Suhm: Bond Package Is "Absolutely Critical Stuff." Some on Council Have Their Own Ideas.
City Manager Mary Suhm reminded the council, again and again, by way of introduction: Today's presentation on the 2012 bond program is very, very, very, very preliminary. There will be many more meetings, including February confabs in every district. The numbers are rough, very rough -- guesstimates of guesstimates. The city's chief financial officer, Jeanne Chipperfield, immediately followed with her own whoa-whoa-whoa: It's still "a very volatile economy worldwide," which could impact the projected value of the property tax base -- one among several factors that goes into the program projections. Still: Expect it to be 'round $450 million to $550 million. A fraction of the 2006 bond program, which was $1.35 billion.
Then it was Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan's turn at the mic during this tag-team afternoon. She laid out the needs inventory, up to $10 billion after we were just told we had $6 billion worth of to-do's in the middle of last year. "Some people's needs are other people's wishes," said Suhm, interrupting her lieutenant. "And some people's wishes are other people's needs." (Give that lady an acoustic guitar!) "We're pretty broad" when it comes to defining needs, she said.
Jordan then gave her Top Three List of Needs: streets, flood protection and economic development. She warned: If we don't invest in streets, they'll get bad. OK, worse: "Ya hit a bad pothole, you wipe our your tire, you wipe our part of your car ...," she said, in case you didn't know. Also: "Street condition plays a role in the transportation of goods," on a more serious note. "Back in 1995, we weren't investing in streets." Tsk.
She showed pictures of things under water: "Flooding can be a significant problem." And she talked about investing in private companies' new facilities; hey, you gotta spend money to make money. Then she echoed Suhm's remarks: This is early in the process. There will be meetings, town halls, briefings, etc. "We'll show you what the needs inventory looks like," she said, "and where those project are." In May we'll see what Suhm's recommending. After that: more talking.
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"If the economy does better than we projected, we can always have another bond program sooner than what we're talking about," Jordan told the council. At which point she revealed that 90 percent of the '06 bond program projects are either done or being tended to in some way, shape or form.
Now, to the council's comments! And, as always, Carolyn Davis did not disappoint.
Tennell Atkins was first. He called Chipperfield back to the mic and asked about the 2006 bond package, which was worth $1.35 billion. He asked when the bonds would be paid off. She said she expected the last contract to be awarded in 2015, so ... 2034, 2035, let's say. He wondered: How does the city's existing $1.8 billion general obligation debt factor into the $450 million to $550 million being proposed for the upcoming election?
"I think we need to show the value of the city's going up," he said. "How do we do that?" At which point he mentioned .. wait for it, wait for it ... flow control: "That's new revenue," and he wondered why that's not added into the projected revenue line and "an increase in the value of the city."
Suhm explained: "Flow control money is about [the] operational side."
"It's new revenue, though," Atkins said.
Jerry Allen liked that. "These have been tough, tough times for cities across the United States for the last four years," he said. "Our debt will almost double since '07, with this new bond program, and our revenues have been down last three, four years. That's not a trend that makes it easy to sleep at night."
Suhm said: Hang on. "We're not suggesting creating larger portions of debt."
Allen said, well, OK, but the city's like every homeowner in America, making "less income but [taking on] more debt."
Suhm said, look, she isn't about to propose a package that'll increase citizens' taxes or jump the debt. So if she's wrong about property tax revenue -- which'll get a bit more firm in May -- then she'll "dial it back." She told Allen, look, this will be "challenging," trying to tend to $10 billion in needs with a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of that. She called it: "a whole lot of needs and not much money." Said Suhm, "This is balance. This a balance about stimulating the tax base so you don't cause it to deteriorate and hopefully cause it to grow."
Carolyn Davis said she wanted to talk about something, but she wouldn't say what: "It'll be in the paper." Big laughs! She's hilarious! She said she'd "push for some kind of dollars for housing," because "I believe housing creates economic development." And she mentioned Hall of State at Fair Park: "Can we power-wash it?" Suhm said, well, that's not really something to do with bond money.
She said some other things about streets and parks in her South Dallas district in need of fixing, then asked: "Does this go out to voters to vote on?"
