every level of government, so I want to say that I appreciate you being here.

We’re gathered here today because the Dallas City Charter requires me, as your mayor, to update you all each year on the state of our great city and on our plans for its future. It is my distinct honor and privilege to do so today. This is a great tradition, one that dates back to at least 1875, when the mayor’s State of the City address was also delivered in the Dallas City Council chambers.

Today, we are at a turning point in our city’s history. And so far, this city council is on the right track. We’ve voted for a $4.3 billion budget that gets us back to basics, puts public safety first, and makes key investments in our neighborhoods and in our infrastructure.

And, in spite of all the unrelenting states of emergency of the past two years, I’m proud to say that the state of our city is stronger than ever.

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But our work isn’t finished by any means. Our job now is to ensure that Dallas takes its rightful place as the undisputed premier city in the American southwest.

It won’t be easy. We have plenty of big city problems to address. But this isn’t just any big city. This is Dallas, Texas.

We’re not a city of destiny. We got to where we are today through hard work and determination. In Dallas, we roll up our sleeves and make our own luck. Every time our mettle has been tested, we’ve demonstrated incredible resilience, unshakeable resolve, and undeniable grit. That spirit will help us build for our future and navigate any difficulties on the road ahead.

I’m confident that we can accomplish great things together because we’ve set ourselves up for success during the past year. We’re being tough and smart on crime behind a new police chief with a new approach. We’ve forged public-private partnerships to build new parks, improve our libraries, and expand our arts and culture programming. We’ve passed a new comprehensive economic development policy that focuses on equity and innovation. And we’re discussing the most meaningful ethics reform proposal that has been put before the Dallas City Council in more than a decade — a decade that has been marked by serious questions and a series of federal corruption investigations that have brought shame on this institution.

The challenges and the opportunities of our times demand leadership, not passive stewardship. And for the sake of future generations, this City Council and our community partners must continue to work together. I know that we can, and I sincerely believe that we will.

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SECTION II.

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson
Mayor Eric Johnson, 60th Mayor of Dallas / Credit: City of Dallas

Five months ago, at the City Council inauguration, I spoke about the need for our city to get back to basics. And as I mentioned, in our recently passed budget, we did just that.

Our top priority in this budget is, without a doubt, public safety — the most basic service a city government can provide. I’m thrilled to say that this City Council has made a greater commitment to keeping our neighborhoods safe than any other City Council in recent history.

It was a necessary commitment to meet the needs of a growing city. Dallas’ population increased by 9 percent in the last decade. Only two other top 10 American cities experienced faster growth during that time. But as our population increased, our police department decreased by hundreds of officers — the result of a pension crisis that will again demand our attention, and the support of the state legislators in this room, very soon. And with a smaller police department, crime became a bigger problem. Response times lagged. Our neighborhoods felt less safe.

Thankfully, Police Chief Eddie Garcia has given us a data-driven, community-based, and resource-conscious violent crime reduction plan. And it’s working. It’s still early, but the turnaround is remarkable. Before Chief Garcia got here, there was a lot of pointing at national trends and throwing up of hands by our police department leadership.

But now, we’re bucking those trends, and we’re leading the nation. While other cities across the country are still struggling to slow violence, crime in Dallas is going down.

Our City Council has given Chief Garcia the resources he needs to sustain that success with an “all-of-the-above” blueprint. We committed to hiring 500 officers over the next two years. We’ve made sure we’re paying our first responders at the market rate. And, critically, we also provided our police commanders with the resources they need to fight crime. With new squad cars and a restored overtime budget, we can address some of our residents’ most pressing concerns, such as domestic violence, illegal street racing, and violent incidents in our entertainment districts.

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Of course, public safety is about more than law enforcement. It’s also about creating opportunities, offering quality services, and strengthening neighborhoods.

I’m pleased to say we are also continuing to fund and expand our nationally recognized programs that help us properly address mental health emergencies. At the neighborhood level, the programs recommended by my Task Force on Safe Communities are eliminating blight, dispatching community-based violence interrupters, and bringing long overdue street-lighting improvements to high-crime areas. And, through Dallas Works, my summer jobs program for Dallas youth, we put nearly 1,000 of our young people to work last summer, allowing them to earn money and to stay out of trouble.

By continuing and expanding these programs, and by providing a major boost to our police department, we’re sending an unmistakable message: If you live in Dallas, we’re committed to ensuring that you live in the safest large city in America.

