Enough Already

Sometimes City Hall is generous to a fault

The only way to understand government money is to think of it as your own. Which, by the way, it is. So let's pretend. There's this guy you don't owe any money to, but he'd like some money from you. Couple grand.

Imagine yourself thinking this: "I don't really owe him the two grand, but he's a great guy, and it sure would make him happy. So I guess I'll just go ahead and be a nice person and give it to him anyway."

I can imagine two circumstances under which I might think like that. 1) The guy has some badly compromising photographs of me. 2) The guy is my brother-in-law; he's unemployed; he's suffering from a debilitating illness; he was robbed recently; my wonderful sister whom I love and trust is begging me to help him; and he has some badly compromising photographs of me.

Here is why I raise the point. Assistant Dallas City Manager Ryan Evans is pushing the city council to give a $3 million subsidy in city tax money to some people who are building a 20-story luxury condo tower on one of the most desirable pieces of land in the city, in the Uptown District at Haskell Avenue and Central Expressway, two miles north of downtown.

We are not legally bound to give them the $3 million, and these incentives the city gives away are supposed to induce people to develop in bad areas, not the hottest real estate in town, which people are competing to get to and develop. It's like dropping a Christmas basket off at Mark Cuban's house.

But Evans is pushing the council to give the developers the $3 million in city money anyway, because he says they're good guys, and it would make a statement about the way City Hall does business.

The main player in the development deal is Neal Sleeper, who has turned a wasteland into a wonderful neighborhood, including West Village and all of the stylish new condo and apartment development in that area. Everybody agrees he is a good guy.

But come on! Three million bucks, and City Hall doesn't owe it? Give it to him anyway? City Hall? City Hall, that can't afford to mow the grass? Can we talk about this?

Mayor Laura Miller has suggested the city should hold back on giving this $3 million subsidy to Fairfield Residential LLC, which wants to build the condo tower on land it will buy from Sleeper's Cityplace Co. Mayor Miller says she's not mad at Sleeper.

"I think he is a great guy," she said on the phone the other day, "and every time I see him I'm happy to see him, and I think he's done a super job. But it doesn't matter who's asking. That's not the point."

The point, she says, is the city needs to count its purse. It should put money on the table only when that money will move the game forward, and it should keep its money in the purse if giving it away won't do any good.

She said: "The one thing that I've never changed about as a journalist and a council member and as mayor: At some point I just think you turn the tap off, and I have a really strong gut check for when that is."

When?

"I just always go back to that but-for test. But for this subsidy, this blighted part of town wouldn't turn around."

She says the Fairfield project--on land that has already turned around and was ardently sought by three major developers--doesn't qualify. The city doesn't need to offer anybody an incentive to develop that land. Everybody wants to anyway.

Here's where we get to Sleeper and his partner Don McNamara. In the early 1980s the old Southland Corp., still locally controlled by the Thompson family, acquired a huge amount of land in the Haskell-Lemmon Avenue-Central Ex-pressway area which it intended to develop as a closer-in Las Colinas-style new downtown.

The venture went belly-up, and the land lay fallow and bleak for years. In 1990 McNamara and Sleeper bought up all of that screwed-up land. Two years later they talked the city into giving them their own "tax increment finance district," called the Cityplace TIF. It made sense.

Normally, a developer has to pay to build the new streets and sewers in his development, to say nothing of paying property taxes to help defray the extra police and fire protection and other services the city is obligated to provide him. In a TIF, the city says: "Look, we know nobody wants to lay out all that money to develop here, because it's a dicey area, and the risk is too big. So here's what we'll do. You go ahead and pay for all the new streets, etc., as usual. And you pay your taxes, as usual. But we'll keep all the tax money you pay us in a special account. And when we get enough cash in there, we'll pay some of it back to you to help cover the costs of public infrastructure that you have already installed." It's a way to help lay off the risk.

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