Here’s a little number the Dallas mayor and the City Council won’t want you to see. During the State Fair of Texas' 24-day run this year, it will suck an average of 10 percent of the Dallas police force out of the rest of the city.
At a time when the force is at an all-time low anyway — 2,900 officers when it’s supposed to be 3,600 — a typical day at the state fair will have more Dallas police patrolling it than an entire City Council district.
The number, 10 percent, is classified. The city manager and the police chief and the city attorney and the mayor all say allowing the public to know that number would create a major security issue.
And it would. Job security. For them.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Turning over 10 percent of the police department to the fair is just a way-back, good-old-boy deal that would make no sense to anybody if anybody knew about it. So now you know.
Think about it. The 250 to 300 officers patrolling the fair won’t descend from a cloud or appear out of thin air. They will come off the streets of your neighborhood. Officers will be drawn from every part of the department — cops who would otherwise be patrolling your street, chasing robbers, solving murders, answering your 911 call.
Is that just how it has to be? The fair is a big event, after all. Somebody’s got to make it safe. Is depleting an already threadbare police force by 10 percent simply the price we have to pay for a safe state fair?
Of course not. The city doesn’t pull officers off regular duty to patrol other entertainment events or venues. The St. Patrick’s Day parade, for example, must hire Dallas officers off duty. That parade, like most parades, must pay the full freight for off-duty police, usually half the parade’s total budget.
The only way a police officer can work a parade is to first work his or her assigned shifts for the department, then hope for a day off to use during the parade. But the Police Department pulls officers from other tasks and assigns them to the fair on their regular city-paid shifts. During the fair’s run, the fair becomes an ad hoc division of the Police Department.
So what does the fair have to pay the city for that? Oh, that’s a good one. Wait. You won’t believe this.
The fair has annual revenues in the range of $56 million a year and pays its top executive in excess of $700,000. One of its largest expenses every year is a massive litigation budget spent mainly to combat open-records requests delving into its finances. Eventually, the fair tends to lose those fights.
From the records the fair has been forced to make available, it is possible to add up what the city spends policing the fair and what the fair pays the city to compensate those expenses. Between 2010 and 2016, taxpayers spent almost $13 million — $12,758,834.79 — to provide the fair with police coverage. And that's just an estimate from re-created numbers the police pulled together, so it's probably on the low side. In that same period, the fair compensated the city by less than a third of that amount — $3,850,000.
Let me ask you a question: How can we have a skyline filled with cranes, all kinds of new construction going on and new tax base being created, and we still can’t afford to fix the streets or hire enough cops and firefighters?
The answer is always the same. If you watch every other Wednesday when the council meets, you’ll see bales of money flying out the windows of City Hall because members are heaving big bundles of tax dollars to their good-old-boy buddies waiting on the sidewalk, smoking cigars and cheering every time another fat bag of money makes a satisfying splat at their feet. The last City Council meeting was a great example.
This year, the police expense for the fair is going to be $3 million. Maybe because the fair badly flunked its most recent comprehensive audit, it apparently felt it needed to make a gesture. So instead of paying the city the half-million it’s been paying every year for cops, the fair offered to pay a full million.
Council members Sandy Greyson, Scott Griggs and Philip Kingston said no, how about the full $3 million you owe us?
Oh my word. I was afraid council member Lee Kleinman was going to start sobbing. With a very long face and much grave shaking of the head, he said: “Just taking the words ‘state fair’ on the agenda as an opportunity just to bash the state fair because it’s currently in vogue or we think it’s fun to kick them despite everything they do for this community, I think is just inappropriate.”
Council member Dwaine Caraway was absolutely shaking in his boots. He expressed fear that the fair might be offended. All this talk of making it pay full freight might make the fair simply refuse to open at all.
Caraway described his own awful vision of what could only be called a corn dog apocalypse: “So this October, we have absolutely no fair. Then what’s next? When the fair goes away, guess what else is going to go away? We are going to the fair for corn dogs, and forget that, take that off. So no more corn dogs, no more corn on the cob, no more turkey legs, none of this, all because we’re sitting here, griping over how we’re going to keep the people that’s coming to our city protected.”
Well, griping over $3 million, that’s a lot of corn dogs. But the argument of city officials Wednesday was even funnier than the Caraway corn dog apocalypse if you knew where to look for the punchlines.
Former interim police Chief David Pughes explained that the fair has a long-term contract with the city that doesn't require it to pay anything for police. Whatever it concedes to pay, he told the council, is a gift.
But that’s the biggest joke of all. The audits, several serious outside studies and the open-records demands have shown that the fair is — and for some years has been — in flagrant violation of its contract with the city. The city should have declared the contract void years ago. City officials continue, nevertheless, to honor the contract as if it were Holy Writ, but only when it works to the benefit of the fair, never to the benefit of the city.
“Every time we try to deal with this in a
transparent way," Kingston said, "somebody in this building puts their thumb on
the scale for the state fair.”
Griggs wielded an even sharper lash.
“The State Fair of Texas has failed its audits," he said. "It’s failed its obligations to Fair Park, time and time again, as well as to the surrounding community. The State Fair of Texas has paid exorbitantly high salaries to its top executives.
“Last year, it had 2.4 million visitors and $56 million — $56 million — in gross revenue. This is a business that the city of Dallas treats very favorably and, in fact, just runs essentially as a state fair welfare program.
“We supplement and pay for the majority of the police presence at the State Fair of Texas. And where does that come from? We don’t hire extra officers just for the fair. Some of it is overtime, which can be up to a million, but the other $2 million, two-thirds of the officers, their time at the State Fair of Texas is time that they’re not in your neighborhood.
“Where does everyone think these officers come from? Do we just hire them for the state fair? No. They come from your neighborhoods. They come from your businesses. They’re the officers walking the beats and ... working your neighborhoods.
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“For 24 days, they’re pulled from your neighborhoods. They are pulled from homicide. They are pulled from patrol. They are pulled from every department inside the Police Department, and they are put over at the State Fair of Texas at a cost of the taxpayers of $3 million. This is just basically more state fair welfare, and it needs to end.”
Let’s go back to that number you’re not supposed to know, the one City Hall wants to keep secret from you: 10 percent of the force drawn off other duty, devoted to the fair. That’s supposed to be classified. I can’t divulge my sources. They are all very well informed. They are quite small. They fit in the palm of my hand, in fact. They have wings and downy feathers, and they go cheep-cheep in my ear. Those are the only hints I can give you.
But knowing the number they gave me, knowing the real cost of this arrangement in depleted force elsewhere, knowing that events like the St. Patrick’s Day parade receive no such largesse, what do you think? Should the state fair at least have to pay the full freight?
More important question: Next council meeting, should the people who throw these bales of cash out the window to their friends get tossed out the window instead of the money (speaking of satisfying splats)?