Good thing she's not worried about that going in the paper.
Davis threatened not to support the bond package if there's not enough in it for her district -- housing especially. Suhm warned her: This is a small package containing "absolutely critical stuff." To which Davis responded: Yeah, well ...
Caraway also wanted to make sure Southern Dallas is tended to "in the first sale" of the bonds. He wants to give his constituents "some belief" that they're being tended to. Suhm told him his district isn't being and hasn't been pushed to the back of the line, no matter what he thinks.
"I want us to have a strong focus somehow in this discussion somehow about what we're going to do about Fair Park," the former mayor said. "We have a creative opportunity to include Fair Park. It's so, so important. I don't know if we go back and do what we should have done, the half-cent sales tax or one year, that would have saved us everything we're going through at Fair Park. But somehow we have to put the focus on Fair Park."
Next up, Angela Hunt said "this is on the right track, looking at the very basics" while also keeping the debt level consistent with the tax rate. But she wondered if perhaps we weren't being a little optimistic in revenue projections: "If we're wrong and we're not bringing in enough money, we still have to pay back our debt ..."
Suhm interrupted: "You just wouldn't sell the bonds." Which relieved Hunt, who had a few issues about spending bond money on economic development. She asked if that isn't better served by TIF districts or tax abatements. "Have we looked at going in that direction instead of relying on bonds?" she asked. Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans told her we have a lot of TIF districts already, and for some "stand-alone projects," those just "don't make sense."
Hunt also wanted to know about the state of the downtown municipal courthouse -- which one day may finally become the UNT law school. Depends. She asked Suhm: "Are they going to displace our courts?" Suhm said, "Eventually they will. We're redoing the building. It depends on the Legislature giving the law school money ... They're a good way from being where they need to be." Note to self: Look for her upcoming memo to council concerning the fate and future of the law school.
Sandy Greyson wanted to know: What in the heck are we supposed to tell our constituents? Is the council supposed to promise specifics or just vague proposals or ask for suggestions or ... something?
"Don't create a Christmas list," Suhm said, "because you can't afford it." Suhm seemed to be speaking to all the council members on this point, because while they all want and need for their respective districts, hey, there's only so much to go around. Ann Margolin asked about libraries -- how much have we spent on land that still sits vacant? Expect a memo.
Scott Griggs, Suhm's newest foil, insisted that based on her numbers, we won't be able to sell new bonds till .... 2021? Suhm resisted that. He also wanted to know about partnering with the county, to "leverage money when we don't have it." Suhm said, well, fine, but often the city can't wrap up a project because Dallas County isn't done with something of its own that's related. He also brought up Bishop Arts District and spreading small projects like that to other parts of the city -- a requisite for every council meeting.
Vonciel Jones-Hill asked Chipperfield, since everyone has their own ideas about what needs to be in the bond program, can she maybe work out a formula that says, "If you add X dollars to the bond program that will cause a property tax increase of X?" Sure, said the CFO. The judge said, hey, everybody got upset about that last tax-rate hike, so before you go on about adding extras to the "critical stuff," such as libraries and parks: "I want those colleagues to be very mindful as we increase the bond package we are talking about a tax-rate increase."
This confused Sheffie Kadane, who said he just wanted to be warned if a tax hike was coming. There was a collective: Slow your roll, Sheffie! Well, he said: "All I heard was tax increase."
Mayor Mike wrapped it up: "I don't want any new taxes." Matter of fact, he wants to roll back property taxes "at some point."
Now then: "This is what's hard: If you're gonna be conservative you gotta make some Sophie's choices when it comes to this stuff. ... Our job, as a city council, I believe, is to drive the city so it'll hit the green line," he said, referring to the growth line. "We need to hold ourselves accountable. To do that I am suggesting we think about these items in the budget three ways. One is safety ... second is how can we invest our money to get to the green line, to the best return on our investment ... and then the third area is what increase quality of life. I believe ultimately that's what our job is. ... We've gotta get a sense of what is sell-able to our citizens They didn't get to vote on the tax increase."
All together now: "Some people's needs are other people's wishes/And some people's wishes are other people's needs." Gotta get that on a coffee cup.