Even Stephen Hawking Couldn't Figure Out the Fuzzy Math Behind How We Are Going To Pay For the Trinity River Park.
This is so sad. It's tragic. I'm going to write about the Trinity River project again. I did all 12 steps. For what?
After the voters of Dallas, in their infinite and manifest wisdom, voted in favor of the project (for the second time) in a referendum two years ago, I admitted that I was powerless over my negative attitude. I made a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself.
I told myself it was over. It's a done deal. That's the problem with democracy. Sometimes the people vote the wrong way.
But last week I was walking by the old City Hall Saloon—just walking by, I swear!—and all of a sudden that door swung open, and I heard the jukebox inside, and I just knew they had a PowerPoint presentation going on.
So today I wake up, barely know where I am, clothes all a mess, haven't shaved in 35 years, and I'm online trying to figure out the total acreage of the proposed Trinity River Park.
I hate myself.
Well, that part's not true. I actually have a certain fondness for the dude in the mirror. C'mon. Who could resist? But I digress.
Just go ahead. I know you want to. You're dying of suspense. Ask me. What is the total acreage of the proposed Trinity River Park?
Last week when I slung myself leeringly into a chair in the peanut gallery at City Hall, city council member Delia Jasso was asking city staff who will be in charge of a park they want to build along the abandoned Continental Viaduct over the river.
Let's cut to the chase. Jasso, a new council member, didn't realize that nobody knows who will be in charge of the little bridge park, because it will be a part of the overall Trinity River Park, and nobody knows who will be in charge of the overall park. Or what the park will be.
OK, this is where I start just pounding down the shots. Sure, we have been engaged in a grueling municipal debate about the Trinity River project for at least 12 years. Yes, the people who want to see the project done have always said it was about a park for the people. But, no, it was never about a park.
It was always about the highway the backers want to build along the banks of the river. The story about a park was always eyewash, to con the common folk into voting for the road.
Nobody has ever designed the park. No one knows where it will be or how big it will be. No one knows what it will cost to maintain.
What park? There is no park. There is only bullshit. The danger is that the bullshit may actually turn into a park. Bullshit Park. While I was sitting there during the city council committee PowerPoint orgy, I posted an item on our blog, Unfair Park, saying as much.
Since then, various city officials have been communicating with me to tell me how wrong I was, am and shall always be, including Dallas city manager Mary Suhm, assistant city manager Jill Jordan and Trinity River project director Rebecca Rasor.
Jordan was the most pointed. She referred me to numbers available on the city's Trinity River PowerPoint page (temptress!). She said operation and maintenance of the park will cost "$10.5 million in '03 dollars."
"How will the city fund this?" she asked rhetorically in her e-mail. "The increase in property taxes from the increase in values of properties along the river more than provides the needed revenue."
I spent the rest of the week (or so I'm told) begging like a pathetic little dog for more PowerPoint from Jordan, asking her to provide me with backup for her claim that new development along the river, caused by building the park, will pay for maintenance of the park.
Here is why I wonder. Let's do the numbers. In next year's proposed city budget, the city will spend $62 million total on parks. I took the $10.5 million in '03 dollars she gave me for what it will cost to operate and maintain the Trinity River Park and went online to one of these inflation calculators. I used the one put up by the U.S. Department of Labor. It said $10.5 million in 2003 dollars is the same as $12.32 million today.
All right, the new growth along the river will pay X amount in new property taxes. So does that mean the new growth will pay $12.32 million in new taxes? No, that's a mistake. Mistake. Don't do that.
For one thing, only 3 percent of the city's property taxes go to parks. For another, property taxes are only 42 percent of the city's revenues. The city spends about $26 million in property tax money on the Park department. Blah blah blah, numbers numbers numbers. But let's make it simpler than that.
That $12.32 million to maintain the new river park represents a jump of 47 percent in the amount of property tax money that currently goes to maintaining and operating parks in the city. Nearly 50 percent.
You with me? If it costs $12.32 million to run the new park, and if all that money is going to come from property taxes along the river, and if the properties along the river are going to pay the same taxes as the rest of us, then those new properties are going to have to be worth about half the total worth today of the entire tax roll.
But guess what? They're not going to pay the same taxes everybody else pays. The city is hard at work even as we speak setting up all of these special tax giveaway districts along the river—TIFs and PIDs and whatever—designed to give all or most of the tax revenue from the new properties back to the developers.
They're not going to be paying squat for the park. And when I wonder who will be paying, what do I do? I go look at that dashing dude in the mirror. What a guy!
And guess what else? No one has any idea what that $10.5 million figure in 2003 dollars even means, because nobody has any idea how big the park will be. Jordan, possibly not being snippy but I doubt it, sent me a link to the city's PowerPoint on operations and maintenance costs, a document which, she pointed out, "is clearly labeled on the Web site."
So I went to her document. It describes the park as being 700 acres in size. But it also says the Great Trinity Forest, described to voters as part of the park, will be 2,700 acres. But on another page it describes the forest as being 3,500 acres. The Morning News has described it as 6,000 acres.
OK, take the Great Trinity Forest out of it. Forget the Great Trinity Forest. Zap! No forest. Let's only talk about the downtown portion of the park as delineated in a detailed map in a March 9, 2005, "Final Report" on the project prepared for the city by its contractor, HNTB Corp.
I took that map. I took those boundaries. I went to the Web pages of the Dallas Central Appraisal District, where they have this wonderful little thing called "Measure." You click on it, and it measures. I measured the exact same area the HNTB report shows as the downtown portion of the park. Three times. From different angles and starting points. Came out exactly the same each time.
It was 1,872 acres. Not 700 acres like they said, but 1,872 acres.
The city's Web pages say they estimated the cost of maintaining the park on a per acre basis. So let's say they goofed. It's not 700 acres. It's 1,872 acres. So the park is 267 percent bigger than they thought it would be. On a per acre basis, that means the cost should be 267 percent what they thought it would be. So if that's going to be paid for by the growth in the tax base along the river, the growth needs to be 267 percent what they thought it needed to be. Assuming they thought.
So we need to more or less build an entire second city along the river in order to pay for the park. I suggest the outcome will be something other than that.
So I'm here at my desk. Got this gigantic headache. Trying to remember if I embarrassed myself at that committee meeting. And all I can think is this. This is how it all happens.
Look. The total tax base of this city has increased by 47 percent in the last 10 years. In 1999 it was $55.9 billion. This year it's $82.1 billion.
That's great. It's marvelous. It means we're a going concern. But think about this. We are slashing what we pay to run the Park Department by 15 percent this year, because we're broke. We can't mow the grass on the medians. Or water the plants. Or fix the potholes.
How can that be, when our net worth has increased by almost half in 10 years? Could it have anything to do with not having the slightest idea how much anything is going to cost us? But muddling on into it anyway?
One last calculation. Net worth of city goes up 47 percent in 10 years. Park department budget goes down 15 percent in one year. New park is 267 percent bigger than we thought, 267 percent more expensive to maintain. So for new growth along river to make Park department go up, not down, growth must be...
Man. I've got this powerful hankering for another PowerPoint.
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