Gimme gimme

City Hall has $22 million in federal funds to fix your neighborhood. Instead, it's spending the money on barrels of pork.

All of which raises an interesting possibility: Maybe there is no due diligence or backup information to provide.

Artist Thornton II, who is the chief financial officer of the foundation formed by his parents, longtime southern Dallas community activists and actors Artist and Elaine Thornton, laughed out loud when the Observer asked whether there was anything confidential or secret in the information he had given the city as part of his grant application.

"We don't have the capability of having anything to hide," he said. "In terms of dollars, we don't have any to hide. In terms of being funded, this [the proposed $200,000 city grant] would be our first funding opportunity."

Thornton's parents are respected community leaders in southern Dallas with a long track record. They led the fight for the development of the South Dallas Cultural Center in 1986, paid for by the city with $1.5 million from the 1982 city bond election. Thornton II, who wrote his master's thesis at North Texas State on corporate support for nonprofits, said a circuitous route had brought him and his parents to the knowledge that CDBG money might be available for their theater school. He said people in the Texas Commission for the Arts steered him to a nonprofit job-training and arts program in Pittsburgh, where the executive director advised him to ask city officials in Dallas about CDBG money.

From his point of view, Thornton was just being an effective nonprofit manager, seeking out available financial support. But council member Laura Miller--one of a very small minority on the council last week who found anything amiss in the proposed CDBG budget--saw something wrong with this picture. Only the nonprofits that are well-wired politically get the cash, she said. The rest don't even know it's there.

"With all of the conditions of our parks, our recreation centers, libraries that need work, this long waiting list that we have on the home-improvement program, for us to be spending hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars and giving money to nonprofits for their building projects is bizarre," Miller said. "It's not like we have a policy of doing that. It's not like we're asking all of the nonprofits in the city to compete for this money. It just happens to be which nonprofit gets the ear of somebody and gets on this list."

But council member Sandy Greyson spied something in the proposed budget that may be even more audacious than giving so-called "public improvement" dollars to private entities. What Greyson found may be proof that City Hall suffers from some kind of financial attention deficit disorder.

Two years ago, in response to criticism that the city was spending CDBG money on itself--on staff salaries--and precious little of it on the neighborhoods for which it was intended, the city council ordered a mini-reform. The point was to shift $1.5 million of the staff salaries out of the annual CDBG budget. The city could pay its own staff out of its own tax revenues and put the federal money where it was intended to go.

The shift of $1.5 million per year would be phased in over three years: the amount available for neighborhoods in the first year's budget would be $500,000, in the second year $1 million, and every year thereafter $1.5 million.

In its resolution, the council said the freed-up money was to be spent on housing needs. The first year, that's what happened. The CDBG budget shifted the $500,000 for salaries to housing programs. This year, in the second year of the reform, Greyson assumed there should be $1 million in new money budgeted for housing. Indeed, the CDBG budget had cut the amount for staff salaries this year by $1 million as planned. But the amount of new money budgeted for housing was still down at the $500,000 amount.

They saved the extra $500,000. So why wasn't it going to housing too? Where was the other $500,000? Greyson asked.

The answer was here, there, and everywhere. This year's $500,000 had wiggled off into the slop of pork-barrel projects favored by various council members.

Bradford, who is in charge of community development, told Greyson the council's resolution technically said only that the money saved by not paying staff salaries had to go into housing the first year. It never specified that the saved money had to go to housing every year.

The real trick in all of this, of course--in spite of the objections by Finkelman, Greyson, Miller, and Alan Walne, who also seemed uncomfortable with some of it--is that the city council itself is the trickster here. This budget technically is proposed to them by the Community Development Commission, and then the council holds a series of hearings to review it.

But the members of the Community Development Commission, which devised the proposed budget presented last week, are appointed by the council. They're the council-persons' pals. They didn't shift that second $500,000 into favored little pork-barrel deals here and there because they thought it would make their council-persons mad.

In fact, when the CDC was going through its own budget process earlier in the year, city staffer Bradford recommended they put that second $500,000 annual increment into housing the way they obviously were supposed to. It was the political appointees on the CDC who said no, gimme-gimme. Later, at their direction, Bradford came up with the deal about "you never said every year."

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