Penny Stupid

Taxes go up, services come down, and the billionaires stay happy

If you own a small business, or if you pay the bills for yourself or your family, or if you are the treasurer of a church, synagogue, or mosque, or if you got decent grades in lower arithmetic, or if you have any kind of a bad temper at all, please, I beg you, do not read this column.

Because if you go ahead and read what I am about to tell you about the Dallas City Council and the budget process, frankly, I'm afraid of how you might react.

Please. No mayhem. I hate mayhem.

So let's go. Start repeating your mantra now.

At the August 9 city council meeting, late in the evening after the TV news cyclopses had packed up their videocams and gone back to their caves, there was a terrible, terrible scene. Two Dallas Morning News reporters sat right there through the whole thing taking notes, and the next day their newspaper reported not one word of the fracas.

Councilwoman Laura Miller had been trying since before the city council's summer break to get the city staff to explain why they wanted to give away nearly $6 million worth of land to the billionaire backers of the new downtown sports arena project. This involves half a dozen smallish properties at the outer edges of the vast real estate development project surrounding the downtown arena, now under construction.

Some of it is property the arena boys didn't decide they wanted until late. A goodly chunk of it, however, is land the city had hammered out of previous owners under threat of condemnation, with a specific promise that the land would be owned by the city, would be used for public purposes (parking), and would not go to the arena boys for private development for 30 years.

That 30-year promise lasted one year, and now the land the city took from private owners by force is being sold to the arena boys--apparently at about half of its real worth--so they can build offices on it.

Lest anybody think Miller was ambushing the staff at the August 9 meeting, let's get one thing straight. Before the council ever went on its summer hiatus in July, Miller had persuaded the council to vote to stall several land sales to the arena group, which the staff had tried to sneak onto the agenda for a quick vote. She wanted to allow the staff time over the summer to go out and get current appraisals so they would have some inkling of the value of the land the city was about to sell. Remember, of course, that you and I are already giving the arena boys $150 million in public infrastructure and other help.

The staff didn't do it. The council came back August 9 to take this up again and look at the new appraisals, and Gay L. DeHoff, head of property management for the city, and Assistant City Attorney Charles Bierfeld stood up and told them--kind of casually, if you ask me--that they simply didn't get the appraisals.

They went on to tell the council that they didn't think new appraisals were important, and the council should just go ahead and deed over the whole package for about $1.2 million.

Later I tried to call DeHoff, Bierfeld, and Bierfeld's boss, City Attorney Madeleine Johnson, to ask them why they had failed to get current appraisals as instructed by the council, and why they had violated most of the legal requirements for this kind of transfer listed in Section 2-26.2 of the city's administrative code. They wouldn't call me back.

At the council meeting, Miller called up a guy from the arena group to the podium and asked him to tell the council what the boys had been paying other sellers for land in the same area. He said he was "not at liberty to disclose" that information.

And between you and me, I don't know why he should. He's in business. It's the city's job to find out what its own land is worth if it's going to sell it.

But this is where the mayhem started. Miller, as most of you will recall, is an investigative journalist by trade. She had been out nosing around, calling land guys and so on, and she had developed a handful of very interesting comparable land values that she wanted to show the council.

As soon as he realized what Miller had, Mayor Ron Kirk went absolutely crazy. Ballistic. He was determined not to let her show anybody those numbers. He shouted her down. He threatened to adjourn the meeting. It was ugly.

Miller stood her ground and finally got the numbers in front of the council. Miller's comparables, based on recent sales of the same kind of land in the same area, showed convincingly that the going rate for land near the arena is two to seven times the prices the city was allowing the arena group to pay. Miller's best argument had to do with the fact that Hillwood Development (the arena boys) has been out buying exactly the same kind of land from private sellers at much higher prices.

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