Saddam and City Bonds

Is this really the best possible moment for half a billion in bonds?

Go ahead and vote for all the stuff on the city's half-a-billion-plus bond proposal. They'll call you a rat if you don't.

Obviously, The Dallas Morning News is going to run an op ed piece every other day between now and the May 3 election telling people that good citizens will not pick and choose through the list of 17 propositions on the ballot but will just pony up and buy the whole thing.

Ring it up, brother! Ring it all up!

Henry Tatum, a senior editorial writer whose persuasive writing style I very much respect, said in the Newslast week that a lack of enthusiasm for the Dallas bond package might even be linked to Saddam Hussein. As a lifelong horse-feathers merchant myself, I have to just take my hat off and admire that one. Tying criticism of the bond package to Saddam! That's a record, even for the News.

Hank, I'm jealous.

So go ahead and vote for the bond package. Do. I'm cool with it. I just wonder if it would be acceptable if I were to offer the following very minor cautions. For example: The bond campaign calls for building all kinds of new stuff, even though Dallas lacks the operating budget to run what it's got. And I'm not talking about the current downturn, which we all hope is temporary and which I believe can be linked to Saddam Hussein.

Dallas hasn't had the money to run what it's got even since the fat years.

You and I could argue why. I say it's because we elect leaders who lack the guts to raise the property tax. Maybe you believe the property tax is maxed out and we need a new mechanism. OK. But the question of the day remains: Why would we build hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of new facilities when we can't run what's on the ground today?

For example, this bond program commits us to building seven additional branch libraries. We have 21 now. But the library department's staff is down almost 14 percent since 1997. For the first time this year, branch managers are being split between branches. Of master's degree librarians in particular, the system now has 115 on staff compared with 129 in 1997.

Isn't that the wrong direction?

Why do we want to spend our money on bricks and mortar anyway? Isn't it in the nature of a library system that the really big bucks should go to books and librarians, and who cares about the plant? I don't want to be unkind, but in the 1980s Dallas took money out of the account intended for buying books and spent it instead on bricks and mortar at the fancy new Central "Research" Library. Now what we have down there is a hotel for the homeless that is palpably dis-inviting to people who actually want to do research.

Take the fancy furniture out; deep-six those damned game-playing computers (cut the wolves from the sheep by bringing back the card catalog); cram the place with dusty books in crowded stacks; and maybe the shopping-cart brigade will move across the street to City Hall. Talk about chickens going home to roost.

If you talk to Ramiro Salazar, director of the library department, or his boss, Mary K. Suhm, first assistant city manager, they're going to tell you what they told me: The reduction in staff in the library department has been the result of increased efficiencies. Suhm explained how the city has worked to cut librarians from administrative posts in order to leave people in place to deal with the public: "The idea of all of this is to make the budget cuts with having a minimal effect on the service levels," she said.

Sure. We appreciate all that. But by now most of us have heard those phrases where we work--increased efficiencies, lean and mean, out-sourcing, reduction in force. They all mean the same thing: less money coming in the front door, more employees going out the back. I don't know about you, but having lost jobs before myself, I would much rather not be told I was being made more efficient by being out-sourced. "Sacked" would do nicely.

The big disappointment in the May 3 mayoral campaign is that we have two candidates who are equally chicken-hearted about this. Incumbent Laura Miller has her line about how the voters aren't ready to give the city more operating money until City Hall demonstrates its virtue--the Hell Freezes Over approach. Challenger Mary Poss says there are still major efficiencies that can be achieved first--a frightening thought.

But school superintendent Mike Moses just got done selling the same city on a tax-hike bond issue for the school system. Neither Miller nor Poss is willing to take Moses' gamble. Too bad. Myself, I definitely think a lot of their negativity can be linked to Saddam Hussein.

So why is the leadership of the city so sweet on bond proposals if it's so afraid of raising the property tax to come up with operating money? We could argue about that all day, but I believe strongly it has to do with the fact that bond programs produce big construction contracts. Former Mayor Ron Kirk was practically put in office by the public works construction lobby, whose motto is, "Build it, and who gives a damn if anybody comes?" They still get paid.

With Kirk in mind, allow me to mention something I have talked about before: The city of Dallas is at the leading edge of a new permissive philosophy of spending where bond money and campaign promises are concerned. In the controversy over Kirk's big Trinity River bond program, city officials went to court and won a groundbreaking ruling that Dallas was not and will never be bound by any of the promises made during a bond campaign concerning how the money is to be spent. The only legally binding language is the wording on the ballot proposition itself, which is always very general and permissive.

Since I knew I would be pulling on this old saw again, I went back this time and asked the Texas 5th Court of Appeals to fetch from its archives the city of Dallas' original response to the suit brought against it by Taxpayers for Sensible Priorities. In that brief, our city leaders argued a much more aggressive position than I had realized.

I already knew they had claimed they were not bound by any of the promises made during a bond campaign by mayors, city council members or city managers, not bound by their own official pamphlets, not bound by any campaign materials or ads--forget it, fingers crossed, doesn't count. The bad news for us is that the court agreed with them on all of that and said they were only legally bound by the ballot language itself.

What I didn't know, until I hauled the brief from a dusty bin, was that the city of Dallas had tried to get the court to agree that it was not bound even by the ballot language. In its brief the city said Texas law allowed it to change the way it spends bond money, even if the changes "are ultimately inconsistent with the proposition approved by the voters."

Wow.

They wanted the court to tell them that they not only could go back on personal promises made by individual officials: They thought they had a right to welsh on the promises printed right there on the ballot that we had voted on.

Kind of like, "OK. We know you voted to elect Laura Miller mayor, but due to unforeseen circumstances, we are giving the job instead to Uday Hussein, who is looking for employment due to certain recent efficiencies in Iraq."

That's radical. Lucky for us, the court's opinion on that assertion--and here I paraphrase--was, "You must be kidding."

But they weren't. They were in court fighting for the right to fib. Our town fathers. The same folks who now want us to sign the credit card slip for half a billion bucks' worth of construction contracts. And as I say, I'm not telling you any of this because I'm trying to get you to vote against the bond package. It's strictly food for thought.

But here's another thought.

Mayor Miller has been fast-talking on the bond program: She voted against it in the council, because she said it will raise taxes, but she is saying in debates she will vote for it at the polls. She's telling opponents of the program she's with 'em, and she's telling supporters, well, she's with 'em, too. Pretty slick rope trick. But let's take her point about wanting to see better controls in place at City Hall before borrowing so much money.

I could argue there are faces in the field out there, people running for council in this election who may bring some of that much-needed integrity to the city council chamber, if they get elected. Early in the campaign season, I had a great lunch with Greg Holliday, a former police official, now retired, running for the seat being vacated by Alan Walne in District 10 in northeast Dallas. Holliday is the kind of bright, number-crunching, audit-freak straight-arrow City Hall needs.

So why is it so crucially important that we approve all these bonds right now? Why couldn't we wait one or two years? Maybe by then we'll have some of those fresh new faces we need at the table, and the mayor will have had the advantage of her first full term to get things done. Then we sign the check.

But as I say, go ahead and vote for the whole thing. I don't want to see your name linked with certain people (initials S.H.) on the Morning Newseditorial page. By the way, I have seen no evidence whatsoever that Saddam Hussein has been running a mail-in ballot program for the bond campaign. Yet.

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