Wichita Falls Bond Proposals Need More Work Before Going to a Vote
Two words are sure to trigger social media quarterbacks every time: bond issue.
Last year, Wichita County put forth a bond issue to build a new county jail facility. Few voted, but a majority who did vote agreed that we need the new jail. Some people were pleased, others not so much. But I’ll bet dollars to donuts that 95 percent of those who took to Facebook to express their anger were among those who did not vote. I asked a few people on Facebook that question-‘Did you vote?’ Many said no, I asked ‘then why are you mad’ and they proceeded to tell me…well, I really shouldn’t repeat what some of them told me, in case your children see this.
The City of Wichita Falls is preparing to roll out their bond proposals on the May ballot. I really wish they’d spend a good year selling this to the public first, but I suppose someone, somewhere disagrees with the philosophy behind that. Before I get too deep into this, I do want to take a moment to clarify a couple of things. The City of Wichita Falls, The Wichita Falls ISD and Wichita County are three, separate, distinct legal entities. The City of Wichita Falls does NOT build schools. The Wichita Falls ISD does NOT pave roads. Wichita County does NOT build schools nor pave roads in our city, though they do in the unincorporated areas of the county. My point is these are separate taxing bodies. If any of them wants to bring a bond issue to the voters, they must do so separately and cannot intermingle one with the other.
Reading comments on Facebook, you quickly realize that there are at least a few people who clearly do not get the distinctions. They complain about the upcoming bond issue, dragging schools, the new jail facility and an assortment of other things into the argument that has nothing to do with the City of Wichita Falls’ obligations and duties. So, for the sake of this reading, I will limit my comments, criticisms and attaboys to the City of Wichita Falls, the council and the bond proposals outlined so far.
When a city issues bonds its borrowing money. The main reason to do this is to get capital improvement projects done that we cannot finance otherwise. The Wichita Falls tax base is not growing. We were a city of around 100,000 population 50 years ago and we are slightly above that number today. If we had another 25,000 taxpayers in our city, we might have the money on the books, but that’s just not the case. I’m a conservative. I love private investment. I think it’s always a good thing when individuals and corporations bring new dollars to the table and invest in our economy. But some things have to be handled by you and I as taxpayers. No one likes paying taxes, but we do so in order to have some order in our society and to accomplish some common goals for our civilization. Private investment can do pretty much anything, but we elect representatives to organize some things for us collectively. And there is no such thing as a free lunch.
These bond proposals, ranging from Lake Wichita projects to downtown streets and sidewalks to the city municipal offices are all great ideas, but it really comes down to priorities and how much cost we’re willing to endure. We need to add people, especially families, and grow our tax base. But we need to add jobs to get people here. No one packs up and moves just to have better streets and a nice place to go to a concert. Amenities are great and they help, but at the end of the day, people move for career opportunities and money. There is some ‘chicken and egg’ logic here, I know. At the end of the day, there are some projects we need to do to help attract both the jobs and the people.
There are some things that city government is obliged to provide in terms of basic services. Water, sanitary sewer services, paved streets, street lighting, police and fire protection services are just some of the major items that we as taxpayers expect to receive in exchange for our tax dollars. All of these things cost money. Much criticism has been poured out on the city council over ‘mismanagement’ of funds in the past. What is clear is that past councils have kicked many a can down the road. But we can't continue to worry about what past elected officials failed to do or didn't do correctly. We have to worry about here and now and the future that lies ahead. There are any number of city streets that desperately need to be ripped up to the dirt and properly rebuilt. For many years, however, city leaders passed on even attempting to do the proper fix in favor of less expensive ‘maintenance’. That's all fine and well until you have potholes that you could lose a Smart Car in.
Water mains are very problematic for our city. In an interview on my show, ‘Wake Up Call’, just a couple of weeks ago, Wichita Falls City Manager Darron Leiker told me that we had over 100 active, open repairs underway. You can drive down any number of city streets and see the square and rectangular scars from the endless patches that have been put in place along water mains, some of which are many decades old and long past their shelf life.
