Council Approves Towing Cars When Driver Cannot Show Proof of Insurance

Today, Councilmember Rasansky moved and I seconded a motion to tow cars of uninsured drivers. As of January 1, 2009, if the police pull over a driver and that driver cannot provide proof of insurance, their car will be towed to the city impound lot. (When there are extenuating circumstances, the police may use their discretion not to tow.) To get the car back, the driver will have to pay a fee and show proof of insurance.

I fully support this proposal. I disagree with the argument that towing uninsured cars will disproportionately hurt the poor. On the contrary, I think this will most benefit poor, law-abiding citizens who spend their hard-earned money to ensure they’ve got insurance. An example: a single mother who works two jobs is the victim of an accident. She has insurance. She pays $66 every month to comply with Texas state law that requires every driver in the state to carry proof of financial responsibility (insurance). But she can’t afford to carry the more expensive, “uninsured motorist insurance” that would protect her if she’s hit by a driver who doesn’t have insurance. If she’s hit by an uninsured driver, she has to pay out of her own pocket for any hospital care she needs as a result of her injuries, any physical rehabilitation she may require, any work time she may lose, any repair her car may need. How is that fair?

Law-abiding drivers have to pay more for their car insurance to make up for those drivers who refuse to obey the law. How is that fair?

Car insurance is part of the cost of owning a car. I checked with four insurance companies. Basic liability insurance is as little as $66 a month. That’s a tank of gas, a cellphone bill, a couple of dinners out. If someone can’t afford insurance, they shouldn’t drive. They will have to use public transit, walk, or carpool.

St. Regis: Council Unanimously Approves Zoning Change

Today, on my motion, the Council unanimously approved the proposed zoning change for the St. Regis Hotel at Cedar Springs Blvd. at the Katy Trail.

I am very protective of the Katy Trail and Turtle Creek — both are great assets to the surrounding neighborhoods and our city. When zoning changes have been proposed in the area, many residents have expressed their concern that if too many tall buildings are constructed right next to the Katy Trail, it will result in a “canyon effect” with shadows looming over the trail.

When I consider zoning cases, I put great weight in the opinions of those who live closest to the property — they have to live with the change. I also consider whether the proposed change would be better than what could be built with existing zoning. When the proposed zoning doesn’t provide improvements or benefits to the coummunity, I have not been afraid to vote against the proposal.

For example, when a zoning change was proposed at Routh and the Katy Trail several months ago, I opposed the change because the proposed development did not significantly improve upon what was already allowed. The property was too narrow for the developer to offer additional setbacks from the trail, he refused to put all the parking underground, and there was no detailed development plan for the development.

Here, I have worked with residents, the developer, Friends of the Katy Trail, and the Oak Lawn Committee to address residents’ concerns and create a development that is far better than what would be built under the current standards.

Height seemed to be a sticking point here. Currently, the maximum height allowed is 200′ (I’ve rounded all numbers for simplicity). Such a building would be wide, would significantly block others’ views of the Downtown skyline, and loom over the trail.

Instead, we slimmed down the tower to allow better view corridors and pushed it 150′ back from the trail to reduce any canyon effect. On the other 78% of the site, we reduced the height of all buildings from 200′ to 95′ (and only 60′ for the townhomes by the trail). Next to the trail, instead of a 200′ tower set only 40′ from the trail, there will be 60′ townhomes set back 57′. The mass of the hotel and residences will actually be LESS than permitted under current zoning.

Other positive changes: All structured parking will be underground; the developer submitted a detailed development plan; St. Regis will construct and maintain a trail connecting the Katy Trail to Cedar Springs Blvd.; and the building will be LEED certified (energy-efficient).

Lastly, the St. Regis will bring significant economic development and tax revenue to our city, with no tax abatements or other incentives from the city. It’s important to note that I do not include this in my calculus when evaluating a zoning case; the proposed zoning must stand on its own with regards to land-use policy, not economic impact. I mention it as a positive effect resulting from this development.

Overall, I am very proud of this project. It was a challenge to me, the developer, and the community to push to make this the best project it could be. I think in the end, we have achieved a project that will be a great asset to the area and our city that greatly improves on what was permitted under the existing zoning.

Congratulations! You’re the Proud Owner of a Convention Center Hotel!

The council voted 11-2 to purchase land for a convention center hotel AND for the city to publicly own the hotel.

We all knew the vote on the land purchase was coming. We’ve been discussing it for months. What we didn’t know — what no one knew until Friday night — was that we were also voting on approving a publicly-owned convention center hotel that will put taxpayers on the hook for $500 million.

Didn’t hear anything about that? That’s because the very first time public ownership was even discussed was last week, when the economic development committee met behind closed doors. And suddenly, without public discussion or debate, the city was getting into the hotel business.

To add insult to injury, these two separate issues were mashed together into one voting item. You either voted to purchase the land AND public ownership of the hotel, or you voted against both.

A little background: on May 2, less than two weeks ago, the Dallas Morning News reported on the mayor’s trip to China:

….Mr. Leppert acknowledged that a break-neck sprint toward a convention center hotel deal perhaps isn’t the most prudent course.

“You come to Hong Kong, and you see the benefits this has for a city,” the mayor said. “But the public money – you want to try to get to zero if you can. I don’t think that’s possible. But I want to take time to minimize it as much as possible.”

