The city auditor's new bad report on a 27-year-old economic development fund in black South Dallas talks about technical problems with paperwork and mumbles on about the need for better "performance measures." Yeah, yeah, yeah. But when, Mr. Auditor, were you going to tell us about the missing five million bucks?
Talk about a performance measure. Here's your performance measure. Where's our five million dollars? Perform that.
The audit of the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund recently sent to the City Council hints broadly that the fund has been handing out a lot of money over the years without much attention to who's getting it or what's being done -- worthwhile matters of concern, to be sure. But Suzanne N. Smith, a member of the trust fund board who has been looking into its underlying finances, told me Tuesday morning she was surprised to read the audit and find scant mention of the missing moolah.
"I'm surprised that this audit report didn't discuss it," Smith said. "It was to me a golden opportunity to come clean and say, 'Look, we made a mistake, and here is how we are going to completely re-do South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund.'"
Smith declined to comment on the five million dollar figure. Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston told me earlier in the day that's how much may be missing from the fund. Kingston said he has discussed the issue with City Manager A.C. Gonzalez who, according to Kingston, promised some kind of action on it several weeks ago but has said nothing publicly since.
I asked City Auditor Craig D. Kinton why his audit didn;t mention the missing $5 million. He said in an email, "Based on our risk assessments, audits of SDFPT have focused on the grant and loan operations. Previous audit findings identified that the SDFPT did not have established procedures for administering grants and loans and many of the loans were non-performing. More recently, audit findings have shown that established procedures were not consistently followed for the administration of grants and loans. This year we also addressed the lack of performance measures to evaluate whether or not this is an effective program."
Yup. Cool. But what about the $5 million?
I asked Gonzalez the same question. He didn't answer. This is only my opinion, and it could be totally wrong, so I don't want you to rely on it, but I interpret Gonzalez's response as meaning, "I know we spent about $2 million of it on elaborate retirement parties in the Sanitation Department, and the other $3 million, like, who cares, man? Get a life." As I say, that could be way off.
Smith said it's not clear that the amount of money missing from the fund, however much it may turn out to be, is money that ever reached the fund. She said the fund was set up with five separate income streams based on attendance at events at Fair Park, the city's mammoth exposition park and site of the State Fair of Texas. The city's Park and Recreation Department is supposed to make sure the trust fund gets all the money it has coming, but Smith told me it isn't clear anyone at City Hall has been minding that store.
Smith and Kingston's main concerns are for the long benighted area around Fair Park intended to be the beneficiary of the trust fund's economic development efforts. If the trust fund has been systematically underfunded over the years, then the Fair Park area may have been cheated of much needed aid.
But the current city audit hammers home a point made in a succession of similar audits over the years: once money does get into the coffers of the trust fund, it's damn difficult to trace where a lot of it winds up. The audit is awkwardly written and difficult to understand in parts, but it reinforces an impression from earlier reports that the trust fund regards so-called "grants" as gifts.
In one instance, for example, two individuals applied for grants of $5,000 each but were told they did not qualify for the particular grants they were seeking. Rather than send them away empty-handed, the trust fund awarded them $5,000 each anyway under another grant program for which they had not applied and apparently never did apply.
See what I mean? How do you understand that except as, "Here's five grand."
But far from blaming grantees or calling for the elimination of the trust fund, Kingston and Smith want the trust fund to be taken seriously and its mission safeguarded with proper accounting. "We probably aren't doing everything we could for the benefit of that community," Smith told me. "This was basically set aside so that we could do innovative impactful projects and loans to really lift up that community.
"I think the auditor thinks, and this is my personal opinion as well, that we are not achieving that mission. The thing I would underscore is that right now we have a lot of opportunity in Fair Park. And here's this pot of money that is there that may not be being leveraged for its highest and best use."
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I get all that. I admire it. Smith and Kingston's view of the matter is a lot more altruistic than mine. I just keep thinking about that five million bucks. If and when anybody ever really does take a sharp pencil to it, will it be that much or much more? And however much it is, which end is it missing from? Did the trust fund never get it? Or did the trust fund receive the money and pass it out the back door uncounted?
This issue probably is one of several dozen like it at City Hall in which people have hidden for years behind a convenient camouflage of bad accounting. It would be nice, just once, to see some numbers on a page. And then there is always the impossible dream -- somebody in an orange jumpsuit.