April 14, 2012 started like any normal spring Saturday in Grapevine, Texas. Beautiful spring weather accompanied the usual home town vibe of our fair city.
The night of April 14 and into the early morning hours of April 15 things changed in downtown Grapevine forever. A four-alarm fire at the historic sports bar, Lazy Bones, raged in downtown Grapevine. The entire building was a loss and what was left had to be demolished. (Video)
The original plan was to rebuild Lazy Bones on-site to the exact structure that it was before. That was before the city started to get involved asking (basically requiring) Lazy Bones to establish a historic landmark on the building. This landmark would give the city control over the exterior design of the building. We continue asking ourselves how a building built from the ground up in 2012 could even qualify as a “historic building.”
Fast forward to today, here we are, two and a half years later and we are left with nothing. Another fall football season where Grapevine’s best sports bar once stood now sits as an empty lot. It is a sad tale in a city with so many restaurants and so much development occurring that we cannot rebuild the best sports bar in town.
All we are left with is an empty lot and a mystery, what happened to Lazy Bones?
If Lazy Bones is gone for good, will someone please step in and build another classic sports bar in town? We are on the eve of one of the best college football weekends of the year and there are zero decent sports bars in Grapevine.
We really need something like Boomerjack’s here. And before all of you people start in with Plucker’s, save your breath. Their table set up is abysmal. They actually want to seat you with other groups because the design is so bad. And do not get us started on their beer prices. Big Racks barbeque had a decent television set up in the bar and now it is closed. We need some help here.
There is definitely a market for a classic sports bar to step into the void left by Lazy Bones (which apparently will not be rebuilt in this lifetime).
You did not ask, but I thought it would be interesting to share who I am voting for this Saturday for Grapevine City Council Place 6. There are four worthy candidates for Place 6: Duff O’Dell, Deverick P. Jordan, Marc Blum, and LuAnn Chapman Gatts.
Here are my three, admittedly simple criteria in choosing who to vote for in a race like this:
1. Must be able to log on to a computer. (I don’t think this is a very high bar to set. This is 2014 so being technology challenged is an automatic disqualifier.)
2. Must be able to say “Thank You.” (Two of the best and most important words in the English language.)
3. If you make it past the first two, which as easy as it sounds is not a given, then the final criteria is whoever tries the hardest.
Some people will be offended by this simple criteria, but those people are likely easily offended. I could have said I am drawing a name out of a hat. Some people may not like it that I didn’t actually name who I am voting for and only listed the criteria I use to vote in city council elections. For that I apologize, but hopefully you can figure it out on your own. 😉
Election day is May 10th, 2014. You can vote at the Grapevine Convention Center, 1209 South Main Street (Corner of Vine Street and Municipal Way) between 7 am and 7 pm.
The City of Grapevine is working on a new ordinance in the historic district that will restrict size of homes, size of garages, distance between homes, and require presentation of photographs and drawings of construction proposals including the homes on both sides of construction areas. The ordinance is being developed under the guise of protecting the historic nature of the area.
Many residents on both sides of the issue gathered and voiced their concerns at the last two joint Planning and Zoning / City Council meetings.
Here are the problems:
Lack of Communication
Lack of communication is a recurring theme with city government. Given that this is the largest issue facing the city council today, you would think the city could make an extra effort to communicate the issue effectively. Here is a simple test. Go try to find the proposed ordinance regarding the new property rights in Grapevine’s historic district. Good luck.
The city should make an effort to place the proposed ordinance where it easy to find on the city website. Maybe even a link to in on the main page.
The proposed ordinance reduces the rights of property owners. Property owners would only be allowed to build a home or add on to an existing home to a maximum of 3,400 square feet in the historic district. The problem is the lots in this area are a wide range of sizes so putting a cookie cutter limitation on home size does not make much sense. And the size restriction is just the start of the restrictions.
The process of making construction changes becomes more rigorous and costly given the new restrictions. Homeowners would have to submit drawings and photographs of the proposed construction and surrounding houses to comply with the proposed ordinance. They would be at the mercy of the Historic Preservation Commission on construction decisions. Not surprisingly, the ordinance is complicated and nuanced.
