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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Panther Island: TRVA report exposes partnership rift

The findings of the comprehensive review of the $1.17 billion Panther Island project have already exposed tensions and led to finger-pointing among partners in the complex capital improvements project.

Even the release of the report highlighted contentious issues dividing some of those involved in the project.

Officials announced that results of the three-month study by the Dallas-based consulting firm Riveron were to be released at a meeting of the Trinity River Vision Authority, the managing agency of the project on July 10.

But that didn’t happen. The decision was made by G.K. Maenius, the top staffer of Tarrant County and president of the TRVA board, to withhold the report and postpone a presentation on the results so that board members and officials in the government agencies they represent could craft a response.

The TRVA is a subsidiary of the Tarrant Regional Water District, one of the key partners in Panther Island along with the city of Fort Worth and Tarrant County. Representatives of the three governmental units are members of the TRVA board

Maenius’ decision led to a backlash from some TRVA board members, high-profile community leaders, including Mayor Betsy Price, and the news media. TRVA board members Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke, City Council member Carlos Flores and James Hill, a TRVA and Tarrant Regional Water District board member, were critical of the move.

“As Mayor, I called for this review because our residents, taxpayers and businesses demanded more transparency surrounding the Panther Island project,” Price said.

“This independent report is an opportunity to clear up concerns, alleviate frustration among residents and, most importantly, help provide a path forward for this critical project. I am calling for the timely and transparent release of this report.”

After some media outlets received copies of the Draft Report from anonymous sources and released data from the report, tensions escalated further.

TRWD Executive Director Jim Oliver was outspoken in favor of a “management response” prior to public release. Among the reasons he cited was the opportunity to correct errors and omissions.

Maenius originally suggested delaying release until Aug. 9, but said he was open to an earlier release.

Eventually, and unexpectedly, Maenius released the report – on July 16, at the same time the TRWD board was in session for its monthly meeting.

He stated that most TRVA board members had turned over their responses and others were expected to do so shortly.

“At the time of this meeting (July 10), neither I nor any TRVA board member had the opportunity to review Riveron’s Draft review,” Maenius said in a statement.

“I apologize for any confusion over this approach, but verifying the Draft Report’s accuracy was our only goal for conducting an internal review,” he stated.

The report is critical of TRVA management of the Panther Island project, citing “insufficient operational oversight and transparency” and “unclear financial and management reporting.”

Other key findings include unclear projections of revenue and expenditures as well as inconsistent views on goals and objectives and unclear understanding of roles and mission.

Among the problems specified: “Lack of robust policies, procedures and transparency into TRVA operations, specifically with respect to project and change management, hiring, promotion, performance management, decisioning, roles and responsibilities.”

And further, “complicated and opaque governance, project management, organizational and reporting structure between and within the TRWD and TRVA, and among project participants.”

Oliver characterized the language of the report as “alarmist” and said he would like to see some of the language changed in the final draft.

He also said he is opposed to a recommendation in the report that the functions of TRVA Executive Director J.D. Granger be split apart. It recommends that Granger continue to manage flood control improvements, but says real estate development should be spun off into a nonprofit organization.

“If we spin off the real estate, it should be our responsibility,” Oliver said in an impromptu news conference after the TRWD meeting. “This is water district land and if anyone should set up a 501(c)(3) (nonprofit), it should be us.”

Granger is the son of Fort Worth Congresswoman Kay Granger, who was instrumental in launching the Trinity River Vision project nearly 20 years ago.

Oliver credited advancement of the project to J.D. Granger, pointing to an update given to the TRWD on July 16 that shows most of its obligations for the Panther Island Project are nearly complete. These include environmental design, 100 percent complete; environmental cleanup 72 percent complete; relocation of businesses and structures, 80 percent complete; demolition, 83 percent complete; and land acquisition, 77 percent complete.

He pointed to the city for failing to be as timely in completing its responsibilities for the project.

TRWD staffers said the city has only relocated 22 percent of the utilities and noted that completion of the three bridges that are crucial to the project – a responsibility of the city and the Texas Department of Transportation – remains in limbo.

TRWD Finance Director Sandy Newby told the TRWD board that the city halted utility relocation pending release of the TRVA comprehensive review.

Price had called for the comprehensive review last fall after the Panther Island project had again failed to receive a federal appropriation for rerouting the Trinity River as part of the project’s massive flood protection phase.

Price also said last year she had learned from officials in Washington, D.C., that the project may have been snubbed for federal funding because it has both flood control and economic development aspects.

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 control protection, the channel would establish an 800-acre center island, which in turn would offer waterfront economic development opportunities.

But the project has only been appropriated about $60 million in federal funds so far and prospects for funding continue to appear dismal, at least in the short-term.

The Corps confirmed in April that the Trump administration’s 2020 funding priorities for flood control and water projects did not include Panther Island. Should Congress follow this recommendation and omit Panther Island from its next Corps appropriation, it would mark the fourth consecutive funding cycle that the project has been overlooked.

The TRVA’s budget includes $26 million in federal funding in 2020 and another $35 million federal dollars for 2021.

About $324 million in local tax money has already been spent on the project, including a $200 loan from the TRWD. Local funds are being stretched through this fiscal year to keep the project solvent.

The TRVA board agreed to conduct the comprehensive review late last year. The board awarded Riveron a contract for $466,222 in April to spend about three months examining all aspects of the plan that is also known as the Central City project.

Riveron delivered its report on time and has been paid $150,000 so far.

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