The following are Mayor Johnson’s prepared remarks for the State of the City address. The video can be found here.
It is my honor and privilege to address you all from the beautiful Hall of State at Fair Park.
This is a special night. Of all the speeches that I give throughout the year, the State of the City is the most important. That’s because the people of Dallas, more than a century ago, believed that the mayor, as the city’s top elected official, should provide an annual report on the city’s financial condition, its accomplishments, and its plans and needs for the future. And to this day, addressing the State of the City stands as one of the few directives given to the mayor of Dallas in our City Charter.
This is the first year in recent memory that this address is not being given at a private event hosted by one of our city’s civic or business institutions. Making this event public was important to me, because this address should be for all of our residents, not just for a few. And although I would’ve loved to have hosted this event in person with the people of Dallas here in attendance, I’m pleased to have the opportunity to speak to you virtually this year as we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout most of 2020, our lives have been disrupted and thrust into uncertainty. Not since the 1918 influenza pandemic, during the days of Dallas’s 33rd Mayor, Joe Lawther, has our city faced this kind of a daunting public health challenge.
Hundreds of families have lost loved ones. Other families have suffered through layoffs, pay cuts, furloughs, trips to the hospital, and anxiety about the future. This year has weighed heavily on me as I know it has on you. I know the intense pain and uneasiness you’re feeling, and I understand the desire to get back to normal. I want that, too.
Thankfully, an end is in sight. Viable vaccines are on the horizon. We will work with federal, state, and county government to ensure that these vaccines are distributed to all of our communities, especially our most vulnerable. Until then, we must all continue to take precautions and follow public health guidelines.
The people of Dallas have shown grit and grace over these past nine months. We’ve had our struggles, but we’ve proven that we are a resilient city that continues to boldly build for a post-pandemic future. We are a city that is powered by people who are dedicated to their communities. And we have shown an irrepressible spirit.
In the face of tragedies, natural disasters, and a global pandemic, our people have stepped up to help their neighbors.
This year has also caused us to more closely examine racial injustice. Dallas, like every American city, has its scars. About a decade before I was born, Dallas was dubbed “a city of hate.” And during my lifetime, Dallas became more and more divided by highways and by prejudices into a city of north and south, Black and White, the well-to-do and the underserved.
Despite these challenges, and many others, I’m proud to report tonight that the state of our city is strong because our people are strong.
The task ahead of us now is to forge a city government that is as strong as our people.
I want to first say that some parts of our city government work very well. Our police officers, our firefighters, our code officers, and our sanitation workers routinely perform heroic work, even during a pandemic, and provide excellent service, often without recognition. We have a top-notch Park and Recreation system and quality public libraries. Dallas Water Utilities continues to be one of the best utilities in the state. And Dallas Animal Services has seen a remarkable turnaround in recent years and operates what is now considered a no-kill shelter.
But in significant ways, City Hall, at times, falls short.
It has fallen short for the people who have dialed 911 in a crisis, only to be put on hold or to never reach an operator at all. It has fallen short for the people who have had to wait for 10, 15, 20 minutes to have a police officer show up at the scene of an emergency.
It has fallen short for the families of the 227 murder victims we’ve had in 2020—the most since 2004. It has fallen short for our underserved communities that have been devastated by violent crime. In fact, about 86 percent of the murder victims in Dallas this year have been people of color.
And, although this is far from city government’s responsibility alone, it has fallen short in its efforts to address homelessness.
On top of all of this, your property taxes are too high. Your streets are degrading too rapidly. Your code enforcement officers are stretched too thin. And if you’re trying to do business in Dallas, your permits take way too long.
All the while, the salaries of the highest-paid city executives have grown.
This is a great city to live in. But you deserve a city government that masters the basics. You deserve a more efficient, effective, accountable, transparent, innovative, and service-oriented city government that focuses on your needs and solves problems, especially as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Dallas, the mayor is not the chief executive like in most other major cities. My responsibilities are to help guide policy, to provide oversight, to give a voice to your interests, and to regularly give you an honest and frank assessment of what our city must do to correct its course. And that means keeping up the pressure to ensure our city executives implement the policies and plans that too often fall by the wayside or get stuck in the slow-grinding gears of city government.
To that end, I submitted a list of policy priorities to our City Council committees, which serve both a policy-making and oversight function to ensure that city government is responsive to you. Through this legislative program, we can focus on helping make Dallas safer, more equitable, more family friendly, more hospitable to businesses, both big and small, and more environmentally conscious.
Our top priority, however, must be public safety.
