The first rule of budgeting, in business and in the typical American household, is that the budget’s plan for spending money must be matched – or preferably exceeded – by anticipated income. Things don’t always go according to the plan, of course, but balancing spending with revenue is the time-honored, fundamental principal of the budget-making process.
The federal government long ago abandoned that principal, of course, but state and local governments as well as responsible businesses and families have generally tried to follow it.
That’s why it was distressing when the Trinity River Vision Authority’s board of directors blithely voted Sept. 4 to approve a $36.6 million budget with no apparent prospects for sufficient income to support it. The TRVA, a subsidiary of the Tarrant Regional Water District, has $7 million in the bank, more or less, but no revenue stream adding up to anything close to $36 million. The TRVA, in other words, is a little short right now.
And the Panther Island flood control/economic development project that the authority is allegedly managing is extremely short – at least $460 million short, if you take into account just the difference between the $526 million Congress authorized in 2016 as the federal government’s contribution to the project and the $66 million or so actually appropriated.
There are other problems with the TRVA budget, which, if you’re a glutton for punishment, you can click here to examine. It's posted in the government section of the Business Press website (fortworthbusiness.com). Foremost among the problems is a stunning lack of detail about where the $36 million is going and what the taxpayers are getting in return. The TRVA budget would not make the first cut in the boardroom of a business – or at your kitchen table, for that matter.
Now for the good news, sort of. The water district last year convinced the district’s voters to approve a $250 million bond issue to help cover the ever-escalating cost of the Panther Island project – now projected at $1.17 billion with no ceiling in sight – and that money could be tapped to cover the TRVA’s current shortfall. But there’s a problem with that as well. Water district and river vision officials say they can't use that money unless the city of Fort Worth agrees to add 10 years to the life of a special taxing district that the city created to help finance Panther Island and that TRWD officials told voters would be used to repay the bonds.
The city says it doesn’t want to turn the 40-year taxing district, known as a TIF (Tax Increment Financing District), into a 50-year TIF without assurances that the federal government’s share of the project will be forthcoming. And we all know when that will be – not today, not tomorrow, maybe not ever ...
Another point of contention: $13 million in utility relocation needed to keep the project on schedule. The city has to do that work but doesn’t want to foot the bill, which could easily be covered by the bond money. But not until the city agrees to the TIF extension, says the TRVA.
So what do we have here. A standoff? A stalemate? A scintillating round of political and bureaucratic jousting full of sound and fury but signifying nothing?
To put it another way: Can this mess get any worse? The short answer: Of course it can.
The Trinity River Vision’s fictional budget now goes to the parent company, the water board, for final approval on Sept. 17 and of course the board is odds-on to rubber stamp the authority board’s handiwork and worry about the ramifications later.
Meanwhile, the city has to decide how to handle what for all practical purposes amounts to political extortion in the form of this demand for a 10-year TIF extension.
The Panther Island mis-managers are throwing their weight around, as they are wont to do, but the real leverage in this argument belongs to the city. The water district and TRVA desperately want the TIF extension and only the city can make it happen. So city officials should insist on getting something in return.
They should start by demanding a detailed accounting of all the TRVA’s past and projected spending – and a detailed accounting from the water board of how it intends to spend the $250 million the voters handed over in 2018 with virtually no strings attached, simply trusting the TRWD’s assurances that the money was needed and would be well spent.
Next, the city should insist on total implementation of the recommendations made by Dallas consultant Riveron in its independent review of the Panther Island project. The relative gentleness of Riveron’s criticisms were disappointing to Panther Island critics but the consultant did call for some significant changes, most notably separating management of the project’s flood control and economic development functions and creating a “risk management office” to coordinate the widely disparate elements of the project and improve communication with the public and among the various taxing entities that serve as project partners.
A risk management office, Riveron said in its report, “will establish and support predictable communications for project transparency and accountability and provide much of what would otherwise be expected from a formal Project Management Office.”
If ever a project needed transparency and accountability, Panther Island is the one.
Riveron also recommended shifting responsibility for managing river-related recreation and entertainment activities such as concerts and Fourth of July fireworks from the TRVA to the water district, which Riveron said, “has a long and successful track record for organizing, managing, and executing recreation efforts.”
The TRVA’s executive director, J.D. Granger, objected when board members expressed agreement with that change and some others during their Sept. 4 meeting. That’s not surprising, since full implementation of the Riveron recommendations would strip Granger of some of his most prized areas of authority – and undoubtedly raise a question he doesn’t want to hear: Does the Panther Island project really need J.D. Granger, who happens to be Fort Worth Congresswoman Kay Granger’s son and whose employment at the TRVA has long been a source of criticism and controversy?
It’s a question J.D. and his bosses at the TRWD and TRVA might be wise to think about.
Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at email@example.com