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drainage

Who cares about the will of the voters?

Prop 1 opponents don’t.

Opponents of Proposition 1 are planning to lobby the state legislature to strike down the controversial drainage fee, even after voters narrowly approved it earlier this month.

Don Hooper, who organized a political action committee blasting Prop 1, said the effort is underway. Last week, a group that included real estate executives, church leaders and car dealers met to discuss its options.

Proposition 1’s opponents argue the ballot didn’t mention a “fee” – just a “pay-as-you-go-fund” – and plan to ask lawmakers to consider restricting any drainage fee accordingly.

“The petition language is very different from the ballot language,” Hooper said.

[…]

“Prop 1 is effectively duping the public in Houston into paying an incredibly large property tax,” said Paul Bettencourt, a Prop 1 opponent and former Harris County tax assessor.

In other words, Bettencourt and Hooper think that the voters were too stupid to know what they were approving, so they want the Lege to step in and save them from themselves. Can you imagine the reaction if red light camera proponents tried something like this? I have news for you guys: You lost. Deal with it. Thanks to Coby for the tip.

What now for Renew Houston?

In addition to the disposal of the red light cameras and the associated costs of their removal, Mayor Parker and City Council now need to work out the details for Prop 1, which created the dedicated fund for streets and drainage and will impose a fee on property owners to pay for it. How much, and who doesn’t have to pay, is still up in the air.

City Council members, who are listening to a chorus of local school officials, church leaders and nonprofit groups, appear to have no appetite to impose the fee on those institutions, many of which are traditionally exempt from taxes.

Yet if that view prevails, it would set up a situation in which property owners will likely be forced to pay more than they were assured by proponents of the campaign. Voters passed Proposition 1, a 20-year, $8 billion spending plan to shore up Houston’s infrastructure and reduce flooding problems, with 51 percent of the vote. Supporters said frequently on the campaign trail that the average drainage fee for a Houston homeowner would be about $5 a month. That figure was based on the assumption that no one would be exempt from paying.

“The citizens will say, “They lied to us,’ ” said City Councilman C.O. Bradford, who opposed Proposition 1 because the city failed to adopt an ordinance before the vote detailing how the proposal would be implemented.

As Parker spends the coming months preparing that “implementation” ordinance, council members and some community leaders indicated a willingness to keep an open mind, although many seemed unlikely to support applying the fee to those key groups.

I have sympathy for HISD and the churches, but I don’t recall anyone arguing that they deserved to be exempted from the water rate hike that Council passed earlier this year. I understand their position, but I see this as being analogous to that. They’ll get the same benefit that the rest of us will from the street and drainage improvements that this fee will fund, so I believe it is appropriate for them to contribute to that fund.

Now that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to work with them on this. One possibility I’ve heard is for the fees that HISD pays to be applied directly to projects around HISD schools. Another possibility that occurs to me, which I think would be a win all around, is to create a fund that would offer rebates to properties with large impermeable parking lots, such as churches, for taking steps to make those large parking lots less impermeable. See the Low Impact Development document that the RUDH people put out for some suggestions. This mirrors the approach that Council took for apartment owners to help them mitigate the cost of the water rate hike for themselves and their tenants, in that it encouraged them to minimize their impact and will reimburse them for doing so. I would strongly support such a step by Council.

The Mayor’s email to Council regarding drainage and street repair

This email from Mayor Parker to City Council members about the estimated costs of street and drainage repairs found its way into my Inbox, and I’m sharing it with you because it’s something you should know about, too.

Any long-term street and drainage plan for Houston must include: bringing substandard storm drains and streets up to standard, replacing infrastructure that is to-standard today but will eventually deteriorate and maintaining normal operations and maintenance.

The $2 billion figure cited by some is a 1999 figure and is specific to just one component of these requirements, the upgrade of our existing substandard systems identified in the City’s Comprehensive Drainage Plan. When considered in terms of 2010 numbers, and reflecting both inflation and projects that we have been able to implement, we estimate the current correction of substandard systems today will cost $3.0 billion. This $3.0 billion is the cost to fix what’s broken right now, and what is not yet constructed in the City.

