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Sylvester Turner

William-Paul Thomas

This is bad. The question is how much worse might it be.

William-Paul Thomas, the mayor’s council liaison, was offered more than $13,000 by a local bar owner to help him pass a building inspection and fast-track a new permit to reopen a bar as a restaurant, newly unsealed court documents show.

Thomas contacted the “relevant” fire official to ensure the unnamed business owner passed the inspection in May 2020, prosecutors wrote, and then he used his position in the mayor’s office to “pressure other officials” to approve the permit in July, as well. He was paid an undisclosed amount of money for his efforts.

Thomas pleaded guilty on July 25 to one federal count of conspiracy to accept a bribe. He will appear for sentencing before U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen on Nov. 28. His lawyer, Monique Chantelle Sparks, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The documents were sealed until Wednesday morning at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s office. The Chronicle published an article about the allegations Tuesday night. Thomas’ plea deal, however, remains sealed.

It is unclear whether federal investigators are looking into the unnamed city officials Thomas allegedly worked with to get the certificate and permit approved, or if they are conducting a broader inquiry into City Hall affairs.

Sean Buckley, a legal expert on federal judicial procedures, said Thomas’ quick guilty plea and his willingness to forgo a probable cause hearing before a grand jury means he likely agreed they had strong information against him. It also suggests Thomas may be part of a wider investigation by the Justice Department.

Thomas abruptly resigned from his City Hall position last Wednesday, one day after pleading guilty. He told the mayor in an 11:30 p.m. email he was retiring due to health reasons.

[…]

City Attorney Arturo Michel said later Wednesday the office of the inspector general is opening its own investigation, based on the document’s charges that Thomas worked with officials in the fire department and permitting office to approve the requests.

Prosecutors say the bar owner — whom they did not name — needed to pass a city fire inspection to get a temporary certificate of occupancy in May 2020. He turned to Thomas for help.

“Thomas, in his official capacity, placed calls to the relevant Houston Fire Department official to ensure that COMPANY 1 would pass its fire inspection and be issued its TCO,” the charging document says. The owner then paid Thomas an undisclosed amount of money after he got the certificate.

It is not clear which fire department official Thomas contacted. Fire Chief Samuel Peña said it difficult to identify the person without the name of the business.

The business owner reached out again in June 2020, after his bar — a separate business — was shut down by the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission. COVID-19 restrictions around that time ordered bars to close but allowed restaurants to continue operating with limited capacity.

“On July 6, 2020, BUSINESSMAN 1 offered THOMAS up to $13,0000 to have the necessary permit issued quickly so that COMPANY 2 could reopen,” the document says. “THOMAS agreed to use his official position to pressure other officials to issue the permit quickly, all in exchange for money.”

Thomas then used his position to “pressure other officials” to grant the necessary permit, and the owner was allowed to open as a restaurant. It is not clear which specific permit the owner was seeking from the city; the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission was responsible for classifying bars and restaurants based on the percentage of sales that came from alcohol.

Buckley, a federal defense lawyer who represented former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman and authored a book on federal criminal rules and codes used by trial attorneys across the country, reviewed the court documents at the request of the Houston Chronicle. He is not involved in the case.

“He’s obviously cooperating because no one who is a target in a federal investigation would ever agree to plea to a criminal information unless there have been extensive discussions between the target, his lawyer and the government leading up to that decision,” Buckley said.

“Either the government lawyers showed him what they had or he knew what they had. He knew he had everything to gain by cooperating and agreeing to plead guilty without forcing the government to get an indictment from the grand jury, and much to lose by not cooperating.”

Buckley said it also clear the investigation, by prosecutors from the public corruption unit, has been going on for months and there likely is a wider-ranging investigation underway involving multiple defendants.

“My read on this is that this person has something of value to the government,” Buckley said.

He said the documents also indicate “there is an environment in the city of Houston that allows this type of thing to take place.”

I will say up front that I am acquainted with William-Paul. As is the case in this kind of situation, I’m shocked to see the story. I don’t know him well enough to say more than that, but as I have met him and talked to him, I wanted to say so.

I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have no experience in these matters, but it seems to me unlikely that there would be only one such transgression like this. If nothing else, I would think the FBI wouldn’t prioritize a case with one crime of this nature. I’d expect that the bribe payer and whoever was involved with the Fire Department and permitting office will be implicated next. The big question is then whether it goes beyond that, and if so how far. There is certainly the potential for this to be big, but we won’t know until the FBI tells us, and as we know from other experiences that may take a long time. In the meantime, I wouldn’t want to be BUSINESSMAN 1 or anyone else who might be implicated. Don’t take or give bribes, y’all.

We need more monkeypox vaccines

We have a chance to get on top of this. Let’s try to take it.

Houston-area leaders on Monday evening called for more vaccines to combat the small but growing number of local monkeypox infections.

There are 57 reported cases in the Houston area, including 10 in unincorporated Harris County. The Houston area recently received just over 5,000 doses of the JYNNEOS monkeypox vaccine from the state, but demand still far exceeds supply, health officials say. A two-dose series, administered four weeks apart, is required for full vaccination.

“What we learned from COVID is when the demand is high and supply is limited, people are very, very frustrated,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a news conference at Houston TranStar headquarters. “Now with monkeypox, with all the attention that’s been brought to it, the demand is very high.”

The World Health Organization over the weekend declared monkeypox a global health emergency. Monkeypox for years has been endemic in certain parts of Africa but has spread worldwide in recent weeks, with most cases among men who have sex with men.

[…]

The risk to the general public is low, health officials say. There have been no reported deaths among the roughly 2,800 cases in the U.S., and hospitalizations are mostly for pain management. There is at least one hospitalized monkeypox patient in Houston.

Even so, cases continue to rise around the world, and Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo suggested at the press conference that a more preventative approach is needed in Houston.

“We have an opportunity to leap frog ahead of this virus to try to mitigate it in a way we couldn’t do with covid,” Hidalgo said.

Before the latest shipment, Houston and Harris County health departments have been making due with a few hundred monkeypox vaccines, prioritizing those suspected of coming into contact with a confirmed case.

There was a similar story from Dallas the day before this one came out. The monkeypox vaccine has been around for years, the issue was that it wasn’t readily available around the country. That is starting to change, and a broader group of people are eligible to receive it now, so as I said in the title, maybe we can get ahead of this before it gets to be too big. The good news is that this isn’t an easily transmitted virus, but it is very much out there now and the number of people who are infected with it will grow in the absence of action. Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo are on the right page here. They just need some support from the feds.

UPDATE: Followup story, Harris County has received more vaccines, a few hours after having to suspend vaccination appointments.

July 2022 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

We’re still more than a year out from the 2023 election, but we are now up to three serious conteners for Mayor, plus two others in the wild, so the finance reports are beginning to generate some real interest. The January 2022 reports are here, the July 2021 reports are here.


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Turner       209,950    129,870        0     802,194

Peck          19,100     19,457    5,000      24,057
Jackson       17,400     11,330        0      33,436
Kamin         86,461     14,691        0     193,807
E-Shabazz      8,000      5,591        0      17,691
Martin         2,500     18,138        0     151,767
Thomas         5,750      2,887        0      51,761
Huffman       45,350     45,284        0      30,697
Cisneros      13,500      1,164        0      38,094
Gallegos      27,050     14,126        0     127,933
Pollard      286,341     11,800   40,000     716,441
C-Tatum       51,950     16,089        0     154,697

Knox          18,425     10,266        0      37,185
Robinson      67,675     17,595        0     247,700
Kubosh        14,000     31,141  196,000      59,273
Plummer                   6,417    8,175      33,010
Alcorn        38,305     17,321        0     178,429

Brown            500      4,849   75,000      34,861

Hollins    1,123,316    138,079        0     941,155
Edwards      789,227     96,378        0     712,066

As a reminder, no links to individual reports here because the city’s system generates PDF downloads, and I don’t have the time to rename and upload and share them. Next year, when there are candidates, I’ll do that. Not this time.

All of the current officeholders submitted reports in a timely fashion this period. The only oddity was with the report for CM Letitia Plummer, which did not list an amount raised on either the summary or section totals pages. She clearly did raise some money, as a perusal of the rest of the report shows, but didn’t include a total for it anywhere. I didn’t feel like tallying it up myself, so I left the mystery in place. The only non-officeholders of interest to file reports are the two 2023 Mayoral candidates listed at the bottom, who made a decent splash with their unprecedented totals for this point in the cycle. While he did not file a city of Houston report yet, and while there is some uncertainty about how much he can move from his state account, Sen. John Whitmire had $9.7 million on hand as of July 15. Even if he can only transfer, say, 25% of that, it’s a lot of cash to start out with.

We must once again talk about the finance report for Ed Pollard, who I will say again must be planning something for his future because there is absolutely no need for this level of fundraising for his re-election campaign in District J. I had speculated that maybe he was aiming for a Mayoral campaign, but at this point that seems less likely – I can’t rule it out, but there’s already a big field of well-financed players, and Pollard would be the least known and tied for least-funded among them. Maybe next time, or maybe something in 2024? Or maybe he just really likes fundraising? Who knows.

Other than that, honestly kind of a boring set of reports. Things should start to get more interesting with the January 2023 reports – if nothing else, I’d expect to see a few new names. I’ll skip the HISD and HCC reports this cycle so look for those next January as well. I’ll round up a few state reports of interest for next time. Let me know what you think.

DOJ investigating discrimination claims against Houston for response to illegal dumping

I look forward to seeing what this finds.

Huey German-Wilson and her Trinity Gardens and Houston Gardens neighbors kept finding tires, medical waste and other trash in their streets. So they took charge. They sought to log each instance with the city’s 311 system, hoping the complaints would inspire the city to clean up the debris.

Their efforts beginning six years ago went nowhere, German-Wilson said. The Super Neighborhood president watched as the illegally dumped items piled up so much they blocked people from driving down the streets. Residents told her they stopped calling 311 because they didn’t think the city would do anything.

But on Friday, people in the Gardens learned they may get help: The Justice Department announced it is investigating whether the city violated residents’ civil rights by responding differently to illegal dumping complaints in areas where the majority of the population is Black and Latino. The investigation developed out of a complaint Lone Star Legal Aid filed on behalf of Gardens residents.

“It brings attention to the fact that these little Black and brown communities are fighting a fight that seemed lost,” German-Wilson said. “And the Department of Justice is saying, ‘No, it’s not lost.’”

Lone Star Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm in Houston, in December accused Houston of intentionally discriminating against some residents. The city responded more slowly to 311 requests for service in the northeast Houston neighborhood than in whiter, more affluent places, the document said.

