Seven candidates are vying to replace Angela Hunt to represent a diverse district that includes portions of downtown and the arts district; lower Greenville Avenue; Cedar Springs and East Dallas. Here's what they had to say on taxes, gas drilling, the Trinity River Tollway, arts funding and more.
Bobby Abtahi / Age: 31 / Attorney / bobbyfordallas.com
David Blewett / Age: 47 / Real estate and mortgage professional / davidblewett.com
Kevin M. Curley II / Age: 26 / Financial adviser / curley4dallas.com
Philip Kingston / Age: 40 / Commercial litigator / philipkingston.com
Chuck Kobdish / Age: 43 / Chiropractic doctor / choosechuck.com
Judy Liimatainen / Age: 60 / Community volunteer who ran for school board in Lebanon, Penn. / judy4council.com
Jim Rogers / Age: 65 / Attorney, certified public accountant / jimrogersdallas.com
Question #1: What is the biggest challenge the City of Dallas and your district is facing and why are you the best candidate in your district to assist in finding a solution?
Abtahi: The biggest challenge facing Dallas is that we must grow the population of our city. The last census showed that Dallas only grew by .78%. To accomplish that growth we need to work with DISD to improve public educational opportunities and focus on quality of life initiatives that will strengthen our neighborhoods and communities. I have a diversity of experiences, inside and outside City Hall, that could be deployed in areas of critical need – experience in analyzing budgets working for a Big Four accounting firm, identifying outside resources for City Hall and working with colleagues and communities across a broad spectrum to achieve common goals. My work as a Community Prosecutor and on the Plan Commission has taught me how City Hall works – the positive and the negative. I can use that knowledge for the residents of District 14 and the city as we solve problems and define the goals for the next generation.
Blewett: The biggest challenge facing Dallas and District 14 is how to attract and keep families and jobs from leaving for the suburbs. The solution is to focus on improving our public school options and encouraging families to build their lives here. Over the last 25 years I have lived through and tried to improve the life challenges that all families must face in our urban environment. I have been a board member of our Crime Watch, represented Greenland Hills on the committee to regulate the Greenville Avenue St. Patrick's Day events, and helped pass our Conservation District. I have volunteered at our local schools and helped make them better. I can help focus city resources to best support young families and demonstrate to them that District 14 is a great place to build their lives.
Curley: There are number of challenges the city of Dallas faces. We need to plan for 50 years of water supply, improve our schools, improve infrastructure and grow our tax base in the southern sector. This election is for a 2 years term as a city council member. Efforts that take a decade or a generation to change will be a part of my leadership at City Hall. An immediate challenge to correct is outdated technology at City Hall. We need to streamline city services and make local government more accountable. We need an enterprise system that will bring the city into the 21st century. I envision a local government that reports in real time on crime stats, service repairs and better transparency. These solutions exist in other cities like Boston. We don't have to invent the wheel but instead borrow best practices from around the country. I am the only candidate in this race with a degree in Management Information Systems. I bring knowledge about implementing and working with third party project managers.
Kingston: Changing the spending mindset at City Hall. D14 works because it provides the most desirable places to live in the city. We have seen population growth even as the rest of the city shrank because of our relentless pursuit of excellent residential quality of life. Vibrant private investment has followed those new residents giving D14 the highest commercial tax base and the most economic development in the city. This is a model that can be used to develop the rest of the city. I am the only qualified candidate to work toward that goal because it requires a strong proficiency in leading grassroots neighborhood groups as well as navigating city processes and negotiating with and supporting innovative developers and business owners. I’m the only candidate in this race with a proven track record of accomplishment in all those areas. Angela Hunt, Dallas Police Association, and Dallas Fire Association all understand that responsible spending to improve quality of life is the way to develop a city, and that is why I have earned their trust.
Kobdish: Education is the biggest challenge we face in the City of Dallas. Education affects our bottom-line in regards to Economic Development. Education is my top priority as a member of the city council. Improving education by bridging the Dallas City Council and DISD to make our city attractive to businesses to not only locate in Dallas, but also promote living here in our world class city. By the end of my first term I will have an adoptive business, church, or organization for every DISD elementary school in district 14.
Liimatainen: The biggest challenge facing the city of Dallas is technically not a city council issue, but it is the DISD. I know that I am the best candidate for helping to solve the problems that Dallas schools face because I have been inside schools since the 1980’s. I have been PTA president of elementary and high school. I also ran for school board. I have more hours in schools than my colleagues and know what works and what doesn’t.
