Baby Mitch

What happened to city council's sharpest fiscal conservative?

Mitchell Rasansky, Dallas City Council member, is somebody I like. I just do. When you like somebody, you typically can't say just why. I can't. I just do. Which is what makes this so hard.

Rasansky, a gentleman, philanthropist and self-made success in the real estate business, made his bones in city politics as a tough sharp-pencil fiscal conservative from affluent North Dallas. That was yesteryear. This year it's different.

Now he's Mr. Devil-may-care with the public purse, backing huge unfunded initiatives that are going to come straight out of the pockets of his own North Dallas high-tax constituents. Gleefully.

He and I had a long conversation last week in which he explained his new position. And then I really didn't get it. Which, by the way, was sort of what I had expected would happen, which in some strange way is what I like about the man, which I cannot explain. But I can explain the money.

Exactly one year ago Rasansky was making waves and headlines with his adamant opposition to key portions of the Trinity River project. Based in large part on those waves and headlines he was touted as a potential candidate for mayor.

He didn't run for mayor after all. That's another story. Now he's in his last term as a member of the city council before being term-limited out. And now he is foursquare in favor of the Trinity River project.

He and I talked about why he changed his position. What I discovered was that Mr. Fiscal Conservative with his sharp pencil and sharper tongue, 1) does not understand the Trinity River project at all; 2) is saying things about it that are completely untrue, mutually contradictory and downright wacky; and 3) allows himself to be played like a hand puppet by City Manager Mary Suhm.

Why is this so important? You could say, "So what? He's just one of 15 votes on the council. Why take Mitchell apart in particular when any of the rest of them might be just as cracked?"

Exactly. That is the point. Almost all of them, with the exception of council member Angela Hunt, are at least as bad as Rasansky on this topic. He may be the poster boy, but the rest of them are the illness itself.

They all have a tendency to go around mouthing throwaway lines about the Trinity River project—lines often provided to them by Suhm—without the slightest understanding what they're really talking about.

Case in point: Rasansky, on his cell phone, was describing for me a graphic he had been shown in a city council briefing session the day before illustrating how beautiful the planned downtown river park will look with a large toll road up the middle of it. He allowed that the graphic was "off by a quarter-inch or so where they put the road." He said it also showed a network of smaller access roads around the manmade lakes that are to be part of the park.

I said, "You know, all those park roads are unfunded. There's no money for them, and that will all have to come out of your constituents."

He acted like I was nuts. "You broke up. What are you saying?"

"Those smaller roads, there's no money for them," I said. "They're 50 million bucks in the hole."

I thought I heard squealing brakes in the background.

Rasansky sputtered: "You're listening to what Angela Hunt tells you!"

"No. I got that from the city, from City Manager Mary Suhm. There are huge shortfalls on all of this that will all have to come out of your constituents' pockets."

I definitely heard car horns.

"Well, I will have to talk to Mary Suhm," he said, "and I'm in my car in a parking lot. As soon as I get to my office I'm going to call Mary Suhm and see what she says."

"I appreciate your taking time," I said.

"No, no, you call me anytime," he said. "But you need to get ahold of that picture and take a look at it."

Yeah, OK. I looked at the picture. It's very pretty. It shows the toll road as this terribly discreet little superhighway tucked off under the foliage where one would hardly even notice it.

Off by "a quarter-inch or so," eh? On a scale of what? I can't believe the city council actually relies on PowerPoint presentations, cardboard models and watercolors to make its decisions.

Hunt got the data. She had to use a legal open records demand to get city staff to give her actual engineering renderings of the road. I always thought the staff worked for the council. Anyway, the real renderings show the proposed toll road looming over the proposed duck ponds like the Great Wall of China.

The rest of them are like babies. Every once in a while Nurse Suhm walks by their cribs and shakes a pretty rattle at them, and then they're all smiles and drool.

Rasansky called me back to tell me what Nurse Suhm had told him about the $50 million shortfall: "She calls it the 'bells and whistles,'" he said. "You know, this is a $50 million deal out of a billion-dollar cost."

So Rasansky thought I meant the $50 million was the shortfall for the whole project, instead of just for the park access roads?

"For the park roads," I said. "We're talking about the park roads."

"No!" he said. "You asked me about the $50 million..."

"Well," I interrupted, "that's just for the park roads."

"No! That's not for...I just talked to her, Jim! She gave me...You called me and you told me about this $50 million, and I called her, Jim, and I wanted to know, 'What is this $50 million that Jim Schutze is talking about?'

"I said, 'You know I don't remember everything, Mary. Tell me what the $50 million is.' And she said, 'Well, it's for the bells and whistles.'

"She said it's improvements to the bridges and the reunion deck and some additional park roads, and we're adding this whitewater thing that was not in there. So you know these are extras that you always run into."

Nope. That is not how it goes. Multiple elements of the park plan are now enormously underfunded. The city has already shown its hand on how it plans to get them funded. In fact it was Rasansky himself who warned his constituents in a mailer last year that the city had slipped what he claimed was $163 million in Trinity project money into the bond program without ever telling voters that was what the money was for.

I don't know where he got that $163 million. My numbers are straight from Rebecca Dugger and Mary Suhm, confirmed in a meeting I had a year ago with Suhm, Dugger, Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan and former Mayor Laura Miller. In that meeting, Suhm, Dugger and Miller conceded that the city's most recent bond program included $73 million for the Trinity project, even though the ballot language presented to voters never mentioned the Trinity project.

Why is that significant? Because people like former Mayor Ron Kirk and our new mayor, Tom Leppert, are going around promising Dallas taxpayers that they will never have to invest more than the $246 million we voted for the project in 1998. That's simply a lie. We already have invested another 30 percent. They just didn't tell us about it.

After 10 years spent raising money from state, federal and private sources, the city is still short $5.87 million for what it will cost to put water in the proposed lakes.

You know those watercolors they always show with the nice pavilions and boardwalks downtown? They're short $6.68 million just for the cost of the pavilions and boardwalks.

They've done the fund-raising. They've wrung the last drop of blood from the turnip. And they're still short another $4.83 million for construction of the second lake. They're short $5 million for the wetlands.

Here's one I like. They're short $18.83 million for the cost of building "trails."

No roads. No water. No trails. Maybe no lake. Just me, the skeeters and the water moccasins. I ain't goin'.

Oh, but we are definitely going to get that toll road built. When I spoke with Suhm et. al. last year, the shortfall for the toll road—after the state money comes in, after the federal money, after the toll road money—was still $461 million.

And we know exactly how that is going to be paid for and by whom, because the city has shown us. It's going to be paid for by us. We are going to vote bonds for it. And we are not going to know we're voting for it, because those old masters of the tricky ballot language—the same people who forgot to mention the words "toll road" in the initial bond election in 1998—are going to slip it past us.

Here's what I don't get. I thought Rasansky was the wizard on this stuff. When I asked him about his mailer a year ago warning constituents that Trinity projects were being slipped into the bond program, he told me he didn't remember it and would have to "check my files."

For me, there's a human bottom line here, and it is that Mitchell Rasansky is a good man. He's an honest man. And he means well. He cares about his constituents.

But I wind up asking myself the same thing I wonder about the lot of them. How can they really not know this stuff? How can they know it briefly and then forget?

Bells and whistles? Bells and whistles? I hear a whistle, all right. The guy blowing it is wearing a white suit, and he carries a very large net.

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