On cities and counties

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.

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7 Responses to On cities and counties

  1. Joshua bullard says:

    when children are abused and neglected in the city of houston-its steve radack and the other commisioners that spare no expense to provide safety and protection for them-even though the kids are city of houston kids-harris county child protective services is funded by all of harris county,
    also,the county pays for billions in hospital service for quess who?city of houston people.
    people who live in the city should drive the county some time,its an eye opening experience and will provide more insight,i am sorry to all, but the harris county commisioners are right this time,the mayor should back down, she cant afford to take on a fight at this time.

    i love houston and harris county
    joshua ben bullard/lifetime resident

  2. Joe Stinebaker says:

    Law enforcement and health care are going to be a bit rough in your new county, I think. Where are you going to house your offenders? The jail is provided by county taxpayers; you couldn’t use it. Where are you planning on trying these offenders and those charged with a crime? The courthouses, courts, prosecutors and public defenders are all provided by county taxpayers. God help you if you’re in a wreck, need trauma care or you’re poor and need medical care – the Hospital District (Ben Taub, LBJ, Quentin Mease and countless clinics) is a county entity.
    And good luck controlling flooding, protecting children and adults from sexual and physical abuse (Flood Control District, Protective Services and Children’s Assessment Center). Oh, and you’ll have to start your own morgue and all the related investigative units (and we’ve seen how well the city handles that!).
    Personally, I don’t think I want to live in THAT county, thanks.

  3. Bill K says:

    Indianapolis and Marion county addressed this issue back in the 70’s when they formed Unigov to consolidate city-county government.


  4. John Robert BEHRMAN says:

    The dysfunction of municipal (city-county) government is strictly a political, not really a legal, much less a constitutional problem.

    The City of Houston, like the Democratic Party, yesterday and today, is organized as a professional and racial patronage chain. It is the last bastion of a bi-partisan concession-tending regime that, since 1874, has practiced pervasive economic discrimination in all aspects of municipal government. The durable pettiness of municipal government is a symptom, not the cause, of an obsolete coalition of land speculators, bond-lawyers, paper-hangers, loan-sharks, slum-lords, and so on … where responsible, two-party government should be.

    The City of Houston could be a great engine of social and economic development simply by exercising its powers within the republican and democratic, actually, liberal and conservative framework of Home Rule. That would be popular, progressive, and patriotic as those terms are understood universally and historically, not just as cheap, flimsy labels.

    We can already see that it is great metropolitan areas — not nation-states today — that are succeeding or not most spectacularly around the world.

    The political dysfunction of Commissioners’ Court or City Council here is not as conspicuously racist today as it was under the old segregationist Democrats; nor is it quite as perfervidly ideological as the GOP today. Indeed, our local economy, polity, and society do pretty well despite an overburden of political parasitism and economic exploitation, most conspicuously, manifest as an underground economy of nearly slave labor.

    But, the simple facts are …

    The municipal governments, political subdivisions, special-purpose districts, authorities, and instrumentalities adhere almost perfectly to the reactionary political-economic doctrines of (a) “voluntary taxation of wealth” and (b) liberal — also improvident — application of public credit and police powers to the protection and enrichment of a propertied elite. This does not fit any sort of “capitalist”/”socialist” dialectic.

    It is a durable residue of a peculiarly American exceptionalism: Issues — like suffrage and a well regulated militia — that split the country in 1789 and have never really been resolved, not by the Civil War, not over the course of the Great, World, and Cold War.

    There are some left-wing and right-wing “identity” politics that sort of resonate with state and national political posturing. But, that is pretty much theater. The fact is that there is a nearly all-white remnant of the old Democratic Party in county government but no popular (multi-ethnic) or patriotic (“grass roots”) majority party in the City of Houston or County of Harris.

    We just have two local chapters of the fund-raising arms of the two national Congressional parties in Washington. The real competition — epitomized by the war, depicted above, over who gets control over public revenue streams and borrowing power — is between a plantation system of law firms with peculiar immunities and privileges, not between old or new political parties by their various names: Federalist-Whig and Republican-Democratic.

    We still have an advanced and diverse commercial, extractive, and industrial economy — a three-legged stool: transportation, mining, and agriculture. But, we have poorly designed and even worse maintained public infrastructure and, apart from the law firms mentioned above, no financial superstructure other than whatever sort of “complexity” it is that Anise Parker and Bill King cannot quite share with the rest of us candidly.

    So, while we have dodged the latest financial bullet here, we have been vulnerable to some of these in the past and may be highly exposed to the financial instability in Europe or political upheaval in several other parts of the world.

    Still, we are large and important enough now that The Houston Chronicle, the New York Times, the Financial Times, and The Economist of London will all be reporting on local developments here. The socio-economic development of Houston as depicted by Rice University is one of the great stories of the new world today. Our political stagnation and obsolescence is a puzzle, though — a dangrous one, I think.

  5. landslide says:

    There were bills filed in the Legislature back in the Lanier and Brown administrations to require county road and bridge funds to be spent equally in the incorporated vs. unincorporated areas. Mayors Lanier and Brown were both unhappy that city residents pay 55-60% of the funds through auto registrations, but only got 5% of the money was spent inside city limits, leaving the cities to foot the bill for all local road and bridge improvements (not just Houston, but also Pasadena, Baytown, all the 30-something municipalities in Harris Co. are getting the short end of the stick).

    County folks always said that the majority of criminal justice and hospital district funds were spend inside the city limits (which evens it out) to which Brown and Lanier famously responded that a city resident had to be in the hospital or in jail to get any services from the County!

  6. Diana says:

    Something simple that would be efficient and beneficial to Houston citizens? How radical of you Charles Kuffner.

  7. Temple Houston says:

    Seceding from the county is not really a good idea. Look how well things have worked out for the City of St. Louis. It cannot grow in size and the population growth is in metro St. Louis is in the ‘burbs. You want to be able to include the people who live in the area within the area of the city government and your proposal kills that possibility. I have never had any sympathy for the people in Kingwood and Clear Lake who didn’t want to live in the City of Houston, but wanted all the perks of living in Greater Houston. I think they should be part of the whole — not exclusive enclaves that are essentially parasites on the community that enabled their existence.

    If you want to look at an alternative, I’m not sure that city-county consolidation is the best way. Yes, Nashville, Indianapolis, Miami, and even Louisville have gone that way, but it still leaves these cities caught in static boundaries and unable to access the populations that live outside those boundaries. Philadelphia and San Francisco are good example of how that change is counterproductive in the long term.

    Perhaps a better option is to push for County Home Rule. County Home Rule would allow the people of the county to write a county charter that sets forth the structure, etc. of the county government. The county charter would operate in a manner similar to a city charter in a home rule city. It also has the advantage of not being quite as susceptible to the wisdom and caprice of the Texas Legislature in determining how the city government should be structured and operate. This also has the advantage of allowing the cities in the county to continue as municipalities and not disappear in a consolidation move. That means the City of Houston could continue to annex territories that should be part of the city. At a minimum, county home rule could mean an end to a form of government that was intended to serve rural agrarian communities.

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