Get real

Arena shills say only tourists will get soaked by a new tax on rental cars. They're lying.

Dallas city councilman John Loza has been an elected official for only six months, but you'd never know it. Because when he opens his mouth--which he does frequently and with no small degree of self-importance--there is no doubt in his voice, no hesitation, no sign of a learning curve for this 34-year-old lawyer.

Take the sports arena. Loza adores the idea of giving $125 million of the city's money to sports team owners Ross Perot Jr. and Thomas Hicks. And he despises anyone who calls such a subsidy "corporate welfare."

"It's time for these people who claim corporate welfare to get off their high horses, and let's face reality," Loza said loudly, hair slicked back, teeth bared, as he addressed his fellow council members at a special arena meeting on November 14. "The reality of this situation is crystal clear and simple--this will be a project that will benefit Dallas. And either you're for Dallas and for this project, or you are against Dallas and against this project...And you hurt our city in the process."

And how can Mr. Loza be so certain that building a new arena is a wonderful thing--and opposing a new arena such a treasonable thing?

"When I was campaigning for the city council...and when I was knocking on doors and having a chance to talk to people all over my district," Loza went on to say that day, "my thoughts on the arena were this: I would not support any proposal that was going to wind up raising taxes on the guy that drives the truck, or the kid that washes dishes, or the woman who answers the telephone at a law firm, or any of the other ordinary people in my district who are being socked enough with taxes, quite frankly.

"I wasn't going to support anything that was going to put an additional burden on them," Loza said. "I think I have remained true to that promise. This project is a good project, and it is a good project if for no other reason than it does not raise taxes on the average working person in this city."

Well, John Loza, to use your own blustery terminology--let's face reality.
Let's introduce you to Kevin Meyers. And Kathy Mead. And Jayne Larson. And Patty Jones. And countless other "average working people" in this city--all of whom will be saddled, if Mr. Loza gets his way, with paying taxes for a new arena.

The No. 1 myth about the proposed new arena is that "tourists" will pay for it, not Dallas residents. The mayor says so. The media says so. Most of the council members say so.

Here, for example, is an excerpt from the first paid political handout from the pro-arena faction, which is poised this month to unleash $1 million worth of radio, TV, and direct mail--all to get people to vote "Yes!" to higher taxes on January 17:

"Q: How will the City of Dallas pay for its investment?
"A: The city's investment will come from two tourist taxes. A car rental tax of 5 percent and a hotel occupancy tax of 2 percent."

No one's arguing that hotel taxes aren't tourist taxes--after all, how many Dallas residents stay at local hotels, except maybe to celebrate a 25th wedding anniversary?

But rental cars are a different matter entirely. "Our company does $30 million a year in revenues generated by our Dallas-based offices--our 30 offices located in the city of Dallas," says John Grimes, president of Enterprise Rent-a-Car for the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "And 85 percent of our business is local--auto dealers, weekend renters, body shops, neighborhood renters who might need a van for a special purpose. It's not people coming in at Love Field. It's just not a tourist tax. And I just would like to be able to explain it."

He's been trying. When the city council voted last month to approve the arena deal--which included the higher car rental tax, subject to approval by voters in January--Grimes immediately called and faxed councilwoman Barbara Mallory Carraway, in whose district Enterprise's headquarters are located.

But Mallory Carraway wasn't interested in Grimes' information about who rents cars in the city of Dallas. Nor was she interested in how inflated and unrealistic Grimes believes the tax revenue predictions are for those rental cars--a whopping $3.6 million a year, according to the city's numbers.

"This is a city of Dallas tax--meaning D/FW Airport car rentals aren't included," Grimes says. "So where's all this money going to come from?"

(The revenue predictions are indeed wobbly. Perot's attorneys assured the city last March that the additional car rental tax would raise $6.8 million a year for the arena; the state comptroller told the city in September that the figure was $2 million; and City Manager John Ware is telling the council $3.6 million.)

But despite repeated calls and faxes, Grimes and Mallory Carraway have never spoken. Which is sorely disappointing to Grimes--for more than the obvious reasons.

"We just moved our corporate office from Irving to Dallas," Grimes says. "We paid about $1 million for a vacant building, and we're spending millions of dollars renovating it, and it will improve the tax base for years to come in the city of Dallas." (Never mind that beyond property taxes, Enterprise will also pay $2.5 to $3 million this year to the city, county, and schools in personal property taxes on its many thousands of rental cars.)

It's not the relocation that bothers him--or the money he's investing in the city. It's all the money that Perot and Hicks are wanting to take from the city for their relocation. "That's the thing that just drives me crazy," Grimes says. "Here we are, a business that's not as well off as these sports teams, and we're on land that is going to be on the tax rolls, unlike these sports teams. And we're operating without any special tax abatements, unlike these sports teams. And when we moved here, it never even occurred to us to ask for any tax breaks."