SECTION III.

Without safety, we can’t expect people to thrive. And if our people can’t thrive, we’ll miss opportunities to compete economically in the years ahead.

I want to be clear: Dallas is an economic success story. But we have much more work to do. The economic playing field has been changing. And while we’ve long known that we’re competing nationally with other major cities, we’ve been slower to recognize the serious challenges in our own backyard.

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The cities that we used to call our “bedroom communities” have caught us napping over the years. And every time we’ve rested on our laurels, our regional competitors have lured away residents and businesses with the promise of better schools, better infrastructure, better amenities, lower crime rates, and lower taxes.

While Dallas has continued to attract Fortune 500 companies, such as CBRE and AECOM, we can do so much more to ensure we get our fair share of the new workers, new businesses, and new development that is coming into this region.

Now, it’s important for me to say this: there is value in regional approaches to solving our common problems.

For example, look at our city’s $25 million contribution to a regional effort to reduce homelessness, championed on this council by our Housing and Homelessness Solutions Committee Chairman Casey Thomas. Programs like this demonstrate what is possible when we work together.

But, as a philosophy for economic development, regionalism will leave Dallas in the dust of new construction to the north.

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It’s time to assert ourselves more aggressively. Dallas is the economic engine of this region, and we need to start acting like it.

We can do so in six significant ways.

First, we need to keep cutting our property tax rate. We just reduced the city’s tax rate for the sixth-straight year. We should be proud of that. But I know we can do even better for our homeowners and our small businesses who have been pressured by valuations that rise endlessly, forcing them to make sacrifices to pay the rent or pay the mortgage. The people of our city, and the businesses that employ them, need tax relief.

Second, we need to move thoughtfully, but swiftly, to create an economic development corporation that serves the City of Dallas and encourages growth in southern Dallas. I trust that our esteemed Economic Development Committee Chairman, Tennell Atkins, will help us move forward with this new entity — the centerpiece of our comprehensive economic development policy.

Third, we need to boost our efforts to create a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship that can give us an edge over our regional competitors and put Dallas in the national conversation about tech hubs. Dallas was built on innovative thinking, and we have every right to be considered an entrepreneurial city. With the help of my newly appointed entrepreneur-in-residence, Nina Vaca, we can ensure that Dallas attracts new capital and earns the attention befitting the city that brought the world the microchip and helped usher in the tech revolution.

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Fourth, we need to put our city on the international stage. Dallas is already an international city with a diverse population, major attractions, and two world-class airports. But we can do more to promote our unique assets, enhance our global business ties, and bring in more international tourism. We’re bidding to host the 2026 World Cup, and I’m working closely with my International Advisory Council and its chair, Ambassador Jeanne Phillips, to bring new foreign trade offices to Dallas. Our world is increasingly interconnected, and we need to be at the forefront of the global economy.

Fifth, as we look to attract visitors, we need to modernize the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. It’s a vital asset that can help us attract visitors and business from all over the world. But it’s also critical to redeveloping downtown. As it stands now, the convention center is an albatross.

Rather than connecting the development of the Cedars and the Main Street corridor, which now features the incredible AT&T Discovery District, the convention center is a barrier — a dividing line, rather than a welcoming place.

We should take advantage of this game-changing opportunity to improve our convention center and open up land nearby for dense, walkable urban development.

But let’s also stand firm on this point: public amenities — such as park space and public transportation — should be deemed essential to this project. The convention center and surrounding district should provide an unforgettable experience for our out-of-town visitors, but it should also serve as a magnet for people in this city and throughout this region.

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SECTION IV.

Sixth, and most importantly to me, we have to think more about economic development in terms of whether we’re doing enough to empower our residents.

For as long as I can remember, the health of the Dallas economy has been judged in terms of real estate deals or the number of jobs we bring in from someplace else. And to be sure, both are important. Development is critical to growing our city’s tax base.

But, to truly build for our city’s future, and specifically for the future of southern Dallas, we have to start thinking more about the people who can fill those jobs — the people who already call our city home.

I’m talking about working people who want good jobs with decent wages so they can afford to live in nice, safe homes. I’m talking about families who struggle to scratch out an honest living in an economy that has gone through extraordinary upheaval since they left high school. And I’m talking about parents like mine, who were willing to work day and night to put food on the table for their family but had no real options for improving their careers, other than to just keep moving forward, no matter what.

