By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Fine. Go ahead. Vote for it. Swallow it down whole. But you better keep some Tums handy.
Next fall the entire City Council and all of the heavy-hitters in town will be all over TV and billboards barking at you that you better vote "yes" on a record-setting bond issue in the November election or the city will be screwed, and your neighborhood will be screwed too.
And that's the deal. That's how it works. They will tell you that you better eat whatever objections you may have to some parts of it--choke it down, yum yum yum--because if the bond issue fails, you will not get the stuff your neighborhood needs or the stuff you think would be cool for the whole city.
Let me tell you what kind of blackmail it is. Allow me to give you just one example off the top. Last week, on the demand of city council member Dr. Maxine Thornton-Reese, the council added to the bond proposal an item calling for $3.7 million worth of bonds to be sold to pay for "support/land-banking for shopping center" at the Ann Arbor/Marsalis Shopping Center in Reese's district in southern Dallas.
I'll get into the details in a minute, but the big one, the issue that stands out, is this: There is no such thing as a city "land-banking" program for commercial property. I wanted to be sure of that, so I called Mark Obeso, the assistant director of housing who would be over such a program if such a program were real, and I asked him if there is a land-banking program for commercial property.
"The answer to that is no," Obeso said.
Mayor Laura Miller tried to get some details out of Reese when this came up in a briefing on June 26.
"Dr. Reese, could you explain your shopping center to us?" Miller asked.
"It's the Ann Arbor shopping center," Reese said.
Long pause. Miller stares.
Reese goes on, quite reluctantly: "For revitalization for District 4, one way we can do it is through rooftops and retail. Rooftops and retail. And we have rooftops and retail that is proposed for Ann Arbor/Marsalis.
"It is a small shopping center, and I chose that one because it was the smallest. There is a lot of rooftops that are coming into that area, and retail. We have to improve the infrastructure to encourage people to invest in that area."
Miller asked, "Is there a developer that's coming in to do it?"
"We are seeking one," Reese said. "We have proposals from one."
"And who is it from?"
Reese said, "Until..." Then she laughed. "We don't do that," meaning she would not answer.
"And what is this $3.7 million spent on?" Miller asked. "What would it be spent for?"
"I need it for infrastructure, acquisition of the land, whatever is needed."
"So we might buy the shopping center?" Miller asked.
"No," Reese said. "We are not going to buy the shopping center. No, it's areas around it, but this is not to buy a shopping center."
I'm sitting there, far out in the peanut gallery, thinking to myself, "Well, good. I feel so much better. Seeing as how the city DOESN'T OPERATE SHOPPING CENTERS."
"What land do we need to buy around it?" Miller asked.
With a certain primness, Reese said, "That is to be determined." And then she sat back, smiled and buttoned her lip.
So we would give a City Council member $3.7 million because she says, "I need it for infrastructure, acquisition of the land, whatever is needed." She says she herself chose the shopping center, for the odd reason that it is small. In the same four-minute public discussion, she changes her story 180 degrees on whether or not she intends to buy the shopping center.
LAST TIME I HEARD, CITY COUNCIL MEMBERS DO NOT BUY SHOPPING CENTERS.
And then we have the details. This particular shopping center is owned by Al Herron of Galloway-Herron Century 21 Realty. Herron contributed amounts from a few to several hundred dollars to council member Thornton-Reese on December 9, 2004; December 13, 2003; April 18, 2003; April 3, 2003; February 4, 2003; and January 9, 2003. My apologies to Mr. Herron if I have missed any contributions that I'm not giving him credit for.
I called Herron, whom I have known for a long time and for whom I have great respect as a businessman. He told me that he is only vaguely aware of council member Thornton-Reese's plans for the area, but the one thing he knows for sure is that he does not intend to sell his shopping center to the city. "There are no plans for it to be sold at all," he said. Herron did say he was under the impression Thornton-Reese was working with someone on city staff to develop plans for the area around the shopping center. He said, "You need to call Dr. Reese."