The $3.0 billion figure does not include:

  • The cost of eventual replacement of currently adequate drainage systems that will eventually age and need replacement or major rehabilitation;
  • The cost of full-width street replacement that will invariably be needed to accomplish many of those drainage upgrades;
  • The cost to reconstruct the current backlog of City thoroughfare and collector streets that have pavement condition ratings of less than 50 out of 100;
  • The cost of future replacement of streets that will continue to deteriorate to poor condition over the next two decades;
  • The cost for reconstruction of local streets that serve our neighborhoods, or local streets on which businesses and industries are located,

When all of the needs outlined above are considered, Houston’s total funding requirements amount to approximately $10 Billion over the next 20 years. Anything less would leave the City unable to adequately address our infrastructure needs.

There’s more, so go read it. You want to argue with these figures, take it up with the Mayor’s office. And don’t miss this op-ed by Bayou Preservation Association Chair Kevin Shanley, too.

The Mayor editorializes for Prop 1

Mayor Parker lays out the case for Prop 1, the ballot referendum to establish a dedicated revenue source for street and drainage improvements.

Is it necessary? Absolutely! Approximately 65 percent of our streets and drainage systems are beyond their useful life – and at current funding levels it would take 100 years to replace them. Our police officers say that flooding and bad road conditions can keep police, fire or emergency medical personnel from responding quickly to emergencies. Likewise, a hard rain can prevent parents from picking up their kids from school or returning home after work. Just a few inches of rain can leave motorists stranded and bring this city’s commerce to a halt.

Is it the best option? Yes, and it will save millions of dollars for taxpayers! Instead of borrowing money and spending millions on interest payments, Proposition 1 mandates a responsible pay-as-you-go plan. For the first time in Houston’s history there would be a dedicated income stream – a lock box – that can only be spent for street and drainage improvements. Your vote would prohibit us from diverting these dollars for any other projects – with no exceptions. And your vote would mean the city could repair, replace or upgrade every street in Houston that is past its useful life.

Is it fair? On every level, yes. Everyone has a responsibility for helping to solve our drainage problems, and each of us will be asked to pay our fair share, but no more. This includes developers who will be assessed based on the impact their projects have on the drainage system. Commercial and residential property owners will pay a user fee based on their “impervious cover,” the amount of hard surface on their property – like buildings and driveways – that cannot absorb water. That fee is about $5 per month for a typical homeowner with 1,900 square feet of these hard surfaces. Property owners can estimate their own fee by following instructions on the city’s website.

It’s great to see Mayor Parker fully engaged on this, but there’s an awful lot of opposition to Prop 1 out there now. The Harris County GOP took the pro-flooding position last week. They’re joined by a non-trivial number of Democrats who claim they have a better plan than what has been proposed, not that they’ll do anything about it if they succeed in dunking Prop 1. The Metropolitan Organization, which should be foursquare behind Prop 1, is remaining neutral, at least for now, due to questions about the funding mechanism that have not been answered to their satisfaction. Four City Council members, CMs Jones, Adams, Johnson, and Bradford, have come out against Prop 1 with an op-ed of their own calling on the city to “start over” and come up with a different plan. (On the flip side, late in the day yesterday, I got a press release from State Rep. Garnet Coleman announcing his support of Prop 1.) And finally, as Rick Casey notes, various churches have lined up in opposition because they don’t want to have to pay for it. Prop 1 has its share of supporters, but that’s a lot of people against it. You know that I’m voting for Prop 1, but I’d be leery about betting on it.

HISD versus Prop 1

This would be a tough obstacle to overcome.

HISD Board President Greg Meyers on Wednesday raised the specter of teacher layoffs if the school system is forced to pay an estimated $2.5 million to $3.5 million a year in drainage fees under Mayor Annise Parker’s plan to implement the ballot initiative should voters approve it in November.

