City Hall

Good Old Boys Want to Kill a May Bond Election Because They Won't Get the Money

Old men in East Dallas fishing in a pot hole. And we don't think we have a deferred maintenance problem in Dallas?
Old men in East Dallas fishing in a pot hole. And we don't think we have a deferred maintenance problem in Dallas? Elliot Kaiser
I don’t believe it. This story the mayor and his posse on the council handed out yesterday at a city council briefing about why they won’t support a city bond campaign in May doesn’t even begin to add up. There’s another agenda in this agenda somewhere.

The nice thing about our mayor, though, even when he’s hiding an agenda, he tends to show it to us anyway. Mike Rawlings said yesterday: “I have been in really close contact with those financial supporters that have traditionally raised money for this, and they said they will not be supporting this in May.”

Yes. Exactly. Like the people who have supported bond campaigns and referendums to protect the Trinity toll road project in the past, otherwise known as the construction and design public works lobby. That’s exactly how we got in the mess we’re in today – streets gone to hell in a hand-basket, flood control out of control, police and fire pension fund in the ditch.

We’ve had successive years of record economic growth in this region, and Dallas is damn near busted, precisely and entirely because of the self-interested pocket-lining lobbyists who have steered our financial priorities for way too long in this town.

Now we finally have a bond campaign where a significant number of council members are saying, and I paraphrase, “No, just fix the damn streets. Get the flood control thing under control. Do the basics and forget about all those ‘transformational projects’ that always turn out anyway to be boondoggles anyway.”

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Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings
Jim Schutze
And all of a sudden the mayor and his friends think it’s time to stop investing in the city. “They will not be writing those checks,” he said.

Good. Maybe now we can get this done the right way for a change.

Things got even more weird yesterday when some of the mayor’s supporters gave their own reasons for bailing on a May bond election. Council Member Jennifer Gates said there are too many things in the bond proposal that aren’t true street repair items: “This is not about streets,” Gates said. “It has $143 million for streets. There’s a bridge in there that’s not part of keeping up street maintenance.”

I beg to differ. I think bridges are a big part of street maintenance, because if you drive down the street toward the river and all of a sudden there’s no bridge there any more you fall in the river. Maybe Gates would call that a river problem, not a street problem, but, you know – dead anyway.

“It has inter-government projects which has things from converting streets to lighting to pedestrian safety.”

The lighting money she’s talking about is for traffic signals. Same thing as bridges: Even if you’re driving on the very best paved streets in the world, you’re pretty much toast without traffic lights. Why are we having this conversation?

We’re having this conversation because Gates had to come up with some kind of screwball argument for not having a bond election to fix the streets in spite of the fact that her own constituents are screaming for the streets to be fixed.

Another acolyte, Council Member Lee Kleinman, said we shouldn’t borrow any money at all for streets. Ever.

“The city is two billion dollars in debt right now just for general obligation debt,” Kleinman said. “We’re about two billion in debt for water debt. We’re about a billion in debt for aviation debt. I mean, c’mon.”

C’mon where? That’s $5 billion in debt for a $3-billion-a-year entity with 1.3 million shareholders. The last time I looked, American Airlines, supposedly a profitable outfit, was carrying around $22 billion in debt.

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Lee Kleinman using a street.
I thought that was how all really big entities operated. Kleinman said at one point that we can only expect interest rates to rise in the future. So how is it a good idea to kick the can even farther down the road on infrastructure maintenance until the money will cost us even more?

None of it makes any sense. As Council Member Philip Kingston pointed out, putting the bond election off until next November is a politically crazy idea.

“The idea that a November off-cycle election is better for a bond is not valid,” Kingston said. “The voters who voted for instance in November of 2015 were 65 percent Republican, very out of step with the actual electorate of the city of Dallas.”

Kingston also kissed off the mayor’s contention that a bond proposal can’t pass without the support of the mayor’s big-check-writing pals.

“Seriously, the sale here is pretty simple,” he said. “It’s, ‘Do you want the streets fixed?’”

Did you hear anybody say no?

Council Member Scott Griggs suggested the obvious fix if somebody doesn’t think enough of the money in the $800 million proposal is steered toward streets. Steer more of it toward streets:

“If it is the council’s will, which is mine, to put more money into streets, let’s just put more money into streets,” Griggs said. “That’s certainly what’s needed. That’s what the public has told us they wanted. It’s part of our street plan that we passed. Our streets need money.”

Listen, of the reasons put forward yesterday by the mayor and his supporters, only one made even superficial sense, and that was the mayor’s perhaps unintentionally candid line about his check-writing friends. I think by now we all know who he means.

The mayor is talking about the same cabal of good old boys who want to give Fair Park to one of their own, the ones who want to build an expressway on top of the Trinity River, the geniuses who brought us the still-born Victory development that needs more money from us every time we turn around. That’s who doesn’t want this bond election to happen in May. Or ever.

And why? They want to save the city’s borrowing capacity for one of their own deals coming up. They don’t want this proposal precisely because so much of it will go toward basic infrastructure instead of to them.

Is there some particular World’s-Biggest-Ball-of-String boondoggle that they have in mind, some specific reason they want to hold the city hostage right now? Probably. My bet is always on the toll road, but it could be something else. Meanwhile, drive careful out there.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze