Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the city bonds

The Chron circles back to where they started this endorsement season.

The spotlight of public attention has focused on the billion dollar pension bond referendum, Proposition A, whose passage is absolutely critical to Houston’s financial future. But if you’re a Houston voter, you’ll also find on your ballot four bond issues that will pay for a long list of projects and equipment essential to our city government.

Proposition B would authorize the city to borrow $159 million for the police and fire departments. The Houston Police Department needs the money for everything from improvements to its training academy to pouring new pavement at HPD facilities. The Houston Fire Department would use its funds to pay for renovating and expanding some of its fire stations. And both departments need to tap the bond money to update their aging fleets of cars, trucks and ambulances.

Proposition C would authorize $104 million in bonds for park improvements, including upgrades to 26 of the 375 parks around the city, making sure they are usable, safe and fun. To take one example: Baseball and soccer are popular with both young and older athletes in many neighborhoods, but many city ball fields are equipped with old wooden light poles. The bond issue would allow the Houston Parks and Recreation Department to replace them with new metal poles, energy efficient lights and underground wiring. The upgrade would also include a remote control feature that would reduce personnel costs.

Proposition D would raise $109 million for a variety of public health and solid waste disposal expenses. Much of this money would go to renovating and rehabilitating old multi-service centers, which are used as everything from health clinics to election polling places. Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department, the people who pick up our garbage, would spend their share of this money on a “to do” list that includes a new disposal facility and a storm water mitigation project.

Proposition E would go a long way toward upgrading library services throughout the city with a $123 million bond issue, directly benefiting at least 24 of the city’s 42 libraries. Not everyone can afford a home computer, yet in this digital age access to a computer is crucial to success. That’s why it’s such a shame that so many of Houston’s neighborhood libraries are in disrepair. The bond proceeds will replace the roofs and repair the exteriors of ten libraries and will rebuild four neighborhood libraries.

Maybe you’re wondering why these propositions don’t include money for flood control after Hurricane Harvey. It’s a logical question with an equally logical answer. In order to appear on the ballot in November, the plans for these bond issues were presented to city council in early August, weeks before the storm hit.

Beyond that, flood control in the Houston area has mainly been the responsibility of the county and federal governments. When voters ask why more hasn’t been done to mitigate flooding, those are questions that need to be addressed mainly to the county judge and commissioners as well as our elected representatives in Washington.

The Chron had endorsed these bond issues in their first such editorial of the cycle, but that one was primarily about the pension bonds, and only mentioned the others in passing. You read what these are about, it’s hard to understand why anyone would oppose them, but a lot of people don’t know much about them, and of course some people will always oppose stuff like this. As you know, I believe the bonds will pass, but we’re all just guessing. We’ll know soon enough.

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15 Responses to Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the city bonds

  1. Ross says:

    There are a number if folks arguing the City shouldn’t spend a single penny on anything but flood control until such time as no one floods. Let’s hope there aren’t many with that attitude, since the City needs to keep running, even in the aftermath of natural disasters.

  2. neither here nor there says:

    Ross, too much debt, they should have had the pension bonds only. Most of those requests are to keep the partnership members in the money (by providing contracts), engineers, lawyers, and big construction companies and sprinkle in a few legit minority companies. Only one that is getting a yes vote from me is the pension bonds, that includes all of the feel good BS by the state.

    The City by self insuring took the same risks as home owners without flood insurance. Those home owners don’t get to ask voters to help take care of their problems.

  3. Steve Houston says:

    Manny, the city of Houston has insurance but it didn’t have enough to cover a 1000 year event like Harvey. Saying it didn’t have insurance like 80% of the homeowners who flooded is just not accurate and many of those people are asking voters to help take care of their problems. I think all of them will pass though some dinosaurs provide the following reasons for or against them:

    Prop A is the cornerstone of the pension deal to save Houston billions of dollars at the expense of employees so it makes sense to vote for them, just to screw those freeloaders out of their benefits.

    Prop B is for public safety infrastructure but I was under the impression such funds couldn’t be spent on vehicles. Coin flip.

    Prop C is for parks. We have too many now to afford upkeep. Vote no.

    Prop D is for multi-service centers and garbage. Vote no and have the city institute a trash pick up fee like every other city, to pay for such stuff.

    Prop E is for libraries. Let the Houston consolidate with the county and vote no.

  4. Bob Jones says:

    The problem, generally, is a voter goes into the voting booth and may get the benefit of said bonds (say parks), but don’t really have to pay for it (i.e. property tax). If you live in an apartment, you really don’t have the impact of paying for these taxes for 20 or 30 years (you’ve moved on). Like Steve suggests, we need to make sure that EVERYONE is paying their fair share and you do this through fees. Want a park? Buy a Houston park pass. Want a book? Buy a library card. Want your garbage picked up? Pay the fee.

