The old switcheroo

What happens when you no longer need the levee taxpayers voted to pay for? Why, you just spend the money on some other big dumb project.

One of the main reasons I keep such fat files--and one of the things I always secretly hope for--is to be of assistance to my city council.

Just recently, our city council got confused about whether it had actually told us it was going to spend $30 million in bond money on the Elm Fork Levee back in 1998 when it asked us to go to the polls and vote in favor of spending $30 million in bond money on the Elm Fork Levee.

Hang on. This could happen to anybody. These are busy people. And I don't want you making a big fuss over it, because, no matter what, it's only $30 million, and we don't want people in other cities to think we're poor.

The city council is talking about spending our $30 million on other stuff, because the rest of the Trinity River project, especially the toll road part, is in big money trouble. The council can't quite remember whether it ever really technically specifically told us it was going to spend the $30 million on a levee. So, if they just can't remember, well, then maybe they can just spend the $30 million on something else, like the toll road or "signature bridges."

In 1998, at the urging of Mayor Ron Kirk and most of the city council, we voted to authorize $246 million in taxpayer debt for the Trinity River project. Included in that money was $30 million for the city's share of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers levee--a dirt wall, basically, along the edge of the river--to keep the Elm Fork of the Trinity from flooding. The Elm Fork Levee was going to cost a total of $60 million, of which half was supposed to come from the federal government.

Since the 1998 bond vote, the public has learned that almost no real engineering work had been done before the election to see what everything was really going to cost. It was a mistake. They've admitted it. They're doing the work now. Just let it go, OK?

The point is, at a recent hearing on the project, Dallas public works director David Dybala told the council that the federal government had decided the Elm Fork Levee was stupid and unnecessary and there would be no federal money for it.

So, guess what? Now the council has this vote from 1998 saying that you and I agree to go $30 million in debt on our houses for a levee. But they have no levee to build. Logical conclusion? Borrow the money anyway! Spend it on other stuff! Yeehaw!

Come on, you see the logic. Don't be a stiff. It's like somebody sends you a credit card in the mail, right? What are you gonna do? Max it out! If there's some big issue about it, change your name, move to Ohio at midnight. These people on the council are cool. They're players.

But they wanted to know--first from Dybala and then from the city's lawyers--whether they could get in trouble. They asked Dybala whether the levee was specifically listed in the 1998 bond program as part of the overall package of bonds being authorized by voters.

Dybala said, "In the 1998 bond program, it was identified as part of an overall program."

See. It was only "identified." Not listed. Quick thinking, Judge Learned Hand Dybala! I think I get it.

But council member Donna Blumer seemed unconvinced. She asked, "Did it say 'levee,' and that was what was put before the voters?"

Dybala said, "It indicated a levee."

Ha! You can't go to the pokey for indicated, can you?

Blumer asked, "If the bond program was very specific about allocating $30 million for a levee and we re-program that into something else, is that legal? Can we build something else?"

Dybala said, "Yeah, we can." He explained that "the proposition didn't specifically list the Elm Fork. It was just the Trinity River."

At that point, a helpful assistant to City Attorney Madeleine Johnson stepped forward and read to the council the specific language we voted on at the polls in '98, which mentioned only "floodways, levees, waterways, open space, recreational facilities, the Trinity Parkway, and related street improvements."

So, you see, the Elm Fork Levee wasn't specifically mentioned in there. And the council, understandably, couldn't remember whether the levee had ever actually been specifically promised to the voters in any other official way before the bond election.

Oh, man, they are going to be so happy when they find out I kept my files. But really, it's just my job. I am not a hero.

So here's what we have in the old shoe box: In a slick-paper four-color brochure that went out to voters in April 1998, there is a section titled "Elm Fork Levee." I read it carefully to make sure it didn't say "Possible Elm Fork Levee" or "Elm Fork Levee Maybe But Don't Count On It."

It says "Elm Fork Levee." In fact, the brochure describes the levee in some detail. It says it will be a "six-mile-long embankment that will range in height from 15 to 18 feet and will extend from Royal Lane all along Luna Road and east to Bachman Lake."

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