“There are some high emotions against this measure from several board members,” Meyers said. “I can’t speak for every one of my colleagues, but I do know there are concerns.”

Meyers said the new fee — which he called a tax — would put the Houston Independent School District in a financial pinch.

“While we understand the benefits of reduced flooding, we also have to look at the complete impact that it’s going to have on us educating our kids,” Meyers said. “If you start looking at the impact, about 70 teachers will have to potentially be laid off.”

The cost to the school district represents less than 1 percent of its $1.6 billion operating budget.

“We don’t feel one taxing entity should tax another taxing entity,” Meyers added.

I can understand that argument, but schools are affected by flooding, too. What would HISD do about this if Prop 1 fails? Is doing nothing acceptable to them? That’s what I’d like to know.

As for the claim about “potentially” laying off teachers as a result of this, that sounds like a negotiating tactic designed to force Mayor Parker and Council to reconsider its no-exceptions stance. Indeed, in the end, the HISD board voted unanimously to ask for an exemption on the fee. I generally believe that there’s always a way for a deal to be struck, but I have the feeling that the Mayor is going to hold the line on this, as to do otherwise would open a large can of worms. Which means that attempting to defeat Prop 1 may be HISD’s only recourse. It’s not clear to me what that might mean in practice, but it did draw a sharp response from the Vote For Prop 1 campaign. From their press release:

The Vote FOR Prop 1 Campaign regrets to learn that the Houston Independent School District is taking a position against the best interests of our city, taxpayers, and most importantly our children.

HISD should do a more responsible job of managing taxpayer funds before laying off teachers and opposing a fiscally responsible plan to keep its students safe.

In short, HISD should cut the waste, not the teachers.


The full release is beneath the fold. In the “Timing is everything” department, I note this Hair Balls item:

Several months ago, Houston ISD superintendent Terry Grier delivered dread news to an aghast school board: HISD was short by $37 million (actually it was originally set at $39 million for a couple days) in its bond fund projects money.

Almost immediately, some people well acquainted with the district’s finances engaged in some heavy-duty head scratching. Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett couldn’t figure out where this sudden deficit had come from and gave it a tougher look.

Well, today, Grier announced he was “Pleased, but a bit embarrassed to announce that instead of a $37 million shortfall, the district has a $73 million surplus.”

According to Garrett, HISD has historically kept its bond-projects money in three pockets: change orders, so-called “owner’s contingency” or project contingency funds and budgeted reserves and contingency for inflation.

When one person in the bond office decided to review the funding, his ensuing report was “in error” because he didn’t know about all the reserved funds, Garrett said.

[…]

Trustee Anna Eastman warned Grier that the under budget/over budget news means: “We’ve got some work to do to rebuild the trust of the public.” Larry Marshall pressed the point later with Grier, asking if he “got it?”

Grier acknowledged he did.

Oops. Good news, but still: Oops. Martha, who doesn’t care for the Prop 1 attack on the HISD board, has more.

UPDATE: John isn’t happy, either.

UPDATE: Stace disagrees with Martha and John.

(more…)

Endorsement watch: Chron for Prop 1

No surprise here.

The city’s capital improvement program, which issues debt-incurring bonds to fund construction, is far behind the curve in dealing with the situation. According to at-large City Council member and engineer Stephen Costello, 65 percent of the city’s drainage and street infrastructure — valued at over $10 billion – is beyond its useful life.

That’s why the Chronicle strongly endorses Proposition 1 on the ballot this November, also known as the Renew Houston initiative. It would amend the City Charter to create a dedicated fund for drainage and street repair paralleling a similar arrangement for water and sewer services.

The average homeowner would pay about $60 a year and businesses a little over a thousand dollars annually. The program would be authorized for two decades and would raise $8 billion.

I would have liked for them to respond more forcefully to the bogus arguments of the do nothing brigade, but I’ll take what I can get. I don’t really have anything else to add at this point. You know where I stand. We’ll see how the vote goes.

