All right, I beg you, just this one time. Break with habit. Normally, I assume you are like me. You never really read all that fine print on a city bond proposal when you go to the polls.
If it’s something about more money for the cops or the libraries, sure, you vote for it. If it’s something about more money for Mark Cuban, hell no; why would you vote for that guy to get more money, especially from you?
But the point is you’re not going to stand there in your little plastic cubicle and read a bunch of legalese deliberately written in code-talker language so you couldn’t figure out what the hell it meant anyway if you stood there all day.
On this one issue, however, I want us to try to crack the code. If you were to pore over the city’s full-page, small-print advertisement for the bond proposal for the upcoming Nov. 7 election, you would notice a big difference between one of the proposed ordinances in the overall proposition and the rest of the ordinances. Lucky for you, I have already done the poring.
The rest of the ordinances, with one possible exception, have all kinds of specific language in them about what the money in each item is to be spent for. If it’s the one for streets, for example, it spells out off-street parking, pedestrian warning devices, railroad-crossing quiet zones, on and on. I won’t take you all the way down into the weeds on it, but it’s very detailed and specific.
The one for homeless housing spells out the types of housing the money would pay for — permanent, supportive and transitional. The one for flood control talks about relocation of utilities and erosion control.
If you vote for any of those and it passes, you know pretty well where the money is going to be spent. You know what you’re voting for, in other words.
There is one for economic development that I don’t even want to talk about here; I’ll talk about it later. It is its own very peculiar topic. In the past, economic development at Dallas City Hall has meant things like paying for tire stores for former city managers. I fully expect to have somebody stick a gun in my face some day and say, “Give me your economic development.” But we’ll talk about that another day.
The one I want to talk to you about today is Proposition C, which asks you to approve $50 million in tax money for Fair Park. You would be within your rights, it seems to me, to ask, “Fifty million dollars for Fair Park for what? If we give Fair Park $50 million in tax money, what it will go for?”
Now this, I promise, is the only in-the-weeds part I will ask of you. Just read this one little bit of bond ordinance language describing how the $50 million will be spent:
“$50,000,000 for the purpose of providing funds for permanent public improvements; to-wit: planning, designing, constructing, renovating, repairing, replacing, improving, expanding and equipping facilities at Fair Park, including open space and recreation facilities.”
Yeah. So ... facilities. The money will go to facilities. Let me point something out: Your apartment or house is a facility. In a stretch, I could argue that your electric hair dryer is a facility. I know people who would argue that their beer is a facility. So ... stuff. The $50 million will be spent on stuff. At Fair Park.
I need to point something else out to you now. This is a City Hall that has a long history, once it gets its hands on the money, of getting very legalistic about what the ballot language approved by voters said the city does or does not have to do with the money. If the ordinance authorized by voters Nov. 7 directs City Hall to spend $50 million on stuff at Fair Park, you should assume that, at some point, the city will tell you it depends on where you think the intention of the word “at” is at.
Does “at” Fair Park mean actually inside Fair Park? Or couldn’t it mean something like the money must be spent in areas adjacent to Fair Park, on programs related to Fair Park, in a fair way but on a park somewhere? Perhaps on a fairway?
Why do I say that? Oh, it’s not my impression or bias. Believe me: This is history. Right after a major bond election in 1998, when voters approved money for lakes and parks along the Trinity River, City Hall decided to spend the money instead on an expressway.
The city went to court and argued successfully that it was not bound by any promises, campaign materials, advertisements or other certifications made to the public about what the 1998 bond money was to be spent on. The city said it was bound only by the language of the ballot proposition, and that proposition was like this one.
The ballot language in 1998 said only that the money would be spent on stuff. Along the river. The city said a toll road was stuff. Along the river. So there.
Much as I hated it at the time, I eventually came to understand the court’s reasoning in upholding the city. A bond election isn’t really a deal or an agreement between parties. It’s a direct order from the voters.
Voters who approve a bond measure are ordering the government to borrow a certain amount of money and spend it on a certain purpose, with the voters’ promise to pay it back with their taxes. The voters are mortgaging themselves to get something done.
So it’s up to the voters to be very careful what they are mortgaging themselves for. It’s like you and your kid. You can give the kid $400 and say, “This is for your books for next semester. This is only for your books. If you can get the books secondhand and save me some much-needed, hard-scraped dough, do it, and then give me the extra back so your mother and I can eat. Books. Not beer. Got it?”
Or you can say, “Oh, my child, here are four bills for you because I want you to spend it on stuff, because I want you to be happy and to have stuff.”
That’s up to us. We can be specific about what we want the bond money spent or not spent for. Or we can just give it to City Hall and let people there decide.
What are they going to decide that’s so bad, you might ask. OK, let me go back to the history again and put this in what I hope will be a useful framework: Think of sailboat lakes along the river. Now think of an expressway along the river. Both things are stuff. We thought we were giving them money to build the lakes. After City Hall got the money, they said no, they were thinking more along the lines of an expressway.
And here’s the worst part. That was almost 20 years ago. You see any lakes out there? You see any new expressways? They start deciding on stuff to spend the money on, and after a while, the money’s gone and so is the stuff. That’s the trouble with stuff. If you ask them where your stuff is at, they’re going to tell you not to go around ending your phrases with prepositions.
Fair Park, you may recall, is right in the middle of a whole major process to decide on a new form of governance. Of the three major entities competing to take it over, only one thinks the city should keep paying for all of the stuff. The other two are trying to come up with plans to make Fair Park economically self-sustaining.
I was out here this week. I love Fair Park. I love the State Fair of Texas. I don’t love the people who own it, but I love the fair itself. The weather was incredible. That park is spotlessly clean, like a hospital, during the fair. A windblown napkin isn’t on the ground two minutes before somebody with a broom nabs it. The people at the fair are great. It’s a beautiful thing.
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But I’m looking at the buildings like the Hall of State, and I’m seeing all of this general environmental degradation and corrosion — the ragged edges, the raunchy-looking electrical cords snaking across the grounds — and I am reminded that these were temporary buildings when they went up in 1936. Now they are permanent money pits. Fifty million dollars for stuff today. Another $50 million 10 years from now.
Why would we hand a $50 million blank check to Fair Park before the governance issue is settled? Doesn’t handing the city that much money for whatever it wants to spend it on sort of disincentivize the two plans that would seek to make the park self-sustaining?
Hey, we don’t need no stinking self-sustaining. We got the kind of daddy who gives us money whenever we want it.
I want to see Fair Park brought up out of its physical doldrums as much as anybody. I love that place. But I think Proposition C is a loser. It’s a no vote for me. I still think of $50 million as a lot of money, and I know exactly what the vague language in Proposition C means. Stuff.