The Money Pit: Dollars Go AWOL at the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund

For what it's worth – not much, probably – nobody's sadder than me about the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund and the saga about to unfold around it. I know the history. It was one of those crumbs that poor black South Dallas had to wrench from a fat callous City Hall in the first place. Off on its own lone horse, riding without a posse, the whole thing seemed destined to fail from the start.

And we may be there now. If not, we're real close. A week ago the city auditor released an "audit" that was really a kind of biennial joke. Roughly every two years the auditor issues a report saying the trust fund, founded 27 years ago, still hasn't accomplished anything and still can't account for the money.

The money. It's complicated. Way too complicated. The SDFPTF is funded by a rake-off from ticket sales for all kinds of events at Fair Park plus about $40,000 a year in cash straight out of the city's general fund, otherwise known as your tax money. It's supposed to use that money to nurture business successes in the old black neighborhoods around Fair Park.

The trust fund came out of one of Dallas' typically sleazy racial deals in the bad old days, which were, like, yesterday. In the late 1980s the city was engaged in yet another of its many efforts over the years to expunge much of the poor black residential and retail area that pressed up against the massive fences surrounding Fair Park, this time in the name of parking.

The real goal then — visible again now even as we speak in the city's disingenuous attempt to "visually improve" MLK Boulevard, the main artery into the fair — was always to create a safe corridor by which white people might drive into the fair without being subjected to the sight of so many poor black people, who, as we know, scare white people. So the city set off on yet another round of property acquisitions, producing the vast asphalt veldt that now surrounds Fair Park and gives it that odd aura of seedy other-worldliness, like what happened to Oz 30 years after Dorothy left and real estate values fell. The other-worldliness is the point.

Rather than tell City Hall to go to hell and fight them off, black leadership in South Dallas in the '80s did what it had always done — settled for a slice of pie out the backdoor, in this case the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund. The fund was to be supported by a Byzantine web-work of ticket rake-offs from different events. I've had a little bit of experience myself trying to collect money from people in the entertainment business. The only way I know of to get what you have coming is to stand next to them while they sell the tickets and every time your share gets up to a dollar stick your hand out. Otherwise you might as well ask the audience for it on their way out.

But the city couldn't have the trust fund showing up at concerts like a collection agent, so instead it gave the fund a very vague general promise that its money would be collected for it by the Park and Recreation Department. Yeah, right, like that check was ever going to be in the mail.

Anyway, the recent city audit came out with all of the usual instances of money not getting counted, grants getting granted to the wrong people, a general picture of fiduciary ineptitude, all of it an almost word-for-word incantation of the same language making the same complaints of mismanagement going back almost to the founding of the trust fund in 1987. And laughably at the end were the same old responses of city staff saying they were right on top of the problems and would have everything cleared up pretty soon (wink-wink).

But this time was different. This time when the report came out at least two members of the City Council, Philip Kingston and Scott Griggs, were waiting for it, along with Kingston's appointee to the South Dallas Fair Park Trust Fund board, Suzanne Smith. Smith, owner of an MBA, served on the city's Board of Adjustment (knocks down derelict properties) appointed by former council person Veletta Lill. She was appointed to the Landmark Commission (saves derelict properties) by former council member Angela Hunt and worked for the city of Garland and Texas Municipal League before setting up shop as a consultant to social-change-oriented nonprofits. Not a dummy.

Kingston told me that Smith had told him that the trust fund probably is short many millions of dollars and that it's not clear which door the money went out of. Is the money missing because the fund got it from the city and then pissed it away? Or, in the case Smith thinks more likely, is it missing because the clowns at City Hall never delivered it in the first place?

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze