Ever since Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert announced on January 17 that he won't run for re-election next May, people have been talking about who will run. I say people. Maybe six people.
Most people don't care. I know. People these days are into other things, like unemployment. Wondering what to do with Granny when the Republicans boot her out of the nursing home. Selfish things.
I'm not here to nag. If you don't care, you don't care. I'm just a fly on the wall. But may I point out one thing? If you don't care, then things will keep rocking on pretty much the way they always have.
Dallas Citizens Council
That means the next mayor will be chosen, as always, by the Dallas Citizens Council, the private leadership body with roots in the pre-Civil Rights Movement era that still picks the establishment's mayoral candidates.
They brought us Leppert, who was an unknown construction industry executive before his anointment. It was their word two weeks ago, passed on to The Dallas Morning News political writer Gromer Jeffers, that effectively ended Leppert's tenure, a week before Leppert got a chance to do it himself.
Jeffers had a story in the paper January 12, quoting Dallas lawyer and former Citizens Council chairman Michael Boone as saying, "I and others failed to convince Leppert to run for re-election. Now we have to turn the page."
The Citizens Council anoints. And they denoint. Or at least they get to announce the denointment before the denointed does.
I know I said I wanted to bring up just one thing. But may I point out one more thing? The Citizens Council, which brought Leppert to the picnic, has major culpability in what may well turn out to be the single biggest crisis this city has faced in modern times—the failure of the Trinity River levee system. I'm not saying they caused the levees to erode. But they talked us out of our one big chance to fix them in time.
In the 2007 referendum called by council member Angela Hunt, we had a chance to turn the Trinity River Project around. We could have put a halt to that crazy toll road they wanted to build out where it floods and out where new construction will threaten our aging levees.
We might even have been able to put the kibosh to crazy stuff like those fake suspension bridges. In the 2007 referendum campaign, Hunt and others talked repeatedly about levee safety. We should have listened.
But, no. That is not at all what the Citizens Council and the Dallas establishment wanted done. I have just been reviewing campaign finance reports for that election, and even four years later it's still pretty bracing—page after page of huge donations from well-heeled and wired toll-road proponents:
Five grand from Peter O'Donnell (philanthropist), five grand from his wife, 20 grand from Louis Beecherl (oil and gas), five grand from Deedie Rose (wife of investor and Bush pal), 40 grand from the Citizens Council, 25 grand from John Muse (Tom Hicks' former partner), 25 grand from Trammell Crow (Trammell Crow), 25 grand from Hunt Oil (the Kurds), another 50 grand from Beecherl (will that do?), another 25 grand from Hunt Oil, 50 grand from Hillwood Development (Perot), another 100 grand from the Citizens Council.
And on. And on. And all of it to defeat a grassroots petition drive started by a freshman council member concerned about levee safety.
They did defeat Hunt. They beat her by 5.78 percentage points at the polls. But now we can see what their victory did to the rest of us.
The toll road they were so determined to build between the levees has soaked up millions in design and testing fees and is still exactly nowhere. The costs have soared through the roof. There is no funding, even though Mayor Leppert swore to voters in 2007 that the road was already fully funded and would cost Dallas taxpayers not one additional dime.
But much more important, everything Hunt said at the time about levee safety has been borne out. As we now know, even as the campaigns for and against the Hunt referendum were underway the U.S. Corps of Engineers was sitting on data showing that the earthen levees along the Trinity through the center of the city were seriously compromised.
Two years after the election, under pressure from Congress to tell the truth about levees all over America, the Corps withdrew its official certification of the Dallas levee system, admitting that the levees could not be relied on.
If we had known any of this when we voted in 2007, do you think the Citizens Council would have won that election?
Last week I looked at the assurances given us back then by our Citizens Council-sponsored mayor. Leppert vowed again and again that all of the levee safety issues had been resolved and that the Corps of Engineers, which oversees levee safety nationally, had given him its guarantee.