Some 311 requests even prompted concerns about retaliation from city workers. In one instance after a complaint was filed, the city cited every house on the block except the caller’s for city ordinance violations, Lone Star’s complaint said. The infractions included having a trash can outside a gate.

recent Houston Chronicle review of six months of 311 data found widespread problems across the city, with some areas submitting repeated complaints. Construction debris littered neighborhood sidewalks or filled drainage ditches. Residents also reported that animal corpses had been dumped hurriedly overnight.

Mayor Sylvester Turner in a scathing statement Friday defended the city’s service to communities of color. Black and Latino areas were disproportionately suffering from illegal dumping, he agreed. Houston has spent millions of dollars on bulk waste collection and doubled the fine for illegal dumping to $4,000, the maximum allowed under state law.

Turner suggested that the federal law enforcement efforts would be more worthwhile elsewhere, though he said his office would cooperate.

“This investigation is absurd, baseless, and without merit,” Turner said, adding that it is “a slap in the face to the City and the many people who diligently work to address illegal dumping daily and prevent environmental injustice.”

The failure to treat residents equally threatens the health and safety of Black and Latino people and devalues their property, said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who oversees civil rights investigations in Washington, D.C. The case also exemplifies broader environmental justice concerns the agency is working to combat. Justice officials confirmed the Houston case is one of two such investigations its department is carrying out.

“Illegal dumping is a longstanding environmental justice issue,” Clarke said, “and like many other environmental justice issues it often disproportionately burdens Black and Latino communities.”

Dumping has been a problem in Houston for a long time. Every candidate for City Council District B, which is where the bulk of the activity in this story is, has talked about doing things to combat it. The city has done some things, as Mayor Turner says, also including more camera surveillance to try to catch the dumpers. That doesn’t mean that they city’s response to complaints from residents has been just and equitable. I’d like to think that it has, and I hope this investigation shows that it mostly has been, but whatever else it finds I’m certain there will be many ways where it can and should improve. If in the end there’s a consent decree to address the problems, like there was with the sewer system, that’s fine. Let’s fix what’s broken and make things better for the people who need that. The Trib has more.

Bitcoin and the firefighters’ pension fund

Okay.

When the Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund bought $25 million in cryptocurrencies, with the fund’s chief investment officer touting their potential, retired fire Capt. Russell Harris was concerned.

Harris, 62, has attended the funerals of 34 firefighters killed in the line of duty. He was already worried about his pension after an overhaul by state and city officials cut payments as they grappled with the ability to pay out benefits. He didn’t see crypto, unproven in his eyes, as an answer.

“I don’t like it,” Harris said. “There’s too many pyramid schemes that everybody gets wrapped up in. That’s the way I see this cryptocurrency at this time. … There might be a place for it, but it’s still new and nobody understands it.”

The plunge in prices for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in recent weeks provides a cautionary tale for the handful of public pension funds that have dipped their toes in the crypto pool over the past few years. Most have done it indirectly through stocks or investment funds that serve as proxies for the larger crypto market. A lack of transparency makes it difficult to tell whether they’ve made or lost money, let alone how much, and for the most part fund officials won’t say.

But the recent crypto meltdown has prompted a larger question: For pension funds that ensure teachers, firefighters, police and other public workers receive guaranteed benefits in retirement after public service, is any amount of crypto investment too risky?

[…]

The U.S. Department of Labor urges “extreme care” in crypto investments because of the high risks. The recent plunge in crypto prices has caused Washington to more closely scrutinize the freewheeling industry. After the collapse of $40 billion crypto asset known as Terra, senators in both parties have proposed legislation that would regulate crypto for the first time, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has called for more oversight of crypto ventures.

The Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund’s cryptocurrency investment wasn’t very big — just $15 million in what was then a $5.5 billion portfolio.

It’s not clear how that panned out in the cryptocurrency market slide this year. Officials from fund and the union didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. But the fund bought in when bitcoin prices were close to their peak of nearly $67,000, and they’ve been on the decline since then, dipping below $20,000 in June.

The fund’s chairman, Brett Besselman, said in a first-quarter report that it was healthy with an overall rate of return of 33.7% in 2021. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said earlier this year that the 2017 overhaul is working well and, thanks to strong returns in 2021, has put his city’s pension funds well ahead of schedule toward eliminating their unfunded liabilities.

Houston’s experiment, which fund managers touted as the first announced direct purchase of digital assets by a U.S. pension plan, followed a series of bigger but indirect investments by two pension funds for Fairfax County of Virginia. They put over $120 million into funds that seek opportunities in the crypto world, such as blockchain technology, digital tokens and cryptocurrency derivatives. As in Houston, the Virginia investments are a tiny share of the funds’ $7.2 billion in assets.

Since 2018, the Fairfax County Employees’ Retirement System and Fairfax County Police Officers Retirement System have put money into venture capital funds that invest in blockchain and a hedge fund that seeks to harness some of the volatility inherent in the space, said Jeffrey Weiler, executive director of Fairfax County Retirement Systems. He said the goal was to invest in infrastructure that underlies blockchain technology, which managers continue to view as a high-growth area.

I’m not a finance guy, and while I’m very skeptical of cryptocurrency it’s not my place to critique the investing decisions that the HFRRF wishes to make. Until such time as they threaten to put us taxpayers on the hook for their decisions, which they have not done here. I agree with the exhortation that pension funds in particular be extremely careful about making these investments, and I would like to see tight regulation about how much investing in crypto these funds can make. In the meantime, I thought this was worth taking note of.

Hollins and Edwards report big Mayoral fundraising numbers

Yes, we’re going to need to start paying attention to this.

Chris Hollins

Houston’s next mayoral election is not for another 18 months, but the early contenders already are raising heaps of cash.

Former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has taken in more than $1.1 million in the first five months of his bid, according to data his campaign released Thursday. And former City Councilmember Amanda Edwards has raised about $780,000 since launching her candidacy on March 23, her campaign announced.

Both of those numbers far exceed what City Hall contenders historically have reported this far out from the election, as the November 2023 campaigns get off to an early start.

Five candidates already have announced their campaigns to succeed Mayor Sylvester Turner when his second term ends in January 2024: Hollins, Edwards, state Sen. John Whitmire, attorney Lee Kaplan and police officer Robin Williams.

Despite the strong fundraising starts from Hollins and Edwards, Whitmire will be the financial heavyweight in the race. The state senator, who has served in the Texas Legislature since 1973, has a war chest of more than $9.7 million in his state account, according to his latest filing.

When Turner made the jump from the Legislature to a mayoral campaign, he was allowed to transfer $900,000 of his funds, even though an opponent argued it was forbidden by city ordinance. City attorneys said at the time that Turner could transfer the first $5,000 from each donation to comply with the city’s more stringent cap on contributions. It is not yet clear exactly how much Whitmire will be able to transfer when he launches his mayoral campaign officially, likely this fall.

Amanda Edwards

Finance reports for declared candidates are due Friday and cover the first six months of this year. Williams and Kaplan have not publicly disclosed fundraising numbers yet.

[…]

The numbers set a new bar for fundraising this early. At this stage in the 2015 race, then-state Rep. Sylvester Turner reported raising $166,600 in donations and had $366,351 in the bank, although he had yet to formally declare his mayoral candidacy. Hollins has raised more money so far this year than Turner reported in all of 2014: $824,000, according to the mayor’s state filings at the time. Turner later would begin his mayoral candidacy in 2015 with $900,000 that he transferred from his state account.

Among other candidates that year, former Kemah Mayor Bill King and then-Sheriff Adrian Garcia did not report any contributions in July 2014, and had not announced candidacies at that point. The black-out ordinance still was in place at that point, and Garcia was barred from transferring his county account. Then-City Councilmember Stephen Costello reported $215,600 in contributions, with about $308,325 on hand. Each of those candidates would break the million-dollar threshold in the actual election year.

Eighteen months before his re-election, Turner reported $585,000 in contributions, though he had a campaign account of $2.2 million at that point. He broke the million-dollar threshold in both January and July 2019, and raised $1.7 million in the month between the 2019 general and runoff elections.

I will of course have a post on the city of Houston finance reports for July, along with those for Congress and Harris County and probably some state races. It’s going to be a busy weekend. Also, Adrian Garcia could not have announced any fundraising numbers for Mayor in 2014 because he was still Sheriff, and had to resign as Sheriff as soon as he announced his candidacy. That happened in early 2015. I knew that Mayor Turner had transferred money from his state account to his city campaign, but I’d forgotten what constraints he had. I suspect that Sen. Whitmire will still be able to move a fair amount of his existing treasury, and will have no trouble raising more. How much, we may soon see.

Houston vies for 2028 RNC

I’ll be sure to be out of town if we get it.

Houston wants the GOP to come to the Bayou City for its national convention in 2028.

City Council on Wednesday voted 14-2 to pass a resolution in support of hosting the 2028 Republican National Convention, with the hopes of adding another blockbuster event to the city’s portfolio. Councilmembers Abbie Kamin and Robert Gallegos voted no, saying their constituents are negatively affected by the GOP platform.

Houston separately has applied to host the 2024 Democratic National Convention, as well. It is in the second phase of that process, competing with New York City, Chicago and Atlanta.

Both parties invited the city to bid for the events. Houston could not bid for the 2024 Republican National Convention because it had conflicting events at the convention center for the RNC’s desired dates.

City officials said Houston was one of only a few cities nationwide to get invites from both Republicans and Democrats, according to news reports.

[…]

Houston First does not publicize its bid, but the convention would take place at the Toyota Center if the RNC chooses Houston, Heckman said. Other programming would include the George R. Brown Convention Center. If Houston is selected, the RNC and city then would work out an agreement for services and how to cover their costs.

Houston has not hosted a national convention since 1992, when former President George H.W. Bush was nominated for re-election at the Astrodome. It has not hosted the Democrats since 1928.

See here for the background. I remember that 1992 convention. I was doing clinic defense at the Planned Parenthood, which was still on Fannin in what we’d now call Midtown. They still had their main entrance right on the street. It was a wild time. I understand why the city will make a bid for this event. I will also be happy if we don’t get it.

Chron story on the proposed new City Council map

Remember, you heard it here first.

Houston’s proposed City Council maps for 2023 elections make only minor changes to district boundaries near Rice University, Freedmen’s Town and parts of downtown.

Overall, less than 3% of Houston’s 2.3 million residents will change districts under the proposal, which is designed to balance district populations based on 2020 Census data, while complying with city requirements and the Voting Rights Act, according to City Demographer Jerry Wood.

By law, none of the 11 districts should vary by more than 10 percent from the average district population of approximately 209,000 residents. This means that Houston’s three most populous districts – Districts C, D and G – will lose some of their lands. Meanwhile, Districts H, I and J will need to expand.

“Unlike redistricting for legislative districts, there’s a lot more identification with a neighborhood that the civic leaders have and also the relationship that they establish with their council members,” Wood said. “So the desire is to create as little disruption as possible.”

