Some local politicians are displaying Donald Trump-like combativeness and spin while dealing with Panther Island’s latest PR problem. Other Fort Worth leaders, led by Mayor Betsy Price, are seeking an audit of the estimated $1.1 billion (and counting) flood control/development project that has dragged along for two decades with still not much to show for it. Federal lawmakers recently failed to include Panther Island on their funding list, withholding money needed to finish the project.
There was a special meeting Tuesday morning of the board of directors of the Tarrant Regional Water District, a government agency that provides raw water for more than 2 million people and implements flood control measures for 11 North Texas counties. The group and its offshoot, the Trinity River Vision Authority, are overseeing the Panther Island plan to reduce the chances of flooding while creating a downtown waterway flanked by retail and residential development. The board members discussed the project and voted in unanimous favor to approve a “programmatic review.” We’re not sure what that is, although it sounds like an audit. Some board members find the a-word troubling.
“It’s almost as if we’re being accused of something,” board member Jim Lane said, noting that an audit request sounds like a suggestion of “malfeasance.”
City officials have been involved from the start and should already know the information they seek, he said.
“I don’t know what the city is looking for, but they are sure welcome to come look for themselves,” Lane said.
Those officials might learn – like reporters and former water district board member Mary Kelleher before them –– that transparency can be a foreign concept with water district General Manager Jim Oliver.
Oliver opened the board meeting by stepping up to a podium in the small meeting room at water district headquarters and saying news media are misleading the public, although he stopped short of tossing out Trump’s “fake news” mantra.
“I was looking through the news channels this morning, and Channel 5 reported that this is an emergency meeting and that the city was withholding $250 million worth of bonds for this program,” Oliver said.
Oliver went on to say that we were attending a special meeting, not an emergency meeting. Semantics about what type of meeting it was must be really important since Oliver led with that bit of information. Also, the city can’t withhold the funding because voters have already approved the $250 million worth of bonds for the water board to issue, he said.
He listed a string of “myths” and shot down each one in rapid fashion, offering little evidence other than his words. The water district has shared information and included city officials in meetings from the beginning, he said.
Almost all of the $1.1 billion funding is needed for flood control and not to fund private economic development, he said. About $60 million will pay for improvements on city infrastructure and at Gateway Park, and “if the city wants to cut [the improvements], that’s fine,” he said.
Critics believe limiting the project to basic flood control could be done for a fraction of the cost proposal.
Currently, the project is awaiting $700 million of funding, Oliver said. Paying that amount with local money would require a large tax increase. He preached patience. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which provides engineering services and construction support for managing the nation’s water resources, has approved Panther Island for federal funding. Every Corps-approved project that Oliver has been aware of has become funded eventually, he said. Securing the funding requires playing politics on a national level, and U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, a former Fort Worth mayor and staunch proponent of the project, knows how to play the game well, he said.
“She is the best one to handle the funding on this project, and I’m confident that eventually she will prevail,” Oliver said.
Former state representative Lon Burnam wasn’t impressed.
“Mr. Oliver seemed very defensive,” Burnam told us later. “I’m extremely irritated over the fact that they allowed for no citizen comment during this called meeting. They have Jim Lane primed to be the apologist for the project, not wanting to have any meaningful conversation about the various problems. This project has had problems from the word ‘go.’ ”
He pointed to the long delays in work progress and what he considers an abuse of eminent domain to take people’s properties. The project suffers from “bad contract management,” Burnam added, despite agreeing with Oliver that increased population and property development will require more flood control in the future – just not $1.1 billion worth.
How much money is actually needed for basic flood control measures? $20 million? $200 million? A billion? A cost analysis study could provide answers, but water district officials have made it clear they don’t want one and, legally, don’t need one. This makes us think they are afraid that an independent analysis might reveal what critics have long suspected – costs have spiraled due to poor management and overzealous planning.