I have a great idea. OK, so it’s not my idea. But it could be. My idea — OK, it’s actually Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax’s idea, technically — is that the city set up an independent agency to analyze the real value of all these huge giveaway deals people are always urging the city to do.
I mean things like giving all of our local tax collections and all of our first-born sons and daughters to Amazon to get it to build its big, new not-the-real-headquarters building here. Or the bullet train from here to Houston. I mean City Hall signing some deal to get the bullet train people to build a station downtown that amounts to, “Please be gentle with us.”
This is not to say both of those things might not be terrific ideas. For one thing, and according to what I’ve been able to see over the years, sons and daughters are a renewable resource.
We don’t need our tax collection money anyway because it never gets spent anywhere that we can see. And the Japanese money behind the bullet train probably will be very gentle with us even without our asking because they are probably very nice people.
But I am suggesting it might be nice as we sail off into the sky on these exciting adventures to have some small idea which ocean we are flying over, toward what port and whether anyone will have to disembark the aircraft before we land. Call me nervous.
Broadnax is bringing to City Hall the first rigorous analytical tool that Dallas has ever seen, which he calls Market Value Analysis, based in part on the very sophisticated mapping tools now available but also on a lot of shoe-leather, eyeball-to-eyeball, handshake encounters in which city staff will actually go look at parts of the city where some of these deals are proposed. That’s a revolutionary change.
In the past, real estate developers like the ones rampaging across West Dallas now have been able to go to the city and just make stuff up. They point to an area on the map, and very few of the professional staff members or elected officials even know what’s there.
In West Dallas, they were able to tell the city that neighborhoods occupied by hardworking but poor families living in semi-hand-built cottages needed more high-end expensive apartments, more places where people could buy lattes, fewer elementary schools and more of what hardworking poor people yearn for the world over — dog parks. Of course, in order to work these miracles for the community, the developers had to be forgiven most of their property taxes and also have some nice new roads and bridges and stuff like that built for them.
The city said, “Good deal.” Since then, as we have seen, a great many of the people who used to live in West Dallas wound up having to say goodbye. Who knew? Somebody.
The Broadnax MVA tool is a way for everybody to know. By closely analyzing parts of the city to see what those areas need and what effects major investments may have on them, MVA will at least give us a general impression of the landscape and the possible outcomes before City Hall signs on the dotted line.
That doesn’t mean City Hall stops doing deals. It doesn’t mean we don’t all have to acknowledge that for every good omelet, some eggs must be cracked.
But it is a way for us to look ahead and see whose eggs, how many eggs, at what cost and for what payoff to the community. That’s the part that’s not my idea. Mine is sort of an add-on.
My idea is to take MVA away from Broadnax. Yeah, I know, it sounds terrible. I see he has a good idea, and first thing I think of is to snatch it away from him. You would be justified in wondering how I could justify that.
Here’s the thing: There’s not going to be any MVA analysis, as far as anybody knows, of the Amazon not-a-real-headquarters offer. Some bunch of alcoholic golfers in a booster club somewhere will offer to give Amazon our sons and daughters, and we’ll find out about it after they do the drum ceremony with their golf clubs.
There’s not going to be any MVA analysis of the bullet train. Read The Dallas Morning News if you don’t believe me. Well, no, don’t do that. Just take my word for it. The Morning News is back doing the same insane, high-kicking, Rockettes chorus line for the bullet train that it did for the ill-fated Trinity toll road, which means that the establishment has another mad teenage crush. Therefore, no syllable of caution, let alone skepticism, will be allowed.
We can even drill down to a more granular level to see what MVA can and cannot be counted on to do. Last month, the mayor and 13 of his council colleagues voted to certify a flat-out fraud, swearing that an affluent portion of North Dallas was beset and beleaguered by poverty and that a real estate developer in that area needed a fat tax break in order to help the area recover from its woes.
Folks, we were talking about North Dallas, a part of North Dallas where high-dollar homes have been flying up out of the ground like Jack’s beanstalk for the last three years, without a tax break. It simply was not true, and an existing MVA map proved it wasn’t true. Broadnax made not one peep. MVA never made it out of its box.
Why? Oh, come on. Give the man a break. He works for the City Council. It is his boss. The only council member who voted against the scam and called it by its right name was Scott Griggs of North Oak Cliff. The vote was 14-1.
Broadnax can’t be effective — he can’t even keep his job — if he puts himself at the wrong end of even a single 14-1 vote. That’s the political reality. He already has recruited people with sterling national reputations into a host of key jobs at City Hall. He can’t just walk into the council chamber, fall on his sword over one little tax break and send himself and his whole posse packing. He’s got to be a little smarter than that, and so far I see every sign he is.
But that’s why MVA doesn’t belong under the city manager. Because MVA is empirical, data driven and logical, it is fundamentally anti-political. Not just unpolitical. Anti-political. Politics is what people use when they don’t have the numbers. The numbers are their worst foe.
In the end, the city manager is a politician because he must be a politician, not only to survive but to be effective. The idea that we can or should take the politics out of politics is fundamentally absurd, sort of like protecting people from bleeding by sucking all the blood out of them. The system is supposed to be political. It’s called democracy.
But to be truly useful, MVA needs to be placed in its own little fortress somewhere out on the far periphery, a safe distance from democracy. The best metaphor for it — and maybe the best guy — is City Auditor Craig D. Kinton, the closest thing City Hall has to an arrow that is more or less straight.
The council, acting on the recommendation of a nominating commission, appoints the auditor to two-year terms. The job carries certain credentialing requirements — imagine that — so that the person who occupies the post must know what he or she is doing and can speak with authority.
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The most important thing about the auditor’s job — and you can see it in Kinton’s output — is the independence of the post. Kinton’s audits consistently are the closest thing City Hall ever gets to an objective, authoritative opinion about what it’s doing, which is why people resent Kinton so often. When you’ve got a golden spiel going, the last thing you want to hear is a bunch of bad numbers.
You could almost add the MVA analysis to Kinton’s duties, but he might change his name and move to Ohio at midnight if you did that. So here’s my idea. Take MVA as a great beginning. Amend the city's charter to create a post of independent analyst, set up the same way the auditor is arranged. And give MVA to the analyst.
If we had access to some serious analysis coming from a little bit of distance, then at least the people making the pitches would have some kind of hurdle to get over before they’re just sitting in the vault stuffing currency into their pockets. It wouldn’t be an absolute firewall, but a nice, stiff speed bump would be nice, would it not?
So MVA is Broadnax’s idea. Taking MVA away from Broadnax is my idea. And look, OK, if no one else will step up and do it, then yes, I could make myself available. But I won’t go cheap. Not again.