Followup on Renew Houston

So I attended that blogger briefing I wrote about last week to learn more about Renew Houston. It was very informative, and I want to thank CM Costello and his staff for taking the time to talk to us. They have a slick presentation, which we were given in paper form, but it’s unfortunately not available on their website yet; I asked about that, and will link to it when it becomes available. John and Perry have already written about this; hopefully, Tory and Neil will join in as well. I’ll add on to what they had to say by addressing the concern expressed by Houston’s most frequently-quoted non-elected official in the Chron story.

Bill King, a lawyer and former Kemah mayor who has scrutinized the city’s finances and was briefed recently by Renew Houston about the plans, said he cannot support any increase in taxes or fees levied by the city until it addresses the huge problems of rising pension and health care costs for retired city employees.

“If we weren’t setting aside these huge sums of money for entitlements” such as pension and health care costs, perhaps far less additional money would need to be spent on drainage, he said.

Although there is much he likes about the plan, King said he would have preferred its boosters level with voters more.

“We’re calling this a utility fee, but the truth is that this is a tax increase,” he said. “We need to be up front with the public and say, ‘This is a tax increase and here’s why we need it.’ ”

Well, I’d address this concern if I were sure what the concern is. It’s true that a large chunk of the city’s budget goes to salaries and benefits, mostly for police and fire employees. (Is this what we mean when we say “entitlements” now?) That’s the whole reason for taking the money for this out of the general fund, so there’s no competition, especially in lean budget times. As Costello said during the presentation, while individual infrastructure projects may have someone pushing for them, in general flooding and drainage get dropped down the priority list because they don’t have a dedicated constituency. The fix for that is a dedicated fund, which is what Costello is proposing. The need is there – our pipes aren’t getting any younger – but the funding often has not been. As for whether it’s a fee or a tax, what difference does it make? Call it a cover charge for all I care. This is simple – Do we think this is worth doing? And if so, is the price reasonable? I say yes and yes, and so I signed the petition.

UPDATE: Here’s Tory Gattis’ writeup.

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7 Responses to Followup on Renew Houston

  1. John Cobarruvias says:

    The ONLY entitlement Bill King supports is the one he is receiving.

  2. Noel Freeman says:

    With all due respect to Mr. King, he is incorrect when he refers to a utility fee as a tax increase. My Masters thesis was about user fee- and tax-based funding of public programs, and there are fundamental differences between user fees and taxes, not the least of which is that user fees generally serve to fund specific purposes, as opposed to taxes which primarily go into general funds, which are used indiscriminately.

    In fact, user fees are perfectly acceptable where taxes or tax increases may not be. Take a look at United States v. United States Shoe Corp., 523 U.S. 360 (1998) for an example. Thsi case struck down the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) as unconstitutional, but provided for user fees as an acceptable alternative to the HMT, because user fees have a distinctly different structure than taxes.

  3. Robert Derr says:

    It’s hard for me to believe anyone can seriously consider Renew Houston’s $10 Billion proposal. I’m all for improving Houston’s infrastructure but Renew has no specific plan about how & where the money will be spent… simply throwing $$$ at this very complex problem will never work.

    Now for a little math… let’s just say there are 1 million homes in the Houston area. Renew says a “fee” of aprox $6 a month will be needed for their 30 year pay-as-you-go plan… that will bring in aprox $70-$75 million a year. It would take over 130 years to add up to $10 BILLION. Something doesn’t add up!!!

  4. Noel Freeman says:

    There are literally thousands of munisipalities in the country that have stormwater utility fees, also called drainage fees. Many of them base fees on lot size and impervious cover, therefore, the fee will not be the same everywhere (that’s also one of the things that delineates a fee from a tax).

    If I recall correctly, there are approximately 560,000 parcels in the City of Houston, many of which are commercial, very large, or have significant impervious cover. Those parcels will clearly have higher fees than, say, a single family home on a 5,000 square foot lot. You wouldn’t expect Anheuser-Busch to pay the same amount on their water bill that you do, right?

    There have been some studies of a stormwater utility fee commissioned by the City in the past, and the projected revenue generated can be well over $100 million a year, depending on how the fee gets structured.

  5. Noel Freeman says:

    That was supposed to be “municipalities.” (darn fat fingers)

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