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Harris County road bond

Harris County voters may be asked to vote on a bond issue this fall.

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Rapid population expansion and development in unincorporated areas of Harris County have strained roads, facilities and infrastructure so much that for the first time in eight years the county is considering a major bond referendum for the November ballot.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday asked their engineering and budget management directors to review departmental needs and bring back a proposal by July or August. The end result could be separate bond measures: one for roads and bridges and another for flood control, parks, libraries and the county’s animal shelter, said Bill Jackson, the budget manager.

The last county bond package – approved by voters in 2007 – called for $880 million for buildings, roads and parks. Though there’s no dollar estimate on the current proposal it could exceed the previous one, especially considering this projection from Jackson’s department: The unincorporated areas of Harris County will surpass Houston’s population by 2019.

“We just can’t keep up with 80,000 people moving to our region every year right now, and doing it out of current cash flow,” Jackson said.

“We are going to have to take a look at what our priorities are – whether it’s the roads or it’s the buildings – and see what we need to do.”

The growth, primarily residential development, has increased the county’s lane miles by 40 percent from 2000 to 2014. More than 85 percent of the new homes built between 2005 and 2014 in Harris County were constructed in the unincorporated area, according to the county’s appraisal district.

County engineer John Blount issued a memo, dated May 29, recommending county commissioners place a bond referendum on the November ballot.

“The dramatic growth has overwhelmed the county road network causing an increase in congestion and travel time,” Blount said in his memo.

But it’s just not roads that need attention. Some buildings housing the county’s justices of the peace were built to serve the population 50 years ago. New libraries may need to be revamped to provide books in tablet format. The county’s animal shelter – built in 1986 – was designed to take in 12,000 pets but now sees about 25,000 every year.

Jackson said the county is doing well financially – it began the year projecting a fund balance of $515 million – which means it can issue more debt without having to increase property taxes. County Judge Ed Emmett noted the county’s triple-A bond rating.

The county maintains the courts, jail, roads, bridges and bayous, but it does not levy a sales tax like Houston to help cover its expenses.

“My primary goal is to not make this a tax rate increase,” Jackson said. The county would issue debt over seven years that would be picked up by investors who buy Harris County bonds.

I’m sure that the intent is to do this without a tax increase, and I feel reasonably confident that the county is in good enough financial shape to make good on that. Doesn’t mean it won’t be called a tax hike by whoever decides to oppose it. I would remind Commissioners Court that even issues that have no formal opposition and carry no tax hike and would do a lot of good for the community, such as the 2013 jail referendum, can come perilously close to failing in the absence of a visible campaign advocating in its favor. Go big on a campaign for this if you decide to do it, or risk going home, is what I’m saying. I would also note the recent Montgomery County experience, in which the main lesson seems to be that what makes all kind of sense to some people may well be – or at least be seen as – an existential threat to others. I don’t have any specific advice for that, I’m just throwing it out there. The Highwayman has more.

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One Comment

  1. Steven Houston says:

    “We just can’t keep up with 80,000 people moving to our region every year right now, and doing it out of current cash flow,” Jackson said.

    Those 80,000 people are buying homes and paying a great deal in all the usual taxes, helping drive county coffers to record highs. Suggesting otherwise seems remarkably shortsighted.