[…]

In recent months, the public has repeatedly requested the city to keep super neighborhoods together, Wood said, something that demographers did not have in mind when initially dividing up the population.

The proposal managed to move Braeburn, a super neighborhood on the southwest side, into a single district and bring together most of Eastex – Jensen, one in north Houston. But Wood said he was not able to unite Greater Heights in north central or South Belt on the southeast side.

“Sometimes there are requests that simply are impossible,” Wood said.

The city has hired a law firm in anticipation of legal challenges. For one, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, has promised to sue the city over what its advocates characterize as a gross underrepresentation of Latinos on the City Council.

The lawsuit hopes to replace the city’s five at-large seats, which represent voters citywide, with single-member seats, which cover a certain geographical area. Sergio Lira, a Houston-based leader with LULAC, said his team is on track to file the lawsuit later this month.

“We anticipated that there would not be any major changes to the maps this time and that the city was not going to disrupt things too much,” Lira said. “It’s going to take a lawsuit in order to change the system.”

See here for my post on the new map, along with the schedule for public hearings, and here for my post about the promise of a lawsuit to ditch the At Large Council seats. Several cities have moved partly or fully away from At Large Council systems to all-district or hybrid systems in recent years, some with more of a fuss about it than others – Austin, Pasadena, Irving, Farmers Branch. It’s hard to say how litigation on this matter might go in this current climate, but on the other hand if the city lost in a federal district court it’s not clear to me that they’d pursue an appeal. This is an excellent place to get caught making dumb predictions, so I’ll stop myself before I go too far. I’ll wait and see what happens when LULAC files their complaint. In the meantime, attend one of those hearings if this interests you.

GLO threatens to take away more Harvey relief funds from Houston

Oh, hell no.

The state General Land Office says it may have to take over more of the city’s Hurricane Harvey housing relief programs, citing what it says is consistently sluggish progress on a slew of the initiatives.

The land office said in a July 1 letter to city officials that it has “little confidence” Houston will be able to rectify its issues and complete the programs. The state agency said it will consider adjustments necessary to get those programs across the finish line, which could include removing funds from the city’s portfolio. The exact remedy, though, is not yet clear, and the GLO stressed that any money taken from the city’s portfolio would still go to victims in Houston.

City officials say the letter fails to account for progress they say they have made in recent months, and they are preparing a formal response to address the specific points outlined in the letter.

The warning marks the latest development in a years-long dispute between state and city officials involving billions of dollars in relief money, which was approved by Congress after Hurricane Harvey to replenish housing stock in the region. The city got about $1.3 billion of that money from the land office to rebuild and reconstruct single family homes damaged in the storm, construct new and affordable apartment complexes, and buy out flood-prone properties, among other programs.

You can read on for the details, and there’s a later story with more of them. Normally, I’d highlight those details and try to assess their validity, and weigh the various actions and counterproposals and so on and so forth, but not this time. That’s because the GLO, under soon-to-be-former Land Commissioner George P. Bush, has proven itself to be a completely unreliable and untrustworthy source, both of the truth and of the funds. I don’t believe a word they say, I don’t give them any benefit of the doubt, and I refuse to accept their authority. If a year from now the next Land Commissioner – hopefully Jay Kleberg, but I’ll give Dawn Buckingham a chance to prove she’s not a total shill – is still complaining about Houston’s capabilities, then we can talk. Until then, I call bullshit.

Is there one last twist in the West 11th Street saga?

This was posted as an update to the change.org petition in support of the West 11th Street project:

The opposition to making 11th street safer is asking TXDOT to stop the project-we need your help!

The group that has organized against making 11th street safer is not giving up after the mayor’s decision to move forward. Instead, they are asking TXDOT to intervene and stop the project, which the state has done before in Houston.

Please consider emailing your state representative (https://wrm.capitol.texas.gov/home) and the governor (https://gov.texas.gov/apps/contact/opinion.aspx) to express your support for the city’s plan to make 11th street safer.

See here for the previous update, which includes a comment making the same claim, that opponents of the project are going to TxDOT to try to stop it. I inquired about the reference to TxDOT stepping in on a project before in Houston, and I think that may have been said in error. There is the recent example of TxDOT taking control of a stretch of Broadway in San Antonio, which scuttled that city’s plans for a redesign that included a “road diet”. That piece of Broadway had previously been a part of the state highway system and was transferred to San Antonio a few years ago; TxDOT acted to rescind that transfer.

As far as I know, West 11th Street has only ever been a city of Houston street, so TxDOT would not have the same ability to intervene. That said, sticking it to cities is now a core component of Republican ideology, and making a similar move here would be politically consistent. I don’t know how to evaluate anything outside of a political lens these days. What I’m saying is that while I, a mostly normal person, don’t see a means for TxDOT to step in, that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen, not if Greg Abbott decides it’s a good idea. Another possibility would be for the Republicans in the Legislature to pass a bill in 2023 that limits or bans “road diets” in some fashion, thus potentially stopping this project before it could be completed. Given the legislative calendar and the fact that construction is scheduled to start in the next couple of months, that seems less likely to be effective.

I really don’t know how the opponents can succeed here. There’s no clear path for them. But given everything we’ve seen and experienced recently, I’m hesitant to say it can’t happen. Go ahead and contact your legislators and the Governor’s office with your support. It can’t hurt.

We’re still not going to get a special session for gun safety legislation

But I still appreciate the effort. Someone has to do it.

With Texas schools restarting classes in less than two months, Texas Senate Democrats renewed calls Monday for Gov. Greg Abbott to bring lawmakers back to Austin this summer to enact legislation that might prevent another mass shooting like the one at a Uvalde elementary school that killed 19 students and two teachers last month.

The senators said if lawmakers reconvene for a special session, they would support proposals like raising the age to legally own an assault weapon from 18 to 21, creating red flag laws for gun purchases, instituting a 72-hour “cooling off” period and regulating the private sale of firearms.

But first there has to be a debate, and a vote, to let Texans know where their elected officials stand on how to respond to the Uvalde shooting, said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and was unsuccessful in passing his red flag legislation last session.

“The people are urging us to take action, but first we have to let them know we’re listening to them,” he said. “We’ve heard the public, we want to represent them, but we have to have a session to do that.”

The Senators have been calling for a special session for many weeks following the Uvalde massacre. They are now joined by multiple Mayors.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg is part of a bipartisan group of 13 Texas mayors who sent a letter demanding Texas Gov. Greg Abbott call a special legislative session to address gun violence in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting.

Abbott, a Republican up for reelection in the fall, has asked state lawmakers to organize committees to look into school safety following the massacre, which killed 19 students and two teachers. However, he’s balked at calling a special session and has avoided discussion of new firearms laws — something that would anger the powerful gun lobby.

The letter calls on Abbott to enact reforms the mayors say are backed by the majority of Texans and could prevent future mass shootings.

“We represent a continuum of political ideology and have come together because we know most Texans have a strong desire for common sense reform to protect our children,” they said. “As mayors, we believe the legislature and executive leaders can come together to find the right solutions for Texas.”

The letter also asks Abbott to place the following reforms on the legislative agenda.

  • Requiring universal background checks for gun purchases.
  • Increasing the age to purchase assault weapons in Texas to 21.
  • Passing “red flag” laws to identify threats before shootings.
  • Boosting mental health support funding.
  • Training and properly equipping school safety officers.

Texas isn’t among the 19 U.S. states to enact “red flag” laws, which prevent people at risk of harming themselves or others from purchasing firearms.

In addition to Nirenberg, the letter is signed by Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson and Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker, among others.

As always, I appreciate the effort. And also as always, I fully expect Greg Abbott to cover his ears and start singing “Baby Shark” or whatever it is he does to self-soothe these days, because it ain’t gonna happen. You probably didn’t pay much attention to the fascistic shitshow known as the Texas Republican Convention from last week, but Greg Abbott did. That’s who he’s listening to (and deathly afraid of), not a bunch of Democrats and mayors. The Chron and the Dallas Observer have more.

West 11th Street will proceed as planned

Good.

Plans to narrow 11th Street in the Heights, which have divided residents wider than the four-lane road some are trying to maintain, will proceed, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

“This change isn’t easy and won’t satisfy everyone,” Turner said in a videotaped message released by his office. “We are trading off speed for safety.”

Under the proposed design, a 1.5-mile straight stretch of 11th from Shepherd east to Michaux would be reduced from two lanes to one in each direction, and turns would be restricted to certain streets through the installation of a concrete median.

Factoring for the 30-day pause Turner put on the project to make his decision, work on the street — estimated to cost around $600,000 — could start in late summer or early fall. Work on the final design will start immediately, said David Fields, chief transportation planner for the city.

[…]

The debate in recent months set off a vigorous back and forth, with critics and supporters both using online petitions and grass-roots block-walking to steer people to their sides. Area civic clubs supported the project, while numerous businesses along 11th and Studewood opposed the plan.

Turner, after two visits to the site and a review of the plans because of the critics’ concerns, was not swayed. He noted more than 300 people were killed and 1,600 seriously injured in roadway crashes in Houston last year, something he attributed to unsafe streets.

“We must put a stop to it and 11th Street can be one place to start,” Turner said. “This is the hard work, in making our streets safe for all modes… Traffic on 11th Street will have to go slower.”

See here and here for some background; as a reminder, there are now CURBS Houston signs advocating for the West 11th Street plan out there, too. I’m happy with this outcome and look forward to it progressing. Given my tendencies, I’ll probably take some pictures along the way. You have been warned. CultureMap has more.

Would you believe there’s still Renew Houston litigation out there?

This hit my mailbox on Friday.

Today, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled in the City’s favor in Perez v. Turner, a challenge to Houston’s drainage fee, which provides the City with $125 million per year to pay for drainage infrastructure projects.

The Court found that plaintiff’s challenges failed because of Houston’s authority as a home – rule city to enact a drainage program.

“The City remains committed to protecting its citizens and their homes from flooding. The City’s continued ability to charge a drainage fee will allow it to do so in a fiscally responsible way and undertake essential drainage projects now and in the future,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner.

What the heck? Off to the Supreme Court website I scurry, and I find this.

Plaintiff Elizabeth Perez filed this case in 2015 challenging the City of Houston’s assessment, collection, and expenditure of a “drainage fee.” Perez alleged that the ordinance authorizing the drainage fee was invalid because the ordinance was premised on a faulty amendment to the city charter. She sought a variety of relief for herself and a class of similarly situated taxpayers, including a declaration of the drainage fee ordinance’s invalidity, an injunction against the City’s collection of drainage fees, and reimbursement of drainage fees already paid.

