City Hall

Dallas 2017 Bond Program Reminiscent of Old Used-Car Lots on Ross Avenue

The way old-school city leaders present the whole privatization movement may cause us to question their sincerity. Also to run away.
Alvaro Diaz-Rubio
The way old-school city leaders present the whole privatization movement may cause us to question their sincerity. Also to run away.
Sometimes we have to go back to the old-fashioned used-car lots that used to line Ross Avenue if we want to know how to handle things. You don’t sign a check to buy a car if the guy won’t let you drive it around the block first.

Walk away. You have to drive the car first. Which brings us to Dallas City Hall’s proposed $1.02 billion bond program.

One of the ten items in the program City Hall wants us to approve in November is $68 million for Fair Park. And the first thing most people will think is, “Well, Fair Park is where I go for the state fair, and I like the fair, and I know the park is run down, so OK. I will agree to pay $68 million to fix it up.”

But wait. City Hall didn’t let you drive the car around the block yet. If things continue on the course they’re on now, you won’t even know by November who’s running Fair Park or what that entity intends to do with it. This is like, “Sign the check, sir, and then I’ll show which car you just bought.” What, are we nuts?

It’s crazy — it is really and truly insane — to think that we should fund Fair Park with that much money before we even know who in the hell owns it, on what terms the owner will receive that much of your and my money, and what the owner intends to do with the money and the park. I’ll tell you this: Goss on Ross (“We Tote the Note”) would never have insulted us with an offer like that. It had too much integrity.

And please allow me to point out a couple more important elements in this strange saga. Just as we near something like real regime change in Dallas, just as the cadre of new, young elected officials begins to approach critical mass, all of a sudden somebody thinks it’s very urgent that we take all these major public assets like Fair Park and the Trinity River and turn them over to special-purpose private entities created in back rooms without public input.

Fair Park is not the only example. I spoke with former City Council member Angela Hunt this week, and she expressed great concern about these opaque privatization processes. In yet another planned giveaway of public assets, a law firm has written, without public input, the charter for a private entity to control a new park on the Trinity River. Hunt fears the council will be asked to eat the new charter in one bite before there has been any opportunity for meaningful public debate.

That circles back to the bond program as well. Also among the 10 items on that ticket, we will be asked to sign off on $385 million for parks and flood control. The city still has $47 million from a 1998 bond program in its hip pocket for a park along the Trinity.

But nothing has been settled yet about how much city money will actually wind up going into the new Trinity Park or where and how it will be spent, let alone who will develop and run the park.

The argument for privatizing things is that it’s a way to lift them up out of sordid politics and allow them to be managed in a logical and businesslike fashion. So please tell me what is businesslike about you and me going to the polls in November and using our votes to sign a check for $68 million for Fair Park when we have no idea what or who Fair Park even is anymore. Or giving the city $385 million of our money for parks and flood control when it hasn't told us yet how the Trinity park will be run.

Seriously. It’s our money. Don’t we get to be businesslike? We should be able to say, “Well, Mr. Goss, I really need to drive this little buggy around the block a few times before I can pay you hundreds of millions of dollars for it.”

And another thing I need to point out: sand in the transmission. This one is not about Goss on Ross, because it would never have done such a terrible thing, but some of the other less reputable used-car lots on Ross sometimes put sand in bad transmissions to dampen the grinding noise, at least long enough for a test drive.

So what kind of sand am I worried about with Fair Park and the new Trinity park? Please let me tell you. In the case of Fair Park, the fear from the beginning has been that the privatization initiative has been little more than a ruse to protect the State Fair of Texas.

That’s a bit of a long story, and I’m not going to go through it all again except to say that nothing can be done to enhance the value of Fair Park or maintain it responsibly over time unless the state fair can be persuaded to compromise on its footprint and annual schedule. All indications so far are that the fair thinks it is an organized religion and regards any call for substantive change as heresy.

That battle — and it is a tough one — has been going on largely behind the scenes for a year. The fair has waged a costly legal campaign to keep its business secret and out of the public eye. That is a major reason why much of the privatization process has been so opaque.

Now let’s look at the Trinity park. For 20 years, the advocates for a park along the river have been waging a difficult, soul-consuming fight to stop the construction of an unneeded highway almost on top of the river. Within the next few weeks, opponents of the proposed toll road may finally have enough votes to kill it.

So all of a sudden, we find ourselves dealing with this urgent effort to hand off the whole river to a new private entity, to be created under the part of state law that helps get highways built. The sand in the transmission in this case would be anything that took the road-building decision out of the hands of the City Council and gave it instead to some little whatyamacallit that will act like the state fair and sue anybody who asks questions. That’s some pretty bad sand.

click to enlarge The best way to deal with the city's November bond proposal may be to grab our wallets and run for the gate. - APOLOGIES TO RON AND JOE, SHUTTERSTOCK
The best way to deal with the city's November bond proposal may be to grab our wallets and run for the gate.
apologies to Ron and Joe, Shutterstock
I’m not saying it’s there. But I am saying that we do not know yet how the Trinity park deal really works. This is when we need to go back to Ross Avenue rules and insist on a test drive. And what I mean by test drive in this case is pretty simple. Allow me to lay it out:

Show us the car. In the case of Fair Park, get the privatization process baked. Bring it to the point where you can show us exactly who is going to be running Fair Park and what the owner is going to do with it. Then we’ll talk about $68 million.

In the case of the private entity to run the Trinity River park, give us time to kick the tires. Let us look it over. We might even want to run it over to a brother-in-laws’s garage and let him check the transmission for additives.

By the way, that’s some of what I am going to be doing in tomorrow’s column — taking a closer look at the proposed charter for the Trinity park put together by this law firm. I’ll let you know what I find out.

And finally, by Ross Avenue rules, this is what I mean: Every little chance we get, we need to not be suckers. We need to think about what we are being told. Why, for example, would City Hall drag out the Fair Park process until after the bond election but ask us to sign off anyway on a huge infusion of cash when we still don’t know where it will go?

Why would anyone even suggest that the City Council hurry up and adopt a complicated charter for the Trinity park when there is this unsettled question of road-building authority still hanging fire? Can’t we at least test the ignition?

The overarching theme in all of this is a failure to demonstrate good faith, in which two elements are consistent. The first is putting these things together behind the scenes. The second is hustling the council and the public to approve and fund them sight unseen. Taken together, those two things should be enough to make us put our wallets away and walk off the lot.

And you never know. Sometimes on Ross Avenue in the old days, when you headed for the gate was when the deal got better.