Several programs included in this year’s budget should help us in the years to come. I supported the expansion of RIGHT Care, a program that sends trained mental health professionals, rather than a team of police officers, to handle mental health crisis situations. The program has shown incredibly positive results that we hope will make a difference for people across our city.
The budget also funded community-focused programs recommended by the Mayor’s Task Force on Safe Communities. These programs include remediating blighted properties, improving lighting in high-crime areas, and hiring violence interrupters, who are people within a community who can help stop conflicts before they turn violent.
Despite these positive steps, I ultimately voted against the budget because it failed to do enough to fund the basics, especially for our police department.
While we are planning to civilianize positions within the Dallas Police Department to allow officers to return to patrolling our streets, our current budget will actually shrink the police force. And in the face of the increased violent crime we have seen, a majority of the City Council, over my objection and those of some of my colleagues, cut the Dallas Police Department’s overtime budget by 25 percent.
I am committed, however, to looking for ways to increase the police presence on our streets to make the public safer.
We will do so by pushing for the implementation of the Domestic Violence Task Force’s recommendations, which are critical after we’ve seen family violence aggravated assaults climb by more than 11 percent this year. We will do so by holding the police department accountable for its civilianization plans. And we will hopefully do so by exploring more intra-jurisdictional partnerships.
As we put more police on our streets to keep people safe, we must hold officers accountable. It’s imperative that our police department set policies and provide training to properly deescalate situations. We must give our officers the tools they need to succeed, and then demand that they be held to the highest standards.
We need more robust law enforcement strategies as well. The violent crime reduction plan that I asked for last year simply has not worked. Soon, the city manager will decide on a new police chief who will set the course for the Dallas Police Department in the years ahead. I have no say in that decision, but it’s important to me that the public has a voice. I will continue to push for your involvement, and it is my expectation that whoever becomes the next police chief will be accountable to you and will work with you to make our city safer.
Reducing violence will also help us recover economically from COVID-19.
This virus has taken a toll on our vibrant and diverse economy. But we are well positioned for the future. Dallas may have grown up on oil money, but we’ve matured. We now boast many successful small businesses, a resilient arts scene, a fantastic hospitality industry, and a growing tech sector. 11 Fortune 500 companies now call Dallas home.
During the pandemic, we allocated federal CARES Act dollars to help our small businesses survive. At my urging, we also passed a new procurement policy meant to give greater preference in the awarding of city contracts to firms that hire locally or that are based in the city of Dallas.
Our people have pitched in, too. At my request, Richard Fisher, the former president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and Fred Perpall, the CEO of the Beck Group, led a private effort to distribute PPE and provide coaching and capital to small businesses.
I directed the Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund to give $275,000 to groups that are helping the people who have been most affected by the pandemic. We also coordinated numerous philanthropic relief efforts. That included the distribution of donated PPE, as well as helping direct meals purchased from local restaurants to healthcare workers and first responders.
But beyond immediate needs, we have also begun planning for the future. We are developing a comprehensive economic development policy, which could include a new outside entity that is dedicated to serving our city and competing more aggressively with our neighboring cities and suburbs. We’re working on a strategic transportation plan as we strive to make our infrastructure planning more equitable, to put the interests of our city first, and to focus on 21st Century mobility.
We cannot continue to underinvest in our infrastructure, as we have unfortunately done again in this year’s budget. We need better roads, more bike lanes, and to push for better public transportation services from DART.
We will also need a workforce that is prepared for the jobs of tomorrow. That will require support from businesses, our higher education institutions, and nonprofits. I can proudly say we’re beginning to take the right steps.
With the help of private partners, my office created Dallas Works, a summer jobs program for our city’s youth. This program will help our city’s young people learn new skills, prepare for a career path, and to stay out of trouble. In the first year, despite the pandemic, 454 teens were employed through Dallas Works—more than in any year of the program’s predecessor, the Mayor’s Intern Fellows Program. In the years ahead, my goal is to employ thousands of our city’s young people. Other cities have shown it’s possible. Houston’s goal is to employ 10,000 youth. We should strive to do the same.
Last week, we also announced a new Task Force on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. This group will make a series of recommendations to make Dallas more competitive in attracting, retaining, and growing startup companies. And next year, I also hope to bring forward a plan to help grow our city’s minority- and women-owned businesses.
Through these efforts and partnerships, we can tap into our immense potential and become a more equitable city for all of our residents, especially those who live in southern Dallas. Our city’s future depends on it.
We should make some significant strides in southern Dallas in the years ahead. We have funded a new master plan to redevelop Hensley Field, the 738-acre former site of the Dallas Naval Air Station located along the waterfront of Mountain Creek Lake. We are seeing great progress as we reimagine Red Bird. And we are looking forward to welcoming a new automated distribution center that Kroger has promised will bring 400 jobs.