The nature of this case changed dramatically in November 2018, while the case was on appeal. The City passed a new charter amendment curing many of the defects Perez alleged in the drainage fee ordinance. Although the parties’ briefing is less than clear about the effect on this case of the 2018 charter amendment, Perez conceded at oral argument that the passage of the new charter amendment significantly truncated her original claims. As we construe what remains of this case after the November 2018 amendment, Perez has two ongoing claims—one for reimbursement of the drainage fees she paid prior to 2018, and one for a narrow prospective injunction against the future expenditure of fees collected prior to 2018. As explained below, we affirm the lower courts’ dismissal of these claims, but we remand the case to the district court to allow Perez to replead in light of intervening events.

What follows was a longish and very technical opinion that my non-layer brain could not quite wade through. I remember the re-vote on Renew Houston in 2018, which became a likelihood after SCOTx ruled in 2015 that the original 2010 ballot language “obscured the nature and cost of the drainage fee”. The case was sent back to the district court, which then voided the referendum. The re-vote was subsequently held to address those issues. One of the original plaintiffs filed another lawsuit after that 2015 ruling to get back the money she had paid in drainage fees and to compel the city to refund anything they had previously spent from ReBuild; this ruling was an outgrowth of that later litigation, which I either didn’t notice at the time or didn’t follow. I think the bottom line at this point is that it’s very unlikely that any new challenges to Renew/ReBuild Houston will succeed, but the plaintiff is welcome to try her luck again in the district court, and maybe in another five years or so we’ll get a final ruling on that.

C’mon, we should get to see the city’s after-action report on the freeze

This is silly.

Houston will not release its retrospective report on the 2021 winter freeze, citing a post-9/11 law shielding information that could be exposed by terrorists or criminals.

The city drafted a report, called “After-Action Report/Improvement Plans for the 2021 Winter Storm,” after the February freeze, when plunging temperatures crippled the state’s electrical grid and led to hundreds of deaths across Texas.

The prolonged power outages, paired with tens of thousands of burst water pipes, also brought down Houston’s water system. The city at times was unable to send water to customers, including the Harris County Jail and parts of the Texas Medical Center. The system was under a state-mandated boil water advisory for four days. More than a dozen generators failed at city water plants, inhibiting their ability to withstand the electrical outages.

The after-action report includes information about the city’s response and adjustments it has made to plan for future events. It details operational coordination, communication procedures, and emergency medical services, among other information.

The Chronicle requested the report in February 2022 under the Texas Public Information Act, but the city sought the opinion of the attorney general’s office, which said the city must withhold the document. City attorneys argued the information could help criminals or terrorists plot an attack.

The Texas Government Code says municipalities must withhold information that is collected “for the purpose of preventing, detecting, responding to, or investigating an act of terrorism or related criminal activity,” and relates to staffing requirement and tactical plans. It also allows an exemption for assessments about how to protect people, property or critical infrastructure from terrorism or criminal activity. Those exemptions were added as part of the Homeland Security Act, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2003.

[…]

Joseph Larsen, a Houston attorney who has worked on public information cases, said the issue lies in the broad interpretation of the exemptions by governments seeking to withhold documents, the attorney general’s office tasked with enforcing it, and the courts that review those decisions.

“Their hands are not tied, that’s just ridiculous. They can release the report if they want to,” Larsen said of the city. “This is one of the very worst exceptions… It can be used to basically withhold anything.”

Governments often use the terrorism exemption to the Texas Public Information Act to shield weather readiness plans, Larsen said. Similar arguments were made to conceal plans made after Hurricane Ike. And the city is not the only one to use it for the winter storm. The Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state’s electrical grid, has been raising the same argument, according to Larsen.

The open records law is supposed to be “liberally construed in favor of granting a request for information,” the attorney general’s office has said. Exceptions to that rule should be interpreted narrowly, Larsen said.

“They’re not being narrowly interpreted, and that’s just a fact,” Larsen said. “They allow government bodies to cover their behinds for any specific event, and it prevents the public from actually fixing the problems, which is the whole point of freedom of information.”

I can believe that the existing law could be interpreted broadly enough to exclude this after-action report, and I can certainly believe that Ken Paxton’s office would prefer a sufficiently broad interpretation so as to keep most government activity under wraps. That doesn’t mean this is a good idea or that it’s the correct interpretation of the law. I don’t see what’s wrong with just doing a little redaction if there is some legitimately sensitive operational data in there. Blocking the whole thing, especially when there has already been reporting about what the city will do differently now, seems to me to serve no one. We can do better than that.

CURBS Houston

In my last post about the West 11th Street project, I’ve noted that opposition to the project has been featured in news stories about it, but I have not seen any mention of organized support from the neighborhood – BikeHouston is of course a major advocate, but I’m looking for something based in the Heights. I wanted to know this partly to help me assess the scope of the opposition – as noted in that previous post, their web skills are lacking and their claims are at best boastful, but I do see their signs in some yards around 11th Street – and also just because I support this project and want to know who else is out there.

Now I know. Janette Garza Lindner, who had run for HISD Trustee in District I (where I live) last year, reached out to tell me about CURBS Houston and its associated website Safe11th.org, which has its own petition in support of the project on its Take Action page. I met up with her and a couple other folks involved in CURBS last week, and it felt good to know that this work is being done to get much-needed improvements to bike and pedestrian mobility and safety in the neighborhood. I’ve now seen a couple of CURBS Houston signs in support of the West 11th project in front of houses and businesses along 11th Street, and hopefully will see more over time.

Via the CURBS Twitter page, I also found this Leader News story from a couple of weeks ago about other support for the West 11th Street project.

As Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner considers whether to move forward with the city’s plan to transform traffic on 11th Street, a collection of civic associations in the Heights area has thrown its weight behind the long-debated project.

President Mark Williamson of the Greater Heights Super Neighborhood Council, comprised of delegates from eight neighborhood associations, said it voted May 17 to write a letter of support for the 11th Street Bikeway, which calls for reducing the number of vehicular lanes on the Heights thoroughfare while adding protected bicycle lanes on both sides of the street. Williamson said the letter was submitted to Turner, local city council members and David Fields, the city’s chief transportation planner, earlier this week.

Turner, after saying in February that the multimodal infrastructure project would move forward following three years of public engagement and related modifications, announced during a city council meeting early this month that he would take at least 30 days to “take a closer look at it,” according to a spokesperson for the mayor.

“I honestly have no idea whether anything that any of these groups say will carry any weight,” Williamson said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the mayor’s 30-day freeze.

“I would like to think we’re not shouting into the wind and we’ll get listened to,” Williamson added.

[…]

Williamson said six of the eight civic associations within the super neighborhood council voted in favor of a letter of support, with the Houston Heights Association abstaining and the East Sunset Heights Association not sending a delegate to the meeting. The groups that voted in favor are the Clark Pines Civic Association, Montie Beach Civic Club, Norhill Neighborhood Association, Shady Acres Civic Club, Sunset Heights Civic Club and Woodland Heights Civic Association.

Each of those six groups already had submitted letters of support to the city, according to Williamson, who said their collective support comes with a series of caveats. The super neighborhood council asked the city to address some concerns expressed by businesses and residents, such as delivery truck access for 11th Street businesses and the potential for cut-through traffic on side streets as well as possible conflicts between motorists and cyclists at the entrances and exits to 11th Street properties. The letter also asks the city to dedicate resources to monitoring the project area after completion and addressing any unintended consequences that might arise.

Additionally, the super neighborhood council asked the city to expand the number of protected pedestrian crosswalks in the plan, which presently calls for a pedestrian refuge island at the intersection of 11th and Nicholson Street – identified by Houston cyclists as one of the most dangerous in the city – and protected crosswalks at White Oak Drive and Michaux Street as well as near Hogg Middle School, 1100 Merrill St.. The letter asks for similar infrastructure near Harvard Elementary, 810 Harvard St., and along 11th between Heights Boulevard and Studewood Street.

“There are definitely ways that the project could be better than what’s been proposed,” Williamson said.

We’re now past the “30 day pause” period – that was a subject of discussion I had with the CURBS folks – and are waiting to hear what happens now. I’m just glad to see this kind of institutional support for the project. It really does make a difference.

Finally, on a tangential note, I mentioned the Shepherd and Durham major investment project right at the end of the year. It’s moving along now, and while it won’t have any direct effects on the West 11th project it’s definitely part of a larger whole of street and sidewalk improvements. It’s also a lot more visible now, with active construction happening on a regular basis. You can keep up with it at ShepherdDurham.com and on the Shepherd Durham Project page.

City passes its budget

Not too much drama.

Houston’s $5.7 billion budget for the next fiscal year includes a big jump in revenue from water bills, raises for all city employees and the largest unspent reserves in years.

City Council voted 15-2 to adopt Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget Wednesday after working through more than 100 amendments pitched by council members. Councilmembers Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh were the lone no votes. The budget takes effect when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Dozens of amendments were ruled out of order after the mayor cracked down on proposals he said dealt with matters outside the budget. Only 16 amendments won approval, and just four actually moved money or enacted a practical change. The rest merely directed departments or the city to “study” or “explore” or “assess the opportunity” of new ideas, with no requirement to adopt or implement them.

“Over the last few years I’ve been very lenient. When I see that leniency being abused, I exercise my authority,” Turner said at the beginning of the meeting. “Now, I’m calling it as it should have been called…. I’m not going to be here all night on non-budgetary amendments.”

The approved budget relies on $130 million in federal COVID-19 relief money and a $100 million spike in sales tax revenue to close deficits and help the city pay for previously announced pay raises. It also reserves $311 million for the future, when the city may face larger deficits as the federal funding runs out.

The most notable consequence for residents will stem from water bill rate hikes previously passed by council last year. Revenue from water and wastewater bills increased by 9 and 20 percent from a September hike, and again by 7.5 and 11 percent from an increase in April.

The rates vary by customer type, meter size and usage, but the bill for a customer who uses 3,000 gallons of water went from $27.39 before the hikes to $37.18 after the April increase. The rates will continue to rise every April through 2026.

As a result, the budget passed Wednesday included a 23 percent increase in water revenue, from $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. That $280 million accounts for much of the $487 million increase in this year’s overall budget. The bulk of Public Works’ budget comes from that water revenue, a so-called “dedicated fund” where the money must be spent on water infrastructure and service.

The $3 billion general fund, which is supported by property taxes and other fees and supports most core city services, marks a $240 million increase, or 9 percent, over last year. Most of that increase pays for raises for firefighters (6 percent), police officers (4 percent) and municipal employees (3 percent).

More than half of the general fund supports public safety, with the $989 million police budget taking the largest share of resources. The fire department’s budget is $559 million.

The budget does not include a property tax rate increase. Turner has said he also plans to increase the exemption for seniors and disabled residents, although such a measure has not yet reached City Council.

