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Looking Forward to 2008: Noel Freeman

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Noel Freeman.)

I always look forward to a new year, and 2008 is much the same … lose some weight, set new goals for my work with the City and community and build up my own business. What’s different is that I’m presenting a challenge to Mayor White and several new members of City Council who have the opportunity to learn about some issues that are very important to me and have taken up a large portion of my time and effort over the past year.

Probably the biggest issue I have concentrated on has been flooding and drainage. We all know how important this issue is to Houstonians, and it is vitally important that we resolve to do more to make a difference in the coming year. After Allison, we learned a huge lesson – that we were $2.5-3 billion (yes, that’s billion) behind on drainage infrastructure improvements. Mayor White has done a good job of increasing the budget for improvements, but sadly we are still budgeting less than $50 million per year (FY2008 was right around $45 million).

If you combine that with the $32-34 million we spend on maintenance and repairs, Houston still falls behind cities like Philadelphia, where the annual budget for similar programs and improvements is nearly $100 million. Nevermind that Philadelphia is physically about ΒΌ the size of Houston or that it has a half million fewer residents. At this rate, it will take 50 to 60 years just to bring our infrastructure up to today’s standards.

With this in mind, it is my hope that Mayor White and our new Council members will take the lead and accept a challenge – to set the budget for drainage infrastructure maintenance and improvements at no less than $100 million for FY2009 and to set a five year plan to increase that number to $150 million by FY2013. I think this number is realistic and attainable.

Further, the City needs to look at real solutions to address developments that place a large added burden on our drainage infrastructure, such as big-box stores with multi-acre parking lots and residential developments that provide very little pervious surface to absorb water. Development can still continue, but there are better ways that can make a real difference.

2007 also saw a related issue hit mainstream and highlight the real rock-and-a-hard-place situations we in the City often find ourselves in. That issue was development in the floodway. You may have seen some stories on the news or in the Chronicle about some floodplain maps that changed. It may not have hit close to home for most of you, but it sure did for several thousand people who now find their properties in the floodway. I was glad to see the City remove some provisions from the floodplain ordinance that offered variances because it showed that we were finally getting serious about the floodway and moving to limit future flood losses.

Unfortunately, there were some unforeseen side effects of that change that have had potentially adverse effects on residents. I would like to see Mayor White and Council move to establish a buyout program specifically for properties in the floodway and dedicate at least 5-10% of the drainage infrastructure budget mentioned above to do it.

The way I see it, 2008 is a great opportunity to make a real difference. I’ve got six months to educate Council members about these issues, and if they accept the challenge and do to the FY2009 budget what I’ve proposed, six more months to see how much better and safer it makes our communities. Here’s to 2008.

Noel Freeman works for the City of Houston’s Department of Public Works and Engineering and is a member of the Texas Floodplain Management Association. He was a previous candidate for City Council and is pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Norwich University.

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