City Council voted to put the Renew Houston referendum on the ballot Wednesday. Details about how much the drainage fee it calls for will be, and other aspects of it are still to be worked out by the city before the election. The question now is whether it can be ratified by the voters.
Although the fee will hang on the outcome of the referendum, the debate over the proposal is expected to percolate as city employees begin to crunch the numbers, much as it did in 2001, when a similar drainage fee plan was killed by City Council. The “rain tax,” as critics called that measure, met with sustained opposition by non-profits and school districts that thought they should be exempted from the fee.
[Mayor Annise] Parker recalled the controversy Wednesday, noting that she supported the proposed drainage fee when she was a City Council member and watched it “go up in flames.” She reiterated her support for the November ballot measure, but said she wanted to make sure Houstonians can make an informed decision about how the proposal would impact them. Parker also said she opposes exempting any property owners from the drainage fee.
“I don’t believe anybody should be exempted. Drainage affects everybody,” she said. “If there’s an exemption for one category, automatically, someone else is going to have to pick it up. … I’m going to lay it all out for council and then we’ll walk through it.”
Norman Adams, an insurance business owner who was among the leaders of a successful fight against the scuttled drainage fee plan during the Lee Brown administration, predicted the new proposal would meet with the same fate.
The fee would amount to a “huge” tax increase that will “kill” people who own property with many acres, and institutions whose payments will increase dramatically will oppose the measure, he said.
“I can’t imagine that the car dealers and the hospitals and the schools and the churches are going to lay down for this,” he said. “Right now, what Houstonians need is tax relief, not an increase. Everyone is tightening their belt. … At a time like this, to come in and talk about a major tax increase is just foolish.”
I’m going to step out on a limb here and guess that there’s never a time at which Norm Adams would claim Houstonians could handle paying a bit more to better provide a vital service. Good times, bad times, indifferent times, it’s tax relief all the way down. When is the right time to deal with aging infrastructure and inadequate drainage? Never, I guess.
The thing is, though, that Norm Adams and his ilk aren’t Renew Houston’s only opponents. As we’ve seen, there’s a vocal Democratic contingent against it as well. I don’t know how widespread that is, but I do know that it’s not clear to me who outside of the engineers and CM Costello will be the vocal supporters. To put it another way, who is Renew Houston’s base? So far, Mayor Parker is the only public official besides CM Costello that I’ve seen voice an on the record opinion. The Renew Houston webpage doesn’t have a “Supporters” tab; they do have a Facebook page, with over 3200 people who like it, and they do tout an endorsement from the AFL-CIO there. That’s a start, but they’re going to need more than that. I want to see what some of the big interest groups that normally play in city elections – the realtors, HPD and HFD, the GLBT Political Caucus, the ministers, etc etc etc – have to say about it. The field appears to be open, and I can’t tell right now how it will go from here.
And I will say this again: I believe that if the Renew Houston initiative goes down, there will not be another effort to tackle the drainage problem before the end of this decade. I challenge my Democratic colleagues who are opposing Renew Houston because they believe there is a better way to fund drainage projects to prove me wrong on this if they succeed.
Parker said that because the proposal does not spell out exactly what each home-owner would pay and largely leaves the implementation of the drainage fee to City Council if voters approve the referendum, the city has a duty to give that information to voters before they cast their ballots.
City officials will work in the next month to present council several options for how the money would be raised if the measure passes, Parker said.
Those options will weigh the impact of exemptions from the measure, as well as whether some properties, such as those that have ditches instead of curbs alongside their roads, would pay less, she said.
Maybe once these details are worked out we’ll have a clearer picture of who in the establishment supports or does not support Renew Houston. For now, I just know that the clock is ticking.