Save Cop and Firefighter Pensions, Scratch the Toll Road
Illustration by 355A
Where in the world would the city find a billion dollars to fix its police and fire pension fund? Let’s look. I’m looking. Still looking. Been looking now for several seconds. Found it!
Kill the Trinity River toll road! Now, then, that wasn’t so bad, was it?
OK, I cheated. There’s a reason I found the answer so fast. Already had it up my sleeve. I’ll let you in on why in a minute.
The mayor says we have to default on paying back our cops and firefighters their own money that they entrusted to something called the DROP fund, a savings vehicle operated by the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund. Last week, in fact, in response to a lawsuit the mayor brought against it as a private citizen, the pension board slammed shut the window on withdrawals from DROP.
Now the mayor and city manager want to go back into DROP and take back interest and cost of living payments that have already been made to depositors. The chairman of the pension board told the depositors last week, “This is your money,” but the mayor and the city manager are telling them the city’s taking it anyway.
You almost have to hand it to the mayor and the city manager in a way. Robbing the cops. That’s bold. Not even Jesse James would try that.
And why? The pension board says it needs the city to kick in just over a billion dollars to fix a multi-billion dollar hole the fund finds itself in because of (take your pick) bad investments, bad state laws, bad management, bad luck or bad hair. In other words, lots of luck finding out why. It’s a big hole.
One of the less helpful suggestions some citizens have offered is, “Who cares?” They say the pension board and the cops and firefighters whose pensions are at stake entered into a bad agreement years ago by which the board agreed to pay the members too much interest on their savings. So why isn’t that between them?
Here’s why. They are cops. And they are firefighters. They are our cops and our firefighters. If a meth-head with a machete tries to break into my house or my house catches fire, I call them.
“Hey, my house is on fire. Put it out, please.”
“Hey, a meth-head with the machete is halfway up my stairs. Shoot him, please.”
And they do it. They come. We depend on them for our lives. But if the pension fund falls apart, no matter whose fault it is, the cops and the firefighters go away. They go work somewhere else where there’s still a pension.
There are three major reasons I don’t want to have to put out my own house fire or shoot my own meth-head: 1) I’m busy. 2) I’m afraid. And, 3) I’m afraid. So I do not want the cops and firemen to go away. It is in all of our interests to get it fixed so they won’t go away.
Let's ask: How have other cities dealt with problems like this? We don’t have to look far. Houston, our sister city in Texas, is facing exactly the same size financial hit to fix its pension funds — a billion dollars. In exchange for serious financial concessions from Houston city pension fund members, Mayor Sylvester Turner has promised to back a billion-dollar bond program to help fix his city’s pension problems.
There's one way to do it right there. The pensioners do their part by agreeing to a boost in contributions and a haircut on benefits. The city does its part by borrowing a billion dollars and kicking it into the kitty. Cops stay. Firemen stay. Fires get put out. Meth-heads get diverted from staircases.
So here’s how I was able to come up with that Trinity toll road thing so fast. Mayor Mike Rawlings already hinted at it. He said last week he didn’t want Dallas to do what Houston’s doing and borrow money to fix the pension problems, because that might impair the city’s ability to do “transformational projects.”
Right away I started wondering which one he had in mind. The Trinity toll road came to mind for a weird reason. The Trinity toll road is the oldest project costing the most money for the least transformation I could think of. In fact, do you even know what I’m talking about?
The Trinity toll road is that 20-year-old, six-to-eight-lane multi-billion-dollar expressway project along the Trinity River through downtown. And especially if you are sort of new to town, you might ask, “What expressway along the river downtown?”
According to the most recent accounting, now a year out of date, the city of Dallas already has spent over $600 million on projects related to the 1998 Trinity River Corridor Project (or 60 percent of a billion). Other entities have spent a billion. And notice one thing: The Trinity toll road still isn’t there.
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There is no six-to-eight-lane expressway along the Trinity River through downtown. And we’re fine. Almost 20 years ago when the private Dallas Citizens Council started hyping this project, they said we had to hurry up and build it — hurry up! — or within 20 years downtown Dallas would be decimated by traffic congestion.
It’s been 20 years! We’re there! Not an inch of it has been built. I don’t feel decimated, do you? My main problem driving through downtown now is learning how to navigate that incredible tangle of brand-new highways and bridges still under construction downtown, not an inch of which is a new expressway along the river.
Life seems to be going on. People still wed and bear children. The sun sets and rises. I don’t feel that my life is diminished by the absence of a six-to-eight-lane highway along the river.
The people who still want to see it built have always said, “Yeah, but what about the future?” This is the future! We got here without it, and everything is fine.
But what does it mean to keep it on the books, to keep saying we’re going to build it one day? When the mayor wants to keep an account open for it, how big an account are we talking about?
Nobody knows for sure. Sometimes the North Texas Tollway Authority, which would operate it if it ever got built, says the cost of actually building the Trinity toll road will be $1.3 billion. Sometimes the same agency says it will be $1.46 billion. But let’s not cheapen ourselves haggling over a lousy $160 million. It will cost something in the realm of one to two big ones.
In 1998 Dallas voters approved $118 million in bond borrowing to pay for transportation improvements along the river, $84 million of which was for the toll road. By now at least half of that money already has been spent on various designs and redesigns.
The NTTA and the Texas Department of Transportation have been quite clear over the years: They will do what they can, but there is no way they are going to pop for all or even most of the difference between our paltry remaining $40-odd million and the possible deficit of $1.4 billion.
Now we know one more thing about the juggler under the overpass, a rendering published some years ago by proponents of the Trinity River toll road. If there is a juggler, the North Texas Tollway Authority will not be paying him.
That’s on us. That’s what the mayor’s open account is about. He and the Citizens Council don’t want to see us do a Sylvester Turner and borrow money to fix our pension fund, because they want that borrowing capacity kept available for the city’s most expensive least transformational project ever.
Also interesting is what the NTTA says it will cost to operate that road — something in the neighborhood of half a billion dollars a year. In the NTTA document that says that, you should see all of the fine print just below the cost numbers: “ … does not include flood event clean-ups … will be the responsibility of the City of Dallas to maintain areas outside of the Trinity Parkway right-of-way … all maintenance on the levee, including vegetative control, is beyond the scope of NTTA maintenance responsibility … does not include maintaining any landscaping on frontage roads … level of information used to estimate Operations and Maintenance for this project is sketch level and contains many unknown and specific characteristics … we cannot and will not guarantee that the final estimate of roadway O&M cost will not vary.”
In other words, when we look at that project we are staring into an immense fiscal black hole, a money pit of unknown dimension for something we already know we don’t need.
Really this whole crisis with the pension fund may be the very least of our woes. It needs to be viewed in context with the matching crises in the city’s physical and social infrastructure, the rotting neighborhood streets, the heart-freezing poverty of the southern sector, the unsustainable inequality into which children are born every day in the two disparate halves of our city.
That’s the stuff we need to be working on. Those are the real crises, the ones we should be using our borrowing capacity to fix, not some gimcrack real estate promotion with a money-sucking road that nobody needs anyway.
What we are looking at in this city is push finally coming to shove about who runs the city and why. The pension fund crisis is really only a canary in the coal mine.
But it’s also an easy fix. We take out our big municipal ballpoint pen. We look down the list of obligations. Pension fund, $1.1 billion. Where can we find that money?
Keep looking. Here it is! Trinity River toll road, one or two big ones to build, half a big one a year to own. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.
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