I’m really getting tired of all this BS.
Smarting from a $353,000 bill for the Reliant complex under the city of Houston’s new drainage fee, Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday discussed seeking legislation to let it keep city sales taxes generated at county facilities.
The idea of capturing city sales tax was floated by Commissioner Steve Radack, a reliable critic of city policies. The suggestion, however, was welcomed by the rest of the court, some members of which expressed dismay at the city’s actions.
The city collects an estimated $950,000 in sales taxes from annual events at the Reliant complex, including the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo and conventions. More sales taxes are generated inside Reliant Stadium, but those go to pay debt on the building, said Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. Executive Director Willie Loston.
The eligible sales taxes, beverage taxes and taxes generated by visitors’ meals and shopping trips around town all could be targeted in the legislation, Loston said.
“Since they want to nickel and dime us, we might as well go for the big bucks,” Radack said. “We could keep that money at (Reliant), which would help continue to improve it.”
The city drainage fee is intended to penalize structures that contribute to water runoff. Reliant generates revenue, city officials reasoned, and should pay. Other county properties are exempt.
“Like many of Commissioner Radack’s rants, this one is ill-informed and ill-advised,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker. “He is asking Houston businesses and homeowners to pay more so that Reliant Stadium can get a free pass on the drainage fee.”
A few months ago, I was invited to speak at a Rotary breakfast. I talked about the importance of paying attention to local government, which I said has a much greater impact on your daily life than what goes on in DC but which tends to get less scrutiny. Someone asked me a question about waste, and I told him that if you had to design a government structure for the Houston region from scratch, you’d never come up with what we actually have. You’d want something more broadly focused, with less duplication and not as hindered by arbitrary boundaries. Something like that would surely be better able to solve regional issues, and be much less prone to the kind of penny ante pissing matches that we’re so used to around here.
We’re not going to get the chance to reinvent our government structure, of course. But that doesn’t mean I can’t think about doing things differently. And the question I find myself asking is why should Houston be a part of Harris County? As a taxpayer in the city of Houston, it’s hard for me to see what benefit I get from that arrangement. They don’t build roads that I drive on, Sheriff’s deputies don’t patrol my neighborhood, and so on. More to the point, there’s no one on Commissioners Court that gives a damn about the city of Houston, and three fourths of their combined budget is controlled by people who are unaccountable to me or anyone else electorally. So why should we put up with this? Why not get out?
The idea of having the city of Houston secede from Harris County is, I fully admit, crazy. The fact that the city’s boundaries resemble a Mandelbrot set, and that some portions of the city are connected by nothing more than a road is an issue. The fact that other cities like Bellaire, West U, and the Villages off I-10 are wholly contained within the city’s boundaries is another. I figure if the County Clerk can tell who’s in the city and who’s not at election time we can deal with the former, and for the latter those other cities can either join us in forming our own county, or they can have their own. Lord knows, there are plenty of counties out in West Texas with fewer people than what they’d have. Think about the benefits of shedding all that unincorporated and non-Houston territory that the Harris County Commissioners love so much:
– Our county property taxes would actually be used to benefit roads, parks, bridges, and whatever else in the city of Houston instead of subsidizing their construction and maintenance elsewhere. Without that extra burden, I wouldn’t be surprised if we could lower our property taxes as a result.
– Our County Commissioners – I wish I could call my proposed new county Houston County, but we already have one of those – would actually be accountable to the people who live in Houston.
– Our Commissioners Court might actually be a reflection of the population that it serves.
You might say that if the smaller cities went their own way and the only entity within my proposed City Of Houston County, that there would be no real need for a separate county government. I would not disagree with that, and it goes back to the point I made originally, which is that if we were doing this over from scratch we wouldn’t do it the way we are doing it today. I understand the role of county government where there are no cities, and where there are mostly smaller cities that benefit from consolidating certain functions like criminal justice and road maintenance. I can see the sense of it in fast growing suburban areas where some central entity is needed for planning and managing that growth. At least, I see the sense of it in places where county government works well with the various municipalities it contains, as I understand is the case in Fort Bend. But more and more I don’t see the purpose of having a county government where there’s a big city. Maybe this view is overly colored by the longstanding dysfunction in the Houston/Harris relationship. Maybe we’re the only ones that have this problem, though I suspect there are people in Dallas who are now shaking their heads. The City of Houston, which still represents a majority of the population in Harris County, is getting a raw deal, and there’s damn little it can do about it under the current structure. We can continue to take it, or we can say “Enough!” and demand something that works to our benefit and not to our detriment. I know what my preference is.
UPDATE: In response to some feedback that I’ve received, I want to clarify that my beef here is primarily with the Commissioners, who have the power and the money and the lack of electoral accountability. I have no complaint about County Judge Ed Emmett, who does make an honest effort to work with the city and not get involved in the pettiness that so frustrates me. There’s no reason why the way he operates couldn’t be the norm, and that makes it even more frustrating.