At last night’s debate between District 13 Dallas City Council member Jennifer Gates and former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, I fully expected the political point-scoring and backbiting that is politics. What I didn’t expect was the paucity of actual answers to questions. Part of that rests on moderator Tim Rogers for not calling out either candidate for being non-responsive to his questions. Each question was supposed to net both candidates 90 seconds to respond. With such a short time, you’d think they’d get to the meat of an answer. Not really.
Instead, we saw an hour of political brinksmanship with little hard substance from either candidate. One of two things was behind this – either they had no detailed answers, or more likely, those answers were thought to be unpalatable to voters. As you will read, I’m not afraid of unpalatable.
But before I go there, Miller’s opening remarks contained one of the few truthful moments. She described herself as someone of “action” compared to Gates’ “indecision.” While Miller meant this as a dig at Gates, I saw the opposite. Gates’ appearance of indecision comes from her wanting information to help guide a decision. For example, within PD-15, Gates has spent two years trying to reach a compromise. Only after two committees devolved into factions did she finally ask city staff to come up with something.
Compare that to a quick-to-judge, uncompromising Miller, whom I’ve seen in action on the Preston Center Area Plan committee, the proposed Preston Center skybridge, Highland House, and now PD-15. She’s someone who doesn’t allow new information to cloud her initial judgment. I have the patience for those trying to learn more to get a better result.
In a more visceral display, before the debate, Laura Miller asked me to carry her suitcase to the stage (seen in photo) while Gates glad-handed me as she did many in the room. To Gates, I was a constituent, to Miller, a lackey, apparently.
Roads are Bad and You Don’t Pay Enough Tax
The topic of roads came up …
Miller noted Dallas’ roads are terrible (yes, they are) and promised to fix them. This, moments after she lamented the undue tax burden born by District 13.
But here’s the thing, city taxes go into a hopper and are distributed citywide. Your individual taxes are not allocated to the roads you as an individual drive on. Also, there is no mysterious bucket of billions of dollars just waiting to be spent that city government has been either too lazy or hard-hearted to spend on roads.
Whine all you like, but Dallas is billions in the hole on infrastructure maintenance. Taxes are the biggest funder of all things government (outside pay-ya-later bonds). If you want the government to spend more, you have to give it more. It’s that simple. Any candidate for any office promising to do fantastical things that others haven’t is lying. There is no city sofa with billions lost in the cushions.
Gates’ reply was to note that the recent bond package had 50 percent dedicated to road repairs. Unsaid was the reason roads are in bonds to begin with – we haven’t been collecting enough taxes to keep up with maintenance. Unpopular, but true.
Preston Center and PD-15 Development
When Miller was again called out for her conflict of interest in PD-15 affairs, she again denied any ethical issue (why she thinks her reason for owning a unit at the Athena absolves her ethically is baffling – “Ohhhh, it was for your elderly mother-in-law … well, nevah you mind”). But then she spent the bulk of her time calling out Mayor Mike Rawlings for his wasting taxpayer money just asking the city attorney his thoughts on situational ethics like this – likely 10 minutes in a hallway – and the insult of having CandysDirt.com and the Dallas Morning News post the mayor’s comments. She also managed to work in Rawlings’ and Gates’ largely overlapping voting history: very true. But no detailed answer was uttered as to why it’s not an ethical violation to own an investment unit in an area where you will be making lasting fiscal decisions – despite mounting criticism from constituents.
Gates’ response (as noted above) was that she’s been working for two years to get a compromise. From those unwilling to compromise.
Preston Center development was brought up with the question: “What do you think Preston Center will look like in 2030?” Neither candidate answered this at all. Miller waved around the Preston Center Area Plan like it was a Bible. We all might agree there should be underground parking with a park on top but Gates touched on the reality. We can’t force the Preston Center business owners to approve such a plan – regardless of who’s in City Hall.
Neither candidate gave an honest answer. Here’s mine: In 2030, Preston Center will look almost exactly like it does today because short-sighted business owners want crap and they hold all the cards, while the city holds the purse strings. Stalemate.
Police and Fire and Crime
The police and fire pension fund debacle came up and was intertwined with crime and a short-staffed police department. Gates laid a lot of the groundwork on Miller’s administration for failing to fill slots on the board with city representatives – essentially leaving the city asleep at the wheel. She repeated quotes from the police union stating Miller was “single-handedly” the worst for police. Suffice it to say the police and fire departments hate Miller.
Miller deflected that the pension mess was brewing long before her time as mayor (true). She also dragged out a Gates campaign flyer (from the suitcase) that said all manner of things about Miller that she characterized as untrue. But remember, this is politics. As you can see in the picture above, that’s a Miller supporter from Preston Tower blanketing the area on Easter in doomsday predictions resulting from another Gates term.
A Preston Hollow People reader submitted a question that began, “I bought a Ring doorbell” … and now they see a lot of crime stats … and so they’re now more afraid.
Both candidates placed blame on an understaffed police department with a shortage of 500 officers. A side-question asked how to fix Dallas losing officers to the suburbs. “Pay” was echoed by both candidates with Miller perhaps over-rotating on touchy-feely programs to increase officers’ feeling of community support.
Here’s the thing: When anyone says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.
Dallas police move to the ‘burbs because of the lifestyle their salary enables. Rookies take the training we pay for, much as you might go to university, and use it as a résumé builder. If you want them to stay, you have to offer a life similar to what’s being offered elsewhere. The starting salary is apparently ~$60,000 per year. According to the Census, the median income in Dallas was $67,382 in 2017, making Dallas police officers’ starting pay 90 percent of the city median.
Put into perspective, if we paid $7,000 less, they’d qualify for affordable housing. Whereas if they became Highland Park motorcycle officers (the speeding ticket brigade), they’d be starting at $75,000 a year.
If we want officers to stay in Dallas once their training is over, the job must be good and enable a reasonable quality of life. Neighborhoods should be tripping over themselves to attract police officers to live in their areas. Is there any police-level housing in Preston Hollow where officers can live and raise a family? How about Behind the Pink Wall? Better money and more housing options are the suburbs’ siren song that Dallas must reverse. It’s not a difficult equation to reverse engineer, and yet neither candidate offered as concrete of an answer as you’ve just read here. Instead, we got pithy bon mots.
Trinity River vs. Army Corps of Engineers
There was a question on the latest plan to utilize the Trinity River as a recreation area. Both candidates support using the area for Dallas citizens (who’s against parkland? Not me!) – especially if private donors are willing to foot the bill. But darn those pesky Army Corps of Engineers for not liking the plans. Are you kidding me? The Army Corps of Engineers has issues and they’re the problem? Neither candidate mentioned climate change and the expectation of increasingly erratic weather. I’d think you’d want to take the Army Corps of Engineers’ recommendations and exceed them, not try to scrimp – especially for a location between levees that protect the City of Dallas from being confused with Houston after a hurricane. After all, we see what happens when you use value engineering on a certain Trinity bridge.
There were a few other questions with an equal measure of political arrows slung back and forth with little substance, but you get the picture. I’d have preferred an hour spent on a single question where the calculated zingers would quickly run out of steam. Then, constituents could judge candidates on how they actually approach an issue.
I don’t know about you, but that would really help me decide who to vote for.
Remember: High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards. Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make? Shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.