Cain't Say No

Welcome to Thunderdome: The German Reichstag was designed by the architect chosen to do a new opera hall here--but who will pay to fill the potholes?
Nigel Young/Foster and Partners

Very best theater of the absurd this city has seen, ever. Absolutely. Our eyes witness these events, but our brains can't believe it.

First, city council members Mary Poss, Alan Walne and Ed Oakley are leaders of the pack in giving away $43 million in tax money to two billionaires, one of whom is a major-major obnoxious snotball who keeps firing off insults against the city from poolside somewhere in Hawaii because we're not giving him enough money fast enough. When the billionaires finally do get the boodle they want, they promise in return that they will build an ultra-luxe professional sports-cum-lingerie mall on a toxic waste dump near downtown.

Just what we were hoping for in my neighborhood.

But then barely a week after the big giveaway, the Dallas City Council gets the news that it is badly, horrendously, stupendously broke. And so for several evenings in a row we have city council members Mary Poss, Alan Walne and Ed Oakley on the telly every night shucking and clucking and waddling around with sky-is-falling looks on their faces, going on and on about how terrible it is that we seem to be facing a "shortfall" in the budget.

Well, what...what am I missing here? Did somebody slip me some Rohypnol? Mary, Ed, Alan: You gave the money away. I saw you do it. It was on television. That's how you get shortfalls.

Don't you hate that word, anyway, "shortfall?" If I'm a bank teller and my drawer comes up missing 10 or 12 grand, do you think they're going to tell me I'm facing a "shortfall?" A long walk on a short pier is what I may be facing.

Mary. Alan. Ed. You're the girls and boys who just cain't say no. Watch out for date rape.

This isn't the only place on earth with awareness issues. I guess not that many people in this region watched Barbara Kopple's documentary on the Hamptons on ABC a week ago, but I did watch it with grim fascination. Both nights it was on I drove the family out of the room and hunkered down to catch every syllable. That footage had more moronic, prattling new-rich nincompoops per square inch than I would ever have believed could exist in the entire universe. There must be an ancient Indian curse drawing them to the Hamptons like zombies from far and wide.

But Dallas may also be a major depot. I think we're a gathering point for the zombies. They come by night, and in the day they are our civic leaders. Look at these facts:

The same leaders who helped defeat the recent police and fire pay referendum--TXU Electric/Gas, Austin Industries, various groups, law firms and individuals directly or peripherally connected with the Trinity River project and public-works construction in Dallas--are aggressively promoting a series of make-believe fandango bridges across the downtown mudflats at a cost too huge to pronounce out loud.

They also are pushing for a $40 million to $45 million city bond issue to go toward the $250 million opera hall they want to build downtown. The opera buffs have already chosen our architects for us, led by the team that designed the makeover of the German Reichstag, or parliament building, in Berlin three years ago. The redone Reichstag includes a public seating area in the roof above the big room where the parliament meets so that "the public are symbolically above the politicians who are answerable to them."

That's a great idea. I wish we could get that company to come do a roof-deal like that for the city council chamber. Then we could all go sit up there over Mary Poss and yell, "Shortfall!" and drop stuff on her from our lunch bags.

The zombies are trying to zombify us. Money for the opera? We can't mow the grass in the parks. What money?

OK, I know that many responsible ordinary folk voted against the pay-raise referendum, because we had been led to believe we couldn't afford it. Looking at what has happened since, it must have been true. But if we couldn't afford more pay for firefighters and cops, then how in the world can we afford fandango bridges and $45 million for an opera house? Who thinks that way?

I don't even blame the mad billionaire who kept hurling thunderbolts at us from his Hula Hut. You can't blame people for asking. Why not? Maybe we should all ask. Why should the taxpayers be the only suckers in the deal?

To be sure, some of the people who ask for city money are strong advocates for causes in which they truly believe. William H. Lively, who is president and chief executive officer of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts Foundation, told me that the millions his group is seeking for the new opera house are, in his view, "the city's fair share that makes this a truly public-private partnership."  

I know he means it. I respect his commitment. But what if I don't want to be in the partnership? Then my fair share is zero. I want to be a partner with the cop on my street, the firefighter at my neighborhood station, the city employee on the back of the garbage truck that comes down my block, and if I can't afford to stay partners with those guys, then I can't go partners in the Reichstag. It's that simple.

Lively told me: "The city will own this center once it's constructed. We're going to give it to them after negotiating how it should be operated and managed and maintained and governed and all that."

Yeah, I don't care about "all that." I want to know who has to pay. Who pays to run this thing, keep it up, pay the staff and all of that stuff?

Lively said we do. You and I.

"That is the trade-off. We raise over $200 million, probably $225 million when it's all said and done, and we give it to the city, and the city operates it."

Oh, my goodness. They build their playhouse, and then we have to keep it up? How about this? Instead of a $250 million opera house, you folks take the $225 million you are raising, go with a modest little $100 million opera house and put the other $125 million in an endowment to run the place, so that the public won't have to pay for it at all? We're just tossing out ideas here.

But again, it's not the people who ask for money who are to blame for the shortfall. They just want money. They don't have a shortfall. They have a windfall. The people to blame are the ones who give them the money.

This city has enjoyed a solid decade of prosperity. In giving Dallas its highest credit rating, Standard & Poors said recently: "The city of Dallas, one of three Texas cities whose debt is rated 'AAA', remains at the core of one of the premier economic growth centers in the nation. With a population increase of 18 percent from 1990 to 2000, the city is now responsible for serving nearly 1.2 million residents. The tax base has increased substantially, 36 percent, to more than $60 billion, after recovering nicely from real estate declines in the early 1990s."

So why is City Hall so hammered? What's with the shortfall?

I talked to a midlevel city official a few weeks ago at the height of the Hula Hut controversy, with the agreement I would not name him (he's not a high-up person, and he wouldn't talk to me otherwise). I asked him how we could afford to forgive the billionaires all of their property taxes for 20 years, when obviously it will cost us a lot of money for their new buildings to be on the ground during that time.

We have to police them. We have to put out their fires. We have to fix their streets and pipes. The buildings don't just sit there. They cost us lots of money. That's why we pay taxes.

He said that in addition to the property tax we are forgiving them, the new sports/lingerie mall will generate sales tax revenue for the city, which will not be forgiven.

Yeah, but doesn't it take all the sales tax revenue and all the property tax money that we normally collect now from new buildings in order for the city to maintain basic services? He said that was a nebulous concept, and he knew of no way to measure it.

So how about this for a measurement? We can't keep up what we have now. We have billions in deferred maintenance. For the last three years, Greg Mullen, an apartment developer who opposed the Hula Hut giveaway, has been trying to get someone at City Hall to look at his analysis of deferred maintenance in Dallas.

Without going through all the hoops, Mullen's main point is that the city is already going in the hole $287 million a year on the street replacements it is not doing and that this enormous liability is what we are beginning to see with our eyes when we drive down streets like Regal Row.

So why do we give away money? To "create excitement?" Neiman Marcus could create pandemonium if it just peeled all the price tags off stuff and gave it away for free. Life is harder than that.  

This will come to a head. By next May when we have city council and mayoral elections and possibly also a bond election for the Reichstag, the lines will be drawn: long-haulers vs. shortfallers.

And this is not to demean those architects. I really do love that idea of a seating area in the roof over the council chamber. "Incoming! Shortfall at 9 o'clock!" I bet Mary, Alan and Ed will have their helmets on.

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