Thursday, June 18, 2009

KUDOS to Dallas Observer for Coverage of Dallas Budget Process

By Faith Chatham - DFWRCC - June 18, 2009
It's refreshing to see reports of an elected official break from "incumbent-speak" and call fee increases what they actually are: "tax increases." Mithcell Rasansky has done it before but this is the first time I've seen it this prominent in a report.

It has happened many more times than it has been reported. I hope it keeps happening more often and I hope reporters will take note and include it in their coverage. Fees are taxes. Tolls are taxes. Ignoring them and excluding them from receipts and tax percentage numbers is shoddy bookkeeping. It is done in attempts to deceive the public.

I don't think most people are that dumb or that gullible. Most people realize the difference between the money they start out with and the money they miss at the end of the day.

The Dallas Observer's coverage captures the "flavor" of City of Dallas Budget meetings. I hope more elected officials on more levels will follow Councilwoman Angela Hunt's example and plug the numbers into spreadsheets. If the numbers given don't add up, demand clarification in terms that the numbers do add up before a vote is taken. If votes are attempted before comprehendable clarification is given, object to the vote in strong enough terms that reporters who dozed off for a minute wake up and take note!

Rasansky Calls Budget "Non-Transparent," Says Increased Fees Are a Tax Increase and Introduces $21.7 Million in Savings

By Sam Merten in News You Can Actually Use, Actually Use - Dallas Observer - Wednesday, Jun. 17 2009

City Manager Mary Suhm, Mayor Tom Leppert and CFO Dave Cook all stressed this morning that the city is facing the same budget challenges as other cities and states. As Cook briefed the city council for the last time before a more detailed budget is presented August 10, he said the more than 700 projected layoffs are expected to begin in August and claimed most other cities are in worse shape as some are laying off police officers, while Dallas plans to hire another 200 officers in the coming fiscal year.

He cited approximately $130 million in declining revenue as the most significant contributor to the $190 million deficit, and said Dallas is using similar methods as other cities to address the shortfall, such as implementing furlough days (which saves Dallas approximately $800,000 per day), closing public buildings and increasing user fees instead of raising taxes.

But, as far as Mitchell Rasansky is concerned, jacking up fees and raising taxes are one in the same. He claimed the proposed increases to utilities are equivalent to a 2.3 cent property tax hike.

"This is a tax increase," Rasansky said. "Anyway you want to look at it, it's a tax increase."

Long known as the council's tax hawk, Rasansky made the most out of his last opportunity to weigh in on the budget before he's replaced on Monday by Ann Margolin, who was in attendance. After thanking Suhm and her staff for their work, he offered some harsh criticism of the proposed budget.

"This is the most non-transparent budget I've ever seen since I've been down here at City Hall," he said.

Rasansky battled Leppert twice because the mayor only gave council members five minutes each to speak, as Rasansky blasted him for not giving him time to explain all of the $21.7 million in cuts he proposed.

He handed out a memo to the council (which you can see below) suggesting the city dip into the "unrealized gain" of $21.2 million in the city's investment pool that won't mature until early 2010. Although he acknowledged the city will lose some dough by cashing in early, he said pulling out $7.5 million would serve to close the gap or fund services on the chopping block.

Also among his nine suggestions is grabbing $10 million from the city's contingency fund that has contained approximately $20 million for the last 20 years and removing $1.5 million from the city's $5 million emergency fund.

Other cost-cutting measures offered up by Rasansky are reducing the Trinity River Corridor Project staff from 15 to eight, combining city bills into the same envelope, selling advertising on the envelopes and charging developers a 1-percent application fee when applying for tax abatements or other incentives.

Angela Hunt said she's confused about why Suhm can't provide council members with line item budgets to assist them in finding cuts and understanding how the money is spent. Suhm said cooking up a line item budget would force city staff to stop work on the budget, and she stressed that the numbers change on a daily basis.

Hunt also asked once again for the budget to be separated into departments, saying her constituents "don't think in terms of key focus areas." She dropped some numbers into an Excel spreadsheet on her own and expressed concern that it appears as though the Public Works and Transportation Department's budget will increase by more than 50 percent from the actual 2007-08 budget.

While it's a rough draft, her document (which was provided to Unfair Park) shows reductions of 73.7 percent to housing and 31.6 percent to libraries compared to the '07-'08 budget, yet the mayor and city council's budget is planning to see a 10.2 increase in funding.

"We've all got to roll up our sleeves on this budget because it's so challenging," she said.

Dave Neumann appeared enamored with Hunt, using her as an example on two separate occasions, once as a hypothetical constituent and another time as a citizen. He also praised her for previous comments when she stressed that the city must focus on providing citizens with core competencies.

"This is not a wish-list year for the budget," he said. "It's an essential-list year."

