Somebody Needs to Tell City Hall That Abandoning Dallas Is Not An Option

When rotting infrastructure gets closer to home, do we just abandon ship?
When rotting infrastructure gets closer to home, do we just abandon ship?
Jim Schutze
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At the urging of the mayor, the Dallas City Council has abandoned efforts to save 162 lane miles of city streets now in danger of collapsing into an irredeemable condition, even though national bond rating agencies have already successively downgraded the city’s credit rating based in part on deteriorating streets.

On top of that, someone operating from behind cover at City Hall – my nomination would be the mayor – is floating the idea of abandoning the city’s police and fire pension fund, allowing it to careen closer to insolvency, rather than come up with the kind of burden-sharing compromise that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has crafted to resolve an even bigger pension shortfall there.

The big picture? Abandon, abandon. Shirk, shirk. Walk away, walk away.

As long as it worked like a fat piggy bank for them, the business establishment represented by the mayor loved City Hall. We have talked about that here before. In the existing round alone of so-called “tax-increment financing,” $1.15 billion dollars in tax breaks taken straight out of the general fund at City Hall have been given to real estate developers. Forget the billions already gone from earlier iterations. And yet you can’t put your hands on a single study or report to show that any of those billions did the city an ounce of good in the end.

Meanwhile the city’s burden of rotting infrastructure has metastasized to such a point that it can no longer be kept hidden from the bond rating agencies. They keep knocking down the bond rating because they know the city is going to start losing tax base when businesses and citizens begin deciding not to put up any longer with Third World streets and sewers.

So what have the mayor and a majority of the council decided to do about it? They promised only months ago to hold a bond election this summer to get an additional $27 million for streets, barely enough to keep them from getting worse. This week they walked on that idea. Not gonna do it. Just not.

And then we have the utterly remarkable idea of walking on the pension fund. The city’s chief financial officer, Elizabeth Reich, put that one on the table this week with a feckless suggestion that it was just an idea. Yeah, it’s an idea that is already earning us notoriety all over the country, mainly because abandoning a pension fund for first responders is such an utterly appalling concept.

And, look, this is not the scale of idea that comes originally from a bureaucrat, anyway. Mayor Mike Rawlings was out of town and unable to step in front of the spotlight on this one, but I’m going to take that as not being an accident. Somebody thought it would be clever to tie this dead dog around Reich’s neck and let her run herself up the flagpole with it.

It’s probably not a real plan. More likely, it’s someone’s idea of a hard-nosed bargaining position. But exactly how hard-nosed do you want to be with the city’s cops and firemen? It’s a little like locking your kid out in the snow until he learns to say sir and ma’am. You might look out there after an hour and find out you don’t have a kid. Was that one worth it?

What strikes me is the larger theme of abandonment, all the more ominous because it comes from a generation of leadership already identified with abandonment. Their whole mentality has always been that they will only deign to do business in the city if the city kisses their asses and pays them. Meanwhile they continue to bet their real money on sprawl.

I compare that with the new spirit of the inner city as expressed by young leaders like Angela Hunt, Tammy Johnston, Mark Clayton, Adam Medrano, Eric Johnson, Philip Kingston, George Battle III, Scott Griggs and many others who are deeply and personally committed to rebuilding.

They’re not talking about walking. They’re not talking about abandoning anything. And if anything they have a far better idea how screwed up things are, how hard it’s going to be to get the city’s basic infrastructure back on track, save Fair Park, fight crime and do the messy things like straighten out the pension fund.

But that’s what you do when it’s your city, your community, your block, your family. You wade in and get it done because you do not allow yourself another choice.

Listen. Who even thinks about abandoning the streets? Only somebody who’s got streets somewhere else to move to. Who would risk driving the cops and firemen away by slapping them in the face? Only somebody who’s got another place in mind with lots of cops and firemen. Endemic to abandonment is escape.

And what keeps us all from escaping, from telling the spouse we’re headed out for a loaf of bread, pointing the car toward Vegas and putting the pedal to the metal? In the end the power that holds us back and keeps us together is love.

It’s one thing to take a tough bargaining position with the Police and Fire Pension System. It’s another to make the city’s first responders think the city doesn’t have their backs.
It’s one thing to take a tough bargaining position with the Police and Fire Pension System. It’s another to make the city’s first responders think the city doesn’t have their backs.
Dallas Police and Fire Pension System

I’m not saying everybody who lives in the city has to love the city or that any of us has to love it every day, but in the end the glue that holds it together is an unqualified love, a sense that keeping the city together and making it a better place to live and work is worth whatever it takes for however long it takes.

Nobody with that kind of commitment at heart would ever even talk about walking on the police and fire pension fund or just giving up on 162 lane miles of street. We know the rubber has to meet the road eventually, that there is not always a painless way out, but we also know we have to get it done anyway.

I can think of a few simple but effective ways to get started right now. For example, we need to agree to some municipal priorities. We should draw up a list of things that need to be taken care of before we even talk about new or additional obligations. Obviously streets and other basic infrastructure would be high on that list, and I can’t imagine the pension fund not being there.

Then we need to agree to say no — no to anything else, until we take care of the list. Take Fair Park, for example: If somebody can come up with a way to resuscitate the city’s benighted, under-utilized, 277-acre exposition park on a self-funding pay-as-you-go basis, great. Do it. But if the idea is for taxpayers to pump $20 million a year into it out of the general fund when we still haven’t fixed the pension fund, then, no. We say no.

And the Trinity River project: We have the money already in the bank to build the park we voted for in 1998, while the toll road that some dead-enders are still campaigning for is between one and two billion dollars short of being funded. So, no. We say no to that, because it’s a huge unfunded liability, and it wouldn’t be on the list of things we have to do first. Simply bringing order and clarity to our municipal priorities would achieve significant progress toward getting done what must be done.

In the meantime, we keep our feet planted right where we stand. We fix what we’ve got. If some developer tells us she’s going to take her ball and go home to Frisco, we tell her to keep our email address and let us know when she wants to come back.

The city is the city — something no suburb can ever be. We’re never going to win over the people who see the city as a negative. But we certainly shouldn’t let that kind of person run the place.

The right kind of people are waiting in the wings, just on the verge of real power in the city. We need to call them out to center stage and put them in charge. And you know what I notice, when I look at an Eric Johnson taking up the battle for West Dallas, a Tammy Johnston fighting for South Dallas, a Scott Griggs in Oak Cliff, Mark Clayton in Lakewood, Philip Kingston in East Dallas, Adam Medrano, Jesse Moreno, George Battle, Paul Sims, Becky Rader, if you watch them very closely, they’re having a hell of a lot of fun.

It’s fun to build a city. Hard, but fun. It’s depressing to abandon a place, but it’s fun to find a way to keep it ticking. We could use more of that. More courage, more exuberance and more simple sense of responsibility. Fewer threats. Next time somebody makes one of those threats, we need to hold up our non-index fingers and tell them, “Abandon this.”

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