As a side note, Lazy Bones, a long time bar and restaurant in the historic district burned down over a year ago. At the time Lazy Bones was destroyed, the owner was quoted as saying he wanted to rebuild the restaurant exactly like it was before. Construction has not started on the new Lazy Bones and we can only imagine why.
Historic Preservation Commission
At last Tuesdays city council meeting, one home owner referred to the Historic Preservation Commission as a “Home owners association on steroids.” Whether that is accurate or not is still to be determined, but we cannot figure out why anyone would vote for giving up control of their property to such a commission.
This ordinance gives the Historic Preservation Commission new power and control over construction and renovation in the historic district. As mentioned earlier, this will not make the construction process any faster. City government is notoriously slow moving and Grapevine is no different in that regard.
Toward the end of the council meeting, Mayor William D. Tate commented that he did not hear any new suggestions in regard to changes to the proposed ordinance. Here’s our suggestion: Come up with a new ordinance with the sole purpose of giving property owners in the historic district more rights, not less.
“Here’s how I think of my money, as soldiers. I send them out to war every day. I want them to take prisoners and come home, so there’s more of them.”
That’s a quote from Kevin O’Leary of the hit ABC television show Shark Tank. Unfortunately, sometimes the City of Grapevine does not think about its money the same way. In the case of two new Visitor Shuttle Buses, Grapevine thinks of its money more like sheep headed for slaughter.
In last week’s City Council meeting, a request for two additional shuttle buses for the City of Grapevine was on the consent agenda. For the many of you who are not regular attenders of the council meetings, the consent agenda is a group of items that get approved with no discussion.
One brave soul attending the meeting asked the City Council to remove the over $300,000 shuttle bus item off the consent agenda. Basically, the brave man wanted to hear why we needed two more buses. The item was moved off the consent agenda and a roughly three minute discussion ensued.
The reasoning for the new buses went something like this: City employees have heard that people staying in Irving hotels were taking hotel shuttles to DFW Airport to catch Grapevine Visitors Shuttle Buses to ride into Grapevine. No figures were given on the amount of riders. No numbers were given at all really. The new buses would go to Irving to help pick up these people and eliminate their need to ride to DFW Airport.
Now in the real world, investments like this need more than a quick anecdote for approval. Even in the made for television real world of Shark Tank, this investment rationale would be laughed out of the room. In the City Council meeting last Tuesday night, this $300,000+ investment was quickly approved on no more than an anecdotal story.
We at Grapevine Texas Online have the luxury of working for a very successful, very efficient real world business. When this business wants to make an investment of any significance, a business case for the investment is required. This business case provides real numbers and support and leads to a conclusion of economic value added (which is just a fancy way of saying profit).
The reason investments require a business case is to achieve accountability. Someone has to present the figures and sign their name to them claiming that there will be a benefit or profit to the company.
Since no figures were provided on the two new buses, we thought it would be nice to do some quick math on the economic viability of the investment. Please follow along with our assumptions:
Currently, there are four Visitors Shuttle Bus routes that run 361 days per year. Our assumption is that those four routes require a minimum of four buses. In the last reported year of actual results, the shuttle buses earned roughly $100,000 in revenue. Their expenses were roughly $700,000 for a loss of $600,000 in a single year. Simple math would tell you that in addition to the $300,000+ up front cost of the new buses, the City of Grapevine can expect to lose an additional $300,000 per year on operations.
Let’s make a few more assumptions to come up with the number of riders the current buses actually service. If revenue is $100,000 per year and the average ticket price per rider is $5, you would have roughly 20,000 shuttle bus riders a year. That works out to just 13.85 riders per bus each day.
If our assumptions are reasonable and the current buses lose $600,000 per year to drive 20,000 vistors in and around the city, Grapevine is actually paying $30 per person to bring in and carry these visitors around. Here’s a free tip: that is not a good business. That is an extremely high cost to aquire customers who might have just come here on their own.
Estimates we have seen suggest Grapevine Mills Mall has 15 to 20 million visitors per year. Great Wolf Lodge has around 500,000 visitors per year. Lake Grapevine and Downtown Grapevine have over 1 million visitors a year each. And to support these huge attractions, four Grapevine Shuttle Buses carry around 20,000 passengers a year at a loss of $600,000 per year. And the City Council just approved two more.
