One of the funniest not-at-all-funny things Dallas City Hall has done in recent years is the MLK “façade improvement program,” intended to “spruce up” (in the words of the city’s only daily newspaper) Martin Luther King Boulevard, an arrow through the heart of abject poverty in southern Dallas.
We have talked a lot here about MLK in the past, having to do with the city’s still ongoing attempts to shut down one of the few strong money-making concerns there, a place called “Jim’s Car Wash” (no relation). At the height of that controversy a couple years ago, Mayor Mike Rawlings explained to me that the car wash, where a lot of poor black people wash other people’s cars for money, is off-putting for people trying to drive from the expressway into Fair Park during the State Fair of Texas.
I don’t have to spell this out, do I? Car wash, teeming with poor black people. State fair, teeming with middle class to affluent white people. White people driving past poor black people. Problem. Solution? Façade improvement!
Did you ever see the 1985 movie, Brazil? I really liked it. I have no idea what it was about. I mean, 1985, man. What do you want? It was some kind of science fiction. What I remember is that in this world of the future, highways were entirely walled by billboards, so that the billboards were the only thing you could see, having entirely supplanted the landscape.
That’s what the façade improvement program reminds me of. Instead of investing serious money in serious efforts to address unemployment, addiction and homelessness, let’s just paint everything to look better. It’s the Dallas way — appearance is everything! I don’t see why, at least during the fair, we couldn’t divert neighborhood traffic onto side streets and hire actors to walk up and down MLK looking like rich white people.
This stuff is on my mind because just before I went on vacation to Kansas — which should tell you something right there — the city’s economic development department gave its long-awaited briefing on what the hell happened to the money for the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund.
The trust fund was set up in 1989 to take money out of events held at Fair Park, like Fair Park was rich, and use it to improve the area around Fair Park, which includes MLK. Meanwhile, city leaders were doing everything they could to bleed Fair Park dry by moving all the rich white cultural institutions over to the Arts District, but that’s another story.
The idea — share the proceeds to improve the area — was basically OK. The execution for a long time was terrible. The city dumped money on a volunteer board that had no idea how to balance a checkbook. They spent it on a lot of stupid ideas, scams and loans that never got repaid.
Back when Robert Wilonsky was here, he chronicled the dumber boondoggles, which always made hilarious depressing infuriating reading — otherwise known as the kind of bedtime stories Jim Schutze would read to his son.
In the recent briefing, economic development Director Karl Zavitkovsky told council members that in its first 10 years the trust fund had more or less pissed away $600,000. So, sure: OMG! How could they do that? How could anybody get away with pissing away $600,000?
But, wait. Hold on. That was only the first part of the briefing. Guess how much money — money that was supposed to go to trust fund — got pissed away by the city? I’m talking about money that got lost before it was ever turned over to the fund.
It was $3.6 million! City officials told the council in the recent briefing that a full accounting had shown that the city over the years has shorted trust fund by roughly $3.6 million, according to the formula set by the City Council when it established the in 1989.
Where’s the money? Well, sadly, those funds are no longer with us. They have passed on. That money has now entered the great and unfathomable mystery of the fiscal beyond. We can only remove our hats, bow our heads and mumble whatever comes to mind.
No, you think I’m making this up. You think I’m a libtard, so, sure, I want to make the city look bad so trust fund won’t look so bad. Listen, I promise you, I want them all to look bad. Taking hundreds of thousands of dollars of my tax money and pissing it away is just bad, no matter who does it.
But I do want to point out the relative scale. The city itself pissed away an amount of cash that was six times what trust fund lost. And here’s what I like best about their excuse, in terms of really funny stuff that’s not even remotely funny. City staff told the council that they lost the money, the $3.6 million, because it was just too hard to keep track.
The formula, they said, was really complicated, and sort of like nobody kind of really you know took total what you’d call “responsibility” for it. So it just went away. It’s why I admire bank robbers. There’s a great integrity in what they do — don the mask, brave the bullets.
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Anyway, the city has a plan of atonement for these sins, and part of it is to spend more money on the MLK façade program. Note: The plan is not to just pay back the money to trust fund, which, by the way, has a totally revamped management system with $409,000 in loans out in the last seven years, every one paid in full or right on time. So they’ve fixed their issues. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do; they had a deal with the city; the city could just honor the deal and pay back the money it shorted them.
But, no. Façades. Façades are what we need. And it’s true: façades provide a much more immediate visual bang for the buck than substance. At least for a while.
But as long as we’re doing façades, how about one for City Hall? I personally would love to see a big Hollywood movie-set built all the way around City Hall to make it look like a great big federal prison. I don’t know about you, but I think it might lull me into a false sense of security.