Workforce development is one of the most important and least discussed issues of our time. We’re going to start talking about it a lot more. I’m excited to announce that, tomorrow, we will officially release our new report on workforce development.

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This report is the result of months of research and conversations with experts and partners in our community. The Workforce, Education, and Equity Committee, led by Chairwoman Jaynie Schultz, will be briefed on the report, which includes recommendations such as new formal agreements and the creation of a new navigation tool that can point people toward upskilling programs.

I look forward to naming a new workforce czar by early next year to help us implement these recommendations, and I’m willing to dedicate discretionary American Rescue Plan Act funds to help implement them.

With this plan, we can prove once again that the American Dream is alive and well in Dallas.

But people need more than economic opportunities. The pandemic put an inordinate amount of pressure on our families. For my own family, our parks, trails, libraries, and cultural offerings have been a godsend.

Throughout our city, we’re creating partnerships that are great for our families. The Park and Recreation Department’s Teen All-Access Pass provided cultural experiences for thousands of young people this summer. We’ve added more than 11 miles of new trails in the last two years, and we’re building more. We’ve opened five new parks and broken ground on several others in that same span, and we’ll be announcing another new park in the coming weeks. We’ve opened, upgraded, and renovated our rec centers, aquatic centers, and libraries. And we’ve improved our programming, such as SMART Summer, my summer reading program, which saw a 30% increase in registration this year.

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We still have more room for growth on all of these fronts. Another important way we can become more family friendly is by tapping into our past as we build for our future.

Throughout our history, Dallas has served as a launching pad to famed entrepreneurs, musicians, athletes, and public servants.

We’ve made some progress in recognizing and preserving our history. But before the last few years, it feels like we hardly ever talked about some of our hometown heroes, hidden places, and our many contributions to the world. It took far too long to get a sculpture honoring blues legends Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan in Kiest Park, near where they grew up. We’ve done very little as a city to highlight people like baseball Hall-of-Famer Ernie Banks, who attended Booker T. Washington High School in downtown Dallas, or legendary Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson, who went to Skyline High School in Pleasant Grove.

And strangely, we’ve done nothing at all to recognize Dallas-native Tom C. Clark, who served as our nation’s Attorney General and went on to spend the better part of two decades as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court — including sitting on the court that unanimously struck down public school racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education.

Looking back isn’t really the Dallas way. And I get why. In Dallas, we prefer to look forward. That’s great, but we’re missing out on both tourism dollars and the chance to create educational and family-friendly programming for our city.

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That’s why next year, I will launch a new initiative called Dallas Is For Families. To start this work, I intend to put together a task force that will recommend ways we can create, enhance, and promote our programming, infrastructure, and policies aimed at families.

I will also want them to work with our Quality of Life, Arts, & Culture Committee Chairman, Adam Bazaldua, who, like me, has a young family, and understands the importance of catering to these families in order to keep them in our city.

I realize that schools are perhaps the biggest factor in attracting and keeping young families here in Dallas. And we don’t have much say in K-through-12 education at City Hall. But we can and must do everything in our power to make Dallas the safest, most vibrant, and most fun city in Texas for families.

SECTION V.

As we enact our agenda — the agenda of the people of Dallas — accountability is paramount. The City Council’s votes on policies and plans are only as good as their implementation.

Dallas City Hall has become a bit notorious over the years for making plans that sit on shelves. In the past few years, however, that criticism no longer applies. Our Task Force on Safe Communities policies and our Comprehensive Environmental and Climate Action Plan prove that, with the help of fierce advocacy from this council, we can turn ideas and plans into reality.

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We’ve made more plans in this year’s budget. We’ve allocated money for more police officers, more 911 call takers, and more Code Compliance officers. We’ve dedicated tens of millions of dollars to neighborhood revitalization efforts, homelessness services, street resurfacing, sidewalk repairs, and to bringing broadband to our underserved communities to close the digital divide.

And we’ve taken steps to improve our sanitation services to ensure that garbage is collected on time.

Through our committees, the City Council must monitor our progress and ensure that our city bureaucracy is coming up with ways to fix issues that have lingered for far too long.

There have been many. As we know, issues with our data and software management have threatened our ability to administer fire and ambulance services and have called into question the integrity of our criminal investigations.

