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Let them cast ballots

This past Saturday morning, Roland Blumer changed into baggy corduroy pants, a white T-shirt, and an old blue sweater that his wife had bought him at a garage sale a few years back. Then he grabbed an ax and headed out the door to work.

Not his work, mind you--the city's work.
For the past two years, Blumer and about 20 of his neighbors have sacrificed more weekends than they can count doing the work that the city of Dallas park and recreation department is too broke to do.

They clean, weed, water, and beautify the half-mile-long strip of public land along Joe's Creek, a highly visible neighborhood asset in the Forest Lane-Midway Road area of northwest Dallas. Their volunteer efforts began about four years ago when a dentist in the neighborhood, Dr. Terry Watson, got tired of the chronically trashy condition of the creek and the city's inability to maintain the creek bottom and neighboring city park. "The city does less and less for areas like this," Watson says. "It's not a high-profile area, and their excuse is they don't have money to do anything. It's always an issue of dollars."

Watson, like many frustrated citizens who see city services and public-improvement projects shriveling, convinced his neighbors to do what the city can't. And four years later, they're still doing it one weekend day a month. To date, the neighborhood has purchased and planted 5,000 daffodils and more than 250 trees. Not only has the city not participated in the work--it will mow the grass, but planting, watering and fertilizing anything is out--it has managed to destroy some of the trees.

"I guess there's been a lack of communication about how to care for young trees because the park department employees keep banging into the trees with commercial weed eaters," says Watson. "We've lost about 15 trees that we've had to replace, and a lot of the families who put a lot of time and effort into this were real upset about that."

Roland Blumer, of course, has heard the brunt of the complaints. His wife, Donna, has been the city councilwoman for the area for the past two years, and during that time, not only has she had firsthand evidence of the city's many limitations (and its citizens' many complaints), she has had a glimpse into its wrongheadedness, too. Its shortsightedness. Its strange priorities.

Last Saturday, watching her husband leave to do creek work for the umpteenth time--knowing she had lost another opportunity to get her mate into the backyard to loosen soil for onion-planting--Mrs. Blumer could only shake her head at the larger implications of the situation at hand. "Now that we're thinking of building a new sports arena, I wonder if our citizens are going to have a permanent job of keeping our parks up in Dallas," Blumer said.

"One thing is for sure--there isn't enough support on this council to stop this thing. We're being railroaded, and I think there's only one chance to stop it: Let the people decide."

What a sweet thought. What a simple thought.
Let the people decide.
Why can't Dallas citizens vote? After all, everybody else is doing it.

On January 21, Lewisville residents voted their politicians' sports arena plan down, 54 to 46 percent. On the same day, Lubbock voters did the exact same thing, albeit by a closer margin of 51 to 49 percent.

"It's a real grass-roots populist kind of message, I think," Mikel Ward, leader of the anti-sports arena faction in Lubbock told a hometown newspaper reporter the day of the defeat. "The working-class people can win no matter how much money is against them."

So far, that is not the case in Dallas, where the city council members are bound and determined to keep working-class people out of their arena-building business.

It should not be construed from this that the politicians in Lewisville and Lubbock are more open to the old-fashioned idea of participatory democracy. It's just that they wanted to hike the sales tax--a half-cent in Lewisville, three-eighths of a cent in Lubbock--to pay for a new sports arena. And to do that, the law required them to get the voters' approval--which they didn't get. Consequently, elected officials in both towns say their dream of leaving a sports shrine as their political legacy is dead.

Dallas officials are more crafty--some might say more sinister--than that. They know that their residents do not want to build a second sports arena in 15 years for three rich white guys--Mavericks owner Don Carter, Stars owner Norm Green, and Hyatt Regency hotel owner and Reunion land czar Ray Hunt. So the council has spent the last eight months trying to figure out a way to avoid the kinds of financing--a higher sales tax, general obligation bonds--that require voter or legislative approval.  

Which is why, eight months later, we have no arena deal. Because we can't find other money.

According to council members, Carter has given the city until February 24 to cut a deal or, he says, he's finished with Dallas--he'll make a deal with one of the suburbs.

"The bottom line is the financing methods don't work on a new sports arena," says one council member involved in the current round of council-Carter negotiations. "Revenue bonds don't give us enough money to pay for this thing and retire the current debt on Reunion Arena. Right now we're trying to get Carter to pay three-quarters of the cost--instead of the $65 million he's offered--and we'd pay one-quarter. And we're looking around at other taxes--hotel-motel tax, mixed-drink tax, tax on rental cars. Whatever we can think of.