The anti-Prop 1 factions gear up

The usual suspects have gotten the band back together to ensure that no action is taken to mitigate flooding in Houston.

Former Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt has teamed up with anti-tax advocate Bruce Hotze and conservative activist Norman Adams, significant players in a previously successful effort to scuttle a drainage fee during the Lee Brown administration. They reformed the “No Rain Tax” PAC, Bettencourt said, and expect to raise enough money to run radio ads and phone banks against the measure.

Bettencourt said it was “preposterous” that the details about how the program would be implemented have yet to emerge with the vote only five weeks away.

“This is an open-ended blank check from the taxpayers,” he said.

I’ll stipulate that it’s taken a long time for all of the details of Prop 1 to be finalized. But let’s be clear, that’s just a convenient excuse for these guys. Had there been a fully realized plan six months ago, with every i dotted and t crossed, they’d claim some other reason to oppose this. That’s because they don’t want to pay any money to alleviate flooding problems in Houston. I don’t know if that’s because they don’t think there are flooding problems in Houston, or because they’re too cheap to pay the five bucks a month that Prop 1 would cost them, but I do know that in the nine years since the last time they defeated a proposal that was intended to tackle this problem, they haven’t offered any solutions of their own, or supported any candidates that offered a solution that they approved of. Thus, my conclusion that they’re not interested in being part of any solution.

I point that out to say once again that the choice here is not between Prop 1 and some alternate plan that you think would be cheaper or more effective or faster to implement or fairer or whatever. The choice is between Prop 1 and doing nothing for another decade or so, because I guarantee that if Prop 1 goes down, no further attempt will be made to tackle the problem until long after everyone has forgotten about this one. If you agree with Bettencourt, Hotze, and Adams that flooding isn’t a problem, then your choice is clear. If you’re voting against Prop 1 because you believe there’s a better way to solve the problem, then I look forward to seeing you work to get your preferred solution implemented, whatever it may be. As someone who does believe there is a problem, I’d hate to have to wait another ten years before we try to fix it.

As far as that faux concern about not knowing what the specifics will be, Mayor Parker has now set forth the details of the drainage fee. Council will not vote on it before the election, but there will probably be a resolution presented to Council so the principles of the Mayor’s plan can be approved. Yes, we should have had the details sooner than this. But I’ve believed from the beginning that the principle of needing to deal with this was sound, and that has been my motivation for supporting this effort.

One more thing:

Stan Merriman, a local Democratic activist who opposes the initiative and is working with [a different anti-Prop 1 PAC], said he could not support a fee structure that would require the same amount from an owner of a 5,000-square-foot-lot in Sunnyside and River Oaks.

“That’s fundamentally unfair,” he said.

Now that we have the Mayor’s plan for Prop 1 implementation, I hope it’s clear that Merriman’s assertion is factually wrong. Merriman has posted his bullet-point list of objections to Prop 1 in the comments to a couple of my posts as well as at Stace’s place. Among other things, he seems to be saying that there’s very little we can actually do about flooding, which was not something that he mentioned in his previous writing when he said that we should be “viewing such a project as one perfect for federal stimulus funds”. Be that as it may, I’ll say again that if Prop 1 does go down, I look forward to supporting the effort that Merriman and others like him plan to lead to do something about this. Because otherwise, if they don’t have one, they’re just agreeing with Bettencourt, Hotze, and Adams that there is no flooding problem in Houston.

UPDATE: Here’s the official link to the principles for Prop 1.

Pro-Prop 1 op-ed

Council Member Stephen Costello, the driving force behind Renew Houston, now known as Proposition 1 on the November ballot, teams up with a pair of co-authors to pen this op-ed in its favor.

