Money to Burn

The City of Dallas pays consultants millions to write reports. Does anyone read them?

Felix Lozada, Dallas Park and Recreation Board member, is sleeping in his chair. Board member Dwaine Caraway, sporting a gold crucifix and a Gore-Lieberman pin, is swiveling his chair back and forth, looking at the scene from behind gold-rimmed glasses. He checks his watch. It's 10:30 on a Thursday morning, and the board is haggling over several hundred thousand taxpayer dollars. It sounds dramatic. Obviously, it isn't to them.

The problem the conscious members are dealing with: The department has already hired the consulting firm Carter and Burgess to create their long-term plan, but the bill looks too steep to afford. The department has a million bucks to spend, but the consultants say they need nearly $700,000 more to do what the city wants done--a demographic analysis of residents, historic documentation, suggestions of new ways to use the parks to make money, and creation of focus groups to, you know, find out how folks feel about parks.

Unfortunately, no one from Carter and Burgess is present. This leads to a less-than-efficient negotiation because the only one with whom board members can haggle is Park and Recreation Department assistant director Willis Winters. Winters is looking for clues on how to keep the study under its allocated budget. He receives contrasting suggestions, from pursuing federal grants to nabbing funds from other city departments to deferring some of the study's work until later.

H. Daniel McFarland, Dallas' chief information officer, knows what's wrong with the city's antiquated municipal court computer systems. Yet the city has to spend $750,000 on a review of it anyway.  Don't feel bad: At least he uses some of the suggestions.
Mark Graham
H. Daniel McFarland, Dallas' chief information officer, knows what's wrong with the city's antiquated municipal court computer systems. Yet the city has to spend $750,000 on a review of it anyway. Don't feel bad: At least he uses some of the suggestions.

Board member Carol Ann Brandon pipes up: Will deferring parts of the study mean raiding money earmarked for projects like fixing the scores of recreation centers in desperate need of repair?

Good question. No one has the answer, unfortunately--because no one knows where any extra money would come from.

The members then pore over an itemized list of what their money will buy them. For example: For $35,000, Carter and Burgess will conduct "Interviews with Key Community Leaders." The firm will carry out one-on-one interviews with 40 people--including the 15 park board members--for a cost of almost $900 per interview.

In other words, the firm conducting the study wants 35Gs so it can interview the people cutting the check. One hopes that Lozada can stay awake during his interview.

What's going on here? Sure, financial waste and government are kissing cousins, but the study the park board is trying to fund is nevertheless too typical of a widely accepted practice in Dallas: burning public money on expensive consultant studies with nothing to show for it other than an overpriced binder of paper.

"The market is driven by government entities like us who are willing to pay. The numbers we look at are so inflated over what they would be in the real world," says city council member Donna Blumer. "We never get a chance to evaluate how these consultants should be paid...They're just numbers to us."

The practice isn't going away any time soon, city officials say, because the process--hiring a firm to state the obvious or plead your political case with sympathetic statistics--has become routine. Consultants have become ready-made workers in an era of shrinking city staffs; instant public works, just add money and stir.

The problem is best seen in three common city-study scenarios: When the city comes up with an idea, it needs a study to validate it; when it has no idea, it needs a study to come up with a plan; finally, studies are often paid for and created simply to make it appear that the city is on top of a problem it would rather ignore.

In this case, the park board is paying for a long-term strategy for itself, a blueprint that somehow eludes the department heads, the board, and the city council. It is paying a million dollars to a firm to tell Dallas what it needs to do in order to run its public parks and gauge the priorities of Dallas citizens. The firm will spend nearly $150,000 on public forums and focus groups when anyone who's been to the city's battered recreation centers, seen its condom-littered lawns, or walked its unlit parking lots could tell you what to do for free.

"It costs $50,000 a playground. Every time we screw up, how many playgrounds does it cost the kids?" asks park board member Ralph Isenberg.

The park department has put its foot in its mouth.

It's April of this year, and the city is set to shut down 26 community pools, raising the ire of politicians and community groups. City council member Laura Miller hops on a high horse and rides the issue through City Hall. The battle becomes so politically charged that council members such as James Fantroy actually turn down donated money to keep pools in his district open.

Enter the study. During the skirmish, the city trots out a reasonable argument against the pools survival, saying they are old and their existence threatens the city's "aquatic master plan."

Open mouth, insert foot. No such plan exists.

One soon will. The same department that wouldn't shell out $40,000 to keep a pool in Arcadia Park open has hired a firm to do a $197,000 study for the city's aquatic program.

"What they're doing is getting the park department out of trouble for getting caught with their pants down over pools," says Isenberg, Miller's combative appointee to the park board. "It would be nice to think this company would do an objective, nonpolitical study of an aquatic program. I fear there will be a political direction given."

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