"Somewhere down the line we're going to have to decide whether financially we can make a new arena happen or not," the councilmember says. "If we can't make it work, we'll have to look Don Carter in the eye and offer him a nice renovation of the building. At that point, somebody's going to have to blink. But we're not at that point yet. We're still looking for something else--some other financing method that we've overlooked."

What they've overlooked is the preference of the taxpayers. Who would solve their dilemma very quickly if given the chance.

"I don't want to be remembered as one of the councilmembers who lost the Mavericks and the Stars from Dallas," Bob Stimson says so often it's probably what he utters into his pillow in his deepest sleep. But he's not alone--it's what they all whine, with no regard to the fiscal insanity that will be produced by paying Carter and Green the ransom they want.

It's possible to sleep easy, Stimson: Let the taxpayers carry your burden. Unlike the wimpish members of the council, many of whom are looking to Ray Hunt's campaign-finance largesse for help winning re-election in May, the citizens will be happy to make the hard decision. And if councilmembers don't let them, they may be remembered not for losing professional sports in Dallas, but for losing their council seats over the issue.

At least that's what Councilman Paul Fielding thinks.
"I think if the council doesn't have the good sense to renovate the current arena, then at the very least they should let the citizens vote on this," says Fielding. "I told my fellow council members at one of our last meetings that if the council wants to go ahead and build a new arena without consulting the voters, then the May bond election and the May city council election will end up being a referendum on the council. I think the citizens will take out their anger on both--and that there are some people who will not be re-elected--because I don't believe the citizens of Dallas want this new arena."

Fielding says let the people vote--give them a straw vote that would send a clear message to the council about whether the citizens want to pay for a new arena to guarantee that the teams stay here.

Blumer supports the idea. So does Domingo Garcia. So does Charlotte Mayes--a credit to the woman since she is one of the biggest crusaders for a new arena.

That's four votes--out of 15. Actually it's a possible five votes if the referendum question were written in a way that satisfied Chris Luna. "If it's worded the right way I don't have a particular problem," Luna says. "Clearly if we have any general obligation bonds, then we should ask the voters. If it's going to be a revenue bond deal, then I'm not sure. I think you can do it in a ballot, but you have to say that you're not going to use any taxpayer money and revenues will pay for it and all that stuff."

Except that "all that stuff"--which the 11 pro-arena council members swear is true--is actually nonsense.

If this were so painless, so risk-free, Carter wouldn't be insisting that the city finance the project itself--presumably by issuing revenue bonds. If this were such a handsome business deal, he'd issue bonds on his own, put his basketball team up for collateral, and sell the bonds to all these Dallas business people who are clamoring for the taxpayers to build them luxury suites and a private concourse and a separate parking garage.

Second, these magical arena revenues from basketball and hockey don't even cover the existing debt on Reunion Arena, which cost a relatively piddly $25 million to build. Yes, revenues will increase with the income from luxury suite rentals, club seating and higher ticket prices. But unlike now, we'll be fighting tooth and nail over every dollar with Carter, who wants his investment repaid before the city pockets a dime. Plus, revenues go down when teams don't win--and this is the first season in several that Carter's team has been winning.  

You can also bet your dying creekbed, sagging bridges, and gutted roadways that there will be sports-arena money in the upcoming bond election because Carter and Hunt want to reconfigure the Reunion area--to get rid of some roads and add or improve others. Press these very same "no taxes" council members on this point, and they're forced to concede it.

"There is some possibility we would spend some money like we do in any ordinary economic development package for infrastructure improvements," says Glenn Box. "But it wouldn't be for the actual construction of the arena."

And would it be on the May ballot, clearly stated as "sports arena infrastructure projects?" Of course not. Because then, as any council member knows, it would fail. "It would come under 'economic development fund' on the ballot," says Box.

It must be remembered that this is the same city manager and city staff who funded a secret arena study last April by unethically diverting $50,000 from a multimillion-dollar contract for the expansion of the convention center so the city council wouldn't find out. It's also the same bunch that planned--back when the council was keeping this project on the fast track--on "borrowing" $15 million from city airports, the police drug-seizure money, and various street and flood-control projects to design this new arena.

If John Ware wants money for an arena--and he does, most ardently--he will get it. And chances are we won't even know it.