Proposition 1 is a sensible solution that will fill the fiscal hole and get us back on solid ground. It changes our City Charter to create a dedicated fund – preventing the city from using street and drainage funds for any other purpose. It requires the city to pay for road and drainage projects on a pay-as-you-go basis, ending wasteful borrowing and saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

Even better, Proposition 1 will fill our fiscal hole with jobs. The projects funded by Proposition 1 will create badly needed jobs now – when we need them most. With the city’s anticipated Hire Houston First program, most of those jobs should go to Houston families first. Proposition 1 projects will improve emergency response times by reducing the flooding and bad road conditions that keep first responders from arriving on the scene quickly. And new water retention ponds will not only prevent flooding, but also double as parks and green space and improve the quality of life for our families.

[…]

By requiring the city to convert to a pay-as-you-go program, we’ll save more than $2 billion in debt service over the next 20 years – money that will go directly into upgrading our streets and drainage systems. Developers will pay their fair share, to account for the impact of new development on our storm-water drainage systems. Commercial and residential property owners will pay a user fee based in part on their “impervious cover,” the amount of hard surface on their property – like buildings and driveways – that cannot absorb water.

Preliminary estimates put the average user fee at around $5 per month for a typical homeowner. Parker’s administration is working on the exact amount of the fee and the mayor has assured voters they will have a clear picture of how much they will be paying well before the vote.

A few thoughts:

– It’s my understanding that there are a couple of anti-Prop 1 PACs currently in existence. I don’t know anything about them. It’s possible they’ll eventually amount to nothing, but I wouldn’t count on it. Assuming they do fully engage, it would be nice if they would attempt to refute the arguments that Costello and other Prop 1 supporters are making instead of just screaming “Rain tax!” over and over again in the hope of scaring enough people to vote against it. Needless to say, I don’t expect that to be the case.

– As you know, I’ve wondered who the base supporters are of Prop 1. One of Costello’s co-authors for this piece is Dale Wortham, the president of the Harris County AFL-CIO Council. Having labor on board will go a long way towards solidifying Democratic support.

– I have not yet seen Mayor Parker really get involved on this. I’m sure she will, I’m just saying I haven’t seen it yet.

I’ll have an interview with CM Costello next week to discuss Prop 1. What are your thoughts about it?

Poll shows Renew Houston with a lead

The supporters of the Renew Houston effort, now known as Proposition 1 on the ballot, have released a poll showing solid support for their proposal.

The Vote FOR Proposition 1 campaign released a new poll today that shows voters approving the measure – by a margin of almost two to one – to create a dedicated, pay-as-you-go fund to upgrade Houston’s streets and drainage systems.

“Voters understand – and are not happy with – the condition of Houston’s streets and drainage… and a large majority believes Proposition 1 is a responsible solution,” says a new report issued by the Kitchens Group, a professional polling firm retained by the campaign…

In the new poll, which was conducted from September 6–9, 61 percent of voters said they would vote for the measure after hearing the question that will appear on the November ballot. After learning about the costs of the measure, voters continued their strong support, with 58 percent voting for the measure and 31 percent voting against it.

The polling memo is here. I have inquired about getting crosstabs but have not yet received them. I will note that they used what looks like a decent likely voter screen for this:

Five hundred likely 2010 general election voters in Houston, Texas were interviewed in a random sample conducted September 5-8, 2010. Voters included in the sample had voted in the 2006 general election or registered since 2006 and voted in two elections other than the 2008 general election. Respondents were verbally screened for voter registration and their likelihood of voting in the November 2010 election. The sample was balanced according to all known demographic factors. All interviews were conducted by telephone. The margin of error for this survey is ± 4.4%, with a 95% confidence level.

Based on that, I have a reasonable level of confidence that this is a good sample, though I’d still like to see the crosstabs. I’m moderately surprised to see this much support for Renew Houston, given that it’s still not clear to me who their base is, and I haven’t see any push for it as yet. It’s also not clear to me what will happen if a funded opposition effort materializes. Finally, you will note that they lead with the ballot language, which doesn’t mention any cost, then inform the respondents about the $5 monthly fee, which may predispose some folks to being supportive. Still and all, this is a good start for them.

UPDATE: Since I wondered about who Renew Houston’s base was, I should mention that they got an endorsement from Scenic Houston yesterday. Here’s the press release for that, and here’s a list of their supporters so far.

