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The Bond Is Headed to Your May Ballot. Here’s What You’ll Be Voting On.

Parks, streets, and public safety dominate the $1.25 billion bond package. The biggest loser was the very building in which the City Council made those decisions.
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Kelsey Shoemaker

On Wednesday, the Dallas City Council voted 14-1 to send a $1.25 billion bond to voters in May. The vote comes after almost a year of discussions in task forces and committees and hours in successive council briefings hammering out the details.

Street maintenance and repairs will get the largest chunk of that $1.25 billion, followed by parks and recreation centers. If approved by voters, it will pay for about five years worth of city infrastructure projects. 

What’s in the bond?

Voters will see 10 propositions on their May ballot: 

  • $516.5 million—streets, street lighting, repairs, and other transportation projects;
  • $343.5 million—parks and recreation centers;
  • $95 million—updates for police and fire stations and building a new $50 million police academy at UNT Dallas;
  • $75.2 million—updates to the city’s culture and arts facilities;
  • $52.1 million— flood protection and storm drainage;
  • $73.8 million—economic development and gap-financing for affordable housing; 
  • $43.5 million— is earmarked for libraries (some will see renovations, and the city will also build a new library in the Bishop Arts District);
  • $26.4 million—infrastructure improvements near potential affordable housing projects; 
  • $19 million—building and expanding facilities for people experiencing homelessness, as well as short-term and permanent housing;
  • $5 million—improving the city’s IT facilities.

Councilman Omar Narvaez, who submitted the final proposal, said he felt the bond package was not perfect, but was “probably the best bond package” he had seen because it also addresses the city’s equity policies.

“Every single one of these proposals literally has something that every single person that’s elected on this body asked for, wanted, pushed, supported,” he said. “This is a reflection of every one of us, which is a reflection of every one of you out there.”

While some on the horseshoe were disappointed that the allocation for affordable housing dropped from $61 million to slightly more than $26 million, they took solace in the assurances that some of the nearly $74 million allocated for economic development would be ear-marked to provide gap financing for developers to convert some affordable units into otherwise market-rate housing developments. Jennifer Nicewander, interim director of the city’s bond and construction management office, said the city could spend up to $36.6 million from the economic development allocation on specific housing projects.

What didn’t get funded

Once again, Dallas City Hall was the Gretchen Weiners of bond allocations. During last month’s briefings, the City Council voted to remove a nearly $29 million allocation to improve and repair the aging I.M. Pei building. Similar requests in previous bond elections also failed to make the cut.

Council voted to cut those funds last month to create an IT allocation and a $75 million discretionary fund, split among the 14 Council members and the mayor. During Wednesday’s discussion, Councilman Adam Bazaldua introduced a motion that would have allocated at least some money for City Hall’s most urgent needs. 

“The reason this is taken out is because we chose for discretionary funds,” he said. “This body made an action that took money away from what was recommended.”

Building Services Director John Johnson detailed some of the major issues facing the building, like HVAC repair, upgrading the building’s fire suppression system, electrical upgrades, and water that infiltrates the parking garage. 

Part of the problem, he said, is that some of the work is in parts of City Hall that are grandfathered in to building codes due to their age. The repairs will require the city to bring those things—like the city’s electrical upgrades—up to the current code.

Some on the Council, including Council member Cara Mendelsohn, questioned whether the city staff had looked for other ways to fund the repairs beyond the bond.

City Manager T.C. Broadnax and City Financial Officer Jack Ireland said that the city does have the option of issuing general obligation bonds, which would mean that the city would incur more debt. It could also make room in the budget for those repairs and improvements over the next five years, triaging the list of needs to address them one or two at a time. 

Mendelsohn asked if the city had considered monetizing or selling off some of its assets, saying it was “sort of shocking” to find out how many assets the city has.

“Have you considered that one of those or more might actually just outright fund this?” she asked Broadnax, setting up a testy exchange.

“No, I haven’t, Councilwoman, and I’ve been pretty consistent in my statement that I don’t think it’s a good strategy to look at and sell off property, particularly in most case where those properties have value—they have buildings on them and staff working in them,” he said.

Broadnax said that if the city sold those buildings, finding new locations for the displaced departments and equipment would likely incur additional costs.

“That is not a strategy,” he said. “When I run out of items to sell, I’ll still have more needs after that, and I won’t have any other items to do what I need to do in this city.”

“Are you concerned at all that it would appear self-serving for almost $30 million to come to City Hall, where it’s not really something that’s benefiting the residents like streets or parks or public safety would?” Mendelsohn shot back.

But Council members Paula Blackmon and Jaynie Schultz saw the matter differently. Blackmon called the deferring maintenance on a priceless piece of architecture “the Dallas way.”

“We need to maintain our buildings,” she said. “(You) either decide to maintain the electrical in your own house if it’s burning, if it’s falling apart, or do you put in a swimming pool? We have to fix what we have. It’s been three bonds and it’s, let the next one take care of it. We either take care of what we’ve got, or we don’t build anymore.”

Councilwoman Jaynie Schultz said that City Hall was the one allocation on the bond that didn’t have a constituency to lobby for it in the way parks, arts and culture, housing, and other aspects of the bond did. 

“The one that didn’t have a constituency is exactly what got cut to zero,” she said before challenging her colleagues to give up some of their discretionary funds to address some of the most dire issues.

Councilwoman Gay Donnell Willis pointed out that while she didn’t support Bazaldual’s amendment, the discussion about including these repairs in the city budget was also problematic, considering that the city will begin ramping up its contributions to its two pension systems in the next few years. 

“That’s gotta come from somewhere,” she said. “This is going to be a very tough budget year.”

What’s next

The full list of projects the bond will cover will be hashed out by the end of the month. Once that is done, the city will begin holding town halls and webinars to explain the propositions to voters. Early voting begins on April 22 and ends on April 30. The election is on May 4.

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.
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