Check the Bill

Fine print on bond package includes $120 million more for Trinity project

Just last week, a Trinity River item got yanked at the last minute at the Dallas City Council meeting. The council was being asked to vote on a $9.6 million contract for the design of the lakes that are supposed to be built as part of the Trinity project. The full council had never been briefed on the contract. It was pulled at the last minute, council member Ed Oakley told me, because the actual contract itself--the legal papers--wasn't even completed yet.

So...they were voting on it in a real big hurry why?

Standard contracting guidelines--both Oakley and Dugger agreed with me on this--call for design fees to be about 6 percent of total project cost. Hang on with me for a minute. I have a point.

Here: If $9.6 million is 6 percent of the total cost, then the total cost for the chain of lakes must be $160 million. In the 1998 bond program, the "chain of lakes" was described to voters as costing $31.5 million.

What all of that means is that the voters--not I, not the Dallas Observer--the voters of the city of Dallas have a right, a need and a desire to know what's going on with the money for the Trinity project.

It's really hard to get bond lawyers to talk on the record about bond law, because their clients are all governments, and they don't want to make them mad. I did talk to Steve Bickerstaff, who is retired from a law firm in Austin that is well known for its public finance practice. He teaches now as adjunct faculty at the University of Texas Law School. I wanted to know what the law says about going back to the voters for additional money for an existing project.

"My initial reaction is that the voters can do darn near anything," he said. "If the voters understand that it is additional money for a project that should have been funded entirely by a previous bond issue, they can do it.

"If this is money that is being approved for project B, but they are planning to shift the money back to project A to finish it, then that's a problem."

He said the issue is "...whether the ballot language provides notice to the voters that they are providing additional money for a previous project."

I know the answer to that one. Nowhere on the ballot that you and I will see when we go to vote in November is there any language to tell us we're being asked to provide another $120 million for the Trinity River project.

Several city officials told me at the end of last week that they saw no need to inform voters there was money in the bond package that would pay for elements of the Trinity project. City Manager Mary Suhm said, "While [those items] relate to the Trinity, I don't know that I would call them a Trinity project."

When I objected that some were items specifically described in early versions of the Trinity project, such as trails in the Trinity Forest, she said, "The Trinity Forest, we could be doing that without the Trinity project."

The memo to the city council last Friday night, from Assistant City Manager Jill A. Jordan, argued it might not be legal for the city to tell voters the Trinity items were related to the Trinity project. If the council eats that, the council will eat anything.

Mayor Laura Miller told me late Friday that the city staff decided how the bond issue ballot should be divided up and worded, and the council never even thought about putting Trinity River items under their own ballot proposition called "Trinity River Project."

The Dallas Morning News editorial page has been beating the drum for the 2006 bond program, listing every proposition and its virtues. Never once did the Morning News editorial page see fit to mention to the paper's readers that they were being asked to make another very substantial contribution to the Trinity project.

Why? Because the News, like the city officials, is afraid that the voters might not vote for more money for the Trinity. So why not just trick them?

We're a one-trick pony at this newspaper. We know you want to know this stuff before you vote. We know if we tell you, you'll read our paper. Man. I'm still a little red in the face, but I wouldn't call it a blush anymore.

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