FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – A CBS 11 News investigation has uncovered nearly $50 million in cash or planned investments for construction projects that were OK'd by the Tarrant County Commissioners Court with little or no public input in the midst of an uneasy economy.
The investigation raised some questions, and government officials were not happy that they were asked.
"I think you're trying to stir up a hornet's nest," said J.D. Johnson, Tarrant County Commissioner for Precinct 4, on the county's north and northwest side.
Projects identified in the investigation include the recently opened sub-courthouse complex in Johnson's precinct, which cost taxpayers $16.9 million – including more than $244,000 for the landscaping alone.
Johnson, a 25-year veteran on the commissioners court, defended the spending, saying his precinct's old sub-courthouse was in disrepair.
"Did we have to? No, we could have stayed over there and rotted in that place I guess, along with the public," he said.
Taxpayers unknowingly paid $7,500 for a special ventilation system in and around Johnson's office. The reason for the system, county officials said, was so government officials and employees could smoke in those areas – even though the county has prohibited smoking in its buildings since 1993.
Johnson, a former smoker, said he quit before the building was completed and has never lit up in his new office.
"I didn't even know it was put in, sir …," said Johnson of the ventilation system. "You look at how many millions of dollars this building cost … I didn't check on the fans they put in all of the restrooms either."
A former Tarrant County commissioner and an urban affairs professor questioned the spending on the sub-courthouse.
They also questioned the building of an equally ornate sub-courthouse in Arlington, which costs taxpayers $14.8 million; and the future construction of yet another sub-courthouse in Hurst, budgeted for as much as $18 million.
They said that's a lot of cash, especially at a time when a shrinking tax base is forcing many government entities – including the Tarrant County Commissioners Court – to scale back public services in other, possibly more essential areas.
Bob Hampton, a former Hurst mayor who then spent 12 years on the commissioners court, said the county should have first gone to the voters, in a bond election, to see if they agreed with the undertaking of such multi-million-dollar ventures.
"It has absolutely no public or taxpayer input. And that's what's wrong with it … wrong with a capital W," Hampton said, adding: "Somewhere they got the idea that this is a great thing, that we can do all of these things without bonds and without public input."
"In this case it is not wise … It's wrong to do business under the radar," he said.
Rod Hissong, associate professor of urban and political affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington, agreed, saying cash spending by local governments, without the benefit of a bond referendum, is less transparent.
Taking so much money out of government coffers for brick and mortar means less in revenue for the emergency needs of a struggling economy, Hissong said.
"In my mind, it sends the message that those folks who are struggling probably have less political clout … and less political leverage … when these decisions are made," he said.
Tarrant County Judge Glenn Whitley, who presides over the commissioners court, said good business sense – and a little bit of luck – has enabled the county to navigate through the tough financial times, giving it enough cash to pay for the nice sub-courthouses.
"We have been very efficient and effective with the tax dollars we've raised," Whitley said. For those reasons, the judge added, the court has earned the respect from the public.
"Our taxpayers trust us not to be bringing to them every capital expenditure we make," Whitley said.
CBS 11 has found that the Tarrant County government has not been completely insulated from the shaky economy.
Like most North Texas municipalities, Tarrant County commissioners cut parts of this year's county budget to adjust to hard times, including taking $424,000 from the human services department, which helps people on the verge of homelessness.
That cut came at a bad time, says Cindy Crain, executive director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, because the faltering economy is causing local residents to be evicted from their homes at a record pace.
"We absolutely need the money," Crain said.
County commissioners also cut $59,000 from a program that helps the state in child protective cases.
County government leaders say the cuts in human services and child protective needs were made to adjust for what was actually spent in those areas last year. They said more money is available if the need arises.
In Dallas County, a new sub-courthouse opened in 2007, but at a much smaller cost to taxpayers – $3.4 million, about $13.5 million less than the sub-courthouse in Johnson's Tarrant County district.
The savings were made possible, officials there said, because the commissioners court decided to simply renovate an abandoned grocery store, rather than build new.
"We have to be very frugal with the money that we have," Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell said. "We build what we need. And most of our buildings look like county buildings."
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