    I really don’t like Prop A, but will most likely vote for it. Again, we have unions negotiating with their future boss – not the taxpayer. In a perfect world, Houston city employees would have to negotiate with an appointed, transparent, commission that would set their rates, pensions, etc., within an applicable regulatory framework setup by the taxpayers.

    I’m all for paying market wages, but City salaries come from my salary and my salary is shrinking.

  5. neither here nor there says:

    Steve when did they get insurance? They self insure as far as I know. Provide a link to something that indicates that Houston buys property insurance, besides most of the vehicle were flood related, does the City have flood insurance?

    So I stand by the City did not have insurance for flood related damage nor does it have property damage insurance.

  6. neither here nor there says:

    By the way Steve we agree on how to vote, I stated yes on the pension, no on the others.

  7. Steve Houston says:

    (Manny, when I use links, my posts go MIA to the spam catcher so try this…)
    “Houston shells out $9.7M to reinstate flood insurance after Harvey”
    “City Council approved spending $9.7 million to reinstate flood insurance coverage for its facilities after Hurricane Harvey busted Houston’s prior coverage maximum.
    Mayor Sylvester Turner has said city buildings suffered about $75 million in storm damage beyond what the city’s $100 million policy would cover.
    Claims against the city’s flood insurance policy had never exceeded $33 million in prior storms, he said.” Houston Chronicle by Mike Morris on 10/4/2017

    Houston self insures up to a point in numerous areas, including liability coverage, but the disaster policy requires the city to cover the first ten million and everything after 100 million, additional coverage said to increase costs substantially with no carrier willing to provide an open ended policy. Because of that, almost ten million of the governor’s grant was to buy another policy since it was “used up” by Harvey and a second storm would have been completely uncovered. I have since confirmed that none of the bond money can legally be used for vehicles though some may end up spent that way through the usual government accounting trickery all administrations use to “be flexible”.

    Bob: “I’m all for paying market wages, but City salaries come from my salary and my salary is shrinking.”

    Bob, City of Houston employee compensation exceeds the public sector market only for executive level positions, department heads and directors paid more than other government bodies for comparable duties and size. If you compare position by position to private sector equivalents, virtually no CoH position is higher in terms of total compensation but you are welcome to chime in if you believe one exists. This is in part due to pension cuts starting in 2004 all the way through this past summer, also including handy little tricks like the one pulled on HFD. Contrary to what you may have heard, it is an unfair comparison to make between a fully certified HFD fireman and one of the local county volunteers, private sector firemen paid a heck of a lot more too. Remember that city jobs often require higher levels of formal education and certifications, years of experience, and so forth if you are going to compare fairly.

  8. neither here nor there says:

    Like the four comments that are posted in the article, it is confusing as to what is occurring. They never had more than 33 million, but they exceeded 100 million by 75 million.

    But I stand corrected.

    The bonds are not related to Harvey or so it seems. More reason why to vote no on all those bonds as the City has not bothered to tell us exactly the money will be spent. Maybe a multi-service center in Alief, that is a maybe but a 57 million maybe. Since I voted today, I have already voted no on everything but the pension bonds. Only the second time I have voted in favor of a bond in about 20 years.

    Have to agree with Kubosh

    Councilman Michael Kubosh was one of two council members to oppose placing the bonds on the ballot, in part because he did not want to jeopardize the pension bond.

    “I also have a problem with where is the money going to come from to pay the bonds?” he said. “We need to be more fiscally sound without getting more in debt. I’m just opposing more debt at this time.”


  9. Ross says:

    Proposition A – I am voting yes

    Proposition B – There’s no way the City has an extra $25 million a year for police and fire vehicle replacement out of the general budget, given the total opposition to spending any money at all that some people have. I am not sure how they think this stuff gets paid for, and public safety vehicles have a finite life. Your choice is to finance the vehicles over time, and avoid a tax increase, or just do without, since the revenue cap keeps the City from spending on necessary items. I am voting yes

    Proposition C – I’ll quote my Dad on this one “There’s a lot of tightwad bastards who don’t give a shit about anyone but themselves”. Voting against park money is a reflection of this attitude. Proposing that anyone who wants to use a park buy a “park card” makes a tightwad bastard in my book. I am voting for this one too.

    Proposition D – A trash pickup fee isn’t going to build facilities, and will cost quite a bit to implement. I am voting yes on this one.