"The Corps has signed off on the safety issues," Leppert said in 2007. "They have signed off on the environmental issues. They feel very comfortable with it. They're the experts. Don't take our word for it."
But they hadn't signed off on anything. The Corps was careful to state publicly after the election that all of the safety issues were still under review. They had signed off on nothing. Then two years later the Corps, following its national levee safety review, revealed that the Trinity River levee system was dangerously inadequate.
The mainstream media in Dallas—especially The Dallas Morning News and D Magazine—are still covering up the full implications of the levee problem. But, folks, it's out there. You don't have to strain your eyes.
Just look at other cities where similar problems have cropped up since the Corps adopted tougher levee standards after the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster.
For example, Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm has estimated the cost of fixing the Dallas levee system at about $150 million, which she seems to think she can do without a bond election or a tax increase. But we should be watching what's going on around the rest of the country.
In 2008 in the East St. Louis area along the Mississippi, the Corps of Engineers gave local governments a cost estimate of $180 million to bring their flood control system up to the new standards. One year later, the Corps revised its estimate to $450 million.
The more instructive case is probably the Morganza Project on the Mississippi below New Orleans—a proposed 72-mile fortified levee system with concrete cladding in some parts, not unlike the repair being proposed for our own 23-mile levee system.
In 2007, Congress appropriated $886 million for the Morganza project, based on the Corps' cost estimates. But the next year when a contractor took a serious look at doing the work, the estimate went to $10.7 billion.
That's a 12-fold increase. If Suhm's estimate for the Trinity repair were off by the same ratio, we'd be looking at a cost to fix our levee system of $1.8 billion.
You know what's interesting about that number, $1.8 billion? It's the same amount the city of Dallas now owes as its total "general obligation" bonded indebtedness.
Are you beginning to catch my drift? The Trinity River levee issue has in it the potential to bring Dallas City Hall to its knees.
Yeah, tell me that we could use our great political pull in Washington right now to get the feds to pick up a big chunk of that cost. Maybe. Maybe not. Remember that we're against earmarks now.
And the dollar amount of the repair is only part of the problem for Dallas—maybe the smaller part. I just read a transcript of an October 7, 2010, conference call with analysts by executives of Beazer homes USA, a company that calls itself one of the top 10 home builders in America, with headquarters in Atlanta. They were talking about major land holdings they have in Sacramento, California, a city facing levee problems similar to ours.
The Beazer executives told the analysts that their land in Sacramento is "simply not buildable" until the levee system there gets fixed.
We've had some talk in Dallas about people who will be required to buy flood insurance if we don't get our levees fixed by next December, a deadline set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Morning News has reported the story as if flood insurance were the big issue.
No. Think of the phrase, "simply not buildable." An enormous swath of land from downtown almost to the city's far western border, including major parcels in the north and south of the city, will become "simply not buildable" if the levees aren't fixed by next December.
That issue is out there already. It's masked by the tough times in real estate. But if these times were better and people had money to invest, it's hard to believe investors would rush to put their money in the vast area affected by the unresolved Trinity River levee issue. The value of that land for taxes should already be plummeting.
And the collateral damage rolls on. First, the money for the repair. Second, the devastation to investors and the loss of tax base. But then there is also a new question being raised in connection with the Morganza Project: The Corps of Engineers has suggested the entire project may need to go back through the authorization process from ground zero because of the size of the cost change.
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If that turns out to be the case, it's a de facto de-authorization of the whole Trinity River project—a legal-political pulling of the plug. In our case, it would mean that decades of design, hearings and local elections would be tossed in the toilet, and the whole thing would have to go back to the voters as a new project.
You and I don't know how any of this will turn out. We can hope that we will muddle through, and things will come out for the better.
But remember who put us here in the first place—the Dallas Citizens Council, the same people who think they're going to pick your next mayor for you.
So I'm just saying: There might be enough in there to actually give a damn about.