Police and Fire Pension Fund Is Like Worn-Out Streets, Basic Upkeep We Haven't Kept Up

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Maybe the city finds itself in a mess now because the old leadership of the city just wants things the rest of us don’t care about. Or shouldn’t.

In a recent story in The Dallas Morning News, Mayor Mike Rawlings was quoted as saying that he doesn’t want the city to borrow money in order to fix its problems with the police and fire pension fund, which is teetering toward insolvency:

“I say that every great organization needs to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Rawlings told the News. “You've got to be able to do both. You have to be able to do the basics, and you have to be able to do transformational projects.”

Translation: The mayor doesn’t want the city to use up its borrowing capacity to fill the near-billion-dollar hole in the public safety pension fund, because then the city might be less able to borrow to pay for “transformational projects.”

First of all, he’s right about one thing: One does affect the other. Push must come to shove some day. Dallas has already suffered a recent series of very minor downgrades in its credit rating from the three major bond rating agencies. We’re not talking about Dallas going from a great credit rating to a lousy one. We’re talking about the city wanting to maintain its great credit rating and having a bit harder time doing it.

But the more the city borrows, the harder it gets. Given that the city needs the same amount of money, some $900 million, just to keep its streets from further deteriorating, for example, a loan big enough to fix the pension fund would push our credit rating closer to the brink of not-good.

But look at this way: The larger more valuable portion of the basic equity we have in this town is in City Hall’s human capital — the city’s employees. You can buy concrete anywhere. You can’t go just anywhere to recruit and train and retain loyal, quality employees. Keeping the pension fund healthy is one way for us to preserve the city’s investment in its human capital.

We have two big needs, then — the physical capital, meaning, streets, sewers, traffic lights, everything constituting the basic physical plant of the city, and human capital, meaning all the people who work for the city. We have allowed the physical plant to decay into deplorable condition, of which the billion dollar status-quo-only street tab is a mere canary in the coal mine. And then we have the pension thing, another billion to get it back to merely OK.

And we are balancing these needs against what, again? The mayor’s phrase was “transformational projects.” What exactly are those?

I can tell you all about transformational projects. I have been pretty much on the transformational projects beat in Dallas for the last 100 years or so. I used to call them the World’s Biggest Ball of String projects. It’s that big ugly thing — ball of string, corn cob, auto tire — that a town puts out on the freeway so people passing by will know the town’s alive.

Our own best example right now is the Trinity River project, but there have been many such in the past — new basketball arenas, golf courses, horse clubs — all of them sold to voters with the same maxim: This deal is going to finally put this town on the map.

I don’t know what map. It’s already on the map. What they mean is that such-and-such a project — and these are all real estate projects, you may notice — is going to earn Dallas some kind of respect that it does not now get.

From somebody. I don’t know who. The International Council of Respect. Somebody who doesn’t respect us now but would respect us if we only had a new expressway through the center of the city on top of the river.

“Wow, look at that new expressway on top of the river. I really respect Dallas now. I didn’t respect it before, but that new expressway on top of the river is positively transformational. It’s like plastic surgery.”

I just don’t believe that’s what the people of the city really believe in or want. Instead, it reflects the mentality and the self-interest of a handful of old land-holding families who want to redevelop their land.

If I want to see what people want, I go look at all of the amazing rebuilding and repopulation going on in Preston Hollow. I go look at the truly transformational changes that have taken place in North Oak Cliff in the last decade and the longer, deeper-rooted change in Old East Dallas.

I go look at some of the hard-fought change that former City Council member Dwaine Caraway fought for in South Oak Cliff, rooting out corrosive businesses like hot-sheet motels in order to give decent businesses and families a chance.

Now, I know all too well what the mayor and the leadership he represents will say. I know it well because the basic wisdom and faith of City Hall has been unchanged for as long as I’ve been covering City Hall, which is a damn long time. They will tell me that we need the big projects, the ones they call transformational, in order to keep the action going, to keep the motor running that gives momentum to the rest of it.
I don’t think they know which end of the car the motor is in. The real engine is the underlying well-being of neighborhoods and schools, the things that make this a good place or a bad place to work and live. If this is a good place to live, companies will come here. If this is a lousy place to live, with corroded infrastructure and chaotic social conditions, then nobody will want to invest.

Sometimes I probably draw the interests of the old leadership too narrowly, as if the only thing they care about is their own pocketbooks. Like most entrenched elites they do have a tendency to keep their morals and their financial interests pretty smoothly aligned, but money isn’t the only thing that makes them tick.

The belief in so-called transformational projects comes straight up through time from the American frontier experience, from the belief that our mission as a people is to turn every fly-bitten hamlet on the continent into the next New York City. It’s a culture that looks down on the patient handwork of community as boring and cowardly. It admires instead the man in the candy-striped blazer and straw hat who promises us the moon tomorrow for a hamburger today.

But in this time and place, that speech only makes suckers of us. We know in our hearts there’s only one way to fix the streets. Pay for it. If we signed a bad contract with the cops and firemen years ago for their pension plan, there’s only one way out of it. Pay for it.

Paying for those things, even if we have to borrow to do it, is the one way to build the city’s future. Putting it all off, trying to weasel out of all of it so we can spend our money instead on “transformational projects” — sooner or later, that’s the path to ruin. We know better than that.

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