So as we head into election season and two City Council seats are up for grabs, we ask those running for elected office to consider adding a business case requirement on city expenditures of a certain size. These business cases would add transparency and accountability which we desperately need.
In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Susan Combs asked Texas residents if they know how much debt their local governments are carrying. It is a good question in an even better article. We are going to cut and paste snippets below, but here is the link to the full article: Susan Combs: Debt Excess Even Lives in Texas. Susan Combs is the Texas Comptroller.
But too many taxpayers aren’t given the information they need to make informed decisions when they vote debt issues. Recently I spent several months holding about 40 town-hall meetings with Texans across our state. Each time, I asked the attendees if they could tell me how much debt their local governments are carrying. Not a single person in a single town had this information.
Do you know how much debt Grapevine has taken on that ultimately you as the taxpayer are responsible for? Here is a link to the proposed 2012/2013 Grapevine City Budget to help you out. Only, you will not find the answer in there. We should know the answer since we as Grapevine residents just approved two new government bonds totaling $70 million for an expanded Community Activities Center and new public safety building. The city sent out multiple fliers promoting voting yes on the debt. Did they not include information on how much the city already owes? Unfortunately, they left out that key piece of information.
How much debt does Grapevine have? It seems like an easy question. The answer is not so simple.
It often takes significant time and effort to find out. But even so: Wise up, folks. You need to know what government is doing, and how it spends your money. Ignorance is a luxury you can’t afford, not when tax increases and spiraling debt are taking away the very incentives that make people want to take risks and get ahead.
We used some of the information provided in the Susan Combs article and website to come up with our answer to the question. Using rough figures, Grapevine’s total debt outstanding is around $185 million (including the new $70 million for the CAC and public safety building). That is about $4,000 for every man, woman, and child in the city.
Combs goes on to write:
We should, for instance, strive to limit all the various mechanisms that governments have crafted to get around the usual requirement for voter approval of new debt. In Texas, we have an instrument called “certificates of obligation.”
We have mentioned it in previous articles that Grapevine is no stranger to certificates of obligation. The newly constructed Convention and Visitors Bureau was built on $11 million in certificates of obligation that the Grapevine taxpayer did not get to vote on. When the city issues debt, even these certificates, the debts are all ultimately backed by the Grapevine taxpayer.
Another recommendation from Combs:
Another key reform would make it impossible to vote on debt in a vacuum. Most people don’t have the first idea of how new proposed debt fits into the total debt being carried by their local governments. Every ballot in an election for new bonded indebtedness should state, at minimum, the current amount of outstanding debt and annual debt-service payments, and show how the proposed debt will affect the tally.
Yes, that would be nice and go a long way in creating a minimum level of transparency in our local government. As we mentioned, this did not happen last fall when Grapevine taxpayers were asked to vote on $70 million more in debt.
Combs finishes the article with this statement:
Unchecked and invisible debt and out-of-control spending are putting the nation in real jeopardy, and too many public officials seem happy to keep you in the dark. It’s up to you to demand that the lights be turned on—before it’s too late.
We recently asked the city to shed some light on the financials of local festivals Grapefest and Main Street Days. We thought this was a fairly simple request. As we reported in an earlier article, the request turned out not to be so simple. We received several letters from the city attorney denying our simple request to shed some light on a very small section of the city financials. We are happy to report Grapevine eventually provided us with the detail we requested. We received no explanation on why it was first denied, but at least it eventually got here.
We will end with this request to the city. Please provide more information on city debt. Please become more transparent. And when residents request more information on city financials, treat them with the courtesy and respect they deserve. After all, they are paying the bills you incur.
You can find more information on local debt in Texas at www.TexasItsYourMoney.com.
Every year about this time, we sit down with a nice bottle of wine and read through the City of Grapevine annual budget document. This is a lot of fun (please note the heavy sarcasm that likely does not come across in black and white). You may wonder why we do this. The simple answer is that there is actually a lot of information there and well, no one else is going to read through it.