Let the voters decide? Glenn Box says no. Larry Duncan says no. Don Hicks says no. Sandra Crenshaw says no. (Her condescending remarks are worth quoting: "I don't think the voters understand the economics of all this.") Even Bob Stimson says no. (Now that he's been at the bargaining table with Don Carter for five minutes, Stimson is so immensely flattered and so beaten up by the pro-arena council members he's negotiating with that he's quickly losing all resolve to renovate Reunion, let alone let the voters speak.)

Max Wells and Barbara Mallory say, stiffly, that they have no comment on such a proposal because they're not willing even to discuss the arena during these critical negotiations. Donna Halstead is in Japan. Even if she were around to comment, you could count on her to be against the idea. (She didn't even want City Auditor Dan Paul to investigate the smelly secret study.) Councilman Craig McDaniel won't even return phone calls on the subject.

Mayor Steve Bartlett, of course, says no, no, no. But he says it with such vehemence, such annoyance at even being asked the question, that you have to wonder if the guy is just going to explode any minute. "I think it would be a change in the system of government that we have," Bartlett said, pointing out tersely that there's no precedent for taking revenue bonds to the voters. "What you're doing is really bad journalism."

Actually, it's Bartlett's memory that is really bad. Because according to state Sen. John Leedom, a Republican from North Dallas, who served with Bartlett on the Dallas city council from 1977 to 1980, the city's water utilities department used to put all its major maintenance projects, funded with revenue bonds, on the ballot as referendum items for the voters. City Secretary Bob Sloane says this was done most recently in 1972, 1975, and 1978. Nonbinding city referenda are also not without precedent in Dallas. Emergency 911 service and election of DART board members were submitted to voters in 1985 and 1991, respectively.

"For anyone to say that the city's tradition is not to poll the voters, it's not true," says Leedom. "Whether it's general obligation or revenue bonds, it's been the city's policy, at one time or another, to let the voters vote on it. I feel very strongly that people should always vote before we indebt them. And I think the Dallas city council should be obligated to let them vote on a new arena."

State Rep. Ron Wilson from Houston introduced a bill last month that, if passed, would require the city of Houston to include a nonbinding referendum question on a proposed new sports arena in the November 7 municipal election.

Wilson is proposing the bill, interestingly enough, because he wants a new sports arena built in Houston, and Mayor Bob Lanier, who wields much more power than Bartlett (thanks to a "strong-mayor" form of government there) doesn't want one--even though the Houston Oilers football team and the Houston Rockets basketball team are both threatening to leave town over inadequate facilities. Lanier, nonplussed, cites "other pressing needs" in the city and polls that show low citizen interest in a new sports facility.  

In Dallas, Fielding, Blumer and, to a lesser degree, Garcia are doing the same. It is also interesting to note that of the three leading candidates for mayor, Garcia and Darrell Jordan are both skeptical of the need for a new arena.

Garcia wants renovation. Jordan, in an appealing twist, wants the city to sell Reunion Arena and its money-losing parking garage to Carter to do with what he wants. And he wants the business community, which is so eager for a new arena, to band together and put up the money for it.

On the other hand, Ron Kirk--who, like Bartlett before him, is Ray Hunt's officially sanctioned candidate--wants a new arena. Badly and at all costs. He is also the only mayoral candidate of the three who is against allowing the voters to get in on the process. "I'm never opposed to allowing the voters to vote, but I don't think we have the luxury of waiting until May to get the voters' input," says Kirk. "They elect the council for a reason, and the council ought to sit down and get this thing done now."

Not so fast.
As it turns out, John Leedom likes the sound of Ron Wilson's arena bill. Leedom was the one who sponsored the DART bill in 1987 requiring DART to go to the voters if it wanted to go into long-term debt to build its rail system. (In 1988, the voters told DART no.) In 1995, Leedom thinks Dallas voters should get the same opportunity.

"If the Dallas city council doesn't ask for a referendum on the arena, then we'll do it for them in the legislature," says Leedom. Lest you think such a bill would lack the broad appeal necessary for passage, state Sen. Royce West, Democrat from Oak Cliff, told me last week, "I would probably support that"--as long as it is nonbinding, he added.

State Rep. John Carona, a Republican from North Dallas, is drafting such an arena-referendum bill in the Texas House. "The notion of letting the voters have their say on this issue interests me a lot," says Carona. "I strongly support it, and I'm happy to get right into the thick of it."

Thank goodness somebody is.


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