Tone Deaf

On the Trinity, Laura Miller sounds a lot like any other old-time Dallas pol: bad

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."

Dugger sat right there and said it. City Manager Mary Suhm and Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan sat next to her, nodding.

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."

Oh, yeah?

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."

"So what?" she asked. "It's not a pony ride. It is fixing a flooding problem over there that is a matter of life, death and property."

I said, "No, no, that's dishonest. It is fixing a problem, but it is also spending money specifically for the Trinity River Project."

She never got it. Would not get it. Never once agreed in any way that she had an obligation to tell voters they were being asked to pay for $73 million more in new local tax money for the Trinity project.

A month ago when I started writing about all this money in the bond program, Miller fired off an angry letter to the Observer accusing me of "gross distortion of the facts." Please read what she said in just one paragraph of that letter:

"We have 1998 bond money for Phase One, which includes the two downtown lakes, four large wetlands, six gateway parks, trails, a soccer complex, and an Audubon Center and an Equestrian Center in the Great Trinity Forest. A lot of that is currently under design or construction."

OK, do a reality check on me, will you? Is it your impression she is saying all of this stuff is going to get done and will be paid for with the 1998 bond money? If it is, then allow me to present you with some facts:

After Miller's big "redesign" of the project three years ago, the city is now short $5.87 million for the water source for the lakes alone. It's short $6.68 million for all the stuff that's supposed to go around the lakes such as boardwalks and pavilions and so on. It's short $4.83 million for construction of the second lake. It's short $5 million for the wetlands and $18.83 million for the trails. It's short $1.84 million for the gateway parks. The Audubon Center, believe it or not, is paid for.

Gosh, mayor, we're sorry, but your debit card is overdrawn a total of $43.05 million on that one paragraph alone. Don't you think you should have mentioned that?

When you ask her that question, she has a remarkably let-them-eat-cake reply. At one point in our discussion last week, she told me that the basic numbers for her "expanded vision plan" have always been available to the public.

She said: "I always say, 'It's a lot more ambitious plan now, and in the future we're going to have to figure out how we're going to pay for this thing.'"

I said: "Well, I haven't heard the numbers."

"Well, I haven't had the numbers," she said, "because I don't know..."

I'm afraid I did interrupt at that point, according to the recording. I said: "But the numbers have been right here, you just finished telling me."

"I know," she said, "but we weren't hiding them."

Umm...did you follow that? No, me neither. I tried for an hour and 45 minutes to follow her, and I couldn't.

And here is the ultimate and final irony for me in all this. This kind of square, fusty, Park Cities shopping spree approach to public policy is how things have always been done in Dallas, because the old guard here labors under the belief that sophistication is fanciness.

But Miller came to politics as the no-nonsense champion of common sense. She was going to force City Hall to go cold turkey on pretentious "big-ticket" projects and get us back to the basic bones of the city. Remember all that?

I believe she meant it. I even believe it's where her true heart lies. She tells me—she tells everybody—that it was her husband, lawyer and politician Steve Wolens, who convinced her she was "stupid" and should go for the big ticket on the Trinity.

What a shame. A shame she didn't have the guts or the backbone to resist that very bad advice. A shame she didn't have the focus or the attention span to keep tabs on the price tags. A shame she thinks this is good.

One writer in town, Scott Bennett at dallasblog.com, recently said this debate about the river is a case of "small ball" versus "long ball." The big, fancy river project with the bridges and the huge unfunded local burden, he suggested, is the long-ball vision, and focusing on streets and curbs back in the neighborhoods is what he called small ball.

But that thing on the river with the unneeded highway and the Calatrava bridges, that's just goofball. It's not cool. It's not sophisticated. It's not what will draw people to live downtown.

So I'm not confused about her anymore. She wasn't up to the job. The Trinity project is a fiscal nightmare. And its ultimate failure will be her legacy.

Too bad.

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