Rambler Newspapers recently conducted an interview with Chris Allen, a spokesman for Irving Taxpayers Matter, an Irving-based 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporation. The nonprofit has filed suit to stop the payment of millions of dollars in TIF money by the City of Irving to ARK Group of Irving.
In 2015, the City of Irving, Texas, and ARK Group of Irving, Inc. entered into agreements to design and construct an Entertainment Center, which includes the Toyota Music Factory. As part of this project, Irving established a TIF District, which could potentially result in the payment of $44,000,000 in tax monies to ARK.
One of the members of Irving Taxpayers Matter, Chris Allen, spoke about the group’s decision to file the suit.
“There has been a group of us that have been having discussions for a while about things like TIF (Tax Increment Financing) districts, and issues of South Irving, downtown Irving, versus North Irving,” Allen said. “We have been wanting to form an organization for a while as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, and our purpose was going to be for welfare purposes with a special emphasis on oversight of taxes collected by the taxing authority over the citizens and businesses of Irving, Texas. We didn’t want it to be political, that’s why we didn’t choose a PAC [political action committee].
“Taxpayer money has been thrown around in Irving for several years for a lot of different projects that are supposed to spur growth, and we want to look into it. We want to be sure that as taxpayers we are getting what we were told we were going to get.
“It has been brought to my attention that we filed our state organization papers on the same day that Billy Bob Barnett closed his doors. That is 100 percent coincidence. I wasn’t in town. I didn’t know anything about it. Had I known anything about it, and there would be no reason I would have, I would have said ‘You gotta be kidding me. Surely there is some better way as a business man to handle this than to send a memo out and shut your doors eight hours later and get rid of all those employees – who is going to come back and work for you?’”
The suit filed in Dallas by Larry Friedman, attorney for Irving Taxpayers Matter, is the vehicle to “enjoin the City of Irving from paying the $44,000,000 of TIF monies, so that these funds can be used to fix the problems and defects resulting from ARK’s fraud.” The suit alleges that “the City of Irving’s approval of ARK’s work under the circumstances is also fraudulent, and the result of arbitrary decisions and abuse of its discretionary powers at the City. Irving intends to reimburse approximately $44,000,000.00 of taxpayer funds to ARK even though ARK has failed to fulfill the requirements of the agreements. Once the TIF money is paid, there will be no opportunity for the taxpayers of Irving to recoup these funds.”
“Once the money is gone, it’s gone,” Allen said. “ARK Group is after the money. It’s my understanding the city has said they don’t have everything substantially completed. If we want to slow the wheel down here and take a look under the hood, we better do it now because that money may be gone. Once the money is gone, the taxpayers are out of luck.
“You’ll notice we didn’t sue the developer. I don’t have a beef with the developer. Any beef with the developer is between the developer and the city. Just like I don’t have a beef with Billy Bob. Any beef Billy Bob has with the developer or the city or vice-versa is between them. We sued the city because who is responsible for being the fiduciary or the overseer of the taxpayer’s money? Who is responsible for managing on behalf of the taxpayers the development agreement? The city.”
The suit also alleges “ARK failed to build the Plaza and the Parking Facilities as required by the governing agreements.” The agreements required ARK to construct an open-air Plaza of approximately 50,000 square feet that will be utilized for outdoor festivals, concerts and other events and will contain a minimum of two outdoor stages. Instead, ARK constructed the Plaza to be only 27,000 square feet.
“We have concerns about that plaza. That plaza is a central focus to that project. The development agreement is very clear. It says you get a 50,000 square feet multi-use plaza. I can’t find that that plaza is 50,000 square feet.”
Some blame weather issues including rain in April and heat in June for keeping attendance on the plaza lower than planned.
“So where’s the cover? Even if it wasn’t in the development agreement, we’re saying that if it’s that big of an issue, just give us a cover,” Allen said.
“Another discrepancy we have is the parking. It’s a nightmare. It’s a disaster under normal circumstances at lunch time. Its real disaster when there is a concert. They’ve got roads blocked off, and you can’t get to where you want to go. The parking problem has gotten worse because they gave 580 slots to a tenant in the office building above the garage.
“This is supposed to be the shining star of Irving, and it needs to succeed. In my opinion, the project will not succeed if it’s inconvenient for customers or untenable for employees.”
Larry Friedman, the attorney for Irving Taxpayers Matter, has also been an attorney for Billy Bob Barnett.
“It is not a coincidence. Since my dispute is not with Billy Bob, my relationship with Larry is a right,” Allen said. “It’s a privilege. I shouldn’t have to give up my relationship because someone who is not even a party to this knows the same lawyer. You want to get the best lawyer you can get, and he has had experience suing the city before.”
While Friedman may be used by both Allen and Billy Bob, the Irving Taxpayers Matter versus City of Irving, and any possible litigation involving Billy Bob and the ARK Group are separate issues.
“My hopeful outcome is that people will stop being so willy-nilly with tax dollars. We will think a project completely through,” Allen said. “I’d like the overall outcome to be the taxpayers get the very best product with the highest chance of success for the money they are spending. I would like to see the plaza re-worked. The parking needs to be solved. Since this was built with taxpayer dollars, why didn’t we just add three more floors? Who didn’t think this through?”
The suit states, “ARK has defrauded the taxpayers of the City of Irving by installing substandard toilets, sinks, counters and other fixtures in order to obtain approvals from the City and certificates of occupancy, and then ripping the fixtures out afterwards.”
“About the alleged fraud, it’s real simple,” Allen said. “There was an agreement, you either met the terms, conditions, and deadlines of the agreement or you didn’t. If you didn’t, guess what? The taxpayers ought to have some remedy for that. If you did meet them, fine. However, we’ll see how it pans out. It’s looking like there was some willy-nilly going on as far as we’ll put stuff in here today, call for the CO (certificate of occupancy) tomorrow, and tomorrow night put this stuff out and move it to the next one.
“We’ve got to make sure the fixes happen now. If someone else steps in, it’s going to be water under the bridge. I see no reason that stepping in here as a group of taxpayers and pulling the curtain off the wizard for a few minutes is a bad thing. We’re fixing to give up $44 million – not on paper but on wire transfer. Let’s make sure everybody’s doing what they are supposed to do. I hope this makes everybody in the process look down and make sure all are doing what they are supposed to do.”