Dallas Observer

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

DFW has second-worst road rage in nation

BY LEE WILLIAMS - The Fort Worth Star-Telegram - Tue, Jun. 16, 2009
Drivers in Dallas-Fort Worth are rude, angry, distracted and often dangerous.

So much, in fact, that we rank No. 2 among metropolitan areas with the worst road rage, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Affinion Group, a national marketing and consulting firm.

Coming in at No. 1 was New York (big surprise). Detroit was No. 3, followed by Atlanta and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Miami, which had been No. 1 for four years, dropped to No. 7, and Houston, the only other Texas city mentioned, came in at No. 8.

The AutoVantage In the Driver’s Seat Road Rage Survey is based on interviews in the top 25 metro areas in the United States.

"The thing that really drove Dallas-Fort Worth up the list was that drivers were No. 1 for confessing to tailgating, cutting off people . . . and admitting that they talk on their cellphones," said Michael Bush, Affinion’s public relations director.

Those surveyed also said that texting, speeding, eating and putting on makeup led to incidents of road rage.
Read more in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Monday, June 15, 2009

Texas AG Declares North Texas Toll Contracts "legally insufficient"

By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER - The Dallas Morning News - Friday, June 12, 2009

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has refused to sign off on the first of two major private toll road projects approved for North Texas earlier this year.
Abbott said provisions in the contract with the Spanish firm Cintra, which is slated to build the North Tarrant Express in Fort Worth and the mid-cities, violate the Texas Constitution and must be amended.

State law gives Abbott the power to hold up the contracts indefinitely if they are not "legally sufficient."

Negotiations between his office and the department have already extended for weeks beyond an initial 60-day deadline.

Cintra has agreed to spend billions in North Texas to build the North Tarrant Express toll road and to rebuild the LBJ Freeway.

But in return, the state department of transportation has pledged more than $1 billion in tax dollars toward the projects. As a result, main lanes on both highways will be free, but Cintra will collect tolls for 52 years on adjacent lanes.

The LBJ Freeway contract has not yet been reviewed, but it is likely to be saddled with the same legal issues.

Abbott said the department's contract for the North Tarrant Express obligates the state to pay $740 million over several years to Cintra.

"The Texas Constitution says that one Legislature cannot financially bind a future Legislature," he said.

The contract must be amended to reflect that any promises for payment are subject to discretion of future sessions of the Legislature, Abbott said.

Any provision that leaves payments from the state subject to future action by the Legislature could give Cintra pause.

TxDOT continues to work to meet Abbott's objections and to settle on terms agreeable to Cintra, spokesman Chris Lippincott said.
Read more in the Dallas Morning News

Lower traffic and toll revenue prompts $108 Million decrease in NTTA 2009 Budget

NTTA Reduces 2009 Budget and Other Expense Estimates
By NTTA - June 15, 2009

Plano, TX – Today, at a meeting of the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) Administration Committee, staff announced it reduced the 2009 budget and other expense estimates by approximately $108 million as a result of a 10.91% decrease in projected revenues for 2009. The revenue projections for 2009 were lowered by the NTTA’s traffic and revenue consultant after they reviewed the traffic numbers for the first four months of 2009.

The reductions were made in the capital improvement, reserve maintenance and feasibility study funds.

“We will continue to monitor the situation and make adjustments where necessary,” said Allen Clemson, the NTTA’s Executive Director. “Despite the reduction, projects such as the Lewisville Lake Toll Bridge, Eastern Extension of the President George Bush Turnpike and construction on the Sam Rayburn Tollway will remain on schedule. We will also continue serving our customers and working hard to meet our commitments to the region.”

Tomorrow, NTTA staff is expected to recommend a toll rate adjustment to the NTTA System Finance and Audit Commitee, including adjusting the rates, reset dates and adopting a distance-based toll.

About the NTTA

The North Texas Tollway Authority, a political subdivision of the state of Texas, is authorized to acquire, construct, maintain, repair and operate turnpike projects in the north Texas region. The nine-member governing board is comprised of Chairman Paul N. Wageman; Vice Chairman Victor Vandergriff; and Directors Kenneth Barr, Gary Base, Bob Day, David Denison, Michael Nowels, Bob Shepard and Alan E. Sims.

The NTTA serves Collin, Dallas, Denton and Tarrant counties and is responsible for the NTTA System, consisting of the Dallas North Tollway, President George Bush Turnpike, Sam Rayburn Tollway, Addison Airport Toll Tunnel, Lewisville Lake Toll Bridge and the Mountain Creek Lake Bridge. The NTTA is able to raise capital for construction projects through the issuance of turnpike revenue bonds. NTTA toll projects are not a part of the state highway system and receive no direct tax funding. Tolls are collected to repay debt and to operate and maintain the roadways.

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