Public meeting regarding Koehler Street Development

From the inbox:

Public Meeting Regarding Koehler Street Development

Mayor Annise Parker

Cordially invites you to attend

A public meeting regarding the Koehler Street Development

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

George R. Brown Convention Center

1001 Avenida de las Americas

Room 370

Houston, TX 77010

You are cordially invited to attend a public meeting regarding the Koehler Street Development, also referred to as the possible Walmart project.  I have heard multiple times from the public regarding the concerns about this project.  I pledged early on that I would make sure all development standards are met.  This public meeting is part of that pledge.  Therefore, I have asked representatives of Walmart, The Ainbinder Company and my staff to come to this meeting prepared to answer the many questions that have been posed about the plans for addressing traffic, drainage, crime, noise and lighting issues.

I also want attendees to receive a full explanation of what a 380 Agreement is and how it provides the city with leverage to achieve the best outcome possible regarding the infrastructure needed to alleviate some of the concerns expressed by nearby residents.

For a map and directions to the George R. Brown:  http://www.houstonconventionctr.com/Home/MapsParking.aspx.

Some street parking may be available or attendees can park in the Hilton/George R. Brown parking garage located on Polk Street, subject to availability.  Attendees can submit their parking stub for validation (from that garage only).

For additional information, contact Cecilia Ortiz, Mayor’s Citizens Assistance Office, at [email protected] or call 832.393.0955.

I look forward to seeing you on Wednesday, August 25 at the George R. Brown Convention Center, Room 370.

Sincerely,

Annise Parker

Be there if you can.

Chron opines on Renew Houston

This is a pretty fair take on it.

Given Houston’s history of flooded streets, businesses and homes over the past decade, the Chronicle agrees with the aims of Renew Houston, the organization of engineers that is backing the proposition. What we like most is the pay-as-you-go feature that eliminates long-term debt and maximizes infrastructure bang for the taxpayers’ bucks.

As At-large City Councilman and engineer Stephen Costello explains, the city’s streets and drainage system have long been grossly underfunded, with a waiting list for needed projects of up to a decade or more. “If you put the numbers to it, we’ll never catch up,” says Costello. “So the system is chronically decaying.”

[…]

However, before endorsing the plan, we would like to see how much the actual program would cost, and how it would differentiate between properties with a large percentage of green space and trees that absorb runoff, and heavily developed parcels mostly covered by pavement and buildings. Should the low-income owner of a lot in a sparsely developed area pay the same fee as one with the same square footage valued at millions of dollars in upscale neighborhoods inside the Loop? Should public service nonprofits and schools and churches be exempt from the fee?

What will be the mechanism for deciding which street repair and drainage projects get fixed first? Historically, the infrastructure in poorer, minority neighborhoods in Houston has been neglected as more politically connected communities received higher priority. How can voters be assured that will not happen again?

I don’t have a whole lot to add to this. As long as decent questions are being asked, I feel good about having an informed debate on this topic. At the very least, I hope we’ll soon have a better idea of which groups do and do not support Renew Houston.

Renew Houston proposition officially on the ballot

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.

ReNew Houston officially makes the ballot

From their press release:

The ReNew Houston Campaign is pleased to announce it has met state requirements for qualified signatures from registered Houston voters to call for a charter amendment to create a dedicated funding source to improve and renew Houston’s decaying streets and drainage system. In other words, ReNew Houston is certified!

City Secretary Anna Russell has checked and validated 21,197 signatures, which is more than the 20,000 required by the state for a petition to call for a city charter amendment. In a letter July 30, 2010, to Mayor Annise Parker and Members of City Council, Russell says, “A sufficient number of valid signatures were checked without the necessity of checking the balance of the submitted signatures.” City Council must now approve placement of the ReNew Houston charter amendment on the November 2, 2010 ballot for consideration by Houston voters.

Among other things, that means that Council will have the opportunity to debate and potentially amend the ReNew Houston proposition. If you have concerns about what ReNew Houston will or won’t do, that will be your final chance to affect it before voting.

