Panther Island report recommends changes that could lead to federal funds

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Consultants on Aug. 12 finally presented the much anticipated results of a comprehensive review of the $1.17 billion Panther Island project, offering an upbeat impression of project operations mixed with recommendations for improvement.

“Every organization has room for improvement,” said Kevin Ruiz, a senior management consultant for the Dallas-based consulting firm Riveron. “That’s the point of an outside, independent review.”

Riveron’s report, including updates and clarifications from the draft version released last month, offers recommendations for more effective oversight in a complex project with numerous government partners, including the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County, the Texas Department of Transportation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Tarrant Regional Water District and its subsidiary, the Trinity River Vision Authority.

Ruiz reaffirmed a previous assertion that there was no indication of “malfeasance” or “fraud” or any type of wrongdoing.

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“There was no indication of anything other than people trying to do their job,” Ruiz said.

He also cautioned that the report should be viewed as an opportunity for improvement and not as “an indictment” or some type of “gotcha exercise.”

Riveron’s recommendations address project management, financial and budget oversight, organizational structure, transparency and communication, and outreach.

But it doesn’t offer a solution to the over-arching issue that triggered the review: finding a reliable pathway to obtaining the federal funds that are crucial to completing the project.

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Ruiz told members of the TRVA and TRWD boards assembled for the presentation that following the recommendations would better position the Panther Island project to receive federal funds.

Funding for the project has reached a critical point since local funds are nearly used up. About $324 million in local money has already been spent on the project, including a $200 million loan from the TRWD.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers endorsed the project in 2016, opening the door for federal funding of $526 million to dig a 1.5-mile bypass channel on the Trinity River north of the Tarrant County Courthouse. Besides enhanced flood  protection, the channel would establish an 800-acre center island, with a byproduct of waterfront economic development opportunities.

But the project has only been appropriated about $60 million so far and prospects for funding appear bleak in the short term.

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Concerned about the uncertainty of federal funding, Mayor Betsy Price met with federal officials last fall and then called for the comprehensive review.

Price reported that federl money may have been short-circuited by concern in Washington about the project’s combination of flood control and economic development. Corps funds can only be spent only on flood-related improvements.

The TRVA board awarded Riveron a contract for $466,222 in April to spend about three months examining all aspects of the Panther Island program, which the federal government calls the Central City project.

Shortly after preliminary results of the comprehensive review became public, Price announced that she and U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, whose District 25 does not include Fort Worth but stretches from southern Tarrant County to the Austin area, met with President Donald Trump’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to discuss Panther Island and its funding woes.

The takeaway was that the project could qualify for up to $250 million for flood control only.

Price, who attended Monday’s presentation of the comprehensive review as an audience member, told reporters it is “a long row to hoe” but she feels “fairly confident” that the project will receive the federal money.

In the meantime, several TRVA board members expressed concerns about the short term.

To keep the project solvent, TRWD officials are looking to tap money from a $250 million bond issue approved by voters in 2018. But a sticking point has been objections from city officials, who must agree to raise the debt repayment period from 40 to 50 years. Because repayment would come through a tax-increment-financing district created by the city, only the city council can increase the district’s life span.

City officials, including some council members, are concerned about prolonging the TIF without a secure promise of federal funds.

The TRVA board is expected to discuss the project’s financial situation next month.

Among Riveron’s key findings in the report:

– Split off economic development elements to be managed by a nonprofit organization, an option that Riveron identified as preferable to a private-public partnership.

– Shift management and oversight of recreation activities from the TRVA to the TRWD.

– In the absence of a project management office, Riveron suggests that a formal risk management office be created to improve coordination and information-sharing among the participating partners.

– Improve financial status reports for board members to help them make more informed decisions.

– Improve operational oversight and transparency with better reporting and accountability procedures.

 – Clarify communication about the project to focus on flood control and public safety.

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