Rogers: There are a number of challenges. To a victim of crime, crime is absolutely the biggest problem. Transparency at city hall is becoming a larger and larger problem. The condition of our streets is a big problem. Tax inequality between residential and commercial properties is a significant problem. Ensuring our long term water supply is a long term challenge. On crime, we need to have adequate staffing of detectives and since most property crime is driven by drugs, a heavy emphasis on catching and incarcerating drug suppliers and distributors is imperative. On the issue of transparency, recordings of board and commission hearings are now being destroyed after 90 days. In today’s world of technology, there is no excuse for not retaining the recordings indefinitely and making them available on the city website, with no requirement of a public records request. With my reputation for being exceptionally truthful, trustworthy and transparent, it is well known that I will consistently push for maximum transparency. My experience as a builder will show its value on the issue of street conditions. The 2600 - 2800 blocks of Liveoak have just been fully rebuilt. Drive those blocks. They are not flat. For the city to have signed off on that job is unbelievable. Knowing construction, I realize what quality is and will insist that we, the citizens of Dallas, get quality for our tax dollars. The issue of residential vs. commercial tax base is substantially a transparency problem also. Changing state law so the Dallas Central Appraisal District has access to commercial property sales prices would be a good first step toward transparency and equality in this area.
Question #2: Under what circumstances would you vote to increase the City of Dallas property tax rate?
Abtahi: I don’t believe we will need a tax rate increase in the foreseeable future as our revenues continue to grow. If something caused the tax base to decline and we needed a tax rate increase to continue to fund public safety at its current level, I would do so only after making every effort to find cost savings and addressing inefficiencies.
Blewett: I will be a strong voice against raising taxes and will work to lower them.
Curley: I will not support a tax rate increase. In addition, there is a silent 2% property tax increase taking place in 2013 due to property values improving. Unless the city cuts the rate homeowners will face a tax increase this year. I believe governments will always find a "need" for increased revenues and often it is spent on duplicate or ineffective programs. Dallas must lower the property tax rate. It is too high when compared to our neighbors in North Texas. Dallas will lose out to competition from neighboring cities. As an example Dallas has a 80 cent tax rates, Irving has a 60 cent rates, Plano is 49 cents and Highland Park is at 22 cents. (Rounded tax rates)
Kingston: If a severe downturn in revenue threatened public safety. I see this as unlikely.
Kobdish: I am not in favor of raising property tax even when renamed a fee, permit, or registration. I am more in favor of driving efficiencies in city government. With people already leaving the City of Dallas in search of a better education system for their children, why would we want to give them another reason to leave by higher cost of living?
Liimatainen: Only under dire of circumstances would I vote to raise our taxes. If I did so I would want the increase to go to a major project such as roads, or some other tangible quality of life issue.
Rogers: I pledge not to raise taxes. My background as a certified public accountant and frugal nature will guide me to look for efficiencies that will hopefully enable us to lower the tax rate.
Question #3: Would you vote for or against gas drilling on city park property? What is your opinion of the gas drilling task force’s recommendations?
Abtahi: Against. I appreciate the time and efforts of the gas drilling task force but their recommendations do not go far enough in addressing the issues, in addition very critical issues such as fracking and gas processing facilities were not addressed at all.
Blewett: I believe the city has the right to allow drilling for gas on park property. However, under current circumstances I would vote against until the contract discrepancies were better explained and our citizens better informed about the safety issues involved. I think the task force's recommendations were on balance fair to all parties.
Curley: In Dallas, the potential for natural gas development is only a viable option for a small part of the western perimeter. In 2008, recognizing the economic benefit to other cities, Dallas sought out and entered into lease contracts for drilling and accepted $34 million in lease payments from companies wanting to drill. There are still issues that need to be addressed before drilling in Dallas should move forward. I would support increasing the setbacks for specific uses. I would not arbitrarily support drilling in parkland, but I would support discussions about drilling in remote and undeveloped parkland that included a master plan for development. A good example of how drilling and land use development could work is a former drilling site in Burleson that has been converted to baseball fields and a green for a golf course. Drilling can and has been done prudently in many other areas and with tremendous economic benefits and hopefully Dallas can realize some of its reserve potential. But my first priority would be to assure we have established guidelines that protect the environment, the safety of our residents, our property values and the future development of our park areas.
Kingston: I oppose gas drilling, fracking, and refining within the city limits of Dallas. These activities are inconsistent with my focus on improving residential quality of life, but they will also do long-term damage to Dallas’s ability to attract economic development. I believe our air quality, specifically our EPA non-attainment status, is already limiting Dallas’s growth. As businesses and high-skill workers have more and more choices in where to locate in the future, air quality will factor into their decision making. I cannot see that the task force seriously considered any of these factors. Its work started from the assumption that we would absolutely have gas drilling within the city limits. I have been the only candidate in this race openly and loudly opposed to drilling. In fact, I’m the only candidate to even take part in the public debate about drilling by attending the briefings and CPC hearings on Trinity East’s SUP applications. This is why the Sierra Club and important environmental activists have endorsed me.
