Alex Fairly files lawsuit against City of Amarillo over Civic Center project


On Wednesday, Amarillo businessman Alex Fairly announced a lawsuit against the City of Amarillo concerning a recently approved project by the City Council to expand and renovated the Civic Center. 

The City of Amarillo declined to comment on the lawsuit. Read Fairly's full statement below:

In November 2020, Amarillo voters rejected a $275 million bond issue (you might remember it as ‘Prop A’) that would have helped pay for a new entertainment and event complex to replace the current civic center facility.

More than 60 percent of voters voted against raising property taxes to pay for the project.

But last week on May 24th, just 19 months after Prop A failed, the city council moved forward by issuing $260 million in debt for the project.

‘One and Done’

The new proposal was largely developed behind the scenes, out of sight from the public. It was approved with no advance notice to the public or opportunity for input.

City Council member Cole Stanley, who didn’t become aware of the proposal until a few days before the vote, asked for more time to consider it before a vote was taken. His request was denied.

The council also forewent the tradition of providing two readings on an issue before voting on it.

It was one and done.

Bringing Back Prop A

After the Prop A bond election failed in 2020, a two-person committee was formed to determine how to move forward with the project. Jason Herrick, an Amarillo businessman and head of the Amarillo Matters Political Action Committee, led this committee at the behest of the Mayor, serving alongside Assistant City Manager Andrew Freeman to work on a plan.

The committee’s first step was to hire consultants – at a cost of nearly $500,000 - to explore a way to get the project funded without having to raise taxes or ask for taxpayer permission.

But they had a dilemma: voters had said ‘no’ in 2020, the consultants didn’t find any acceptable private-partner solutions, and state law requires a three-year waiting period before they could issue Certificates of Obligation (which don’t require voter approval).

So last week, our city council voted to use ‘Anticipation Notes’ to issue the $260 million debt – again, without our approval. It was their version of saying ‘we’re going ahead anyway’.

They also used Anticipation Notes to pay for the relocation of Amarillo’s City Hall several months ago. We were told moving City Hall was necessary because it is worn out beyond feasable repair. But it now appears that moving City Hall was simply the first step in bringing back Prop A as it effectively cleared out the space needed for a new arena.

The Kicker

Anticipation Notes (Texas Government Code 1431) were intended to give Texas municipalities the ability to issue shorter-term debt for necessary/critical or emergency types of projects. For example, if a bridge had collapsed, Anticipation Notes could be used to pay for the repairs because of the timely and urgent nature of such a project. In short, Anticipation Notes were never intended to be used to build things like a new Civic Center.

The ordinance the city council approved says the debt will be paid for by “a tax on all taxable property in the City…“. The kicker is that the city portion of our property taxes will be increased - likely, by at least 30 percent – without our approval in order to pay back the $260 million.

Accountability

Going against the wishes of the voters isn’t the only mistake the Amarillo City Council made when they approved the issuance of more than a quarter billion dollars in debt on May 24.

Multiple attorneys who we engaged believe the four members of the council who voted for the debt issuance may have violated both the spirit and letter of Texas law regarding the issuance of this debt which is why I have filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to pause the project, as well as challenging the legality of the city council’s action.

Having to bring a lawsuit is never a preferred option. It will cost both the city, and me. But core American principles are worth defending.

When government leaders try to impose taxes without notice or a good-faith discussion, flashing red lights should be going off for every citizen, no matter which side of an issue you are on. And it’s especially concerning when elected officials contradict voters and potentially circumvent the law to do it.

Elected officials must be held accountable for their actions. I hope this lawsuit will play a role in that.

Win or lose, we’ll get to have an honest public discussion.

The Amarillo City Council voted 4-1 to authorize $260 million in tax and revenue notes to fund the expansion and renovation of the Amarillo Civic Center. This move by the city council comes after Amarillo voters overwhelming rejected a bond proposition for the Civic Center by a 61% to 31% margin in November 2020.

In addition to the tax and revenue notes, the city will also consider naming rights, sponsorships, and Hotel Occupancy tax and sales tax revenue to help fund the project.

“The taxpayers will be paying more taxes on property that they own. That’s how it would be paid off and so, it’ll impact them, but it’s going to be worth it.

“Because we’ll have a place to go. We can have programs at the convention center and the projection was if we didn’t do anything, the traffic would slow down, because we’re out of date. And people would stop coming here for conventions," Amarillo city councilmember Howard Smith said in favor of the project.

During public comment, Amarillo business owner Don Tipps spoke against the project.

“Because the will the people, or the voters, has already been made known on the issue, advancing this project will be in direct opposition to exactly the citizens who have put y’all in office,” Tipps said. 

Tipps also said the city could face a lawsuit by moving forward with the Civic Center project.

“If you choose to move forward, it seems the only way I know to stop that on this side is through litigation," Tipps said.

Assistant city manager Laura Storrs said the city’s base property tax rate of around $0.44 would  increase to $0.57 because of the Civic Center project.

“Each year, each council goes through setting a property tax rate. So, as we look at outstanding debt, if there’s other funding sources on some of the debt that’s backed by property taxes and council chooses instead to pay some of that debt service with another funding source, that lowers the amount that would need to be considered on the property tax rate for that year,” Storrs said

Councilmember Cole Stanley was the lone vote against the measure. Stanley asked for more time to discuss the issue.

“Why are we trying to take action on this today, Mayor?” Stanley said.

Amarillo mayor Ginger Nelson countered that the city could no longer wait to do the Civic Center project.

“I wish we could give more time. The environment that we’re in, it’s just not the hand we’ve been dealt," Nelson said.

Amarillo resident Craig Gualtiere said he is very concerned on the actions taken by the city council and  mayor for numerous reasons. 

"I can't believe an elected body would thwart the will of the very citizens that elected them. 

"The actions by Mayor Nelson are mind blowing to say the least. I am still wrapping my mind around what just happened and how it could happen in a democratic country. 

"I promise the Amarillo taxpayers I am going to fight this with all my resources to stand up to this socialist dictatorship of Ginger Nelson. The only advocate of the taxpayers and freedom itself on the council is Cole Stanley and he needs our support. 

"This is not over, trust me," Gualtiere said.

Tom Sherlen said the mayor and three city council members went against the will of the people by moving forward with the Civic Center project.

"The city manager has told our first responders we don’t have any more money for anything.  We do not even have the money to fix infrastructure.  But yet they find money for their pet project.

"In my opinion they are spending money that the people paying taxes have said no to!  In my opinion, you could call this a steal.

"Thank you, Cole Stanley, for standing up for the people.  Our mayor has no right in the world to talk down to you.  In fact, if our Mayor had any class she should apologize to you and the people of Amarillo," Sherlen said.

Sherlen noted that he currently serves on the City of Amarillo PDP committee.  

"It is our job to figure out how to pay for our failing infrastructure. We have had many meetings with lots of discussion, but we are being lead down the path of more fees and taxes to pay for infrastructure. 

"But yet with the vote today of 4-1, they found $260 million dollars to do their pet project, which the people have rejected twice overwhelmingly.  

"Our citizens are stressed to the max; some folks are making decisions being between paying for food or paying for gas. The Council is blatantly going against the wishes of the people.  I believe this Council has no regard for the people.   

"What  they did may be legal but it is not necessarily morally right and they know it! Last year when they were running for office they were all against tax hikes; you can now see we were lied to. Shame, shame on them," Sherlen said.

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