See here for the background. In regard to the water rates, I will remind you that the city is as of last year under a federal consent decree to “spend an estimated $2 billion over the next 15 years to upgrade its troubled sanitary sewer system”. The story doesn’t mention this, but the money is for that purpose, and if it’s not used for that purpose we’ll be dragged back into court. As for the rest, I’m glad we’re building the reserve back up, I suspect we will be needing it again soon.

Maybe this is finally the end of that zombie same sex employee lawsuit

I dream a dream.

The Texas Supreme Court has declined to consider a challenge aimed at preventing the city of Houston from offering benefits to employees’ same-sex spouses.

The ruling is the latest blow to two Houston residents’ prolonged fight against a policy they consider an illegal use of taxpayer dollars.

Plaintiffs Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks have waged a legal battle against the policy since 2013, when the city, then led by former Mayor Annise Parker, granted government benefits to municipal employees’ same-sex spouses. Parker was the city’s first openly gay mayor.

On Friday, the state Supreme Court declined to review the pair’s case against the city, which originated nine years ago and has failed to find footing even in the conservative-leaning Texas judiciary.

[…]

Of the pair’s decade-long campaign to overturn her administration’s policy, Parker said Tuesday she hoped the court’s decision would quash future challenges.

“I didn’t do it to make a point,” Parker said of the policy. “I did it to be fair to all married city employees. Marriage should be marriage. Equal should be equal.”

See here and here for the previous updates. These guys and their stooge lawyer Jared Woodfill have more than proven that they really really hate gay people, but surely even this kind of rabid bigotry has its limits. The bell has rung, the lights are out, the doors have closed, and Elvis has left the building. Go find a less destructive hobby, fellas. I’ve heard gardening is nice.

Yeah, we’re still talking about West 11th Street

We can’t help it, sorry.

When Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner assured concerned Heights residents he’d take “a closer look” at plans to reduce 11th Street to one lane in each direction, he likely didn’t expect a sightseeing tour to give him quite the earful.

Wednesday, Turner and a gaggle of city staff took a hour-long tour of 11th where city planners propose taking away a travel lane to improve safety along the street by slowing drivers and adding a separated bike lane in each direction.

Following close by, and often engaging Turner in sometimes contentious conversations, were supporters of the plan on bikes and residents highly skeptical of the proposal, which they say will bring gridlock to a needed local street and pour traffic onto smaller Heights area roads.

[…]

City planners concede traffic flow will be worsened, especially during peak commuting hours in the evening, but that is an acceptable trade-off for a slower, safer street.

It’s not a trade local residents opposed to the project are willing to make. Occasionally sparring with cyclists along for the tour, critics said the city is using specious information about the traffic patterns and crashes to force bike lanes onto the street. With an efficient 11th that acts as a major street, traffic will flood onto nearby streets, making the neighborhood as a whole less safe.

“If they are going to speed here, they are going to speed on our interior streets,” said resident Shayne Stinson, pointing at 11th.

Stinson said much less drastic improvements could make the street safer without sacrificing traffic flow. Along with a safe crossing at Nicholson for bike trail users, he said better signal timing and left turn arrows can better solve the issue. Much of the safety challenge, he said the city’s own data suggests, is at major intersections such as Shepherd and Heights — not along 11th itself.

City officials, however, say the speed on 11th will remain the problem, whether or not left green arrows go in at major streets, or lights added at Nicholson and the bike trail. The way to avoid high speeds is to force passing cars into a single file line and limit turns so the fast lane becomes a thing of the past.

Advocates and pedestrians welcomed the proposed changes.

“When I cross the street sometimes I have to run fast,” said Eduardo Gonzalez, 20, who attends a nearby school.

As a Metropolitan Transit Authority rider, Gonzalez told Turner he supported anything that improved pedestrian access.

See here, here, and here for some background. At this point I feel like I’ve read the same story multiple times, about the city’s plan and the opposition from some folks. I would like to know three things:

1. How big is the opposition to this plan? Last time, I observed that the ProtectingOurStreets.org webpage that was listed on their printouts just redirected to a Change.org petition. Now it redirects to this Alliance for Reasonable Traffic Solutions webpage, but that tells me nothing about who is behind the organization. The About Us page doesn’t list a single name or other organization, though they do say they are “an organization made up of a group of Houston & Heights business and home owners who have come together to ensure the safety of cyclists and automobile drivers on the roads of Houston”. The Contact Us page is just a webform, with no street address or email address or phone number or contact name.

I’m not looking to out anyone who’d rather remain anonymous, but I would like to know who a spokesperson is, at the very least. The “about us” page mentions researchers, journalists, civil engineers, and more among its membership, without any way to vet those claims. I would say it all feels extremely astroturf-y to me, except that there are people with their signs in their yards so someone must have a hand in this. And, petty though this may sound, the website is rife with spelling and grammar errors, which actually lends credence to the grassroots claim, since a pro group would have done a better job proofreading the site. Whoever it is, they really don’t like bike lanes. I would like to know who they are.

Oh, and this is in the page source, between “title” tags: “Beyoutiful Anti Aging Studio”. If you open the thehoustonarts.com webpage and hover your mouse over the browser tab, you’ll see that name appear. If you google that, you get a Heights business on 13th Street, which I now realize I’ve driven past a million times on my way to and from Heights High School. Maybe that answers my question.

2. Whoever “ARTS” is, what is their ultimate goal? To completely defeat this plan for 11th Street and maintain the existing street exactly as it is? Or to effect some changes to the plan? If the latter, what do they consider acceptable and unacceptable? I’m an advocate for the city’s plan, but maybe if they’re not going for the maximalist position they have some ideas that I might be open to. (There’s nothing remotely specific on the webpage.) Maybe I’m vastly overestimating who “ARTS” speaks for, but again I see their signs in people’s yards and in front of businesses. They’re far from ubiquitous, but they’re there. So what do they want? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

3. The one concrete suggestion I have seen from opponents who have been quoted in these stories is a traffic signal at Nicholson, where the Heights bike trail crosses West 11th. I realize we’re three years into this project and the design phase is over, but what effect would just this have on current traffic? Is there a more minimal plan that might achieve enough safety gains while addressing the concerns of the opposition? Note that I’m not really interested in this – I think the plan as is will be fine – but in the name of fully exploring this, I’d want to know. If I’ve underestimated the opposition (I will note again that as far as I’m aware no elected official who represents the area has expressed any concerns, which tells me a lot) I’d like to be able to weight my possible fallback positions.

The MKT Bridge has reopened

This pleasant surprise came out on Thursday evening.

A vital and long-unused bridge in a buzzing Houston neighborhood is set to reopen.

The M-K-T Bridge, located in The Heights near White Oak Bayou, will be accessible to users on Friday, May 27, the Houston Parks Board announced. A key artery for walkers and joggers, the bridge spans over the bayou at I-10 near Studemont Street. Out of use since it was significantly damaged by a fire in August 2020, the bridge reopens after repairs began in March.

This reopening is actually ahead of schedule, as the bridge was set to open this summer, as CultureMap previously reported. It provides a pivotal outlet for those who use the M-K-T Trail, which connects The Heights to Sawyer Yards and the Washington Avenue Corridor area.

See here for the background, and here for the Houston Parks Board’s announcement. As you know, I’ve been following the White Oak Bike Trail extension construction, which connects up on the west side of the bridge. I have not seen any construction activity myself, but either I haven’t known where to look or it’s been happening when I haven’t been looking. In any event, the bridge is now open, and here’s the press release I got about it on Friday:

Houston Parks Board is excited to announce MKT Bridge is now open to the public!

An essential component of the trail system in the Heights connecting to White Oak Bayou Greenway, MKT Bridge has been fully restored just in time for summer. Working closely with the City of Houston, owner of the bridge, and Harris County Flood Control District, Houston Parks Board worked diligently to repair the bridge after it sustained extensive damage due to a fire in August 2020.

Initial repairs to MKT Bridge began in summer 2021. While conducting this repair work in August 2021, contractors and structural engineers found additional damage caused by the fire that was not visible during the initial assessment of the bridge’s condition. It was determined further repairs were needed before the bridge could safely reopen, which was disappointing to the community users.

Following expedited approval of the additional design plans from the City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District, on site construction to MKT Bridge resumed in March 2022.

The recently completed repair work included adding steel channels and bracing to the timber piling, transferring weight from the bridge to the ground.

Houston Parks Board is thrilled to have this essential connector reopen in time for summer. Thank you for your understanding as we worked as quickly as possible to make MKT Bridge safely accessible once again, and to the City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District for the partnership in this effort.

That’s from the email, which also has a link to a bunch of photos, from the ribbon-cutting event and from the construction, which I find fascinating because I just never saw any of it while it was happening. Just goes to show me, I guess. I can’t wait to give it a go myself. I’ve also got some more pix from the bike trail construction that I’ll run shortly. For now, hooray! The MKT Bridge is back, and many bicyclists in the area will be delighted. The Leader News, Community Impact, and the Chron have more.

Uvalde

I don’t have anything clever or original to say about the horrible tragedy in Uvalde. There’s a vast amount of stories and heartbreaking photos out there, so go and look to the extent that your heart and mental health can endure. I’ll simply note a couple of stories that I think say more about Greg Abbott than any insult I could hurl at him, and the contrast with Beto O’Rourke speaks for itself. I will also co-sign this sentiment, which should serve as a reminder that no matter how little you think of Ted Cruz, he’s worse than that.

There are many things you can do in response to Tuesday’s massacre, and all of them involve getting enough people who have had enough to the polls to throw out the callous nihilists who just don’t care about children being murdered on the regular. There’s also one thing you can do right now that may yield a more immediate effect:

I should note that it’s not clear to me that the city can cancel this convention. There’s a contract that was signed and it spells out the conditions under which one party or the other can back out – I’m not sure what grounds the city would cite. I do know there would be a lawsuit; as you may recall there was one filed in 2020 over the Republican convention in Houston, which the city canceled due to COVID; in the end a federal judge allowed it to happen for sketchy reasons. The city prevailed initially in the state lawsuit but that ruling was vacated earlier this year by the 14th Court of Appeals and the Texas GOP has re-filed its suit. They still may lose, but they’re not done yet, and if the city loses it could be quite costly.

Which doesn’t mean you can’t demand the city find a way to do this anyway. And for sure, you can make sure every one of the ghouls that shows up for that atrocity feels unwelcome while they’re here. I’m just compelled to point this stuff out, it’s what I do. The Chron has more on the planned protest activity. Now go take action and make some good trouble.

UPDATE: Mayor Turner has specifically mentioned the possibility of lawsuits if the city were to cancel the contract with the NRA for its convention. There’s still plenty we can do to make their time here as unpleasant as possible.

