Fort Worth schools' delinquent tax contract settled, but not satisfying

Posted Friday, Apr. 12, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Fort Worth school board members, after more than a year of delay, finally approved a new contract with a law firm to collect delinquent taxes.

There was little discussion Tuesday night, and no angst or rancor that would have hinted at the messy history that had left the issue up in the air for far too long.

So, why does the board's action feel so dissatisfying?

It could be because trustees voted 6-3 to stay with Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Simpson, even though in August 2011 they canceled the district's contract with that firm over questionable contact between some board members and a lawyer who was a Linebarger partner at the time.

The 2010 switch to Linebarger from the district's longtime vendor had been consternation-laden, a clear political manipulation by a few trustees. As it turned out, a trio of board members appeared to have been coached by the Linebarger lawyer, so the board voted 5-4 to have a new, untainted selection process.

But a move in February 2012 to give Linebarger a new five-year contract was tabled. The firm kept collecting back taxes for the district anyway. As Deputy Superintendent Hank Johnson explained in an email to the Editorial Board, because trustees hadn't approved a new contract, the end date of the old one kept getting extended.

On Tuesday, it again came down to a choice between Linebarger and Perdue Brandon Fielder Collins & Mott, a firm that was involved in the joint venture that previously did the district's tax collection work.

Linebarger said it has brought in a higher percentage of money owed than Perdue did before being ousted.

Perdue said Linebarger has not lived up to its promises and cost the district $3.1 million in uncollected taxes. In brief presentations, lawyers for each firm got in digs at their competitors.

It's an ironic aside that the Arlington school district, whose 2009 switch to Linebarger was cited as a reason for Fort Worth to change its contractor, has since returned to Perdue.

A move Tuesday to give Linebarger a five-year contract for Fort Worth's collections failed. Instead, the firm got three years with an option for two one-year extensions.

Was it really the better option?

Well, Perdue's proposal raised an eyebrow of its own.

A law firm owned by state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, would perform "at least 25 percent of the professional services associated with the district's contract," according to Perdue's documents. The Newby Davis firm is certified as a minority-owned business, so it would help Perdue meet its commitment to allocate one-third of the school district work to historically underutilized businesses.

That's all upfront and legal. And the collection firms don't siphon general-fund dollars; instead they're paid from fees added to tardy taxpayers' bills.

Yet, there's an inescapable heartburn sensation associated with lawmakers profiting from work for public entities.

At least Davis favors having legislators list such contracts on their personal financial disclosure statements. But her Senate Bill 178 to require it for lawmakers -- plus their spouses, children, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins, nieces and nephews -- hasn't moved anywhere in the Senate State Affairs Committee.

HB524, an identical measure by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, has been pending in House State Affairs since a February hearing.

The requirement would add another important element to openness in government.

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