This week, the board of a North Texas water district voted to saddle local taxpayers with more debt to keep afloat a nearly bankrupt redevelopment boondoggle run by the son of a congresswoman.
Panther Island is a massive taxpayer-funded government project conceived in 2003 to reroute the Trinity River via a 1.5-mile bypass—and redevelop prime Fort Worth real estate—under the guise of flood control.
The project is a joint venture involving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), Tarrant County, the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD), the City of Fort Worth, and the Trinity River Vision Authority (TRVA). The TRVA is tasked with coordinating the project.
J.D. Granger—son of U.S. Rep. Kay Granger—was hired in 2006 to head the TRVA, with the support of TRWD General Manager Jim Oliver. Granger was hired even though he lacked any related education or work experience.
In 2019, after 13 years of cost overruns and delays, a third-party firm was hired to perform a programmatic review of the troubled project. According to a review conducted by Riveron, Granger’s Panther Island was estimated to cost $435 million. By 2018, Granger’s TRVA had spent over $383 million—with no construction completed, and only the design phase finished. TRWD’s lawyers later told Texas’ attorney general that the design phase was, in fact, not finished.
The TRVA has yet to undergo either a financial or forensic audit of where these taxpayer funds were spent.
As the project was coming together, the estimate of $435 million was divided among the government entities involved; but even combined, the entities still found themselves $86 million short of the cost estimate.
To make up for this shortfall, the City of Fort Worth created a Tax Increment Reinvesting Zone (TIRZ). Texas Public Policy Foundation describes a TIRZ—also called a Tax Increment Financing District (TIF)—as a boundary drawn around an area by local governments for a specific time period. Property taxes collected within a TIRZ’s first year set its baseline. Taxpayer dollars expected to be collected each year above that baseline become collateral for a loan to the TIRZ for redevelopment, and a government agency is set up to manage spending while TIRZ revenues are paid back to the lender.
Fort Worth created Panther Island’s TIRZ in 2003 to last for 40 years. Riveron reported TRWD loaned the TIRZ $200 million, well above the estimated $86 million shortfall.
Earlier this month, Sandy Newby, TRWD’s chief financial officer, reported to TRVA’s board that Panther Island’s TIRZ only has $73,900 remaining from TRWD’s $200 million loan.
Unless more funding arrives, Newby recommended no Panther Island invoices be paid after the end of the year. “$73,000 will probably get us through December, but no further,” she said.
At that meeting, Oliver agreed to have the TRWD board look into taking on January’s payments. On Tuesday, TRWD’s board voted unanimously in favor of issuing commercial paper—short-term debt—to pay January’s invoices.
The debt will be issued “in increments in order to just pay for the actual invoices themselves,” Newby said. “The TIF is generating enough revenues to cover the debt related to this commercial paper and our ongoing debt service.”
The board also voted unanimously to reassign a portion of TRVA’s contracts to TRWD, with Fort Worth receiving the other portion.
“All contracts from this point forward … will be coming to this board for approval,” Newby said.
Sources in Tarrant County believe this may not be the last time Oliver uses commercial paper, as he could saddle TIRZ taxpayers with more debt to cover February’s invoices.
These moves further confirm Oliver’s statement to Texas Scorecard in October: “The TRVA, as it exists today, will be absorbed into TRWD.”
Granger himself told Texas Scorecard, “I’m still going to be under Jim [Oliver], no matter what.”
These statements and recent actions give the appearance of Granger and Oliver maintaining firm control of Panther Island, keeping taxpayers vulnerable to the consequences of their irresponsible decisions.
Congresswoman Granger, who used her position to help secure federal tax dollars for Panther Island, faces a challenger in the Republican primary. Former Colleyville City Councilman Chris Putnam has made her involvement with the boondoggle a centerpiece of his campaign.