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.

"They will allow through-ticketing at Love Field," Bartos says, "but they will continue to force planes leaving Love Field to land in the surrounding states, stopping every 280 miles or so. Probably nobody could come into Love Field and compete with Southwest on that basis."

While protecting Southwest's monopoly at Love Field, the deal would also keep Southwest out of American's monopoly at D/FW.

"It is an arrangement that divides the market and maintains two virtual monopolies in aviation for the metroplex traveler to deal with," Bartos says.

And all of it will be done without much reference to that pathetic City Council thing downtown.

So solid is the lock on things at City Hall that huge controversial issues fly right past the City Council without stirring a hair on a single council member's forehead. Some members don't get it. Some are afraid. Some have given up. There are many paths to catatonia.

Right in the midst of the debate on the bond package, the Northrup family announced that a Houston developer wants to build a $100 million apartment complex on Northrup property in the Farmers Market area. During the recent briefing, before the esteemed council voted to remove both of Larry Duncan's hands and one foot, several of them made glowing speeches thanking the slam-dunk duo for bringing this wonderful deal to them.

The developers were asking the city to put $11 million into the project, and council members said that seemed like a great deal: $11 million to get $100 million.

Well, oopsy on that. No, $11 million doesn't get us $100 million. That really would be a wonderful deal. If that sort of deal were available, we should expect to see people flying in from Bahrain and elsewhere to get in on more of the same.

No, the city's $11 million investment would get the city an additional amount of tax base that may or may not wind up being worth $100 million. At today's tax rates, that additional amount of tax base will take 17 years to pay back the city's $11 million investment. And by then, there's no telling if the apartments will still be worth enough to pay any decent taxes at all.

That amount, of course--$11 million--is more than the four-year capital budget for an entire City Council district. In Mr. Duncan's case, of course, it's twice as much. It's not a trivial amount.

Not that developing Farmers Market is a bad idea. It may be a great idea. But it's difficult to imagine a time in the last 20 years when such a large idea could move through the minds of the entire City Council and appear not to rustle a single mental leaf.

Only days before, the council had acquiesced just as meekly to the manager's decision to stretch out the payments on the bond issue by an extra year and borrow an additional $73 million.

Maybe it sounds good. It's what the guy on the lot says when you look like you might want to buy the Honda: You can afford the Lexus. Same payments. Just more of them.

It will give the mayor and the manager a public relations ploy when opponents of the bond issue argue that all of the money will go to the river and only a pittance will be spent on the $3.2 billion worth of deferred potholes, sewers, curbs, and gutters.

They can say, "Oh no. We feel your pain. We're borrowing extra money. We'll get to you. Be patient."

But you're going to have to be really patient, more patient than you were going to have to be already. The new plan means the street improvements and nuts-and-bolts projects people want are being pushed even farther to the back of the gravy train. In fact, what the mayor and the manager are doing is heavily front-loading the city's borrowing capacity in order to get the trophy projects, especially the river, paid for up front.

Most of the nuts-and-bolts projects that council members have promised their constituents are premised on what used to be the city's basic policy on borrowing money: that it would borrow about $200 million in elections held every three years.

So now the city is going to borrow $543 million and take four years to pay it off. But when did that policy change happen? There probably isn't a more fundamental policy issue than the underlying capital-borrowing plan of the city. It governs everything that can happen, everything that can be done. But there you have it. Kirk and Ware sailed it over the council's heads, and nary a propeller turned on a beanie.

In all of this, there is a single overarching question, capable of being expressed in a single three-letter word.

If Ron Kirk is a man making a career in politics, which he ought to be, and if John Ware is a man making a career in public administration, which he seems to be, then why would they want to do anything other than what the voting public of the city wants them to do? If there is a general sense out there that the city is sliding down into a $3.2 billion rat-hole of its own deferred needs, and if that sense is what brings the voters to their feet, then why wouldn't Kirk and Ware be doing everything in their power to meet that demand?

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