Last week I told you a story about Dallas City Hall that made no sense whatsoever — nothing new there — but this week I have it sort of figured out, and I want to share.
Last week I said the city had formed a special taxing district to raise money for neighborhood improvement in a certain area. I said rather than run it themselves, the people at City Hall hired an entity called Hip Hop Government to run it for them. All the money disappeared. Hip Hop Government hip-hopped away. The city told the improvement area that the improvements were over.
OK, none of that is what happened. I’m going to tell you what did happen. But I have to warn you. The true story makes even less sense than the crazy story, because the true story is even crazier. First let’s do the sane part. Then we’ll go crazy.
Hip Hop Government (HHG) is a real deal. Founded in 2005 by Damon Wofford, Jay Scroggins and Chris Williams, HHG gained national attention for its role as the action end of former Dallas City Council member Dwaine Caraway’s “Pull 'Em Up” campaign to persuade young black men to stop sagging, or wearing their pants low enough to expose their buttocks.
Derided as silly or trivial by some at the time, Caraway’s campaign was actually part of a larger effort to reform the culture of black urban poverty from within by appealing to personal pride and responsibility. HHG succeeded in winning some prestigious national attention for the campaign.
I said last week that HHG had lost its corporate charter from the state because it had not been able to win the required federal tax-exempt status. I was right that it had lost the charter, and I was right that the state thought HHG was not a legitimate nonprofit. But the state is wrong.
The IRS granted HHG tax-exempt status in 2016. Jay Scroggins, the director and only employee of HHG, told me he is in the process of getting the charter restored.
All right, now please put on your goggles, snap the chinstraps on your mad-bomber hats and let’s all go for a ride into the wild and wacky world of Dallas City Council member Kevin Felder. Don’t bother holding on. You can’t.
Felder, a perennial candidate for council for years, finally won election last year as the member from District 7, which includes South Dallas near Fair Park. A predecessor and political opponent on the council had persuaded business and property owners in that area — a place where money is hard to come by — to impose on themselves an additional special property tax to pay for trash pickup and private security.
The city entity by which the new taxes were to be collected was called a public improvement district or PID. It’s a thing provided for in state law.
The PID hired HHG to run the trash pickup efforts and security guard patrol. HHG hired homeless people in the area and gave them T-shirt uniforms. The trash pickup, the homeless effort and the security guards were a huge success with business owners in the area.
One of the business owners who pushed hardest for the PID was Dale Davenport, owner of a car wash on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Scroggins told me, “Mr. Davenport was one of the first ones to sign on to the PID. When we had the hire-the-homeless program, he was right there cleaning up with the people in the hire-the-homeless program.”
But Davenport has for years also been the target of a concerted effort to shut down his car wash, led by the old-school political leadership of the area. They see his business as drawing low-lifes and criminals into the area.
A thick file of litigation and even a state legislative investigation have consistently come to just the opposite conclusion — that Davenport is an effective fighter of crime. Time after time, the investigations and lawsuits have concluded that Davenport semi-miraculously operates a successful enterprise in a sea of homelessness, criminality, drugs, prostitution and extreme poverty. He doesn’t cause that stuff. He fights it, as Scroggins told me.
Earlier this year the security guards stopped patrolling and the trash pickups ended. On July 6, Davenport wrote to city of Dallas Southeast Community prosecutor Jill Haning, laying out all of his own efforts to fight crime at his car wash and lamenting the sudden cessation of the trash and security efforts of the PID (see below). In that email he pointed out that property- and business-owners in the area were being taxed to support these services.
He says he was told by the city employee responsible for the PID that HHG had exhausted the PID’s budget of just over $100,000 only months into the year. He says he was given the clear impression that HHG had played fast and loose with the funds.
But that’s not at all what happened. The city staff involved won’t talk to me. After my column ran last week, however, council member Philip Kingston was able to get the staff to tell him that they had shut down the PID in October 2017, nine months before Davenport began asking questions.