To hear Mayor Ron Kirk talk, there is no one like John Grimes--there are only tax vultures like Perot and Hicks. "The notion that somehow we're being asked to do more [for Perot and Hicks] is not true," Kirk, chairman of the pro-arena campaign, told the city council the day he beseeched them to put the arena on the January ballot. "There is not a developer in Dallas that doesn't come down here and say, 'Whatcha got?'"

Alas, the mayor has a short memory. In October 1995, he and the now-unresponsive Mallory Carraway loudly applauded Enterprise for moving its headquarters to Dallas without asking for a dime.

"They're not asking for anything but a change in zoning," Mallory Carraway said at an October 10 council meeting. "They're not asking for any type of tax rebate. They think Dallas is a great place to relocate their business to...So I would like to personally thank Enterprise for your support and confidence in the city of Dallas."

But now it's time to pay up, Mr. Grimes. Go hit your customers with an additional 5 percent sales tax so the city in which you have so much confidence can build a new sports arena--for two guys who own enough spare Jags to avoid ever having to see the inside of one of your cruddy little Chevy Cavaliers.

"I don't know if City Hall believes that this is a tourist tax, or if they're trying to pull one over on people," Grimes says.

"I'd like to think they got some bad information, but I never see the mayor or anyone saying that the bulk of people who rent cars in Dallas are local people--even though that's the case."

But don't believe Grimes. Believe his rental records.
After Grimes and I talked two weeks ago, I asked him to let me review a week's worth of Enterprise rental contracts. I picked the dates--November 3 through November 10. I also selected the rental location--Walnut Hill Lane and Central Expressway. He complied.

For several hours a day over several days, I studied 129 individual rental car contracts--the total number of people who rented, and returned, cars from that location during that eight-day period. (An accordion file filled with open contracts--for cars that hadn't been returned yet--was also made available to me, but I didn't include those in my review.)

Here are the results: Of the 129 people who rented cars, 87 lived in the city of Dallas. That means that by a 2-to-1 margin, taxpaying Dallas residents rented the cars--not so-called "tourists."

Of the remaining 42 renters, 18 were residents of other Dallas-Fort Worth-area cities. That left only 24 "tourists"--people from other Texas cities or other states. In other words, 81 percent of Enterprise's renters that week were local people, almost exactly what Grimes had said.

A majority of the renters that week had experienced some form of car trouble--car wrecks, breakdowns, tune-ups--that left them without a car. Each rental contract duly noted when a body shop or car dealership was footing the bill for the rental, but surprisingly, only 20 of the 87 Dallas renters had that arrangement. Everyone else paid their own way. (Not that those 20 people don't feel that bill at some point--ever-escalating insurance premiums and car-repair bills reflect such a cost, as anyone who pays either knows all too well.)

And just who were these Dallas residents who rented these cars? High rollers? Un-average, non-working people--to put a spin on Loza's lingo--who can easily afford a new 5 percent tax on top of the 10 percent currently charged? Hardly.

John Loza, meet Jayne Larson. She's a chatty, happy, 43-year-old single hairdresser who pulls in a meager $14,000 a year at Gent's Choice Barbers at Central Expressway and Meadow Road. On the evening of November 5, Larson had the misfortune of being at Fair Park at 8:30 p.m. in a 1989 Honda Civic that stalled in the Music Hall parking lot. (No, she wasn't there to see the Dallas Opera production of Aida--she was working for it, doing hair and makeup on the opera stars; it's an hourly, part-time position that, if she's lucky, earns her an extra $5,000 a year.)

Larson called the Automobile Association of America, which towed her car back to her one-bedroom North Dallas apartment. The next morning she got a repair shop to pick up her car; then she called Enterprise, located just across the expressway from her apartment. "I got the littlest car they had," she said, referring to the pint-size Geo Metro she rented for a day for $32.99--plus 78 cents for a car title and tax reimbursement fee that rental car companies charge, plus $3.38 for the 10 percent sales tax.

Pay another $1.69...for a sports arena? No way. "I don't want my taxes to pay for it," Larson says. "Not that I'm against an arena--I just don't think I should have to pay for it. If the teams want it bad enough, let them pay."

Kathy Mead doesn't want to pay for an arena either. She's another single woman on a modest income--a 52-year-old widow who lives in a small apartment one block from noisy Central Expressway.

Each time her battered, 1978 red Mercury station wagon breaks down, she's had to rent a car from Enterprise while it was getting repaired. On November 5, it was a leaky radiator that forced her into a rental car for an entire week--at a cost of $219.99.