UPDATE: Please disregard the crossed-out bit at the end. Council will not have the opportunity to amend the proposition, they will merely vote to put it on the ballot. My apologies for the error.

Opposition to Renew Houston

Last Tuesday, while I was out of town, Council Member Stephen Costello did a presentation about Renew Houston at HCDP headquarters. (CM Sue Lovell was supposed to be with him but was unable to make it because a committee meeting for which she was the chair went long.) I wasn’t there, I don’t know how it went, but a couple of bloggers, Open Source Dem and Stan Merriman were there, and they weren’t impressed. I now wish I had been there, because I don’t quite get what it is that they don’t like.

You can go read their pieces and see what you think for yourself. Both seem to agree that the need is there to improve drainage. Open Source Dem mostly seems to dislike the fact that CM Costello is a Republican. He’s none too impressed with the Democrats on Council, either, saying “Most Democrats on Council seem to defer to the GOP on public health, public safety, public works, and above all public finance, but handle anything involving cute puppies with exquisite tenderness.” I daresay that would come as a surprise to CM Melissa Noriega, who chairs the Public Safety committee, and CM Jolanda Jones, who isn’t particularly deferential on many things, and pretty much everyone else for that matter, but never mind. I’m really not sure what that has to do with anything.

Merriman’s post is even more opaque to me. The one point he makes that I feel I can comment on is his contention that this ought to be viewed as a project that’s “perfect for federal stimulus funds”. Hey, I’d love to see the feds get involved in this sort of infrastructure improvement all over the country – Lord knows, just in terms of water-related needs, there’s a ton to address. Last I checked, though, that ain’t gonna happen, certainly not when “concern” about the deficit is driving the conversation and it takes 60 votes in the Senate to go to the potty. I’d put my money on the Astros winning the World Series before that.

So where does that leave us? I’m going to go back to what I said before. Either you believe this is a problem that needs to be addressed or you don’t. If you do believe this is a problem that needs to be addressed, but you don’t like Renew Houston, what exactly is your plan to address it? Remember, it’s been nine years since anyone proposed a solution. Voting down the Renew Houston proposition, much as it was with health care reform in Congress, doesn’t mean that proponents of Doing Something About The Problem will come right back with a solution that’s more to your liking. It means the issue will disappear from the conversation for another few years, and more likely than not what will come up next when someone else decides to pick up the ball will be something less ambitious. I don’t see how that helps.

Is Renew Houston the best possible solution to the drainage problem we all agree the city has? I don’t know what the “ideal” funding mechanism would be, given that it’s a local issue, so I can’t adequately answer that question. There are things to criticize about Renew Houston, as Tory and Neil have done. But it’s what we’ve got, and the choice isn’t between Renew Houston and some other ordinance/referendum/whatever that could be passed as an alternative, the choice is between Renew Houston and doing nothing for another ten years. I believe Renew Houston is an improvement over the status quo, and I plan to vote for it.

Renew Houston submits petitions

Renew Houston has submitted signatures to get its drainage improvement proposition on the ballot this November.

Renew Houston, a group of influential local engineers, has collected more than 30,000 signatures in a push to seek voter approval for an $8 billion initiative — and a monthly drainage fee – to better prevent flooding across the city.

For an average Houston homeowner with a 5,000-square-foot lot and a 2,500-square-foot home, the fee would be about $5 a month.

Here’s the Renew Houston press release on this. For background and details about what Renew Houston is proposing, see John, Perry, Tory, Neil, and me. My impression of this idea and plan is a favorable one, and as things stand now I would vote for it. But of course many people are not so inclined – I expect this to be a tough campaign for them, especially if there is an organized and funded opposition. What are these people going to say?

“On days like today, I think it’s obvious why we need some improvements,” said Allen Watson, an engineer and board member of the Metropolitan Transit Authority who is involved in the campaign. He was referring to the street flooding that has enveloped various parts of the city amid heavy rainfall in the past week. “It’s obvious why we need some improvements. The drainage systems are old.”