Kobdish: First, I want to thank you for asking this question in a two part question. Some surveys or forums have put this in an all or nothing type response. I would vote against gas drilling on city park property. However, from the research I have done, this ordinance complies with all state and federal regulations. Gas drilling has been going on for a long time and is a highly regulated. A 2011 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that "The environmental impacts of shale development are challenging but manageable."
Liimatainen: I would vote against gas drilling on any city park property. I think the risks outweigh the rewards and the present contract only gives the city money for the gas and nothing for the pipeline that they want to build and transport gas through Dallas.
Rogers: Against. Neither fracking nor gas processing should be allowed within the city limits. It is not just the fracking. The process requires intense trucking of equipment, chemicals, supplies and water into and out of the site, polluting compressors and processing facilities, disposal of the polluted water coming back out of the well and a pipeline system to transport the gas. The associated dust, roadway damage, pollution of air and water and potential hazards are certainly inappropriate for any urban area. Those who say we need tighter regulations are essentially saying that they will support fracking if we have the right regulations. I oppose fracking within the city of Dallas.
Question #4: A toll road inside the Trinity River levees is part of the Trinity River Corridor Project. Explain why you do or do not support the toll road.
Abtahi: Flood control and safety must be priorities when discussing anything within the levees. I won’t support projects between the levees that will have a negative impact on those priorities. At this point, the fate of the road is in the hands of other entities. Should it come back to the council, I will examine it with a critical eye. I will fight for the parks, trails and recreational amenities that we were promised. We must ensure thoughtful urban design in all elements.
Blewett: I do not support a toll road within the levees. My concerns hinge on the costs of repairing the road when it floods and that the project would separate West Dallas from downtown more than it would unite the two areas.
Curley: The toll road project is dead for a number of reasons. The army corp of engineers previously said the road wasn't viable. Also, the funding behind the road has been diverted. Dallas was subject to a use or lose it situation and money is being used for the trolley project.
Kingston: No one wants to see a high-speed thoroughfare in a park. It’s a foolish alignment that does not serve its purported purpose – to be a reliever route for our existing highways. It was also sold as requiring no tax money, but with NTTA not interested in investing the $1B-$2B required, and with the appointment of Craig Holcomb to the Pegasus Project, I fear that it is only a matter of time until Dallas taxpayers are asked for funding.
Kobdish: This project needs to move forward. In Dallas we have a tendency to succumb to what I call “analysis paralysis”, an inability to move beyond the desire for more information, studies, and surveys. These massive infrastructure projects take years to come on-line, and further delays only compound frustrations and costs to taxpayers.
Liimatainen: I would vote against the Toll Road. TXDOT has come out and said that they no longer need that road to help rehab the Pegasus part of the highway system. The toll road will do nothing to bring the city together and it will interfere with the green space.
Rogers: A tollway, by definition, should be built where, and only where, the tolls will pay for it. The NTTA has stated that the proposed “Trinity Parkway” will not pay for itself and will need a $1B subsidy. I have been told that there are plans to assemble this $1B from county, regional, state and federal funds (taxpayer dollars) over the next 24 to 36 months. If $1B can be assembled, the better use of the funds is to rebuild I-30 from Fitzhugh through the MixMaster. One aspect of the I-30 rebuild is to replace all the elevated roadway that currently divides Fair Park from Deep Ellum and East Dallas with a below grade roadway. This would remove the visual barrier and would be fabulous for Fair Park and Districts 2 and 14 as well as the citizens of Dallas. I understand the cost of this project is around $800M. If the money can be found, this is a far better investment than subsidizing the “Trinity Parkway”. In addition, there are still serious safety concerns relating to the placement of the toll road inside the levees. My first priority is and will be flood control. The second priority should be the projects that were part of the bond program that we, the voters, understood we were voting for. The funding should come from the bonds we have already approved for these projects. City bonds are another area in which we need more transparency. The City should provide an easily understood website showing every bond that has been approved, the details of what the voters were told it would be for, whether or not the bond has been sold, exactly what the money has been used for, how much money is left, the interest rate on the bond, how much we owe on the bond and when it is expected that the bond will be paid off.
Question #5: What is your plan for a reliable source of arts funding that is outside the city’s general budget?
