One man, said to be living in a trailer on 600 acres of Collin County farm land, cast the single vote this month to give a developer taxing power. The developer, who needed $63 million to build a subdivision, put the trailer there. The voter, who has a home miles away in McKinney, began renting the trailer shortly before the election. Meanwhile in Dallas, another one-man election this month decided whether a developer would get taxing power to finance a $700 million office-retail project. The person casting the ballot was the 24-year-old son of a vice president at the developer’s company. The company owned the home where he was, at least on paper, living. You can probably guess how that turned out. The two elections, if you can really call them that, remind me of a 2001 News investigation that I wrote with Brooks Egerton called “Government by Developer.” We found that developers across North Texas were quietly winning hundreds of millions of dollars in taxing power from voters and elected officials to whom they provided homes, jobs or other benefits. The power came through governmental taxing districts created in elections required by Texas law. Developers bought raw land for their projects, drew proposed district boundaries to exclude existing residents and then moved the only voters into rent-free mobile homes. The elections had as few as one voter and no more than 10. The voters were sometimes employees of the developer.
In two elections, our reporting raised doubts about whether the lone voters had ever stayed in their temporary quarters. One, for example, told us that he never lived in the district he helped form and was told to sign paperwork to make the election seem legitimate.
After the elections, the temporary voters usually became members of the district’s governing board, making important decisions about financing and contractor hires under the direction of the developer’s lawyer. In effect, the developers ran the government.
The Texas attorney general’s office had once scrutinized these conflict-ripe elections, checking voters’ residency claims and questioning them in person. But the agency quit doing that in 1995 because the policy was “resource-intensive.” Just a few years later, the wave of new taxing districts began.