Is there any chance the GLO won’t screw Houston this time around?

I mean, maybe. Things can happen. I just wouldn’t count on it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday commended the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for ordering Texas to fix a Hurricane Harvey recovery plan that the federal agency concluded “disproportionately harmed Black and Hispanic residents.”

HUD told the state’s General Land Office in the letter, dated Monday, it had 10 calendar days to become compliant by coming to a resolution. The federal department had found GLO discriminated against minority residents when it denied flood mitigation aid last May to the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey.

To date, Houston has not received any funds, Turner said, “despite the city and the county incurring 50 percent of the damages from Harvey.”

“This is a step in the right direction. I appreciate HUD for ordering the GLO to bring its Hurricane Harvey Recovery Plan into compliance within ten days, or HUD will refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice,” Turner said in a statement. “This is about equity and fairness. It is time for the GLO to allocate a fair (or proportional) share of the federal funds to allow our communities to have adequate climate change mitigation and resilience resources. I urge the GLO to do the right thing for our most vulnerable communities.”

See here for the background. I use the embedded GIF in these posts as a reminder to everyone, including Chron editorial writers, that what the GLO has been doing isn’t “bungling”, it isn’t “a mistake”, it isn’t a matter of the GLO “getting its act together”. It’s all been a deliberate choice by the GLO, which knows what it’s doing and why it’s doing it. The solution to that isn’t trying to get them to see the error of their ways, it’s to take the job away from them because they don’t have any interest in doing it correctly.

Along those lines, this is the right attitude to adopt.

“We intended for the people who were suffering to get the money. But if you decide that you’re going to take it from the poor and the people of color and send it to areas where you don’t have a lot of people of color, then I think there’s reason for HUD to continue with this and I think HUD will,” said [US Rep. Al] Green. “That money was not sent to Texas so that it could be distributed to people who were not impacted by the hurricane.”

[…]

Green says he has talked to the General Land Office. And he’s held hearings where GLO representatives testified.

The Democrat says problems arise after the federal government sends money to the states, because once distributed, the states ultimately decide how it’s spent. And he says Texas has had problems in the past with diverting federal funds away from the intended purpose.

“And this is not just peculiar to this circumstance. It’s happened with money that was for education, not spent as we assumed it would be,” he said.

Green says lawmakers and HUD are waiting to see specific guidelines for the next round of funding distribution. He says it is possible for HUD to step in and take action against the state.

Meantime, the Houston Democrat says he’s looking into ways to “overhaul” the system. And he says lawmakers will consider adding a “clawback provision” to any future legislation.

“If a state declines to adhere to the intentionality of Congress, we can claw that back, claw the funds back and hold onto those funds. We should not allow states to receive funds and then disregard what Congress intended,” Green said.

That’s at least providing the proper incentives. We’ll see what happens next.

The editorial notes that bypassing the GLO and allocating the federal funds directly to the affected localities is an option and that the city is prepared for it, but that the city’s past track record with distributing Harvey funds isn’t good, either. That was the GLO’s rationale for stepping in as the middleman, though the city claims it was existing GLO bureaucracy that caused their problems in the first place. Be that as it may, I’d rather take my chances with the city than the GLO because at least I know the city will try to do right by Harvey victims. I can’t say that for the GLO, not as it is currently governed. Give me a different Land Commissioner and then we can talk, though really it would be nice to have made more progress by then. The bottom line is, George P. Bush cannot be trusted with this. Once that is accepted as the reality, we can figure out what the best way forward is.

It’s city of Houston budget time again

That federal COVID relief money continues to be very nice.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Once again relying on federal money, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed $5.7 billion budget for next year would pay for raises for all city employees, offer tax relief to seniors and disabled residents, and sock away the largest reserves in years for savings, according to an outline Turner shared Tuesday at City Hall.

The city often faces nine-figure budget deficits, forcing it to sell off land and defer costs to close gaps. For the third consecutive year, though, the city will rely on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money to avoid a budget hole and free up other revenue for the mayor’s priorities.

The city is set to receive more than $300 million this year from the most recent stimulus package approved by Congress, and Turner has proposed using $160 million in the budget. The city has received more than $1 billion in such assistance over the last three years.

City Council is expected to propose amendments and vote to adopt the spending plan next month. The budget will take effect on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

With about $311 million in reserves, Turner is establishing the healthiest fund balance the city has seen in decades, which he called necessary given the uncertainty of rising inflation, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The city budgeted $205 million in reserves last year, the first time it exceeded $200 million in reserves since 2009. The city’s financial policy calls for an unassigned reserve worth 7.5 percent of the general fund; this year’s amount is nearly double that, 13.5 percent.

That money also will help the next mayor and council confront budgets when the federal assistance runs dry and the city must fend for itself, Turner said. The relief funds must be obligated by 2024 and spent by 2026.

“I think what we all recognize is that some of the major cost-drivers will be driving this budget for the next several years… I don’t want to put future mayors and council members in a worse position,” Turner said. “As the city weans itself eventually off the (federal) funds, you’re going to be back with the fund balance.”

You can see a list of things in the proposed budget herer. HPD, HFD, Solid Waste, and Parks and Rec all get increases. We’ll see how spicy the amendments process is.

We’re still talking about West 11th Street

My neighborhood sure can monopolize the discussion. Sorry about that.

A discussion planned to laud Houston’s efforts to expand bicycling access Thursday turned into a debate on the merits of a two-mile stretch of 11th Street.

The city’s plan to reduce 11th to one lane in each direction from Shepherd to Studewood — cheered by cyclists — has faced late opposition as construction nears. Residents concerned over the traffic impacts of taking away an automobile lane and the benefits of adding protected bicycle lanes used a scheduled discussion about the city’s bike lane progress to reiterate their concerns to City Council’s transportation, technology and infrastructure committee.

Critic Ann Derryberry, who lives near 11th, said numerous residents have raised alarms, concerned that adding bike lanes will force residents to sit in heavy traffic longer, re-route cars onto nearby residential streets, complicate deliveries for area businesses and lead to little safety benefit for cyclists.

“You say it is a protected lane, but it will be mostly painted because of all the driveways and alleys,” Derryberry told council members and their staff, noting the need to paint green warnings where cars and turns will turn across the lane.

Rather than reduce and slow traffic, critics of the plan said the city should commit to cycling and safety improvements elsewhere, and perhaps add a signal at 11th and Nicholson where the Heights Hike and Bike Trail crosses.

Cyclists and safety advocates argue that diverting attention from 11th would be ignoring that the street is the problem and speeds along it are what make traveling by car, bike or foot unsafe.

“Houston has prioritized cars for decades,” said Kevin Strickland, a Heights resident active with various cycling and neighborhood groups. “We have a right to safe streets we are not getting.”

City planners, citing an average speed well above 40 mph — 10 mph over the limit — opted to narrow the street to one lane after three years of discussion with community groups and study. The single lane and a center median with dedicated turn lanes at some locations, planners say, will keep traffic speeds lower and provide room for adding protected bike lanes along 11th. Unlike the four-lane thoroughfare runners and cyclists dart across now, supporters said, narrowing the road also will allows safer crossings, and space at Nicholson to safely wait for oncoming traffic to pass.

To sort out some of the concerns, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he wanted to take “a closer look” at the project, convening stakeholders and city staff for a review. Turner did not indicate any change to the project is forthcoming, or that the delay would offset plans for construction to begin later this year.

See here and here for some background. I’ve noted the opposition to this before, and in the past week I’ve seen some new handouts for them – see here and here for what this latest one was saying. I looked at the ProtectingOurStreets.org webpage, and it just redirects to a change.org petition. I’ve also noticed some road signs on 11th with the same information. I have no idea what is meant by the “eliminating turns from White Oak to Michaux” claim, as it makes no sense on its face and doesn’t appear anywhere I can find on the project page. The opposition to this is vocal and they have some organization, though I can’t tell how big they are. If there’s an organized effort in favor beyond what the BikeHouston folks are doing, I’m not currently aware of it. We’ll see what if anything comes out of this review by Mayor Turner, which I believe is supposed to take 30 days.

Sunnyside Solar Farm

This is excellent.

Residents of Sunnyside, a historically Black neighborhood in south Houston where the city once ran its largest garbage incinerator, will soon realize a decades-long mission to rehabilitate the former landfill site.

City officials and residents gathered there on Friday to announce that state environmental regulators had approved plans to build Sunnyside Solar Farm, soon to be the nation’s largest urban solar farm, on the site.

The critical state permit will help the project secure financing and partner with energy companies to sell electricity generated by an array of 150,000 solar panels — enough to power 5,000 to 10,000 homes. Construction will begin early next year with plans to start operating by July 2023, city officials said.

City leaders and members of Congress touted the attention the renewable energy project would bring to Houston. The city would be an “epicenter of change” for solar power in urban areas, said Rep. Al Green, who touted a $750,000 federal grant for job training that would benefit the solar farm.

For community members like Renard Roy, however, the project represents a lifetime of tenacious effort by residents to overcome a legacy of discriminatory burdens followed by neglect.

If I’d heard of this before I’d forgotten about it. This Houstonia story from last year has a pretty good overview of what has happened in recent years with this project. You should read the rest of the Chron story I’m quoting from for the deeper history, which is as sad and disturbing as you might think. For this to be the end result of all that is remarkable and worth celebrating. I look forward to seeing the finished product.

The next street safety project my neighborhood will be fighting about

My wife came back from this month’s civic association meeting and handed me a flyer for this, along with more or less the exact words I’ve used in the title of this post.

North Main Street runs north from I-10 bordering Downtown Houston to Crosstimbers St. in Independence Heights. It is a 5-mile stretch, including 1.2 miles with center-running light rail operated by METRO. North Main becomes a four-lane undivided street fronted by many local and small-scale businesses at Boundary Street, where the light rail deviates onto Fulton Street. The four-lane section between Boundary Street and Airline Drive is being improved for safety.

There are notable crash problems on North Main between Boundary St. and Airline Dr.

  • More recently, between 2017-2021, there have been 224 total crashes, including eight crashes where someone was seriously injured.
  • A half-mile segment between Holy Cross Cemetery and Melwood St is on the Vision Zero High Injury Network(External link) because there were two serious injury crashes and one fatal crash between 2014-2018. This segment includes the IH 45 intersection, which may be contributing to the higher number of severe crashes.

With substantial support from Council Member Cisneros, the City of Houston has been undergoing an analysis and redesign of North Main:

  1. As of March 2022, the project is at 95% design between Boundary Street and Cottage Street.
  2. At the same time, METRO has been redesigning one of their frequent bus routes, the 56, which runs along Airline Drive. In addition to improved bus service, the redesign includes high-comfort bike lanes from North Main St to W Cavalcade St. Airline Drive intersects with North Main.
  3. To connect the proposed bike lanes on Airline to the proposed bike lanes on North Main, the City is pursuing an extension of North Main to fill the 0.5-mile gap between Cottage St. and Airline Dr.

