Two candidates for the new position of program coordinator of the $1.17 Panther Island project were interviewed behind closed doors by the Trinity River Vision Authority board on Wednesday, board President G.K. Maenius announced after the session.

Board members agreed to another meeting on Nov. 13 in the hopes of being able to hire one of the candidates for the job.

“Both individuals have extensive experience with (U.S. Army) Corps (of Engineers) water projects and both have expertise in coordinating water and flood control projects,” said Maenius, who is also the top administrator for Tarrant County

The TRVA board agreed unanimously last month to establish this position to handle the duties of analyzing risk assessment for the project and serve as coordinate the activities of the partner agencies, which include the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County and the Tarrant Regional Water District, the parent agency of the TRVA.

The program coordinator will report directly to the TRVA board, which will continue to serve as the coordinating organization for the project.

The position is being created as part of a re-organization within the management ranks of the TRVA, which was an outgrowth of a comprehensive review of the project conducted by outside consultants.

Besides administrative restructuring, consultants for Dallas-based Riveron recommended improved communication among partner agencies, better public transparency and messaging focused solely on flood control.

As part of the re-organization, the position of executive director was eliminated and J.D. Granger, who held that position at a salary of more than $200,000 annually, was shifted into the ranks of the TRWD with a new role focused on flood-control.

The consultants recommended the management shift as it sought to develop solutions to make the beleaguered Panther Island project more attractive to federal funding.

Although the Corps authorized up to $526 million to be spent on the ambitious capital improvement project, it has only been appropriated about $60 million under the previous two administrations. No federal money has been appropriated by the Trump administration.

The TRVA’s request of between $30 million and $40 million each year to meet its budget have been rejected by the current administration. Various local leaders, including Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and Republican Congressman Roger Williams of District 25, have lobbied federal officials for the funding.

Price and Williams received a vague commitment of $250 million from Trump Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to go strictly toward flood control.

The project as originally envisioned involves digging a 1.5-mile bypass channel on the Trinity River. Channelization would provide flood control protection and create an 800-acre island with waterfront economic development opportunities.

But after undertaking the comprehensive review and moving forward with recommendations for improvement, the project still faces troubles as the local funds of $326 million, including a $200 million interest-free loan from the TRWD, are about to run out.

The project partners are at an impasse at how to proceed.

An appropriation of federal funds of $36.7 million in 2020 and another $38.7 million in 2021 would keep the project on track for completion in 2028.

As an alternative, TRWD officials want to tap $250 million in bond funds approved by district voters in 2018. The caveat to that plan is that its requires the City Council’s to cooperate by extending the term of tax-increment finance (TIF) district that produces revenue for Panther Island by 10 years – from 40 to 50 years.

Without the extension, the TIF could not generate enough money to repay the bond debt, according to TRWD and TRVA Chief Financial Officer Sandy Newby.

But David Cooke, a TRVA board member and city manager of Fort Worth, has been reluctant to present the TIF extension to the City Council for a vote because there is no guarantee that federal dollars are forthcoming for the project.

He compared the situation to a classic example of a “Catch 22.” Without tapping bond funds, the project can’t move forward with preparations for the Corps to dig the channel.

But spending an estimated $80 million in local funds to expand and relocate utilities in the Panther Island zone could be a losing proposition if the federal money isn’t forthcoming, he pointed out.

“We already have more than $300 million of local money invested,” Newby has said. “Are we going to just let that go?”

Maenius said the TRWD has committed using some of its share of TIF funds from 2019 to pay the salary of the program coordinator. Salary negotiations are still underway, he said.

Maenius also declined to disclose any other details about the candidates.

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