By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Whenever I come across news accounts of sudden shocking budget catastrophes at DART, our regional transit agency, I think back to the sudden shocking budget catastrophes a reporter friend of mine used to have. This was at the beginning of my newspaper career when I was still young and dumb enough to loan money to a newspaper reporter.
He was always going to pay me back double, no sweat. The ship was coming in. He pointed to the ship on the horizon. I could never quite see it.
My former colleague always told compelling, sometimes spine-tingling tales about what happened to that ship—unanticipated distant funerals, catastrophic car motor explosions, gruesome dental emergencies, pirates. But a consistent theme ran through all. My colleague was always stunned and humiliated to discover—once again—that there was no ship and that he was, therefore, a person of quite modest means.
Too modest to pay me back. One time he even did the pockets-inside-out pantomime.
So I thought of him again a week ago when DART started doing the pockets-inside-out pantomime—shocked and dismayed to find that it must slash 300 jobs, cut service on all of its rail and bus lines and bring to a squealing halt almost all of its capital program to build new rail lines in the region—the lines that are on the drawing board but not under construction yet.
And that's what will happen if the agency's more optimistic projections prove true. DART staff has informed the DART board of directors that if certain less optimistic projections prove right, the damage and the cuts will be twice as bad.
So how bad would twice as bad be? No trains at all? Citizens required to give DART employees free rides in their cars? How bad can it get?
Look at their history. DART has a more preposterous track record for over-optimism about its finances than my former friend, the reporter.
Most of the money DART operates on is from sales tax revenues. The fares paid by passengers amount to barely six percent of the budget. More than 75 percent comes from a one-percent sales tax that you pay on every single item you buy within the DART service area. The rest of it pretty much comes from your income taxes.
Sales tax money is DART's life-blood. Buy a new car for 18 grand, you just paid DART $180.
In the most recent round of DART financial disclosures—we might also call them true confessions—DART admitted that it had been over-optimistic about its projected revenues from sales taxes for the next 20 years. How over-optimistic? About $3 billion over-optimistic.
The total amount it had been saying it would collect in sales tax subsidy in that period was $14.6 billion, so its projections were fat by 20 percent. Does a 20 percent goof seem pretty wide off the mark to you? Nah, not for DART.
Remember that only two years ago DART had to reveal it had been over-optimistic about the cost of its current building campaign. By how much? In that case DART was over-optimistic by 100 percent.
They had told the public the cost of completing new rail lines already under construction would be only $1 billion. As it turned out, it was two. Billion.
Maybe when they published their financials and the results of their external audit, they should have said the cost of building the new lines would be "one or two billion." But I don't know if you're allowed to say that in an official audit.
Which is not to say that DART was failing any audits or ignoring red flags from its outside auditor, Deloitte & Touche. There were no red flags.
In the same period when the billion-dollar over-optimism problem was discovered, DART also revealed that its board chairman, the late Lynn Flint Shaw, then under investigation by the district attorney for forgery, was the beneficiary of an undisclosed contract with Deloitte & Touche, paying her to address Dallas schoolchildren on the merits of careers in auditing. Ms. Shaw and her husband died soon after in what police called a murder-suicide.
By consistently overstating the amount of sales tax revenue it could anticipate in years ahead, DART has been able to paint rosy pictures in the face of gloom, promising to build train lines and provide service with money that is always about to come in. By ship.
This latest incident is far from the first time DART has done the pockets-inside-out pantomime on sales tax. Let's go back to the year of the September 11 attacks. Sales tax revenues for 2000-2001 were down by four and a quarter percent, according to numbers provided to me by DART. The national economy was stunned and stagnant. That was not DART's fault.
But how did DART respond? Did DART leadership go to the public and say that times were terrible and nobody knew how long digging out would take, so DART would have to adopt a more conservative approach to service levels and new construction? Nah.
Instead, DART projected a growth in sales tax revenue the very next year of more than 20 percent—three times more optimistic than past projections. Optimism on steroids! Super-optimistic!