For an example of something you might learn by reading the city budget, did you know that Grapevine has the fourth largest Convention and Visitors Bureau in Texas? We do not have the full rankings, but for fun we will name five cities in Texas: Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio. According to the city budget, Grapevine has a larger Convention and Visitors Bureau than two of those five cities.
Parts of the budget make a lot of sense and others are a lot less easy to navigate. One item that catches our eye every year is the festival operations section. If we were auditors (which we are not) and were in the business of looking for fraud or malfeasance, the first and most obvious place to look are the huge festivals that Grapevine puts on each year, Grapefest and Main Street Days. These are cash intensive operations and the information in the City Budget around the festivals is basically a black hole.
In the city budget, revenue is separated for Train Operations and Festivals, but combines the two for expenditures. That makes it impossible to figure out the profitability of each operation and thus the black hole.
So as an interesting test, we filed our very first Open Records Act with the city. The Open Records Act / Texas Public Information Act is a law in the state of the Texas that is intended to help prevent fraud in state and local government. It allows normal citizens like us to ask for any city document for review. Here is a better explanation that we took from the Texas State University website:
Texas Government Code, Chapter 552, gives you the right to access government records; and an officer for public information and the officer’s agent may not ask why you want them. All government information is presumed to be available to the public. Certain exceptions may apply to the disclosure of the information. Governmental bodies shall promptly release requested information that is not confidential by law, either constitutional, statutory, or by judicial decision, or information for which an exception to disclosure has not been sought.
Given that the city festivals Grapefest and Main Street Days are financial black holes, we thought we might ask how much money the city earns and spends on these events. We emailed our request to the city secretary:
Public Information Act / Open Records Act Request 10/19/12
Dear Ms. Brown,
I have never requested information using the public information act before, so if I have directed this request to the wrong person please let me know.
I was hoping you could forward me either by mail or by email some of the financial details around Grapefest and Main Street Days. Specifically, I would like to see financial statements (preferably income statements also called profit and loss statements) from 2010, 2011, 2012 for both Grapefest and Main Street Days. What I’d like to see in general is revenue by line item (gate, vendor booths, etc.) and also expenses by line item (music, police, etc.) and the resulting profit.
Also if these statements are audited, could you forward me the name and contact information of the auditor?
Thanks for your help with this. I do appreciate it.
Grapevine Texas Online
We then received an email back from the city secretary explaining that a representative of the city would contact us in regard to the request.
Today, we received the following letter from the attorney for the City of Grapevine:
October 30, 2012
Attorney General Greg Abbott
Open Records Division
P.O. Box 12548
Austin, Texas 78711-2548
Re: Request from Joe Thomas
ID# ____________ – City of Grapevine
Dear Attorney General Abbott,
The City of Grapevine, Texas, received and open records request from Mr. Joe Thomas dated October 19, 2012, and received by the City on that same day. The City mailed the request along with a letter dated October 29, 2012 to the Attorney General requesting a ruling, as provided for by Section 552.301 of the Act. This letter serves as a supplement to the previous letter mailed October 29th and is being placed in the U.S. mail on today’s date, October 30, 2012.
As noted in the October 29 letter, the City is not disclosing the requested documents because the City believes they are excepted from disclosure under Sections 552.101, 552.111, 552.116 of the Act. In addition to those sections previously raised, the City believes the requested documents are excepted from disclosure under Section 552.131.
This letter serves to comply with the requirements of Section 552.301(a-d). A complete submission as required under Section 552.301(e) is forthcoming. Thank you for your consideration.
Boyle & Lowry, L.L.P.
Matthew L. Butler
Assistant City Attorney
To summarize it as simply as we can, the city does not want to provide any detail around the revenues, expenses, and profit of Main Street Days and Grapefest. And with that the two events will continue to be financial black holes.
It feels like every year we have to comment on the lack of transparency and accountability in our city government. This will be exhibit A the next time local elections roll around when incumbents claim that the city is already very transparent.
And even this Tuesday, as the city asks for another $70 million in bonds for two separate projects, we wonder how much transparency will there be once the projects start? I think we already know the answer without getting another letter from the city attorney.