We should also never have to hear about our permitting operations at the City Council level, and yet, permitting has achieved a level of infamy among people doing business with the city, posing an existential threat to our city’s growth.

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While we’ve struggled at times with these basics, our government has continued to grow, taking on new responsibilities without ever truly considering what we should stop doing.

Today, I am asking our Government Performance & Financial Management Committee, led by our intrepid Chairwoman Cara Mendelsohn, to develop a sunset review process for our city departments, offices, and programs.

It simply cannot be the case that every part of our city government should be allowed to grow indefinitely. This new process for periodically reviewing city departments will help us eliminate waste, materially reduce our tax rate, and modernize our services.

This oversight is key to improving our city government. It’s become clear to me, after nearly a decade in the Legislature and more than two years here, that a sunset review process can help us at Dallas City Hall.

We also have to hold ourselves accountable. To be a truly great city, this City Council must pass meaningful ethics reform.

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Ethical behavior is the foundation of everything we do in this building. That is why I have put before the City Council a proposal from a task force of experts to reform our ethics code.

This new policy promotes a culture of ethics and compliance, and it will show the people of Dallas that their best interests are our only interests.

The centerpiece of the proposal, which makes our ethics code simpler and easier to comply with, is the creation of an Office of the Inspector General. This new office would weed out frivolous complaints that waste our time, but also thoroughly investigate serious allegations that lay waste to our city government’s credibility.

I’ve asked Councilmember Paula Blackmon to spearhead this effort. She has extensive experience in government, including as part of the last major effort to overhaul our city’s ethics code.

I should also mention how impressed I’ve been with our new councilmembers — Paul Ridley, Gay Willis, Jesse Moreno, and Jaynie Schultz — for their commitment to accountability.

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Now is the time for the Dallas City Council to come together to pass a common-sense ethics policy our city so desperately needs.

SECTION VI.

I realize that what I’ve laid out today is an ambitious agenda for the year ahead, one that is supplemented by other priorities I will provide to our committee chairs. Things like bringing back scooters, which I like. Or dredging White Rock Lake, which I want to do. Or creating new policies to make it easier to operate food trucks, which I really can’t enjoy on my diet.

But, we’ve already come a long way in a short time.

Last year, in my State of the City address, I chose to speak at the beautiful, historic, and newly renovated Hall of State. I wanted to mark the beginning of a new era at Fair Park — one in which we could honor our past while we looked to build a place for all the people of Dallas to enjoy.

Unfortunately, like so many other events during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had to give the address virtually.

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About two months later, that same building, like so many of our homes and businesses, was flooded. February’s awful, devastating deep freeze burst our pipes, destroyed many of our homes and businesses, and left us feeling hopeless and alone. The most vulnerable among us were, as always, the most heavily impacted.

But eventually, the darkness receded. The sun came up again in Dallas. The power returned. And what we saw in the following days was the people of Dallas rallying around each other. Volunteers, including city councilmembers and our board and commission appointees, gave out water and supplies to the families who so desperately needed them.

More than $1 million of donations poured into the Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund — most of it thanks to our home team, the Dallas Mavericks. Grants quickly went out to dozens of organizations that work, day in and day out, to make Dallas a better place.

The darkness we endured revealed a shining bright spot, an undeniable truth: if you live in Dallas, you’re never alone. You’ll always have a community behind you.

Our city’s not perfect. We have some historical mistakes to rectify, many ongoing problems to tackle, and growing pains to endure.

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But our mistakes, our problems, our anxieties — they don’t define us. What cynics, naysayers, and doom-scrollers often don’t see clearly is the indomitable spirit of our city.

I’ve seen Dallas change over my lifetime — 46 years now. I’ve watched our city become more caring, more inclusive, and more cognizant of how we develop and grow.

Dallas, the city built for business, is becoming a city defined by its diversity and its compassion.

As someone who was born and raised in Dallas, as someone who has called this city home for my entire life, and as someone who is raising three children here, I’ve never been more optimistic about our future.

That’s because of many of the people in this room, but it’s also because of the people of Dallas — people who might never come down to City Hall, or even give much thought to what we do here, but who nonetheless want what’s best for their families and their community.

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If we continue to get back to basics here at City Hall, and if we continue to build for our future, we can trust that the people of Dallas will take it from there, and that they’ll roll up their sleeves and make their own luck.

Thank you all, again, for being here with me today. May God bless you all, and may God bless the great city of Dallas.

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