Dallas City Council Wants to Know What It Did With 4.5 Million of Your Dollars

OK, I'd like to fill you in on what I've just found out here, but I'm exhausted from the investigative effort. It would help if you were here to fan me. But, no, you're not, as usual, so I will have to do my best on my own.

Last week at City Council, several council members demanded to know what the hell was going on with a subsidized housing development called Patriots Crossing across Lancaster Road from the Veterans Administration Hospital five miles due south of downtown. They have demanded an investigation and accounting, the results of which should be in the paperwork they get next Friday. But I couldn't wait.

Five years ago the city gave a developer named Yigal Lelah something between $4 million and $5 million (or in City Hall parlance, $4.5 million give or take a mil') to buy several acres of land across from the hospital. And when I say, "gave," I mean gave, as in handed over.

Lelah was going to build a kind of Ritz Carlton NorthPark Shangri La Carmel-type deal there in cooperation with the hospital, because, you know, those sick veterans do like to partaaay! But then, after he had spent all the money acquiring the land, it turned out Lelah had failed to secure the cooperation of the Veterans Administration.

The VA was looking at the same land, but they were thinking more in terms of a parking lot. So now four years later, there is nothing there but dirt, and Lelah has come back with a new idea for the land, just what southern Dallas needs, more subsidized housing so it can become even more segregated and so Dallas can make even more of a bull's eye of itself for federal officials already accusing the city of housing segregation. But -- and I say this with special deference to my easily bored blog commenter Mr. P1Gunter -- this is not going to be another blog item about that. Promise.

No, here is what I drew from last week's council debate. Councilman Scott Griggs pointed out that Lelah's cost in the project is now $570,000 an acre or just over $13 per square foot. Several council members, notably Dwaine Caraway and Rick Callahan, suggested that that seemed an impossibly high price to pay for land in this part of the city.

In response to a question, a city staff member assured the council that staff had checked everything out and the numbers were all fine. It was at that point that several council members asked to see those numbers.

And here is where I came pretty close to exhausting myself with investigative effort. I sat down to my computer. OK, I was already sitting at my computer, but I stayed there, and I went to the county appraisal district's online property appraisal site to see what the district's appraisers think the value of Lelah's land is, now that he has acquired it and done whatever else he had to do to turn it into dirt. I do this work for you.

I spent between 15 and 20 minutes -- but really grueling minutes -- on the appraisal district's map, and then I had to take all my numbers and process them through the calculator on my cell phone. What I came up with was this: According to the appraisal district, the premium lots in Lelah's assemblage, the ones that have frontage on Lancaster Road with a view of the DART tracks and the hospital, are valued at $5 per square foot.

The less desirable lots across the alley with an obstructed view of the VA Hospital are on the books at $1.06 a square foot. Hmm. Lelah spent $13 a square foot. Of our money. Hmm.

I could have counted up exactly how much of the land was $1.06 and how much was $5 a square foot and then done one of those algo-whatevers to figure out some other stuff, but I was too tired. I figured I had enough already to come to this conclusion: There might be some money missing somewhere.

And when I say "missing," please do not misinterpret. Nothing I have seen would allow, enable or encourage me to say that any kind of tiddly-winks whatever has taken place, nor hijinks nor fiddle. No. I am just saying, the city used to have $4.5 million in the till. Now those funds are not in the till any more.

There's a bunch of empty dirt that the appraisal district thinks is worth between $1.06 and $5 a square foot, all of it in the hands of Lelah, who was strangely absent from last week's council meeting about his project.

So when I say a lot of money seems to be missing, I merely mean missing in the sense of "passed on," as in, "those funds have passed on to their eternal reward, God bless them." (I think sometimes when there has been a loss, these euphemistic phrases can actually help us deal with our grief.)

Between now and next Friday it's pins and needles for me as we await the staff's explanation of how Lelah managed to spend that much money on that much dirt. The project, by the way, has always been the special brainchild of council member Vonciel Hill. She's a minister. Maybe she will agree to do the services.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze