Spike Dance

The Hunt Oil people were shakin' their booties at City Hall last week

Hey, I wish you could have been at last week's Dallas City Council briefing. It was Friday night football. John Scovell, a lobbyist who had just won a huge city tax cut for Hunt Oil, was down in the end zone spikin' the ball and doin' a hula dance.

"I guess this is my celebration," he said, standing in front of the city council with an Oprah Winfrey mike in his hand. Earlier in the day, Scovell had mildly taunted Mayor Laura Miller ("Do you understand?"), but now at the end of the day with his big tax cut in hand, he was pouring it on.

Calling her "Professor Miller" and describing her to her face in front of the council as "possessed," Scovell was twitchin' itchy with it, like a cocky high school quarterback giving the finger to the team he just beat.

Only thing is, I'm sitting in the upper deck going over the notes I made on my program, and I keep coming up with a score that shows maybe Miller won this game. And if she won, how come Scovell's out there in the end zone waving his I.Q. around?

We always begin with a core perception of City Hall, after all. Miller was elected mayor the first time three years ago because a majority of the middle class voters in the city believed downtown had been run into the ground by arrogant rich white guys building sports venues; the streets had gone to hell; and half the council was crooked. People wanted somebody with a sharp pencil to go down there and count the damn money.

Two issues were in play last week. Hunt Oil is building a new $120 million headquarters on Akard Street in the central business district, and the company had asked the city to cut its property tax rate by almost 80 percent over the next 10 years. In addition, Hunt wanted the city to swap some land with it in the area around Reunion Arena and behind The Dallas Morning News campus in the southwest corner of downtown. Miller had raised questions about both deals.

Scovell, with lots of help from the Morning Newsand Hunt's many supporters on the city council, painted last week's briefing on both deals as a Thrilla on Marilla grudge match between Hunt Oil and Miller. And there is some grudge there.

In her years here as a columnist for the Dallas Observer and later in her career in elective politics, Miller has been a consistent scold and critic of Hunt Oil land deals with the city, especially having to do with our prematurely senile basketball venue, Reunion Arena.

Miller argued that the council should think about what it's starting when it flips one business an 80 percent tax cut. Her main argument was that other developers were already calling her demanding to know where their 80 percent tax cut was.

Miller never said don't do the land swap. I listened closely. She said do the land swap. But count the money. Don't just give them a blank check. Negotiate.

She went through a PowerPoint presentation on the history of the original Reunion Arena deal, ticking off a laundry list of unfulfilled promises and obsolete covenants, including air rights over a city-owned garage that still belong to Hunt Oil, for some reason, and a lease for the upper floors of the old Union Station, a city-owned property that Hunt continues to control in spite of never having done anything successful with it.

Miller said if the city is going to give Hunt what it wants on the land swap, then the city should use the talks as a chance to straighten out the kinks in the original 31-year-old "master agreement" with Hunt Oil on the land in that corner of downtown.

"As part of the swap," she told the council, "we would take back the air rights and take back control of the entire facility so that we could go and try to market Union Station as a destination location unfettered by the current lease agreement. I think that could be a win-win for us."

If anything, her little presentation was tempered, reasonable and very persuasive. The people on the council who occupy sort of the moderate center seemed to be won over. Of course the city ought to pursue its own interests and watch out for the taxpayer's nickel every little chance it gets. Right? Doesn't mean they should step on Hunt Oil's toe and run them out of town. But they shouldn't just throw open the vault and give Hunt a 30-minute wheelbarrow spree, either. You'd think.

But that was not what Scovell had in mind at all. He said the structure of the talks between Hunt and the city was strict: Only Hunt's demands for changes in the 31-year-old "master agreement" were to be discussed. There could be no revisiting old issues the city might want to discuss in the master agreement itself.

"We built a firewall," Scovell proudly told the council.

A strange exchange followed between Miller and Scovell: Miller said she could understand why Hunt Oil would want a firewall, since they are in the advantaged position on the master agreement.

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