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Mayor: Panther Island Needs Full Audit, Change in Focus

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price on Monday suggested the mammoth Panther Island project needs to be scaled back to restore federal funding, called for a comprehensive audit and said city leaders may seek to withhold bond money which voters approved in May.

“We have to figure out how we get the wheels back on just flood control," she said in an interview at City Hall.

The mayor's comments come after the federal government suspended funding for the $1.1 billion project for next year and five months after voters approved a $250 million bond issue to fund the project.

The Panther Island project, run by the Tarrant Regional Water District and its Trinity River Vision Authority (TRVA), would double the size of downtown, adding a river walk, an urban lake, and widespread development.

U.S. Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX 12th District) said through a spokesman that she is trying to secure funding for next year.

TRVA spokesman Matt Oliver said for now they have the money needed to continue. He said the project remains on track with local funding and through the federal dollars they've already received.

"[We have] full federal authorization, we have money that's been appropriated to the project and we're under construction, that money is being spent as we speak," Oliver said.

He added that the TRVA has no reason to believe the federal government will cut out funding for the project next year.

"Nothing's cut as far as funding, nothing's slowing down, nothing's stopping. We're moving full speed ahead," Oliver said.

Oliver also noted that the authority already does annual audits through a third party.

But Mayor Price made clear she wants a more in-depth review.

"By audit I don't mean a financial audit, not a statement in time like most businesses do,” Price said. “But I want a process, management, full-financial disclosure of the project."

The mayor’s comments raise new questions about the future of Panther Island as taxpayers are pouring millions of dollars into building three bridges north of downtown.

FEDERAL FUNDING

The U.S. Corps of Engineers has been on board, promising more than $500 million for flood control.

But the federal government recently pulled that funding for next year, and the mayor said the scope may need to change to win future federal money.

"The project is going forward,” she said. “It just may be a slightly different shift from the grand scheme of what people think it is right now."

The mayor said she has met twice recently with federal officials in Washington who told her a cost-benefit study is needed to move forward, and that it could take two years.

Clay Church, a spokesman for the Corps' Fort Worth office, said the agency remains committed to funding the project.

"The project is fully authorized and is under construction," Church said. "We'll continue to execute the project."

He said he could not explain why it was not funded this year.

Both Mayor Price and Oliver pointed to other priorities the Corps needed to pay for this year, related to major hurricanes and flooding around the country.

NO ECONOMIC ANALYSIS

In September 2016, emails show TRVA executives were concerned when the Senate moved to require the economic analysis before approving funding.

"We need to make double sure the House doesn't roll on this," consultant Fred Caver wrote to TRVA director J.D. Granger. "It has to be changed before enactment. As written this would be devastating."

"Thanks!" Granger wrote back. "We are all over it and will make sure the House conferees know this is a deal killer."

The emails were obtained by NBC 5. The Texas Monitor first reported on them last week.

Rep. Granger said an analysis was already done, apparently referring to a University of North Texas study and not one done by the government itself.

COSTS SKYROCKET

Costs of the project have skyrocketed from $360 million in 2004 to $900 million five years later. Project managers explain that sudden jump was the result of two flood control projects merging into one.

In May, voters approved a $250 million bond issue, pushing the total price tag to more than $1.1 billion.

City council members must approve spending the bond money through a tax-increment finance district.

That was expected to happen in the next two months.

WITHOLDING BOND MONEY

Price said city leaders would likely seek to withhold the $250 million bond issue by not extending a special tax district needed to implement the funding.

"And (the city) council isn't going to do that until we get a good look at where this project is right now,” she said. “As mayor, first and foremost, I’m focused on fiscal responsibility and transparency and that’s what I’d like to see going forward.”

Oliver said the TRVA board was set up to provide transparency. It includes representatives from the City of Fort Worth, Tarrant County, TRWD and the public.

He added the TRVA would work with the city to answer any questions and would consider adjusting the scope of the project if needed.

FUTURE PRIORITIES

Mayor Price said her priority is to re-route the river so the money already spent on building the three new bridges won’t be wasted.

She said local money could be used for that.

"Without that the bridges will just be sitting and that's not a viable option here in the city,” she said.

But she said the project would probably look different.

“Once we get the bypass channel, will it change the face of the project? More than likely,” she said. “But we'll get the money. We'll figure out the money for the bypass channel."

NBC5's Alice Barr contributed to this report.

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