Fort Worth

The Panther Island project is getting a deep look, but its CEO won’t be scrutinized

What is Panther Island?

Panther Island is a $1.16 billion plan to re-route the Trinity River and redirect flood waters around the low-lying areas north of downtown. Here's what you should know.
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Panther Island is a $1.16 billion plan to re-route the Trinity River and redirect flood waters around the low-lying areas north of downtown. Here's what you should know.

A broad independent review of the $1.16 billion Panther Island project will include analysis of its management and accountability, according to a proposal approved Wednesday, but it won’t home in on the executive director’s performance.

The analysis also won’t look at how J.D. Granger’s relationship with his mother, Republican U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, has impacted the flood control and economic development initiative.

J.D. Granger, the executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority, earns $213,000 a year in a publicly funded position but, as the Star-Telegram reported last week, hasn’t received a written performance evaluation. Instead, Tarrant Regional Water District general manager Jim Oliver keeps tabs on J.D. Granger’s work with Panther Island through verbal evaluations.

The Trinity River Vision Authority board of directors, made up of government officials, approved a request for proposal from third party consulting firms to look at Panther Island. That analysis will look at “management structure, including accountability structure and staff composition and roles,” but will stop short of evaluating particular employees or the Grangers’ connection.

Because river authority employees are under the umbrella of the water district, the authority’s board has no direct oversight. This independent review will show if more oversight from the board is needed, said G.K. Maenius, Tarrant County Administrator and board president.

“Our authority over them is limited,” he said. “We’re asking do we need to change that or is it OK this way?”

J.D. Granger said if the analysis made recommendations that improved the efficiency of his organization, he would support changing oversight of his position.

“By all means, I’m all in,” he said.

Re-channeling the Trinity River north of downtown in an effort to control downstream flooding would create the 800-acre Panther Island. Cutting that channel is the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers, which has devoted $61 million to the project to date.

Though the project has missed out on 2019 funding, federal projects have about $9 million held over from past years. Most of that work will be done away from the downtown bypass channel in Gateway Park. To stay on the “critical path,” the minimum work to keep the project on schedule, Washington will have to kick in at least $26 million in 2020.

About $322 million in local money has been spent since the project’s inception more than 10 years ago. Purchasing the land needed for the channel and relocation of displaced businesses has cost about $140 million.

Concern about federal funding fueled requests for a third party review and began with Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who was joined by council members.

Kay Granger last week was named ranking member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. In the past she has used her position as an appropriator to funnel federal dollars home.

Maenius said he doesn’t expect her appointment to impact federal funding.

“No one in Congress can guarantee we’ll receive funding,” he said.

The independent review will look at the timing for federal and local funding as well as if a cost-benefit analysis is needed for the federal portion of the project to move forward. It will also explore whether alternative forms of funding are available.

The White House didn’t prioritize the project because of a lack of a cost benefit, or economic feasibility, study. Maenius said that because Congress approved up to $526 million in 2016, it has been unclear if such a study is needed. Performing one now would be costly and could further delay work, he said.

The request for proposal for a consulting firm to conduct the independent review of Panther Island will be issued next week, with the goal of vetting and contracting with a firm by March. Maenius said he hopes the analysis would be done by June, but the schedule can be adjusted.

A cost has not been assigned to the review.

A short list of firms capable of doing the job include:

AlixPartners

Aon Hewitt

Bain & Company

Deloitte, which provides the water district’s annual financial audits.

Grant Thornton

Korn Ferry

McKinsey & Company

Mercer

Riveron

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.
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