Arena games

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Speaking of taxes, let's discuss the ones we're going to spend on the arena.
On June 14, the city staff met behind closed doors, as usual, with the city council. During that meeting, council members were informed that City Manager Ware was upping the ante on the arena--offering Carter $35 million in city money to help build it instead of the $12 million that had been on the table previously.

Where would that money come from?
Well, the answer was located in a fat briefing document the staff had prepared for the council--a document the council members didn't get much out of, since they weren't allowed to keep it. The packet was passed out, breezed through, and snatched back up before anybody could digest it.

The following day City Hall activists Rick Finlan and Don Venable filed suit against the city, alleging that the council had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by discussing, and then authorizing the staff to make, the $35 million offer to Carter during the 2 1/2-hour closed-door session. City attorneys called the suit baseless. "Everything was by the book," City Attorney Sam Lindsay told the Morning News.

Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall--who had previously rejected a similar Lindsay argument, ruling that a city council committee's closed-door meetings with Carter and Hunt were illegal--took one look at the 113-page briefing packet the council was given during that meeting and declared 26 pages of it an open record that should be shared with the public.

Finlan and Venable went down to the courthouse and made copies, then faxed them to us. Those 26 pages dovetail nicely with the ream of documents we reviewed last week, providing the first detailed explanation of where the taxpayers' $35 million will come from.

It's a figure, by the way, that many City Hall staffers have been marveling about all summer--especially since it's budget time, and department heads are being given their annual lectures about how there's not enough money for libraries, pools, potholes, animal control, landscaping, playground equipment, rec centers, or salaries.

The basic arena game plan, of course, is to rob Peter to pay Paul--find money earmarked for some other public purpose and divert it to a pet project, preferably without the council's knowledge. This is a favorite trick of the Ware regime--one it employed last year by siphoning $50,000 for the secret arena study out of the construction contract for the Dallas Convention Center expansion.

Well, guess what? That's the same game plan--on a vastly expanded scale--that's now on the table to produce $35-$48 million to help build the arena.

What it amounts to, quite frankly, is a willingness on the part of Ware--and the majority of the city council, which approved this lame-brained idea two months ago--to strip the Dallas Convention Center. The plan would foolishly jeopardize the center's future, when we've just spent $112 million upgrading the facility to assure its viability as a long-term tourist and business draw for Dallas.

The first thing Ware is proposing to do is refinance all the convention center debt--which includes Reunion Arena and its money-losing parking garage; the city rolled those projects into the convention center debt package in a previous refinancing.

Interest rates are lower now than when we refinanced last time. So if we refinanced today, it would lower our annual debt payments, allowing us to run out and borrow more money. (It would also allow us to simply save some money, instead of borrowing more--but we're certainly not about to do that.)

The plan is to borrow $35 million of the city's contribution on the $141 million arena, boosting our total convention center debt to a whopping $371.6 million.

The annual debt service on that $35 million would be $4.9 million a year, city staffers advised the council in the executive-session briefing packet; as is now the case with Reunion, if revenues from the new arena didn't cover the debt service, hotel-motel and alcoholic-beverage taxes would do so.

There are several problems with this scenario.
For one thing, if we do this, our borrowing capacity on the convention center will be maxed out. In other words, the city will not be able to obtain money to further expand or upgrade the center until at least 2010. This is a big problem. That's because large convention groups, now booking for the late '90s, are already turning up their noses at our place because only half the building is spiffy and new. The other half is comparatively old, dingy and outdated, and nobody wants to be in it.

"As you are aware, we are receiving a growing number of customer complaints on the condition of the existing facility," Frank Poe, director of Convention and Event Services, wrote in a March 7 memo to Assistant City Manager Mary Suhm, reviewed last week by the Observer. "The general tone of these expressions of concern is that significant renovations are a must if the center wants to maintain its current volume of business." Poe then proceeded, in no uncertain terms, to list the "most pressing items requiring action" at the convention center. "Priority One" items included $1.8 million in roof replacements, $668,520 in seat repair, $325,000 in leak repairs, and $194,000 in ballroom wall replacement.

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Laura Miller

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