I did call Dr. Reese at several phone numbers over a period of days. She did not call back. In fact, she was so quiet, I actually worried about her. You know sometimes you get a vibe from somebody where you wonder, "Does she just not like me, or is she dead?"
No word from the doctor. But she's got something cooking on that shopping center, doesn't she? It's gotta be something, because $3.7 million is not chump change. You know what it costs you and me to give Maxine Thornton-Reese that much money? If the city sells $3.7 million in 20-year bonds, by the time you and I pay that off with our tax dollars, taking interest into account, we will pay out $7.4 million. For what?
Laughter. "We don't do that. That is to be determined."
Just for grins, I looked on the appraisal district's Web page, and according to their values you could buy every single parcel of land contiguous to that shopping center, residential and commercial combined, for $1.2 million.
So, somebody will tell me those values are not market values. Market values are higher. Yeah. But they're not $3.7 million. They're not more than three times higher. And why would the city buy all of the land on all four streets surrounding this shopping center? And...
THE CITY DOESN'T OPERATE SHOPPING CENTERS.
I drove through the Ann Arbor/Marsalis Shopping Center the other day, and I must say it was bustling. It looked to me to be fully rented up, with trade walking in and out of most of the doorways.
Herron pointed out that the anchor tenant, a grocery store, closed recently. He said he's in the process of finding someone else to fill that space, "which isn't that easy." But he said that generally speaking the shopping center does well for him.
The shopping center is appraised at $1.5 million. An interesting thing about the number Thornton-Reese is going for: It would be just enough to buy the shopping center and everything around it and still have a million bucks left for street improvements..
I wonder if anybody at City Hall could tell us if that actually is what they have in mind?
Laughter. "We don't do that. That is to be determined."
The last thing I want to do is create the impression that funny business with bond dollars is a uniquely southern Dallas thing. I wish you could have heard North Dallas council member Ron Natinsky talking about why council members last week were tacking $71 million in add-on projects onto an already record-setting bond program, even though some of those projects were clearly extras, glamour deals and party favors not even included on the city's $11 billion inventory of crucial deferred maintenance.
The deferred maintenance inventory, which is sometimes called the needs list, is every wrecked street, busted truck, washed-out alley and leaky roof that the city is supposed to be keeping up but can't because it doesn't have the money. City Manager Mary Suhm tried to limit this bond program to things on that list.
But Natinsky pooh-poohed the list. He said if a council member wants to do a project for somebody in his district and the project isn't on the list, just put it on the list. And foo on you. "Just because it wasn't on list when it was prepared and given to us doesn't mean it couldn't be on the list," Natinsky said.
He said his own motto, drawn from what taxpayers had told him, is, "We will spend what it takes to keep this city great as we move forward." He said when he jotted down his own several million in pet projects, "There wasn't a perceived limit. I wasn't counting dollars when I did it."
Isn't that special?
The $71 million grab bag tacked on last week by the council, opposed only by Miller and North Dallas representative Mitchell Rasansky, was the brainchild of council member Ed Oakley, who represents parts of Oak Cliff and southwest Dallas. The best quote of the day, I thought, came when Miller asked him what the rules were when he went around asking council members how much money they wanted for their own pet projects.
Miller asked, "Was there a cap on the amount to be added by each district?"
Oakley answered, "I basically said, 'You gotta give me a list not to exceed four, three or four million, five million dollars, whatever that might be."
Don't you just love that? Not to exceed four. Three or four million. Five million dollars. Whatever that might be. It's so bouncy, like a song. When Oakley talks about tax money, he always reminds me of those wonderful Depression-era Tin Pan Alley ditties. You know: "Forget your troubles and just get happy. Ya better chase all your cares away. Sing hallelujah, c'mon get happy. Get ready for the judgment day!"
So guess when judgment day is, Bubba? November 7, 2006. That's when you color in that YES dot and tell them all this is A-OK with you.