How is putting taxpayers on the hook for $500 million “minimizing” public money? How is $500 million anywhere close to “zero”?

Then, on May 6, just a week ago, the whole concept of public ownership was first discussed. Before, we’d only been talking about a public subsidy to encourage a private developer to build a convention center hotel. For example, the city could have purchased the land and given it to a private developer to construct and run the hotel. Now, instead, the city’s suddenly getting into the hotel business.

Here’s what really bothers me about this: the process, or lack thereof. There was NO public discussion about the city owning a hotel. Supporters keep saying “We’ve had months of discussion!” But they know that’s not true. We may have had months of discussion about buying the land, but we have not had ANY public discussion about public ownership.

Even the Dallas Morning News — a convention center hotel supporter — agreed the vote on public ownership was all going too fast:

[F]or those playing along at home – the taxpayers – this appears to be a dizzying sequence of events that did not allow for their participation.

Council members should delay a decision on the hotel’s ownership until this idea has been publicly vetted. The hotel will be an important asset for the city. But the project’s advocates must do more to make the case for the $500 million deal before committing public money to it.

Some council members have asked: Why wait? After all, their questions were answered during last week’s meeting. But Dallas residents who were left on the other side of that closed door might not share their view.

Because these were separate items, Councilmember Hill moved, and I seconded, “dividing the question” so that the two matters (purchase of land and public ownership) could be voted on separately.

The two issues (land purchase and city ownership of the hotel) should not have been combined. Councilmember Hill brought up a very important point: While the first issue — land purchase — may be time-sensitive (we might lose our $1 million option fee if we don’t purchase the property now), the second issue — public hotel ownership — is NOT time-sensitive. There is no urgency to approve public ownership. We didn’t have to do that today, and I can guarantee you we didn’t have enough facts to support it.

To me, this is a no-brainer. If someone really wanted to vote for the hotel, they’d get to vote twice — which is twice the fun. But we lost 7-6, with Hill, myself, Koop, Salazar, Medrano, and Atkins voting to divide the question. Unbelievable.

So forget about transparency. Forget about public discussion. Let’s just do it.

So we voted on both issues, together, even though they are not properly the same question. It passed 11-2 (Rasansky and Garcia could not vote due to a conflict).

The problem with this process is two-fold: One, there has been no public discussion. There has been no real vetting of the pros and cons of the city’s OWNING a convention center hotel.

Two, the city’s core competency is NOT hotel ownership. The city’s core competencies are, or should be, public safety and public infrastructure. We should be focused on providing the safest city, the smoothest streets, the cleanest neighborhoods. Once we master those basics, then we could consider moving on to things like hotel ownership. But to my knowledge, we’re not there yet.

Convention Center Hotel: DCAD Revises Appraisal

Last week, the Dallas Central Appraisal District (the organization that appraises all property in Dallas County for tax purposes) revised its appraisal for the land the city is considering purchasing for the Convention Center Hotel. Previously, DCAD had valued the land at $7.3M. Now, they have assessed it at $36.5M. Why is this important? Because the property owner is asking the city to pay $42M.

When we began discussing paying $42 million for the convention center hotel site, one of the primary questions I asked city staff was: Why would we pay six times the appraised value set by the Dallas Central Appraisal District? Why would we pay $42 million for land valued at only $7 million, particularly when the property owners protested to DCAD last year that $7 million was too much?

This $35 million difference meant one of two things: Either the city was being duped into paying six times what that property was actually worth and the city’s appraisals were wrong, or DCAD had seriously undervalued this commercial property, resulting in years of lost tax revenue to the city. And if it were the latter, if DCAD had undervalued this property, then it stood to reason that it had done the same for other commercial properties across downtown and across the city, and the City of Dallas had lost millions and millions of tax dollars from these undervalued commercial properties. That, of course, meant the tax burden was shifting more and more to residential property owners.

The problem is, under Texas state law, DCAD can obtain the sales prices for residential properties, but not commercial. I, along with Mitchell Rasansky (before he was instructed by city attorneys not to participate in this discussion), had requested that city staff work with DCAD to figure out why there was such a disparity between the city’s appraisals and DCAD’s for the convention center hotel land.

The thing is, the owner of the proposed site for the convention center hotel can’t have it both ways. They can’t claim that the property is worth a whopping $42 million when they want to sell it to the city, but a measly $7 million when they want to pay taxes. I’m glad city staff worked with DCAD to try to more accurately reflect the market value of the property at issue and better gauge the property values of other commercial properties downtown. It makes the asking price for this property somewhat more credible, and, looking at the bigger picture, I am hopeful that we’ll see greater equity in our property tax system so that we are all paying our fair share, not just residential property owners.

At the end of the day, this is all a matter of fairness. It’s not fair for residential property owners to pay more, year after year, to see their appraisals rise every year, and for commercial property owners not to pull their weight due to a loophole in state law that prevents transparency and disclosure.

I understand that DCAD is revising its appraisals for several downtown properties, and perhaps others. Will commercial property owners enjoy seeing their taxes rise? Will they like paying taxes on the full market value of their properties rather than some deflated, undervalued price? Probably not. I sure don’t like paying taxes on my house. But I, along with my neighbors, have to pay taxes on the actual market value of our homes, and it should be the same for commercial property owners across our city. And if the owners of the land for the hotel want the city to pay $42 million, they damn sure better be willing to pay taxes on that amount.