By no means is it all bad news at Dallas City Hall. At least we learn from our mistakes. I offer in evidence an idea that popped up in the most recent City Council briefing on the upcoming bond program, which I call the new rule of “no money, no hamburger.”
That’s in opposition to the old rule, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”
Many projects paid for with city borrowing in the past were sold on the promise that unnamed rich people would raise even more money for the project later in so-called matching funds. Those promises were the payment Tuesday for the hamburger today.
That line, by the way, is a quote from J. Wellington Wimpy, a character in the old Popeye cartoon strip. Past promises of matching funds for the city generally have turned out to be worth about as much as Wimpy’s promise. Therefore, the upcoming bond proposal may include a whole new wrinkle — a condition written into the ballot language forbidding the city to sell certain bonds unless and until promised matching funds are collected and in the bank.
When I talked to City Council member Scott Griggs about it, he said the new rule — no money, no burger — is needed because the corridors of City Hall are haunted by the ghost of Wimpy.
“That character comes around City Hall all the time,” he said. “You find him around every corner. The council can’t resist his charms. We have to protect ourselves from this character.”
The problem in the past, Griggs said, is that the promised matching funds often fell through, but Wimpy turned up anyway, teary-eyed with his pockets turned inside out, begging for the project to proceed without him.
“They say, ‘Oh, we just can’t get all the money. Oh, it will be here if you guys will just start the project. We’ll take care of Phase 2. You just start; you take the first step,'” Griggs said.
Too often, he said, Phase 2 turns out to be Phase You.
The great example — one that still sticks in the craws of the fiscal grownups on the council — is the Texas Horse Park. The Horse Park, an equestrian facility carved out of city land in the Great Trinity Forest, is part of the overall Trinity River project. It’s a good case study in how the old power elite in Dallas has treated promises made to the public in the past.
In 1998, when voters were asked to approve a bond sale to fund the horse park, it was going to cost the city $3 million to build, or $4.2 million counting the interest on the bonds. Private benefactors were going to raise $15 million. The park was going to be the best thing that ever happened to horses.
That deal changed. The city’s share went up by $12 million. The benefactors were only able to raise $1 million. Nobody ever actually saw the $1 million. And the person hired to run the park was a convicted animal abuser.
But backers of the project succeeded in twisting the arms of pliant council members to do it anyway, especially southern Dallas members, who were told that the horse park was better than the big nothing they had always gotten in the past.
That’s like Wimpy telling you he’s not paying you for the hamburger after all — he wants six more hamburgers right now for free, and you better watch out because he has a bad personality.
Those are the kinds of deals City Hall did in the past, and it was not always an accident. When the City Council was preparing to take the original Trinity River project bond package to the voters in 1998, a citizens group sued. It argued that the city was improperly lumping a lot of disparate projects into one up-or-down ballot proposition, giving voters only an all-or-nothing choice instead of letting them pick and choose as the law required.
The late Ray Hutchison, a very able lawyer, represented the city. Hutchison argued that each aspect of the overall project — every manmade lake and pavilion — was so intimately tied and essential to the rest that sorting them into separate proposals would risk destroying the entire project. He won.
But soon after the election, the same citizens group objected when it figured out that City Hall was quietly pulling the project apart, ditching or diminishing some elements that had been promised to voters and shifting the money around so the city could build an expressway along the river instead of the lakes and parks promised to voters. In other words, the lakes and parks were bread and circuses promised to a gullible electorate to get the little people to approve the overall project. Then the city would abandon all those promises and build what the old oligarchy had intended to build all along — a highway.
The same lawyer, Hutchison, whose wife, Kay Bailey Hutchison, was by then a U.S. senator, argued that the city was not bound by any of the promises it had made in campaign materials and had the right to shift funds and change projects as it saw fit. He won.
Some people who are on the council now were around for some of that earlier Trinity River voodoo — Sandy Greyson, Griggs, Philip Kingston, Lee Kleinman. They remember the lesson: A sitting city council cannot, by law, bind a future council.
It has to do with democracy, and in a very general sense it's probably a good thing. The people have to be able to change their minds. They change their minds and affect their will by electing new representatives. Those new representatives have to be able to do what the people who elected them want them to do, not what some previous city council said they had to do. So one council can’t tie a future council’s hands.
But there are exceptions. If the city enters into a contract with somebody, it can’t just walk on the contract because there was a new election. Unfortunately, promises made to voters in a bond election are not considered contractual in the same sense, so it’s much easier for the city to flake on promises to voters than on promises to businesses.
And some people know that in advance. Believe me. That’s why they have a Ray Hutchison suited up ready to go to court for them. They know they can make all kinds of promises about matching funds and manmade lakes in a bond election, get the approval they need from voters, then tell the voters to go to hell and do what they wanted to do all along with the public’s resources.
The new rule — no money, no hamburger — is a way to defeat that kind of chicanery, Griggs explained. By writing it into the bond proposal itself as an explicit precondition for selling the bonds, the new rule becomes something far more binding than anything a council votes to do.
This is a term of the proposal itself. It’s a deal with the voters, not the council. A new council can ignore what a prior council told it to do, but it can’t break a deal with the voters without going back to them for permission.
Under the no hamburger rule, certain projects in which matching funds have been promised would be placed in a separate proposition for voters. In this case it would be an approval for the city to borrow a total of $100 million to pay for reviving Fair Park, new parks downtown, the circuit trail around the city and other land acquisitions.
That proposal as written for the ballot would include specific language saying the bonds could not be sold until the matching funds were in hand. It’s a whole new spirit of honesty in bond proposals, also reflected in another new measure this year that was imposed by a charter change approved by voters in 2014.
According to that new rule, every ballot proposition for a bond sale must include language showing what the interest cost will be over the life of the bonds if approved. That’s another huge one. I can’t tell you how many times I have had otherwise intelligent people say to me, “Well, that’s not going to cost me anything on my taxes. It’s bond money.”
The new language will help get the idea across: It’s borrowing. It will cost millions in interest. You will pay those millions in your taxes.
Does this kind of thing — the no-hamburger rule and the declaration of interest cost — make it harder to get bond projects done? Not if they’re honest projects. It makes it harder to scam the voters, but that’s a necessity anyway in a city that’s getting smarter based on prior sour experiences.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.