illustration by Doug Potter HOW ABOUT A DELL-A-THON?

It's not easy being Michael Dell. The burden of having $5.5 billion is immense. And now Dell -- the richest person in Texas and the 16th richest person in America -- according to Forbes magazine's Oct. 13 issue -- is being picked on by the Travis Central Appraisal District.

TCAD, which is charged with placing a value on all of the real estate in Travis County, decided that Dell's new mansion in West Austin is worth $22.5 million. Dell insists that no one in their right mind would buy a house for that much money, even though it cost him between $30 million and $60 million to build it. Dell is probably right. The market for mega-mansions built by billionaire computer geeks has never been softer. So Dell wants TCAD to value the house at about $6 million, which would save him about $440,000 per year in taxes.

Perhaps Dell is just insecure. Maybe he feels the need to act like Bill Gates, the gazillionaire who heads Microsoft, who has also built a monster mansion and, until last week when he decided to pay his tax bill, was quarreling with authorities in Seattle over its value. Seeing Gates must remind Dell that his net worth is only about one eighth that of Gates.

Dell carries a heavy load. At the tender age of 32, he will have to live in his new 33,000-square-foot home -- a space just barely big enough to contain seven full-size basketball courts. And of course, he'll have to heat it and air condition it. And then there are the servants, the butler, the gardeners. The problems that come with a house like that require a truly civic-minded person.

Dell's problems are so important to the community that the chairman of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce is leading the effort to reduce his tax burden. Lawyer/Chamber boss Pete Winstead explained to the local daily that Dell really does "want to pay his fair share" of the taxes. Winstead just wants to make sure Dell doesn't pay too much. After all, Dell's money isn't going to last forever. Just think, if Dell decided to give away $1 million a day, 365 days a year, why, he'd be out of money in a scant 15 years! (Except that, figuring a modest 9% return on investment, he should be making more than that, in passive income.) A modern billionaire -- even one like Dell, who has nearly twice as much money as H. Ross Perot -- needs more of a cushion than that.

Forget that Dell made every one of his $5 billion clams here in Austin. We owe him something. It's too much to expect a billionaire to actually pay his taxes. Remember Leona Helmsley's admonition to her fellow rich people: "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes." Dammit, Michael Dell needs our help. He's not a little person. He's a big person, and if each of us helps him just a little, he might be able to squeak through his current fiscal crisis. I've decided to send Dell a crisp $1 bill. You can too. Send it to Michael Dell, CEO, Dell Computer Corporation, 1 Dell Way, Round Rock, TX 78682.

But even if several thousand people send Dell a buck apiece, it might not be enough. Perhaps we should ask Capitol Metro to devote a quarter cent of its sales tax revenues to the Michael Dell Property Tax Fund. Or, if you have another idea for a benefit -- like, say, a garage sale -- send them to; the best ideas will be published in the next "Environs" column. -- R.B.

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