And to spur the type of development we want to see across Dallas, we must demand that our city’s management provide a better, more efficient permitting process for businesses. Dallas is a great city for businesses, but to grow as we know it can, it must also be a great city to do business with.
Businesses can’t run roughshod over the environment, though. Many of them realize this, and with widespread support from our business community, we unanimously passed our city’s first-ever Comprehensive Environmental and Climate Action Plan. Through our City Council committee devoted to the environment, which I created last year, we must find ways to ensure that we prevent environmental injustices such as the horror of Shingle Mountain from ever happening again in our great city.
As someone who grew up in the shadow of a lead smelter plant in West Dallas, and as the father of two young boys who I want to see grow up in a healthy, resilient city, this is an issue that is near and dear to me.
I also want my boys to grow up in a city that takes better care of its most vulnerable residents. We have played an endless game of whack-a-mole with our homeless population, shutting down encampments frequently, but seeing the ranks of the needy and the distressed grow.
And let me be clear, this is a racial equity issue. About 25 percent of our city is Black. But Black people make up two-thirds of our city’s homeless population. In the weeks and months ahead, we must push every level of government as well as our private partners to do more to address the root causes of homelessness and the racial disparities that we see. It is clear that we need systemic change—and not just at City Hall. We need a collective effort that involves the state, Dallas County, nonprofits, shelters, and our faith community.
I realize that all of these efforts will come in a challenging budget year. Our early estimates indicate we could face a budget shortfall of $62 million next fiscal year. That means we need to thoroughly review city services, departments, and offices. You should demand that our city’s management be prudent and responsible with your tax dollars.
In that spirit, we should also set goals for reducing our property tax rate over time, rather than our usual mad scramble to save you a few pennies every year. Because, while your city tax bill pales in comparison to what you pay in school district taxes, we have the highest property tax rate of any city in the region. We cannot remain competitive as a city—we cannot continue to be a city that dreams big—unless we are willing to challenge ourselves, set goals for efficiency and service, and demand results.
This is what you deserve, and what you should expect from your City Council. We were elected to lead and to hold our unelected city manager, police chief, and other city executives accountable for getting the job done. We were elected to make this city government more responsive to the needs of our people.
We were elected to fight for the mothers and fathers who lost sons and daughters to violence in South Oak Cliff…
For the nurses who left Dallas to help fight COVID-19 in New York City…
For the doctors and healthcare workers who, in the face of a virus that has taken more American lives than any war since World War II, go to work every day and fight as hard as they can for us.
For the families who lost loved ones to this horrible virus and plead with us through tears to take the virus seriously.
For the out-of-work veteran who sits in line in her car at Fair Park to get a week of meals from our food bank.
For the young woman who gets home late from work and just wants a few hours of restful sleep, but is awakened by the sound of gunfire and illegal street racing seemingly right outside her bedroom window.
For the child who is born into poverty in an underserved community, like I was, but who hopes one day to work in a glittering skyscraper downtown.
For the senior on a fixed income who sees her landlord raise her rent every year to cover his ever-increasing property tax bill.
And for all of the families in this city who, like my wife, Nikki, and I, are trying to juggle kids and work during these tumultuous times.
Our city government won’t and can’t solve all your problems. But together, we can build a safer city. A more accountable city. A more transparent city. A city government that can help people open doors, not just throw up roadblocks and make excuses for poor performance and lack of results. A city government that forges real solutions, not through budget deals cut behind closed doors, but out in the open, where the public can judge both our decisions and our rationale and hold us accountable.
I know that we can do this. Dallas has consistently met the challenges of the times. And we have come a long way over the years. Look no further than this building, which is emblazoned with the names of some men who owned slaves and even took up arms to ensure that someone with my skin color couldn’t ever stand before you as your elected representative.
To borrow from Alexis De Tocqueville’s assessment of our country, the greatness of our city, similarly, does not lie in being more enlightened than other cities, but in our ability to repair our faults.
The Dallas of today is not a city of hate. It’s a city that, despite all of its flaws, is a city of hope. A city of opportunity. A city of dreams. A city of second chances and new lives. A city with communities that care. It’s your city.
When this pandemic ends—and it will end—we will start a new chapter in the story of Dallas. And we will share in a new era of safety and prosperity where my children and yours can make their lives here, just as all of us here have done.
Together, we can.
And together, we will.
Thank you, may God bless you, and may God bless the great city of Dallas.