"I wonder if any of these team owners have ever rented a car--or paid for it out of their pockets," Mead says. "And who is this councilman saying that working people don't rent cars? If he was pompous enough to make that statement, I wonder what it would take to get him out of office."

Patty Jones is another person Loza ought to meet. "I rent a car every weekend from Enterprise," Jones says. "I'm afraid that if I use my car on the weekends, it won't hold up for work."

Jones is a 29-year-old billing clerk at a private ambulance company in Carrollton. She lives by herself in an apartment on Northwest Highway in Dallas and prays every day that her 1987 Mustang with "well over 100,000 miles on it" gets her to the job.

On her $21,580 annual salary, Jones pays her rent, her gas, her food, her rental car bills, and her tuition at Northlake College, where she is studying real estate--her dream profession. She sends what's left to her 13-year-old son, who lives with her parents in her hometown of Paris, Texas.

That's why she needs the rental car every weekend--to see her son. "As far as job opportunities, I can't get anything going down there [in Paris]," Jones says. "My best friend in Paris works at Kimberly-Clark, but I refuse to work in a factory. I've been here in Dallas off and on since I was 18. I can find a job easy."

Jones knows she needs to buy a new car, but all the costs associated with that are daunting. Although Jones shudders to think what she's spent on rental cars this year, Enterprise's records say it all--$2,003.83. And if an additional 5 percent arena tax had been in effect, Jones would have paid $100 more--to Messieurs Perot and Hicks.

"I wouldn't get any use out of their arena, either," she says. "It's just more taxes to me."

Of course, Enterprise isn't the only game in town. The 5 percent arena tax will also be imposed by every rental company operating at Love Field, where there are thousands of out-of-town business travelers--and certainly some tourists--to soak for the money.

But there are plenty of Dallas residents renting cars there, too, especially on weekends when the rates plummet. For the sake of comparison, I received permission from Bob Hayes, owner of the Avis franchise at Love Field, to review his rental contracts for that same time period beginning November 3. (The number of Avis contracts was so enormous that I limited my review to seven days--Monday through Sunday.)

During those seven days, a whopping 1,177 people rented cars. Only 161 of them were Dallas residents. But the local renters I spoke to--like their counterparts at Enterprise--were people of very modest means. (And I didn't have to dig deep to find them. The four people described in this story were four of only seven rental-car customers I contacted.) These Dallasites are the last people in town who can afford to pay for a $230 million sports arena.

Just meet Kevin Meyers.
Meyers is a 26-year-old employee of a temporary service that supplies clerks and secretaries to local law firms. The service pays him $9.50 an hour, barely enough to eat and cover the rent on his $350-a-month studio apartment above an Oak Lawn garage. It's certainly not enough money for him to buy a car. (He owned an '86 Isuzu until 23 months ago, when the head gasket blew out, leaving him car-less.)

So Meyers takes a DART bus to work each day, and once or twice a month he hops the No. 39 bus to Love Field and rents a compact car--usually at the $19.99-a-day weekend rate--so he can go grocery shopping, take the cat to the vet, or treat himself to an occasional weekend in Austin.

"What's wrong with the arena we have?" asks Meyers, a definite source of steady income for the new arena if the voters approve it next month. "Can't Ross Perot Sr. fork up some dough? I mean, $230 million to the Perots is like, what, two weeks' pay? Seriously. I just think the rich get richer."

And people like John Loza--elected by the little guy, clearly dazzled by the Big Guys--help them do it.

This past weekend, shortly after my conversation with Meyers, I called Loza to give him the opportunity to further opine about the condition of the lowly working man--specifically the thousands upon thousands of them who rent cars and who will soon pay more for the privilege if Councilman Loza gets his way.

"All I can say is that I've gotten mail on the arena, but I haven't gotten a single letter or phone call--and I'm listed all over the planet, I'm available--from anyone in my district saying, 'I rent a car on a regular basis, and this is not the right thing to do.'"

But does that mean there aren't Dallas residents out there renting cars on a regular basis? "I think it's the exception rather than the rule," Loza says. "Even in this city, most people of average means have a car, and that's how they get around. And that's why we have traffic and pollution and those kinds of problems. This is a car-oriented city."

But cars break down, people have hardships, I said. What about those 248 Dallas residents I found renting cars one week last month?--and that was taking into account only two of the 45 car-rental outlets in this city.

"That's a limited sample," Loza said, irritation creeping into his voice. "I still think it doesn't fall on the average person to pay for this. That's the bottom line on this."

Actually, no. The bottom line is that facts about the arena, no matter how compelling, are never going to get in the way of the mayor's mission. That's how it's been all along--even before John Loza became the most pompous ignoramus on the Dallas City Council.

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