Let them cast ballots

Why can't citizens vote on new arena?

This past Saturday morning, Roland Blumer changed into baggy corduroy pants, a white T-shirt, and an old blue sweater that his wife had bought him at a garage sale a few years back. Then he grabbed an ax and headed out the door to work.

Not his work, mind you--the city's work.
For the past two years, Blumer and about 20 of his neighbors have sacrificed more weekends than they can count doing the work that the city of Dallas park and recreation department is too broke to do.

They clean, weed, water, and beautify the half-mile-long strip of public land along Joe's Creek, a highly visible neighborhood asset in the Forest Lane-Midway Road area of northwest Dallas. Their volunteer efforts began about four years ago when a dentist in the neighborhood, Dr. Terry Watson, got tired of the chronically trashy condition of the creek and the city's inability to maintain the creek bottom and neighboring city park. "The city does less and less for areas like this," Watson says. "It's not a high-profile area, and their excuse is they don't have money to do anything. It's always an issue of dollars."

Watson, like many frustrated citizens who see city services and public-improvement projects shriveling, convinced his neighbors to do what the city can't. And four years later, they're still doing it one weekend day a month. To date, the neighborhood has purchased and planted 5,000 daffodils and more than 250 trees. Not only has the city not participated in the work--it will mow the grass, but planting, watering and fertilizing anything is out--it has managed to destroy some of the trees.

"I guess there's been a lack of communication about how to care for young trees because the park department employees keep banging into the trees with commercial weed eaters," says Watson. "We've lost about 15 trees that we've had to replace, and a lot of the families who put a lot of time and effort into this were real upset about that."

Roland Blumer, of course, has heard the brunt of the complaints. His wife, Donna, has been the city councilwoman for the area for the past two years, and during that time, not only has she had firsthand evidence of the city's many limitations (and its citizens' many complaints), she has had a glimpse into its wrongheadedness, too. Its shortsightedness. Its strange priorities.

Last Saturday, watching her husband leave to do creek work for the umpteenth time--knowing she had lost another opportunity to get her mate into the backyard to loosen soil for onion-planting--Mrs. Blumer could only shake her head at the larger implications of the situation at hand. "Now that we're thinking of building a new sports arena, I wonder if our citizens are going to have a permanent job of keeping our parks up in Dallas," Blumer said.

"One thing is for sure--there isn't enough support on this council to stop this thing. We're being railroaded, and I think there's only one chance to stop it: Let the people decide."

What a sweet thought. What a simple thought.
Let the people decide.
Why can't Dallas citizens vote? After all, everybody else is doing it.

On January 21, Lewisville residents voted their politicians' sports arena plan down, 54 to 46 percent. On the same day, Lubbock voters did the exact same thing, albeit by a closer margin of 51 to 49 percent.

"It's a real grass-roots populist kind of message, I think," Mikel Ward, leader of the anti-sports arena faction in Lubbock told a hometown newspaper reporter the day of the defeat. "The working-class people can win no matter how much money is against them."

So far, that is not the case in Dallas, where the city council members are bound and determined to keep working-class people out of their arena-building business.

It should not be construed from this that the politicians in Lewisville and Lubbock are more open to the old-fashioned idea of participatory democracy. It's just that they wanted to hike the sales tax--a half-cent in Lewisville, three-eighths of a cent in Lubbock--to pay for a new sports arena. And to do that, the law required them to get the voters' approval--which they didn't get. Consequently, elected officials in both towns say their dream of leaving a sports shrine as their political legacy is dead.

Dallas officials are more crafty--some might say more sinister--than that. They know that their residents do not want to build a second sports arena in 15 years for three rich white guys--Mavericks owner Don Carter, Stars owner Norm Green, and Hyatt Regency hotel owner and Reunion land czar Ray Hunt. So the council has spent the last eight months trying to figure out a way to avoid the kinds of financing--a higher sales tax, general obligation bonds--that require voter or legislative approval.

Which is why, eight months later, we have no arena deal. Because we can't find other money.

According to council members, Carter has given the city until February 24 to cut a deal or, he says, he's finished with Dallas--he'll make a deal with one of the suburbs.

"The bottom line is the financing methods don't work on a new sports arena," says one council member involved in the current round of council-Carter negotiations. "Revenue bonds don't give us enough money to pay for this thing and retire the current debt on Reunion Arena. Right now we're trying to get Carter to pay three-quarters of the cost--instead of the $65 million he's offered--and we'd pay one-quarter. And we're looking around at other taxes--hotel-motel tax, mixed-drink tax, tax on rental cars. Whatever we can think of.

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