Critics point out that engineers involved in educating voters and bankrolling the drainage campaign stand to make money on projects that the referendum would pay for if it passes. Engineers have countered that they are best suited to educate the public about the problem, just as doctors may educate people about a problem they can make money treating.

Norman Adams, an activist who was among the leaders of a successful fight against a scuttled drainage fee plan during the Lee Brown administration, said voters are likely to reject such a “rain tax” in this political climate.

“Voters will see this as an additional property tax, and voters are so upset with property taxes now that it will be absolutely opposed,” he said.

My understanding is that Renew Houston’s plan differs significantly from the Brown plan, mostly because of its pay-as-you-go nature, but I’ll need to do a deeper review to be able to fully explain that. Be that as it may, it seems to me that if you oppose Renew Houston’s proposal, then you must either think the status quo is fine – that is, that Houston’s drainage system is adequate as is, and that the CIP process is sufficient to make needed repairs and improvements – or that there’s a better way of funding drainage improvement projects than Renew Houston’s plan. So let me ask that question directly to Norman Adams or anyone else who opposes the Renew Houston plan: Do you believe Houston’s drainage system is adequate, and that the mechanism we have now for maintenance of it is sufficient? If not, what is your preferred alternative? I would hope that in any future coverage of this campaign, those questions are asked of the opposition.

Anyway. The story notes that both the anti-red light camera forces and the Mayor White term limits commission are planning to submit their petition signatures as well, so depending on what the City Secretary has to say, we may have an even more crowded ballot this November. Mayor Parker has also indicated her support for the Renew Houston plan, which is the first time she has done so – see this KUHF story from earlier in the week for an example of what she had been saying previously, before the petition signatures were submitted. Finally, the Ultimate Memorial blog discusses how Renew Houston is making its pitch to neighborhoods.

Several area Super Neighborhood councils have discussed the issue. And though none have given their full support, they do find the interesting enough to ask for more information and more time to discuss.

Ed Browne, a Memorial City District Drainage Coalition founder, recommends that all super neighborhoods and organizations raise three issues when RENEW representatives come speak to their groups so that the political action committee endorsing the proposed fee understands the need for fundamental changes in the way business is done in Houston.

There must be no more unwarranted variances given to developers by the city of Houston, he said. The city must enforce its ordinance that requires detention. And there needs to be an end to “grandfathering.”

Good questions all. That’s a discussion worth having, and one I look forward to.

UPDATE: John Coby has more.

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.

More on Renew Houston

The effort to create a dedicated fund for flooding and drainage is moving along at a good clip.

Renew Houston, the non-profit committee formed to seek at least 22,000 ballot signatures in a bid to put the matter to voters in November, sent direct mail this week to about 150,000 households. Many received automated phone messages about the proposed charter amendment, as well.

If approved by voters, the proposal would create a dedicated fund for drainage and street renewal, using revenues from fees charged to businesses, homeowners and developers, as well as a portion of property tax money that presently is being used to pay off debt associated with infrastructure projects.

[…]

The $8 billion to improve drainage would come primarily from three sources. First, the “Stormwater User Fee” that is expected to amount to about $5 per month for an average homeowner and $90 a month for an average commercial property owner with 14 units per acre.

Second, a “Development Impact Fee” would set up a program by which developers have to pay for the degree to which their projects impact density.

Third, a “pay-as-you-go” plan that would take the estimated one-sixth of total city property tax revenues used now to pay for interest costs on debt that has financed infrastructure and drainage projects and apply it directly to new projects. In other words, the city would not incur additional debt to pay for infrastructure as part of the plan and as old debts are paid off, money used to make those payments would be put to drainage and infrastructure projects.

You can see a bit more about Renew Houston at their web page, though it’s a bit light on details at this point. I’m somewhat unclear on that last item above, but as it happens I’ll be attending a briefing by the Renew Houston folks today, so one way or another I hope to get my questions answered. I’ll post something about that afterward.