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How Big is the Pension Fund Crisis? New DART Bailout Proposal Offers Perspective.

Scott Griggs has drafted a resolution to save the pension fund by pulling sales tax dollars from DART -- three Addisons-worth

The dominoes keep falling in the ongoing saga over the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund. Late last week, the Dallas Morning News reported on the latest idea to fix the troubled Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund, and it is a whopper of a proposal.

In short, Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs has drafted a resolution that would take one-eighth of the sales tax Dallas currently contributes to Dallas Area Rapid Transit and use it to shore up the sinking fund. That would generate around $32 million-per-year for the police and fire pension, though it would leave an already financially challenged DART with a big budget gap.

How big? Think of it this way. Addison currently contributes between $9 and 13 million to DART. If Griggs’ proposal were adopted, it would represent the equivalent of three Addisons leaving the public transit agency. Over the course of 15 years, that’s nearly a half-billion dollar blow to DART’s bottom line.

Unsurprisingly, DART’s spokesperson was quick to sound the Chicken Little alarm. But over on the Dallas Observer, Jim Schutze wonders if this is a proverbial canary in the coal mine, the moment in which Dallas wakes up and realizes that, while its streets crumbled and its police department ceased being able to hire enough officers, it hasn’t gotten as much bang for its buck for all of the billions it has sunk into its sprawling, regional-minded, inefficient public transit system.

What a mess.

Let’s pretend for a second that Griggs’ idea finds political traction. It’s not terribly far-fetched. After all, Fort Worth already divides its sales tax between public transit and public safety. But what would be at stake if Dallas diverted one-eigtth of its DART funding for the pension?

DART already finds itself in a precarious position. Currently DART’s light rail system has hit operational capacity, its bus system is one of the most inefficient in the country, and it runs a fledgling, disconnected streetcar network. To fix this, DART is attempting to invest in a handful of big ticket infrastructure projects. A new DART light rail alignment downtown (called D2) will expand the system’s overall capacity. A new downtown streetcar will connect the Oak Cliff and Uptown lines, beginning to make the network look like a real city center system. Then there is the Cotton Belt light rail extension, which would connect some of the agency’s suburban members to DFW.

Last year, the Dallas City Council passed a resolution urging the DART board of directors to leave the agency’s plans to debt-finance the Cotton Belt extension out of its financial plan in part out of fear that the debt burden would possibly downgrade the agency’s financial rating in pending Federal Transit Agency grants applications. Those grants will help finance DART’s higher priority capital projects, like platform extensions and D2. But DART’s board – including city of Dallas appointed representatives – thumbed its nose at the council and moved ahead with the Cotton Belt. One of the reasons was fear that Addison would leave DART if it didn’t build-out the long-promised Cotton Belt.

And so here we are with a new proposal on the table. In trying to figure out how to balance the books on the city’s troubled police and fire pension fund and shore up the reputation of the Dallas Police Department in order to attract necessary recruits, Griggs has now proposed pulling out the equivalent of three Addison from DART. How might the DART board respond to that?

If anything, the new proposal to save the pension by diverting funds from DART is useful if only that it puts the size and scale of the pension fund fiasco in perspective.