Check the Bill

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

On the evening of Friday, September 29, an eight-page, single-spaced memo went out from the office of the Dallas city manager to all members of the city council warning them about inquiries into the Trinity River project being made by "members of the media, mainly print reporters who have closely followed the project from its inception and continue to focus attention on it in weekly publications."

The next Monday morning The Dallas Morning News op-ed page carried a column under a bold headline, "Dismiss the doubts," in which the author began: "Whoa to the critics!" He identified the critics as "a few local politicians and alternative media types."

You can't see me at this moment, because this is a newspaper, but I want you to picture me out in the middle of my office standing pitched forward at the waist in a kind of crouch with my palms pressed between my knees, my elbows out and head bent low, just blushing like a little Christmas tree bulb.

Almost none of what you see in this picture, published by the city, can be done with existing funds. So they want more funds.
City of Dallas, Texas
Almost none of what you see in this picture, published by the city, can be done with existing funds. So they want more funds.

They're talking about meeee!

And it makes me feel so special. If I had any sense at all, I would tell them they're right. I would tell them that I have invented the entire opposition to the Trinity River project out of my very own brain; I have the power to cast hexes on persons who displease me; and by the way, I am in need of a big loan, pronto.

What stops me is that I know exactly where this kind of thinking comes from, having been around this town way too long, and I find it so profoundly irritating that I just can't keep my mouth shut.

In the 10 years since the inception of the Trinity River Project, a substantial body of compelling empirical criticism of the project has developed, for which I deserve no credit. The findings that have wounded this project--mortally, we will find--have come from an army of committed, brilliant community volunteers and activists.

This latest go-round is a good example. Last week I learned that critics of the project had been grilling city officials on whether City Hall was sneaking new money for the project into the 2006 bond program. At first, some highly placed officials denied there was any money for the Trinity River project in the bond program. But the critics pressed and found Trinity River project items with a total value of $120 million, close to 50 percent of the original bond issue passed by voters in 1998.

When I called Rebecca Dugger, director of the project for the city, she conceded to me there are Trinity River project items in the bond program. She put their value at about $50 million.

Fifty million or more than $100 million. What's the point? The point is that nowhere on the ballot for the bond election in November are voters informed they are being asked to pump up the budget of the Trinity River project by another 20 to 50 percent.

Let's say we vote yes for Proposition 3, described on the ballot as "the issuance of $343,230,000 general obligation bonds for park and recreation facilities." OK, we just voted for $2 million to build a trail along part of the river, $1.2 million for an entrance to the river park in the Joppa area, $1.2 million for another entrance downtown, $1.8 million for another entrance in West Dallas, $4 million to buy land for a nature center near the river, $14 million to help some people set up a private horse park near the river, $1 million for a wave machine in the river, $11.2 million for a soccer park.

Vote for Proposition 1, "Street and Transportation Improvements," and we're voting to approve more than $9 million worth of expansion to Industrial Boulevard and Continental Street as part of the Trinity toll road project, a basic element in the Trinity River project.

And that's just some of the chump change.

David Gray of Save the Trinity River Coalition pointed out to me that Proposition 2, "Flood protection and storm drainage facilities," contains $70 million for new pumps and sewers to carry storm water underneath the proposed Trinity River toll road and proposed lake or lakes to the river. That's the bond item that takes the cost of the Trinity project up from a 20 percent increase to a 50 percent hike.

If we look at almost all the other propositions--to improve the library system, improve cultural facilities, fix City Hall, provide low-income housing, spur economic development--that's all identified honestly on the ballot, so we know what we're voting for.

Not the Trinity River project. Nothing on the ballot tells you that you are being asked to provide an additional $120 million for it.

But the Trinity River project is far more controversial. The money for it is all over the map, a mess, and all kinds of very weird things have been happening lately. I reported a little more than a month ago ("Eye Candy for Suckers," August 31) that an obscure regional body came within a whisker of sucking $48 million out of the single most important highway project in Dallas--fixing the "mixmaster" freeway interchange downtown--and sticking it into those crazy suspension bridges on the river that are so wildly over budget. That little item got yanked from a meeting agenda shortly after I started making calls to inquire about it.

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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