A city-county threefer?

In case you were wondering why there didn’t seem to be any progress in making a Dynamo Stadium deal, it appears the reason for that is there will be much more to it than just a stadium deal.

The city of Houston and Harris County are negotiating a deal that could pave the way for construction of a new soccer stadium, a new jail and the redevelopment of the Astrodome, according to officials taking part in the talks.

The negotiations, which have been under way for several months and are reaching their final stage, focus on the use of tax increment reinvestment zones, or TIRZ, as vehicles for the major capital projects.

“We’re in the home stretch,” said David Turkel, director of the county’s community services department, who has played a key role in the talks. “I hope that we could get all of this done as one package before the end of the year, within the current administrations.”

Turkel said the concept is ideal for the county because it allows major expenditures on capital projects without using general funds or necessitating a tax increase to pay for the debt such projects would require. It also allows the county to sell bonds without voter approval.

The city’s motivation in the discussions is to win two concessions: county participation in a TIRZ established to build a stadium for the Dynamo, Houston’s Major League Soccer team, as well as a new detention facility that would be operated by the county and replace the city’s two jails, which a court-appointed inspector recently said must be replaced soon because of poor conditions. A bond referendum to fund a similar facility that would have been run by Harris County was defeated by voters last year.

The county would in turn use tax increments from city-created TIRZs to borrow money that would make possible numerous major capital projects including the jail or other detention facilities, a new downtown administration building with an underground garage, a new cemetery for the indigent and as much as $1 million a year for homeless housing.

Quite a bit there, no? I’ve been supportive of a Dynamo Stadium deal and am glad to see it coming to fruition. I really had no idea what was taking the county so long on this, as the TIRZ plan struck me as being a pretty small commitment for Commissioners Court to make.

It’s not clear what this all has to do with the Astrodome other than a new TIRZ being created by the city for the county around the Dome. The story doesn’t say anything more about the Dome than that.

As for the jail stuff, I’ll say it again: If we’re just talking about building a replacement facility for the city, I’m okay with that, at least in theory. If this is a back-door way to add more jail space as a “solution” to the overcrowding problem, it’s completely unacceptable. It’s all in the deails, and if this really is going to be a transparent process as promised in the story, we need to know those details as soon as possible. At least we know that any specific future project would have to be approved by Commissioners Court.

Finally, Grits says this is a misuse of the TIRZ statute, which suggests to me the possibility of a lawsuit. That would change the calculus even if this is only for a city jail replacement. Can any lawyers comment on that?

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One Response to A city-county threefer?

  1. Baby Snooks says:

    “This seems like a pretty blatant misuse of the TIRZ statute, which was created to encourage private economic development, not to override the will of the voters in bond elections.” – from Grits.

    These tax increment reinvestment zones were meant to encourage private economic development in blighted areas. That’s per the statute and the one ruling by John Cornyn who course raised the question of blight with regard to Galleria and its TIRZ.

    But alas an attorney general ruling is only good if you take the offending party to court. In this case, the city and the county. Good luck. It would be an interesting lawsuit given the question of the bond issue. Might also be dangerous. The courts might rule the will of the voters doesn’t matter.

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