The More Things Change: Yesterday's Council Walkout Brings Back Fond (?) Memories

Fine print alert!

When Mayor Tom Leppert tells you that yesterday's agenda item vote on the city tax rate didn't mean anything, he's got his hand deep in your pocket. It may be fine print, but ask Leppert why the vote was required by state law if it didn't mean anything.

Yesterday's council walkout evokes memories of the 1979 Peveto Tax Reform in Texas - a measure that got passed with a big assist from the Dallas Times Herald, more specifically from stories I did about the way the city of Dallas administered (or not) the property tax here in the late 1970s. Sorry to blow my own horn, but there you have it.

The city used to routinely cut huge good-old-boy deals to corporate taxpayers, especially on their taxes on inventories, slashing their tax bills and then making up the money by heaping the extra burden onto homeowners with scammy property appraisals.

I was able to show how they did it and how the business interests made fools of conservative North Dallas taxpayers who thought they were all on the same side. Before the Peveto reforms, here's how Dallas City Hall scammed homeowners, north and south:

With great fanfare, the very Republican mayors at the time would announce they were "holding the line on taxes" by holding the actual tax rate at the same level, maybe even lowering it. But then City hall sent out the appraisers to jack up all the residential values by 20 percent or more, leaving the corporate properties untouched. (This was before the creation of central appraisal districts, a reform enacted under the Peveto bill.)

So you're a North Dallas homeowner. You've been told your tax rate has been held level or reduced by that fine conservative mayor you helped elect. But your tax bill shows up in the mail, and it's for 20 percent more money that you had to pay last year.

Why? Because the corporate interests are smart, and you, sir or madam, are a patsy. By the way, I found the worst disproportionately high appraisals not actually in the north but uniformly in South Dallas. In poor neighborhoods in particular, the city had a track record of appraising properties at a much higher percentage of actual value than in the north, mainly because poor people didn't know how to protest their taxes, and back then there weren't any Tennell Atkinses on the council to defend them.

I did the initial pieces covering the basic scam, and then I was joined in the coverage by another reporter, Ralph Frammolino, who did yeoman work as well. The stories won a George Polk Award from Long Island University for local reporting (very prestigious in the biz). Fram and I discovered only later that the editors of the Herald had submitted the prize package in their names, not ours, so they went to New York and collected it. Work for pirates, take a few lashes. It reaffirmed a lesson I had already learned years earlier: Ethics in the newspaper business are not substantially different from ethics in the tax appraisal business. I mention it here only as ass-covering in case somebody goes to the Polk archives and notices my name is not there.

The Dallas Morning News wouldn't cover the tax story for months and then came along reluctantly to pick up the pieces (more things change, eh?). The only reason they gave in and covered the story at all was because North Dallas -- supposedly their own bailiwick -- had risen in noisy revolt, and it was weird for them not to cover it. (But the tax story, I always believed, strengthened the hand of the young Robert Decherd, who then took over The News and ultimately kicked the Herald's ass, proving that God has a sense of humor.)

I attended one public meeting where an angry crowd actually threatened to lynch the tax assessor, a nice enough guy who didn't deserve to be hanged. By the way, the tax protesters back then called themselves "The Tea Party."

Wayne Peveto, a Democratic state representative from Orange, engineered a massive reform of the property tax in Texas to make the appraisal process more honest. Part of the reform was a set of legal benchmarks to force local governments to come clean with voters about what they were really charging them on their tax bills.

Yesterday's walkout had everything to do with the Peveto limits. If the walkers were right about what Mayor Tom Leppert and councilmembers Ron Natinsky and Dwaine Caraway wanted to pull off -- and Natinsky says anyone who says he's behind it is a liar -- Leppert and company intended to commit the council to a big tax cut with serious revenue consequences for the city.

The reason I think the walkers were right is Leppert's disingenuous version of things - that a vote yesterday would not have changed anything. Here's the hitch: Councilmember Tennell Atkins, who didn't come to town on turnip truck, believed Lepert/Natsinsky/Caraway wanted to introduce a measure to freeze the tax rate at its current "rate."

What's wrong with that? Here's the equation that shows what's wrong: Current tax rate times lower appraised values equals lower tax bill equals less money to run the city.

The walkers, by walking, held open the option of going up on the rate enough to keep City Hall revenues level: Higher rate times lower appraised values equals same tax bill equals same revenue for City Hall.

Anybody who tells you that these votes don't change anything is trying to pull the pre-Peveto wool over your eyes. That's never true. These votes are all very important. Saying they don't count is straight-up hoo-doo. Why does Leppert think the votes are required by law? For grins?

The walkers preserved their ability to raise the rate enough to keep your tax bill the same and maybe keep City Hall from going totally into the ditch (keeping taxes flat). What the other side probably wanted to do was freeze the rate, apply it to lower appraised values and pull off a massive tax cut and revenue cut, giving Leppert a Neo-Tea Party starve-the-beast anti-civic-responsibility plank for his Senate campaign platform.

Beware guys who tell you not to read the fine print.

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