When the city shut down the PID, there was no money missing and operations were continuing. In fact, after HHG presented its work to the City Council in a briefing, city staff sent HHG a message calling the presentation a home run. Scroggins also directed me to an Aug. 6 City Council committee briefing in which the staff admitted that they had continued collecting the PID tax after shutting down its operations and are now in possession of a surplus of $107,000.
The reason given to Kingston for shutting it down was a supposed deficiency in HHG’s insurance. Scroggins, who had been active in the campaign of one of Felder’s council election opponents, told me he believes the insurance issue was a technical excuse and a ruse. Felder, he says, wanted him out and the PID shut down because of the PID’s connection to Felder’s predecessor and political opponent.
But Scroggins says as soon as he realized Felder wanted him out, he agreed to bow out and tried to help with efforts to find a successor group to run the PID. Scroggins says two subsequent efforts to recruit new managers were killed by Felder.
Felder has ignored multiple attempts by me by phone and email to hear his version of this, but his own version is actually on the record anyway: In the archived videotape of that Aug. 6 council committee hearing, Felder reminds his fellow council members that the PID is in his district, telling them, “I have more information and knowledge about what is going on with that particular PID and why it had to be altered from the very beginning.”
He suggests that neither HHG nor any of the subsequent proposed managers had what Felder considers proper technical expertise. Then Felder takes credit for killing the PID.
“So that’s why it is terminated,” he says.
Not insurance. Not finances. Felder. That’s who killed the PID, according to Felder. And he’s proud of it.
Then in case anyone might miss his real motivation, he points directly to politics. Felder tells the committee it is important that “we select someone that has professional management expertise that has no political ties to anyone with undue influence over that PID.”
And because I don’t want you to miss my real motivation, either, please allow me to make plain what I believe about Felder at this point in the saga. He’s nuts. Cuckoo. Paranoid. He thinks he’s a genius. He doesn’t know jack. He never prepares for anything. He pulls wild-hair Looney Tunes ideas out of his lower extremities and thinks he’s Little Jack Horner.
So when Davenport began asking city staff questions about the PID and making open records demands, he was putting the staff in a ticklish position. Were they going to tell him the truth? Well, Mr. Davenport, you’re right, we did continue to collect the special tax from you and other property-owners within the PID for quite a while after the trash pickup and the security guards stopped. But we had to cut off all of those activities because council member Cuckoo-bird told us to, and we’re afraid of him, because, as you know, he’s cuckoo.
No. Nobody told Davenport the truth. They told him HHG ran off with the money. And guess what city staff is doing now, at the personal direction and command of King Cuckoo? As I told you last week, staff is now asking the council to launch a legal effort to have Davenport’s car wash declared a public nuisance and order it shut down under the city’s police powers.
Scroggins thinks the effort to shut down the car wash may be Felder’s attempt to mollify the old-guard South Dallas leaders, some of whom may be unhappy with Felder for killing the PID. I guess it also would be a pretty good warning to the next person who dares poke his nose into the cuckoo’s nest.
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But let me tell you what else it will be. Shutting down that car wash will be a warning, loud and clear, that investing money in South Dallas is a fool’s errand.
Dale Davenport and his father worked hard for almost 20 years to make a success of a business in an area most people wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. In addition to sheer sweat equity and a lot of guts, the thing that has made them a success there is the same quality that had Dale Davenport out picking up trash shoulder-to-shoulder with the homeless people: a natural common touch and a true-hearted desire to be part of the community.
If the Davenports can invest that kind of time, effort, money and heart in South Dallas — mark the heart especially — and then get run off and their business taken away by one cuckoo-bird politician, then no investment in South Dallas will ever be safe. Better to put your money into the wildest, looniest, scary-bad, off-the-wall, banana republic you can find, because that place couldn’t be crazier than Kevin Felder’s South Dallas.