By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
First, the big news, the part that has to do with you. In 1998 you were told the Dallas taxpayers' share of the Trinity River Project was $246 million and would never go higher. What I don't think anybody has told you since then is that under Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, who oversaw a major redesign of the project three years ago, that potential liability has gone up to more than $1.1 billion.
Now, to be fair, she sort of says she did tell you. Remember? I talked to her about it last week, and she said, "Unlike Ron Kirk, whose mantra was, 'We promise we'll never go back to the voters; we promise it's only $246 million, and it will never be more,' I say the opposite. We designed something more ambitious, and it will cost you more money if you want to do it all."
And that brings me to my personal news, the part that has to do with me. I'm excited, because I think I actually may have resolved my Laura Miller issue. I have always been very back and forth, thumbs up, thumbs down, all around the town about our mayor. But I think I've got it now.
She was smart enough to be a very good Dallas Observer columnist. She is not smart enough to be a very good mayor.
I'm not kidding. She's quick on her feet, cuts through the bullshit, tells how the cow ate the cabbage. That's all to the good. I also believe she is honest—to the extent she understands what's going on—and incorruptible.
But she's a total diva who believes that Laura is always right, and she just does not hear anything that contradicts Laura. You can't really debate with her, because she won't listen to you if you contradict her.
She wants a more beautiful river project. She wants bells and whistles. But don't tell her she has humped about a billion bucks onto the backs of local taxpayers. She will not hear you.
Let me give you an example. I'm going to quote a whole lot of a recent chat with her, because I want you to see how her mind works, or, as the case may be, does not. (You can listen to some of this at our blog, Unfair Park, at www.dallasobserver.com/blogs. Search under my name.)
During a somewhat rancorous hour-and-45-minute conversation last week in her City Hall conference room, a city official sitting at the same table admitted to me that the bond program we just voted on included $73 million in local tax money for the Trinity project.
Why is that important? Because it's an increase right then and there of 30 percent over what we were promised in 1998 we would have to pay locally for the Trinity River Project. And not one word on the ballot Tuesday warned us we were being asked to juice up the Trinity project by nearly a third.
Others have estimated the number to be much higher. City council member Mitchell Rasansky mailed literature to his constituents a week before the election saying the city had slipped $160 million into the bond package for the Trinity project.
I was happy to hear Trinity Project Director Rebecca Dugger admit to the $73 million. "Those items [in the bond program] that would not have been done but for the Trinity project," she said, "were $72.7 [million], something like that."
Miller did not hear it. Would not hear of it.
I asked her if this was how she planned to pay for the whole $1 billion plus that is currently unfunded. "So is that how we're going to fund the rest of it," I asked, "by sort of dishing it into bond programs this way, which, I have to be honest with you, seems deceptive to me?"
We went back and forth on this point for half an hour. "For you to accuse me of spinning the project," she said, "it's just not true."
I said: "I'm just asking, would it have not been politically candid, when asking people to vote on this bond program, to say, 'By the way, as part of our more ambitious and improved Trinity River Project vision, you are being asked to approve $70 million worth of Trinity River Project items?'"
She tried to argue with my numbers, but she and I had just heard the same numbers from the same person at that same table half an hour earlier.
At one point Miller said, "You can make a story and twist the numbers any way you want to. Been there, done that."
Eventually we focused on a single bond item that had to do with work on a "sump," part of the storm water drainage system. That item will cost more money—in the millions—because of the Trinity River Project.
Miller asked me why that should be considered a Trinity River item, since it involved flood control.
I said: "Because there's an extra amount of money that you have to pay because of the [Trinity] project."