Abtahi: We must find a reliable source for arts funding. I will explore new sources of funding such as the (TPID) tourism public improvement district and examine what other cities have done to address their arts funding. Houston appears to have a larger pool of funding as they are leveraging a variety of sources, including a small portion of the hotel/motel tax. Private organizations such as TACA have been successful in building funding sources for performing arts groups. Can that model be expanded? Once we collectively determine the best practices for funding, we can then work towards implementation with stakeholders.
Blewett: My plan for Arts Funding hinges on their ability to grow their revenue. The city of Dallas should help promote arts tourism for all of our art venues and highlight the entertainment options that we offer.
Curley I disagree with the question. There is no such thing as a reliable source of revenue. If the Arts community wants dedicated source of revenue then my idea would be to take a portion of the hotel occupancy tax. A driver behind this idea is that the arts district is responsible for a portion of that revenue. The general fund is a more reliable source of revenue as the HOT is very unpredictable.
Kingston: Continuation of the public art requirement for new development, but the more important aspect of Arts funding is finding a source of funding that is both reliable and within the city's general budget. I support an open and transparent process, probably managed by a strengthened Cultural Affairs Commission, by which Arts groups have a fair shot at city funding. A portion of the hotel/motel tax might be a good source of revenue.
Kobdish: The Arts District has been very successful with leading the initiative in public/private partnerships. I feel like the City needs to make good on the allocated funds we have set aside for the Arts and continue to fund the Arts in a responsible way.
Liimatainen: The city of Houston uses their hotel tax for funding their arts program. It can still fluctuate, but it is much more reliable than the arts district waiting to see how the city’s budget is. The problem with this solution for Dallas is that the convention center presently uses all of those dollars, but as the convention center is fully booked, perhaps the monies could be split.
Rogers: The contribution of the arts community to our city cannot be measured in dollars and cents but the Deloitte study shows that the arts have a positive economic impact to the area in excess of $1B. Allocating some portion of the Hotel Occupancy Tax to support the arts makes logical sense.
Question #6: What is your position on the PID (public improvement district) tax that’s currently being discussed by the Klyde Warren Park board and the stakeholders in the Arts District? It would levy a small tax on downtown businesses in order to help maintain the park and possibly the district.
Abtahi: PIDs have proven to be a success economic development pool in enhancing services in neighborhoods. The Dallas City Council ensures that there is consensus for the plan and it meets the standards for adoption. This particular application appears to have caught some of the neighbors/stakeholders off guard. At this time, I believe we should take a step back and communicate amongst the stakeholders to define a consensus plan the larger neighborhood. The Arts District is a neighborhood just like any other and we must take an inclusive approach to solving their unique issues.
Blewett: I am against the PID for Klyde Warren Park and Arts District. It is another tax and a poor substitute for efficient management and revenue growth/usage fees.
Curley: I believe the park is a great addition to the city. However, this plan is unpopular. The Uptown PID and Downtown improvement district surround the park area. Therefore it is unlikely another PID overlapping will gain the needed support.
Kingston: If Mr. Grant is successful in selling it to the land owners, then I think it could be a reliable source of funding for operations and maintenance at the Klyde. The controversy arises from 2 sources: 1) the representation that KWP operations and maintenance would not require tax dollars, and 2) insufficient consensus building within the Arts District. Neither of these is an insurmountable barrier.
Kobdish: This is a question for the business owners, and they have said no. Question should have been raised before they built the park. PIDs are a good way to finance Improvements, but we can't force a tax on these business owners.
Liimatainen: In our Private/Public partnerships, the council must proceed cautiously to make sure that the city has the funds to sustain these wonderful projects. I do not think that the stakeholders in the Arts District should now become responsible for the park that came after they were established entities. I don’t think they should be punished for being there already.
Rogers: As I said previously, I am opposed to raising taxes. That a tax is needed to maintain this park that just opened indicates either poor financial planning or a lack of transparency, or both. We, the taxpayers (city and county), keep being surprised by new revelations about various projects. That is one of the reasons I am running for city council. We need the perspective of a C.P.A. like me to raise questions about these projects and the resulting expenditures in the planning stage and demand transparency from inception, not at or after completion. If the adjacent property owners are willing to tax themselves to support the park, that is their choice but the city should not in any way impose such a tax. While the question refers to it as a “small” tax, the initial rate would be $250 per $1M, but after seven years it could escalate to $1,500 per $1M. That is a six-fold escalation. That is no longer a “small” tax. If the area property owners are inclined to willingly establish a PID to, in some way, benefit all the public spaces and facilities within the area which probably do benefit them and their property values, that would be a gracious and generous gift to the City of Dallas and its citizens but I, as a council member, will not be involved in imposing such a tax on unwilling participants.