By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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.
Miller demonstrated with her numbers that, instead of earning $1.2 million from the sale, the city could have earned $7.6 million--simply by demanding that the arena group pay the taxpayers the same amount they were out there paying private landowners for the same kind of property.
"Let the company pay the taxpayers what they've been paying the private sector for all this land," she pleaded.
Bierfeld and DeHoff offered several sputtering, downright silly rebuttals, one of which was that the parking-lot land they wanted to sell to Hillwood really wasn't worth much because it was under contract to Hillwood for parking, so a new owner couldn't do much with it. Except sell it to Hillwood.
I visited with C.W. Kendall, a very nice guy who buys and sells land for a living and who happens recently to have sold a chunk to Hillwood right across the street from the arena site. He sold his land to Hillwood at twice the price the city just got from Hillwood. He had owned his land for a year. He bought it because he knew Hillwood might want it.
"I got to think any other buyer would not have given me that much money," Kendall said. "So what should I do? Sell it for its quote-unquote market value, or sell it to someone who really wants it and really wants to pay me for it? I would think the city of Dallas would ask themselves the exact same question."
Kendall doesn't rag on Hillwood for getting the city to sell it a bunch of land for way less than the land was worth. He admires them. "I don't blame them. I think Hillwood was intelligent in getting the property so cheap. But I think the city of Dallas was not representing the citizens of Dallas in getting every last penny they could out of Hillwood."
The only other council member who sided with Miller, as usual, was Donna Blumer. Blumer said, "I think we're giving away the store here."
Councilman Alan Walne, who definitely knows better, got into a long, wacky dialogue with DeHoff, head of property management for the city, about how the city in the past hasn't really followed its own rules on land sales, and how it might work a hardship on some citizens who want to buy city land now if all of a sudden everybody had to pay full value.
Track this logic: We have allowed ourselves to get screwed on many land deals in the past, so it seems unfair for us not to let people continue to screw us now.
It's like Alice in Wonderland.
Then Councilman Don Hill chimed in and said he didn't want to appear to be "pinching pennies."
I was sitting up there in the peanut gallery listening to this stuff and pinching myself. Is this a bad dream? Why don't they want to pinch the pennies? Those are my pennies. I voted for them to go downtown and pinch my pennies till Lincoln screams. Are their fingers tired?
They totally trashed Miller. All of them but Miller and Blumer voted to give the land to Hillwood for $6 million less than the going rate.
And that's not the worst part.
The following Monday, the city manager unveiled his new budget. The manager and the council, who were echoed by the Morning News the following day, keep describing it as a "no tax increase" budget.
Nah. We go through this same old lie every year. They play around with the technical tax rate versus the property values. It's very dishonest. But even in their own numbers, if you spend just 30 more seconds reading down the page, you see that what is being proposed is a hike in the property tax.
This is a 4 percent tax increase, which might seem small, except for two things: 1. They lied and said it was "no tax increase," and 2. This tax increase is accompanied by substantial budget cuts. The city manager proposes to eliminate 575 city jobs, abolish some programs such as "pet canvassing," and make substantial cuts in others, including cuts in basic maintenance of city buildings, code enforcement, environmental and health services, parks, planning, and sanitation. Sanitation, for example, is being slashed 12.5 percent.
So answer me this: How is it that we are coming off very fat times, when property values have been soaring, but we have to eat a tax hike, and we also have to eat major budget cuts? It's like they're saying, "Our earnings are way up, so we are going to take more money out of your check and reduce your benefits."
Hey, thanks for everything.
But you know why. The arena land deal Miller fought them on is only an example of what they do down there all the time with tax abatements and everything else.
The staff thinks it works for the billionaires, not the taxpayers. (And after a while, the staffers who give away the biggest chunks of money to the billionaires usually go to work for them.) The poor old council is just not very sharp about money. People come in all the time and hustle the pants off them.
They're giving away the store; they have no pants; and what do they tell us is their main concern?
They don't want to appear to be penny-pinchers.
Hey. I told you not to read this!