City Hall's Slam-Dunk Gang

Quick--someone take a pulse. The Dallas City Council hasn't peeped in months. And John Ware and Ron Kirk are looking awfully well-fed.

In the early and mid-1980s in Dallas, middle-class and working-class white people started figuring out that they were getting screwed too, just like the ethnic minorities. People like Duncan decided they didn't want to be ruled by developers any more than African-Americans wanted to be ruled by whites.

Everybody wanted to rule himself and live like an American. Everybody. That's really why the city went to a system of all single-member districts.

And now it's gone. It was only around for seven years. But the single-member-district system is effectively extinct.

Politics is more than money, but money is sometimes the clearest reflection of what's going on. In an election next May, Dallas voters will decide whether to allow the city council to borrow approximately $543 million by selling bonds over the next four years.

That money, if approved, will be divvied into pots, most of it going to the high-profile big-trophy projects backed by the city's major real-estate development interests--the plan to rebuild the Trinity River and money for the arts district, for example.

In fact, so much of the bond issue will be sucked up by the flash-and-glory deals that only about $140 million--a quarter of the total--will be available for the basic street, gutter, and pothole things that most council members' constituents seem to yearn for.

And why is it that so many of the city's average, everyday citizens keep telling their council members that what they want is the streets fixed, the garbage picked up by city employees instead of exploited homeless people, storm sewers repaired, trees planted, medians mowed? Are people in Dallas just whiners? Are they imagining that the city is decaying before their eyes when it is not?

No. It's nobody's imagination. In fact, there is a single number, a figure, a statistic that explains everything. It is the number on which to keep one's eyes. It is the number that tells the story of the city in today's perplexing times:

$3.2 billion.
According to information supplied to the City Council by the city manager, that is the amount of backlogged work--deferred maintenance, nuts and bolts, stuff people want fixed or replaced or somehow remedied--sitting on the books of City Hall today.

$3.2 billion.
Dallas has a credit rating that allows it to borrow approximately $135 million a year at good interest rates. In order to fix the things the citizens of the city have told their council members they want fixed, Dallas would have to borrow every cent it could, spend every cent it could--forget about the river deal and the arts district and the arena and everything else except what the citizens say they want fixed in their neighborhoods--and it would take 23 1/2 years to get the task done, long enough actually for another generation to be born and grow up, and why not just have them do it?

But that's only if we were spending all of our bond money on fixing the city, not just 25 percent. At the rate the mayor and the city manager want to spend the money, taking care of the city's basic "inventory needs list" will take more than 91 years. By then, people may be living on other planets, or, more pessimistically, in trees again.

That's another way of saying we're not going to do it. Other fish to fry. Forget about it.

The $140 million left for the basic needs of the city over the next four years is divided into pots of approximately $10 million for each council district. Up until now, the informal rule of the council has been that each council member decides how his or her slice of the bond money should be allocated.

It's up to them. And who knows? Some of them probably consult the Ouija board to figure out how to spread it. Others obviously consult the people who pay for their campaigns. Larry Duncan, like Blumer, gets out and around. So do a few others.

For Duncan, it's meetings, meetings, and more meetings. Lots more meetings than most people could stand. But that's how he does it.

What Ware and Kirk did to Larry Duncan over the bond money at the February 18 briefing wasn't exactly an ambush. Duncan, who has been around city politics for the better part of a quarter century, saw it coming. Several weeks before the meeting, Duncan sat down with the Dallas Observer over a cup of coffee at a Denny's restaurant in his district and laid out exactly what they were going to do to him. He wanted to explain why it wasn't just fun and games to him.

Duncan represents District 4 in southwest Dallas--a diverse hodgepodge of ethnicities and economic cadres, including some snappy new neighborhoods, some respectably aging middle-class subdivisions, and a lot of staggering poverty.

"But we don't have problems about sharing the money in my district. We work it out," he said. "People in my district are accustomed to making do with limited resources. That doesn't seem to be a problem for them. Everybody here gets it."

Tapping his finger on the Formica table, he said, "There are unlimited things people might like to have. But then there are things like the bridge at Joppa that we just have to do."

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