Rift develops between partners on Panther Island project

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A rift has emerged among the partners in the $1.17 billion Panther Island project as some expressed concern Wednesday about the ongoing uncertainty of federal funds that are critical to the project’s development.

As the Trinity River Vision Authority board met Wednesday to discuss implementing a consultant’s recommendation for governance improvements within the agency that oversees the Panther Island development project, it appeared evident that board members representing the partners in the project were no longer united on the best path forward.

Financial matters dominated the discussion of both the 2020 operating budget and recommendations from a programmatic review of TRVA operations. Board members representing partner agencies such as the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County, the Tarrant Regional Water District and its subsidiary, the TRVA, weighed moving ahead with local funds from a bond issue or pulling back without the guarantee of federal funds.

“When we first started this process, and there were only a few of us around at the time, we created this thing with the understanding that we would maintain our partnership throughout,” said G.K. Maenius, president of the TRVA board and Tarrant County administrator. “It concerns me significantly that we are moving opposite of that.”

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Funding to keep the project has reached a critical level with only $7 million remaining of local funds, Sandy Newby, CFO for the TRWD and TRVA reported. About $324 million in local funds have been spent on the project, including a $200 million loan from TRWD.

To cover the TRVA 2020 budget of $36.6 million the board approved Wednesday, the agency needs to tap bond funds approved by voters in a 2018 election or receive an appropriation of federal funds in that amount.

Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authorized an appropriation of up to $526 million for this project, only about $60 million was given under the Bush and Obama administrations.

The Trump administration has yet to approve any funds for the project, even though the TRVA has sought between $30 million and $40 million in each year, officials said.

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Despite a recent announcement of the possibility the project could receive up to $250 million in federal funds, some TRVA board members as well as TRVA and TRWD claim it is imperative that bond funds be tapped to make sure the infrastructure in the development zone is “shovel ready” if funds become available.

But tapping bond funds is tied to an extension from 40 to 50 years of a tax-financing district that will add extra time to repay the bond debt and not burden taxpayers with a tax increase.

Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke, also a member of the TRVA board, balked at moving forward with the TIF extension without a vote of the City Council. Only the council can approve an extension of the TIF.

But TRWD Executive Director Jim Oliver, TRVA Director J.D. Granger and Newby argued that there was a tacit agreement among board members after the bond election passed that the extension would move forward.

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“There was an understanding that we all made a commitment to extend the TIF,” Newby said. “If we approve the budget without extending the TIF, we have no money.”

The board approved the $36.6 million budget on Wednesday with Cooke’s caveat that the city would pay its 2020 commitment of about $13 million for relocating utilities in the development zone but would waive repayment of that amount from the TIF should the council decline the extension.

Cooke said spending more local money and extending debt becomes risky without the guarantee of federal funds.

“We need to have economic development opportunities on the island to pay back the debt,” Maenius said. “To do that, we have to move the utilities. No one is going develop there if the utilities aren’t in place to support it.”

Mayor Betsy Price and Republican U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, whose District 25 stretches from the southern Fort Worth area to Austin, recently attempted to boost federal funding chances by meeting with Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director and Trump’s acting chief of staff.

After the July 23 meeting, Price announced that Mulvaney was willing to consider appropriation of up to $250 million to go only toward flood control only. It has yet to be determined when the money would be available.

Price, who had met with federal budget officials last year, said she was told the project had faltered in funding because it was seen as a combination of flood control and economic development initiatives.

As envisioned, the Corps will dig a 1.5-mile bypass channel and reroute the Trinity River north of the Tarrant County Courthouse. That channel would add flood control protection as well as carve out an 800-acre center island, which would create waterfront economic development opportunities, including a San Antonio-style Riverwalk.

With federal funding in doubt, the TRVA hired the Dallas-based consultant firm of Riveron to examine the entire TRVA operation and offer suggestions for improvements that could put Panther Island in a better position to receive federal funds.

TRVA board members tackled some of Riveron’s recommendations by agreeing to let TRWD staff develop a system for better communication and coordination among the partner agencies.

The board also recommended that the city look into setting up a nonprofit organization to manage economic development similar to role of the Downtown Fort Worth Inc. or Near Southside Inc.. That move would show commitment to separating flood control from economic development.

Finally, the board recommended that the TRWD take over responsibility for administration of recreation activities such as Rockin’ the River.

Granger disagreed with shifting recreation from TRVA to TRWD because TRVA is a non-taxing entity and is better positioned to attract sponsorships than TRWD as a taxing agency.

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