Junk Bonds

Dallas City Hall asserts its right not to keep bond campaign promises

This isn't about just peanuts. The city made changes in the deal after the election that were by no means trivial. The bonds were supposed to pay for a six-mile levee along Luna Road, at a cost of $30 million to the city. That project was simply dropped. The city was supposed to build a chain of lakes at a cost of $31.5 million. Now it's going to build one tiny lake for the whole $31.5 million and spend an additional $70 million, source unknown, for the rest of the chain.

It was going to build a scenic 50 mph parkway along the river. Now it's going to build a freeway.

The biggest change in the '98 bond campaign, however, was the money. Again and again voters were told that the city's total cost in the project would be $246 million, and that this investment would "leverage" more than a billion dollars in state and federal funds. But by the time the city was done piling on all sorts of extras like the Calatrava "signature bridges," by the time the state and federal governments were done backing out of key portions of the deal, the numbers had almost reversed. Now the possible cost of the project is in the multiple billions, and the city's share is estimated as high as $1.2 billion.

In 1998, Mayor Ron Kirk promised voters the city's total cost in the Trinity River project would be $246 million. City lawyers later argued in court--successfully--that he had his fingers crossed.
Peter Calvin
In 1998, Mayor Ron Kirk promised voters the city's total cost in the Trinity River project would be $246 million. City lawyers later argued in court--successfully--that he had his fingers crossed.

At $246 million, the thing barely passed in an extreme squeaker of an election. If anybody had breathed a word to the voters that the hit for the city might come in as high as $1.2 billion, the river project would have gone up in smoke on vote day.

I spent a bunch of time going back over the promises that were made. It was extremely depressing. In an op-ed piece in the Morning News, Mayor Ron Kirk promised, "We will invest $246 million and receive $953 million from other government agencies. That will be accomplished without a tax rate increase. The importance of an almost 4-to-1 return on our investment can't be overstated."

The Morning News hammered away at the same line in repeated editorials: The plan "would leverage nearly $1 billion more in federal and state funds if approved," the News said again and again.

None of it is true. And none of it counts. The only thing that counts is the technical language on the ballot, which only said that the city would do some things along the river.

I spoke to Dallas City Attorney Madeleine Johnson last week to ask if the Ashby ruling will be the governing principle in upcoming bond elections. She said yes.

"From a legal perspective, the opinion says it's what's on the ballot that controls."

She said the opinion gives cities a good deal of "flexibility" to change bond projects after voters have approved them. "The opinion gives us some pretty broad latitude."

Johnson said it was not her job to speak to the responsibility of council members and the mayor for seeing to it that voters get a truthful picture of a bond proposal before an election. "How individual council members may feel about that flexibility is an issue for them to discuss individually," she said.

Those of you who were around in 1998 will remember the colorful television ads before the bond election showing happy families sailing on a huge lake at the foot of downtown. That's never going to happen, and the only debate now is whether those ads were a deliberate deception or the product of the city not having any real idea what could or could not be done with the money in spite of what it was promising.

Derwoodology. Makes no difference. Members of the city council, the mayor, the staff, the Morning News, the Citizens Council, the Chamber of Commerce: They can tell you anything they want in order to get you to vote yes. Doesn't count if they have their fingers crossed.

So here's the really tough part. Derwood did this to us once already in the '98 bond election. Now it's not just a philosophy. It's reality. Derwood rules. And Derwood's back. The promises are starting already.

Oh, they're going to fix all those potholes no matter what. And the city's cost in the new center for performing arts will be a pittance, no sweat. What a steal! Derwood's word is his bond.

The voter has choices, of course. The voter of means might take his attorney with him to the polls to read the fine print on the ballot, for example. Or the cheap voter could do what I do when people talk fast about money--run. My philosophy is called once-burned-ology.

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help