To get more information about existing conditions, please review the Overview document.

The Overview document and the presentation from a May 2021 meeting shows the work so far and the proposed solution, which if you’ve been following along you know will include a “lane diet”, better sidewalks with pedestrian refuge islands, and bike lanes. There’s a heat map of five years’ worth of car crashes along this stretch of road, and I am totally unsurprised that the left turn from North Main onto Pecore, which happens quickly after the I-45 intersection and right past the entrance to the McDonald’s on the corner, is the hottest spot on that map. I fully expect there will be whining about this, but as with the 11th Street project, this makes a lot of sense. I look forward to seeing future updates.

City Council approves security camera ordinance for bars and convenience stores

I have mixed feelings about this.

Houston bars, nightclubs and convenience stores must install security cameras outside of their buildings within 90 days in a citywide surveillance effort Mayor Sylvester Turner hopes will diminish violent crime in high-risk areas.

City Council approved the measure in a 15-1 vote Wednesday after a lengthy discussion on the merits of cameras as a deterrent to robberies, shootings and other criminal activity officials say is concentrated at the nighttime businesses. The ordinance also applies to game rooms and sexually oriented businesses.

The camera requirement is a minor component of the mayor’s One Safe Houston agenda, which will funnel more than $44 million in federal relief funds to mental health and crisis intervention services over the next three years. It passed over objections from the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the plan to fine businesses for failing to turn footage over to the Houston Police Department upon request within 72 hours.

The ordinance, which also requires convenience stores to install enhanced lighting at their entrances, overcame skepticism from council members who worried it would penalize business owners and overburden police. Businesses could face a $500 citation if they fail to provide police with surveillance footage within three days of a crime.

[…]

Police Chief Troy Finner thanked the council for passing the camera requirement Wednesday, calling it “a force multiplier” that will help his department solve more crimes.

Finner said his department is crafting protocols to guide its collection of businesses’ video footage following a crime. Police will be required to obtain a warrant in the event a business does not volunteer footage, officials said.

We’ve been talking about security cameras as a crime-fighting tool in Houston for at least 15 years. As of the year 2014, HPD had nearly 1,000 camera feeds available to it, mostly around downtown, stadiums and event spaces like the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Theater District. It’s no unreasonable to think that these have had some effect on crime and crime-solving. Bars, nightclubs, and convenience stores are higher-crime areas in general, so they’re a logical place to want to have security cameras. I’m more or less okay with the concept, though I share the ACLU’s concerns about privacy and transparency; given the track record with police body camera video, who wouldn’t be concerned?

My hesitation here is more prosaic. As noted, we’ve had a ton of these cameras around town for a decade or more. We therefore have a huge amount of data relating to their use and their efficacy. Can HPD provide some evidence to back up the claims that more cameras and/or strategically-placed cameras do in fact have a salutary effect on crime? Like I said, I’m inclined to believe it, but it sure would be nice to have some empirical backing of that belief. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. So please, show us the evidence, HPD. And a year or so after these new cameras have been installed, show us the evidence for their effect, too.

We don’t have enough garbage truck drivers

We don’t pay them enough, it would seem.

For the last few months, Juan Sorto and his neighbors have looked toward the curb on Thursdays and asked themselves the same uneasy question: Did the garbage trucks come?

Last week, they had. The week before, they had not, according to Sorto. What is supposed to be a routine, weekly service has turned into a more haphazard enterprise in Sorto’s corner of northeast Houston, near Tidwell and Mesa. Sorto said his subdivision’s black bins often have been skipped entirely this year. His neighbors have started storing garbage in their recycling carts, with some spilling out into drainage ditches.

“There’s been times where we’ve gone more than a week without it getting picked up,” said Sorto, a former chair of the city’s Super Neighborhood Alliance. The Solid Waste Management Department said it checked its records and confirmed trucks had been through the neighborhood, but it would monitor the neighborhood more carefully in the future.

The reason for the uneven service, city officials say, is Solid Waste does not have enough drivers.

The department’s workforce has reached its lowest point in decades, and the department rarely is able to assign drivers to all of its routes. It often has to pull employees off recycling, yard waste and heavy trash routes to pick up garbage bins, which must be collected weekly, per state law.

The maneuvering leads to extensive and almost chronic backlogs in recycling and bulk collections, and it burns out drivers, who have been required to work six-day schedules since 2018. Drivers often tally 60 hours a week on Houston’s streets. The department is running nearly double its overtime budget for the year, and it has incurred overruns every year since 2014, often doubling or tripling the budgeted amount. It spent $6.3 million on overtime last year, $7.5 million the year before.

[…]

Solid Waste has struggled for years with collection delays, a scarcity of trucks and other fleet issuesmounting 311 complaints and frustration among residents and their elected leaders. Its workforce, though, is at its lowest point in years.

The department fell below 400 workers last September for the first time in at least two decades. As of December, the department had about 394 employees, down from 439 at the beginning of Turner’s first term, according to the city’s monthly financial reports. It had been treading water for years, with roughly the same number of workers in 2012. Meanwhile, the department has added more than 13,000 residential customers and picked up another 200,000 annual tons of waste in the last decade, budget documents show.

Facing a dwindling staff and a nationwide shortage of commercial drivers, the city last June announced $3,000 signing bonuses for up to 100 new drivers, who make an average base salary of $41,550. It did not stop the attrition; in fact, the department has lost more drivers than it has gained since then.

[Solid Waste Director Mark] Wilfalk called the dropping personnel numbers “scary.”

Private employers, he and the mayor said, simply are able to pay more than the city. Walmart recently announced commercial drivers can make up to $110,000 in their first year with the company.

Solid Waste’s personnel issues come down to basic math. The department has 181 routes that must be picked up each day. Yard waste collection routes require at least two people each, as do heavy trash routes. That means the department needs a minimum of 234 people a day.

Even though the department has 245 drivers and collection workers, some of those work at dump sites or spend their day delivering truck parts. Add in the 10 or so workers who are out sick or on vacation each day, and Solid Waste starts struggling to find enough drivers to cover its routes.

And because trash collection is the top priority, daily staff shortages usually mean recycling and bulk pickup routes get delayed.

See here for some background. That $41K starting salary is probably not going to cut it in this market, and is likely a threat of further departures given the crazy hours these guys are now having to work to keep up, though perhaps the overtime helps a bit. However you look at it, this is a problem that’s going to need some money to solve, and as such our old friend the trash pickup fee is being brought out again. Last seen in 2019 as a (dumb) proposal to pay for the firefighter pay parity measure that is currently blocked, the idea of charging something for solid waste pickup (as many Texas cities do) instead of paying for it all out of general revenue has been around since at least 2007 but has never gotten enough support in any form to be adopted. Will the current situation change that and allow for a fee to be implemented? Maybe, but betting on the status quo is usually the odds-on call. If it does come up again, this is the reason why.

City Council approves paid parental leave for city employees

Good.

City of Houston employees will have access to paid parental leave for the first time beginning in May after a decade-long push to adopt the family-friendly policy that advocates hope will help the city attract and retain working parents.

City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved the new leave policy, which will give workers who have been with the city for six months up to 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child. The policy also includes paid time off during pregnancy for certain health matters.

Council members, many of whom described their struggles with pregnancy and childcare ahead of the vote, greeted its approval with cheers and tears. City workers previously had to accrue vacation time or take unpaid leave after welcoming a child.

“Parental leave is not a vacation,” said District C Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who gave birth to a son last year.

See here for the background. I got one week off when my first kid was born – there wasn’t an official company policy in place at the time, it was just my manager (a father of three) telling me to take the week off, which didn’t count as vacation or sick time. I don’t even remember what happened with kid #2 – maybe I had a week off, maybe I didn’t, who knows. We have a policy now that would have allowed me to take either eight or 12 weeks off, I forget which. Too late for me, so I haven’t investigated the matter too closely. Anyway, this is a thing that everyone should have access to as a matter of federal policy, but until we get there, let’s plug all the holes we can. Kudos to City Council for getting this right.

City Council to return to in-person meetings

I feel like I should always append a “For now” onto commentary about things like this. You know, for all the obvious reasons.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he wants all City Council members to return to the chamber next week for meetings, the first such requirement since May 2020.

City Council went virtual after its first member tested positive for COVID-19, about two months after the pandemic began to upend life in Houston. The body met digitally until the summer of 2021, when it began holding joint meetings that gave council members the choice of joining in person or on Microsoft Teams.

Attendance has varied, but several members typically join the meeting online. On Wednesday, eight of the body’s 16 members attended in person.

“I want you back around the horseshoe,” Turner said Wednesday, referring to City Hall’s arc-shaped table in the second-floor council chamber. “The technology has been fine, but I want you back around the horseshoe next week.”

Still feels a little weird to me to have things going back to full-on in-person as before. You can fill in your own proverb about COVID not being done with us if you want. That said, we are right now in a period of low transmission, and many people do want to get back out into the world. It’s hard to justify high-alert requirements under these conditions. I figure the only way to get people to respond the way we’ll need them to when the virus does come back is to ease up now so we can say “hey, we backed off when the science said we could, now we have to tighten up again”. I can’t say that will work, but at least it feels like it has a chance.

The I-45 project gets a wee bit more expensive

Eh, what’s another $750 million?

Typically, $750 million is the total cost for a major highway project, one that would take years to spend that kind of money. In the case of TxDOT’s plans for a mammoth rebuild of Interstate 45 and the downtown freeway grid, however, that is just the estimated cost increase so far.

Officials last week confirmed new estimates showing an increase of $477.7 million in planned work, while another $274 million in added costs are likely for projects delayed by the roadblocks the project has faced. Combined, it means rebuilding the aging freeway, which already has divided local leaders and various community groups, likely will cost well more than $9 billion. More than half of those increases would go toward the downtown portions where the intersections and changes are most dramatic.

“The rising costs are unfortunate as delay does not meet anyone’s goals,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

[…]

The latest estimates, part of the four-year plan updated annually by the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council show rebuilding key pieces of the freeway around downtown will cost considerably more than previously projected.

Based on the updated estimates, costs are jumping for some of the first segments slated for construction. Rebuilding I-69 between Spur 527 and Texas 288, once expected to cost $260 million, now has a projected price tag of $460.6 million, an increase of 77 percent. The next segment of I-69, from Texas 288 to I-45, increased in price from $260.7 million to $456 million, a hike of 75 percent over original estimates.

Some of the increase simply is baked into updating construction costs as major projects await construction.

TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said planners typically factor in costs rising about 4 percent annually, meaning the longer they sit on shelves the more expensive the projects become.

The I-45 cost increases are larger than many other projects — the entire rebuild of the Loop 610 and I-69 near The Galleria is set to cost $270.9 million — but increases as projects wait for work to begin are not uncommon.

“We are seeing some due to inflation,” H-GAC manager of project planning and delivery Adam Beckom told transportation policy council officials last week.

Four percent of $9 billion is $360 million, a lot of money but not quite half of the expected increase. That’s not exactly how the math would work here, but the point is simply that it’s more than just inflation. You may recall, as I documented extensively here years ago, the final cost of the I-10 widening west of 610 wound up costing way more than the initial (and extremely sunny) estimates claimed it would. That’s just how these things go, and we just tend to accept the ginormous amounts we spend on them. I doubt anyone’s mind will be changed by these numbers, but there they are anyway.

Paid parental leave for city employees

This is a thing that should have happened a long time ago.

City of Houston employees soon could be eligible for up to three months of paid parental leave under a policy change expected to reach City Council next week.

The proposal, set for council consideration next Wednesday, would give workers who have been with the city for six months up to 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child. The policy also will include paid time off during pregnancy for certain health matters.

The city’s workforce of about 22,000 employees currently has no paid parental leave. They must use accrued vacation time for those days off. If approved by council, parental leave will not be limited to women.

The policy change was the result of recommendations from the city’s Women’s Commission, formed in August 2021 at the recommendation of District C Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who gave birth to a son last year.

“This is a pivotal moment for the city,” Kamin said. “No parent should have to choose between a paycheck and caring for yourself and your family.”

However late, good for the city to do this. Lord knows, most city employees are not paid much, so at the very least this will help them a little with recruiting and retention. We should have this as a matter of national policy, but until we can get there we’ve got to plug the holes one by one. I look forward to seeing this get passed.

Houston to get federal freeze recovery funds

Good.

Houston is slated to get about $30 million in disaster recovery money to help address lasting needs from the February 2021 winter storm — the largest such grant in Texas, federal officials announced Tuesday.

Marcia L. Fudge, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the Biden administration, announced about $3 billion in new recovery allocations for disasters in 2020 and 2021 across the country at a virtual press conference Tuesday afternoon.

Included are Houston’s $30.3 million grant, $26.4 million for the state of Texas, $24.4 million for Dallas, and $16.6 million for Fort Worth, all relating to the February 2021 freeze that nearly brought down Texas’ electric grid. The storm left more than 240 people across the state dead, cities scrambling to deliver water to customers, and millions of dollars in damages from burst pipes and water mains.

“Today’s HUD announcement ensures that Houston and our vulnerable communities have not been forgotten following the historic 2021 winter freeze,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “After the devastating freeze, we estimated 50,000 homes and 400 apartment complexes had busted water pipes. Several people died from hypothermia or carbon monoxide poisoning. Local governments are on the frontlines of disaster response and recovery.”

[…]

In allocating the grants directly to the city, the feds are allowing Houston officials to bypass the approval of state leaders, with whom they often have clashed about recovery money. HUD has done direct allocations in the past with smaller disasters. Typically, the money flows through the state General Land Office.

“Houston is getting, out of this announcement today, the city itself is getting more than $30 million,” Fudge said.

Turner said the direct grant will “speed recovery” by avoiding state delays.

I’m sure you can guess how I feel about that last bit. This isn’t a huge amount of money, and the city still has to develop and get public comment on an action plan to submit to HUD before the funds arrive. But at least they won’t get reallocated to some tiny town in a rural area for no good reason.

Amanda Edwards to run for Mayor

The field is now at three.

Amanda Edwards

Amanda Edwards, a former at-large member of Houston City Council and candidate for U.S. Senate, announced Wednesday she is running for mayor of Houston in 2023.

Edwards’ return to politics comes two years after her fifth-place finish in the 2020 Democratic Senate primary. She previously had served a single term as one of Houston’s five citywide council members, before passing up a second term to run for Senate.

With Edwards’ announcement, there now are three major candidates vying next year to succeed Mayor Sylvester Turner, who cannot run again due to term limits. Edwards, who would be the first Black woman to lead Houston city government, said her experience at City Hall sets her apart from the other two candidates, former Harris County clerk Chris Hollins and state Sen. John Whitmire, both of whom, like Edwards, are Democrats and attorneys.

“There are complicated issues that are facing the next mayor. The easy stuff, that was done many years ago,” Edwards said. “It’s the hard stuff that’s left, and you’ve got to have somebody at the helm on Day One that is ready to lead and knows how to navigate the city and all of its challenges and opportunities that may be in front of us.”

During her four-year tenure on Houston City Council, Edwards served as vice chair of the council’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee and helped direct a task force focused on boosting the city’s tech and startup economy.

She proposed amendments to the annual city budget — one of the few levers of power for council members under Houston’s strong-mayor form of government — that sought to speed up the permitting process, expand internet access for low-income communities and improve conditions for women- and minority-owned businesses.

As mayor, Edwards said she would focus on “cultivating opportunity for everyone,” including businesses owned by women and minorities, who she said face “great disparities when they’re trying to access traditional forms of capital” to grow their businesses.

I thought Edwards would be an obvious contender for Mayor back when she was a Council member, for a variety of reasons – she was young and had a strong showing in her first election, did well raising money, would be term-limited at the same time as Mayor Turner, had plenty of opportunity to make things happen on Council, and so on. She chose a different path, declining to run for re-election before entering the Democratic primary for US Senate in 2020, where she raised a respectable but not impressive amount of money and finished a disappointing fifth place in that large field. Even when she was a candidate for Senate I still thought she might wind up running for Mayor. And so here we are. (You can also see what a genius I was at predicting the future.)

Whatever route she took to get here, she’s here now. As I’ve said many times, we’ll have a better handle on how her candidacy, or anyone’s, is doing when we see the first batch of campaign finance reports. Money isn’t everything, but at least early on it’s a decent proxy for how much interest there is in a particular contender, and where that interest is coming from. Right now we have three candidates with varied backgrounds and experiences, and they’re out there introducing themselves to the wider audience that they’ll need to appeal to. It’s likely that field will grow, so making a good impression now while there’s less competition is of great value. There’s a lot happening right now, and we should all rank the 2022 election ahead of the 2023 one, but do keep an eye on these people, as one of them could be our next Mayor. Edwards’ intro video is here. I wish her luck. The Trib and the Texas Signal have more.

HUD approves updated GLO proposal for Harris County

Interesting, but there are still a lot of moving pieces out there.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday said it would accept the Texas General Land Office’s proposal to give Harris County $750 million in federal flood mitigation money, 10 months after Houston and the county were shut out of a state competition for post-Harvey disaster funding approved by Congress.

The announcement does not amount to an approval of the GLO’s overall plan for distributing some $4.3 billion in federal flood mitigation funding, a HUD spokesman said in an emailed statement.

“Let’s be clear: all the amendment taking effect means is that Texas submitted all information required to avoid disapproval,” the statement said. “This does not constitute, and should not be seen as, approval of the state’s implementation of the activities in the plan.”

HUD earlier this month issued a ruling that the GLO violated civil rights law and discriminated against minority residents when it it awarded the $1 billion in Harvey funds following a competition that did not give Houston or Harris County a penny, even though the area suffered more deaths and damage than than any of the other 48 counties declared as disaster areas.

HUD urged Texas to voluntarily find a way to distribute funds in a way that resolves the alleged civil rights violations — a request that could redirect millions of flood relief dollars to Houston. “If a voluntary resolution cannot be obtained, HUD may initiate administrative proceedings or refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice for judicial enforcement,” the spokesperson said.

[…]

In an emailed statement, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo promised “to apply this substantial influx of dollars fairly, equitably, and quickly.”

She also called out the GLO for originally awarding none of the funds to Texas’s hardest-hit county. “As the third largest county in America, ground zero for Harvey damage and vulnerability to flooding, and home to the nation’s energy industry, there’s simply no excuse to have been shut out from these infrastructure funds in the first place.”

[…]

On Friday, as HUD approved the amendment sending $750 million to Harris County, its spokesperson said it would consider the current civil rights violation allegations in the future when Texas receives disaster grants, and may place conditions upon such grants to “mitigate risk.”

“HUD will closely monitor and pursue any and all enforcement actions against Texas as necessary to help the state provide equal access and opportunity through its mitigation funds,” the spokesperson said.

This is the followup to that story from January in which HUD halted the distribution of $1.95 billion in aid awarded to Texas essentially because of a paperwork error on the Land Commissioner’s part. All this story is saying is that that error has been fixed. It does not have anything to do with the civil rights complaint about how the GLO determined the way it would distribute funds. There’s no clear indication when that might either be resolved or taken to the next level of enforcement on HUD’s part. There’s still another half of the money to be awarded, so this story is far from over. (HUD also basically told H-GAC to go pound sand, which was the appropriate response from them.)

There was still a fair bit of complaining following this story.

Mayor Sylvester Turner criticized the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s approval of an amendment to the Texas General Land Office State Action Plan as a sanctioning of “discrimination.”

Turner expressed his disappointment in the Friday decision to accept GLO’s plan to send $750 million to Harris County in flood mitigation, just 10 months after both the city and county were barred from receiving any of the $4.3 billion post-Hurricane Harvey flood aid.

“Only a few weeks ago, HUD found that the GLO discriminated against Black and brown communities when it initially denied federal Hurricane Harvey funds to Houston and Harris County,” Turner stated, citing a March 4 HUD report that found discrimination in the GLO’s Hurricane Harvey State Mitigation Competition to distribute flood aid.

In a a joint press release, U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Sylvia Garcia on Saturday called for Justice Department intervention, citing discrimination against the Houston residents if any aid is spent under the current distribution system.

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The issue is not with the other areas who received the funding, but rather, the fact that Houston received nothing, Jackson Lee said Friday night.

“I support all of the dollars that were given to our local jurisdictions. I don’t have a quarrel with any of that. What I have a quarrel with is that Houston got zero,” Jackson Lee said. “That’s a glaring, glaring, glaring act of malfeasance on the part of the General Land Office. The housing and urban development, through their decision that came out today, indicated that there are problems with how the GLO handled this.”

I basically agree with everything they’re saying here. It’s just not clear to me that HUD is finished here. It may very well be that they will need to hand this off to the Justice Department for a larger stick to use against the GLO. I don’t trust anything that office does right now. It’s just not clear to me yet that they have been unable to persuade the GLO to take any corrective action. I wouldn’t wait too long on this, but I’d like to hear HUD say unequivocally that option has failed first.

As for the Harris County reaction, we got this from County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday:

We’ll see what that means. The end goal is correct, we just have to find a way to get there.