Harris County officials Tuesday said the “clock is ticking” on its call for a bond referendum for $1 billion or more in flood control projects, as requirements to provide matching funds for federal grants being disbursed in Hurricane Harvey’s wake threaten to deplete local coffers.
Commissioners Court on Tuesday stopped short of setting a date for the possible election amid questions about what projects could be included in such a bond issue and how much it would cost per year to complete them. The court directed staffers to hammer out specific proposals that would help determine how much debt the county should ask voters to approve.
Calling Harvey a game-changer, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and other members of Commissioners Court pledged last September to call for a bond election for upward of $1 billion to pay for wide-ranging flood control projects. The bonds likely would come with an increase in property taxes.
At the heart of Tuesday’s discussion was concern over the increasingly high stakes surrounding the fate and necessity of the bond, as well as the county’s ability to take on a host of large-scale projects aimed at preventing a repeat of the flooding and devastation wrought by Harvey.
See here and here for the background. Federal grants, some of which have already been approved, require local matching funds, which constrains what the county can do right now. The county will need to figure out how to balance what it’s doing now with what it wants to do with the bonds.
Officials also wrangled over several other logistical and political issues surrounding the proposed bond referendum, which would be one of the largest ever put before county voters.
“There are a lot of dilemmas facing us here,” Emmett said. “When do you have the election? How much is it? Do you get specific? Do you leave it general?”
The level of a property tax increase accompanying the bond likely will impact the referendum’s fate.
Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said that if, for example, the bond election was for $1 billion and the debt was issued over 10 years, that would result in a $5 increase in property tax bills for the average $200,000 home in the first year. That number likely would rise to about $20 in the 10th year.
Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said that if voters reject a bond referendum, the county cannot put the same issue on the ballot again for two years.
Commissioners Court at its next meeting in April could vote to call an election for June 16, but Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis expressed concern over turnout during the summer months.
An election during the summer would require a plan to locate and staff polling places around the county. The governor also would have to sign off on a summer date.
“To my knowledge, no governor has ever denied a local bond election,” Emmett said. “But there haven’t been that many that have been called for a special date.”
Pushing the election to November would mean more turnout but also would raise the possibility that voters cast straight-ticket ballots for political parties and ignore the bond, Emmett said.
Ellis said he also worried about limiting the scope of the bond issue to focus on matches for federal grants, stating that he would like to see more investment in lower-income areas, and a bigger bond package to pay for it.
“After the most horrific and historic storm event we’ve had, I’ve heard members of this body say it’s our opportunity to do something big, and we may not get another bite at that apple,” he said.
I don’t think we’ve had a June election (not counting runoffs from May special elections) anytime recently. As far as the voters ignoring the bond question, Harris County hasn’t had a bond election in an even-numbered year recently. The city of Houston bonds in 2012 had undervote rates in the 20-30% range, but that still meant over 400K people voting on them. Metro’s referendum that year had a 21% dropoff but nearly 800K votes cast, while bonds for HISD (19% undervote, 315K ballots cast) and HCC (23% undervote, 352K ballots) were similar. If all those entities could have bonds in a Presidential year, I think Harris County could make do with a referendum in a non-Presidential year. (Metro is planning on one this year, remember.) Plenty of people will still weigh in on it, and if the county can’t successfully sell flood control projects post-Harvey then something is really wrong. I say put it up in November and start working on the campaign pitch now.