Over 20 years ago, voters gave the green light to the Multi-Purpose Event Center or MPEC for short. The first phase was the J.S. Bridwell Ag Center. Next was the Ray Clymer Exhibit Hall. The final, and most controversial piece was the Kay Yeager Coliseum. The Coliseum has long been a lightning rod of controversy for several reasons. Some criticisms are deserved, others are just plain silly.
The Coliseum was obviously conceived as mainly a non-concert venue. Yes, we have concerts there, but its core purpose was hockey and other events secondarily. Hockey hasn’t worked out so well (and I will address that in a separate article). The main issue I see with KYC is acoustics. They aren’t so good. In fact, they can be downright awful, depending on the type performance. It’s a concrete and steel structure and there is so much exposed concrete and steel that sound naturally reverberates off the walls like a deep thought inside the head of a Kardashian. I’ve been to lots of shows there. Some were ok if the sound guy or gal knew how to compensate for the environment. Some of the shows have been physically painful to listen to.
The current bond proposal calls for over $3 million in funds for MPEC upgrades, but sound improvements are not on that list. I don’t know exactly what needs to be done to make the place sound better, but whatever it takes, we need to do it. We need to make the customer experience better, much better. Why should we pay for this? Bottom line, we, you and I, the taxpayers of Wichita Falls, own it. It’s our baby, like it or not. Would it be better if a private firm owned and bore the responsibility of making this place work better? Of course, it would. But it’s not highly likely that anyone is going to ride into town anytime soon with pockets deep enough to buy the place, so we need to do what we need to do. And what we need to do, first and foremost is make it sound better. Make it more attractive for concerts and other live events, because that is where the financial future lies for that facility.
As a sidebar, I have a proposal to raise funds for the operation of the Coliseum. Now, you might want to hold on, because this is going to be a very controversial proposition to a few people in Wichita Falls. Ready? We sell the naming rights to the Coliseum itself. Yes, that right, we change the name of the Kay Yeager Coliseum. Naming rights can bring big bucks. It’s believed that AT&T lays down up to $19 million a year to have their name on the Cowboy’s stadium. Of course, it’s highly unlikely we’ll pull that kind of money for our coliseum, but $500,000 to $1 million might not be so unreasonable, and it will add up quickly. With all due respect to Mrs. Yeager, it’s an idea we must consider.
$77 million dollars has been proposed to essentially rebuild city hall, which is also home to Memorial Auditorium. City Hall hasn’t seen any major improvements since LBJ was in the White House. Every aspect of that facility needs lots of work. Let’s cool it with the ‘they should have taken better care of it’ line. No amount of paint, mopping or spackling can repair a settling foundation that’s been there since the late 1920’s. We’ve outgrown what’s there and it needs major upgrading. The auditorium needs new rigging, sound system and more. Having seen the inner workings of that place firsthand several times over the years, I know it cannot be bandaged along any further. But, the KYC acoustic issues ought to take precedence. It’s a bigger facility, a newer facility and can draw a greater variety of performances and, therefore, can draw greater revenue.
I didn’t see anything in the list of bond proposals about water main replacement. This is a crucial infrastructure issue that could cause our city to lose out on new industry. We’ve made a major stride in water supply issues with the Direct Potable Water Reuse Project. Many U.S. cities have similar reuse methods. The Wichita Falls project all but eliminates the issues created by the decade long drought we endured a few years ago. But that water has to be delivered to homes and businesses and our aging, decaying delivery system needs some serious repair. I’m told that will need to be a separate bond issue all its own, and it’s one we need to approve for the future of this city.
Over $17 million has been proposed for downtown streetscapes and improvements. On its surface, this proposal sounds like a ‘if we build it they will come’ idea. That philosophy can work, but what we need first and foremost is to properly repair the streets in our neighborhoods that have been neglected for years. Money is also proposed for maintenance, but that’s not enough. As I said earlier, this can has been kicked down the road for decades. The current proposal calls for overlay projects that buy some time, but it just doesn’t go far enough. Let’s fix our streets as completely as possible and then worry about maintaining. I’m not opposed to making downtown better, but I’d like to see other projects take priority over this one.
Please share your thoughts with us on the bond issues
Get all the details on the bond proposals from the City of Wichita Falls:
Bond election project worksheet
Bond Proposition breakdown