    Proposition E – The County isn’t going to consolidate with the City on anything, because that would make the Commissioners look bad. My Dad credited public libraries with helping him escape poverty, and I am a regular user and fan of libraries. I will be voting yes on this one.

  10. Steve Houston says:

    Manny, what did you find confusing? In previous disasters, city facilities only reached as much as 33 million in damage, the bean counters determining the right amount of insurance being 100 million “just in case”. This time, it was worse than that but only this time (if the quote is accurate). Contrary to what some insurance sellers will tell you, you don’t try to cover every possible scenario because it gets too expensive. But the items in these bond measures have been worked on for a long time, selected from wish lists by department heads and elected officials long before Harvey came into the picture. To truly address flooding matters, even potential billion dollar bonds like the one Judge Emmett suggested recently, will not stop flooding here, there are just too many places needing too much work and even those don’t address the big ticket items like Bill King favors with that surge protection project (which wouldn’t have helped during Harvey in the slightest). To put flooding bond measures on the city ballot, I believe they would have to change some of the ordinances put in place trying to make the city move to a “pay as you go” system under former Mayor Parker.

    Ross, financing a short lived asset like a vehicle using long term bonds is a waste of money. What they will likely do is apply the bond money to existing budgeted work, freeing up the funds from the operating budget to apply to vehicles. For Prop D, a garbage fee would allow the department to build facilities in similar fashion, the 80+ million a year used for operations merely shuffled around too. With Prop C, it’s fair to say that the city of Houston has greatly expanded park funding over the last ten years, voting down this bond not stopping park funding altogether, just not allowing it to continue growing as we have to accept less coverage from HFD and HPD for lack of funds.

    As far as Prop E, the county and city are already working toward combined ventures, Judge Emmett speaking in favor of that idea in each of his yearly speeches. The latest such venture about to come on line is the booking facility that allows the city of Houston to get rid of its jails, streamlining the process of handling arrested people. Contrary to your assertion, such dealings make Commissioner’s and city politicians look like better stewards of tax money. There is no reason why those who live in the city should not get something for the county taxes they pay and there are always economies of scale to save on purchases as well as operations. Had Parker not been so blind to the idea, Houston could have closed much of their crime lab in favor of using the superior county facilities at a handsome savings, the endless scandals tied to Houston’s labs, even the new one, enough to prove the city is not serious about the subject. The county had excess capacity at the time and smaller cities like Pasadena saved large sums using the county, Houston could still do likewise.

  11. neither here nor there says:

    Well Steve, maybe it is confusing because when one hears one argument and then the argument changes, it can be confusing for instance,

    “The city also lost 334 vehicles to floodwaters and saw its municipal courts complex, city hall and its adjacent annex and two wastewater treatment plants knocked offline.” That is what Turner claimed when he was thinking for going over the CAP.

    If insurance covered the vehicles, if insurance covered the buildings, if insurance covered the hike and bike trails, why does the city need to pass a bond to take care of the libraries, the vehicles, and other buildings damaged by water?

    I don’t vote for a pig in a poke, you can if you want to but I would need specifics, that is why I voted against the rain tax and would do so again.

    But since you, Steve, are an expert, tell me where the rain tax money has been spent, no one seems to know or want to say.

  12. Steve Houston says:

    Manny, fair enough; too many cooks with too many interpretations does tend to make bond voting tougher, I just thought the insurance part was fairly straightforward. If the mayor had gotten his way by not changing the rate, the extra money could have gone for some of the vehicles directly. Either way, the city lost more than the insurance policy covered and some of the reporting has been way off base.

    On the other matter, if you are referring to the Rebuild Houston laundry list of projects, both completed and still underway, you can look here:

    This outlines many of those projects some of you can’t seem to find, others can be found by keeping up with city council meetings, the weekly city agenda, and specific committee meetings. You can get a more complete list by asking Costello directly, he’ll talk your head off if you give him the chance to discuss it.

  13. neither here nor there says:

    Sorry Steve, linking to something that no one can tell what the rain tax was used for does not help anyone. Which project of all those listed was done with rain tax? Those are all projects that would have done whether we had a rain tax or not. We all know that the rain tax was used for hike and bike trails and that was not on the list. We all know or should know that as it passed hundred or P&E employees started getting paid with the rain tax for the same thing they were doing before, thereby freeing general tax money for other things.

    A study of Houston will find that the large engineering companies and many large construction companies rely on the government to survive. It was not always like that they could do private work and do well.


  14. Steve Houston says:

    Manny, there’s no need to be sorry for your lack of reading the linked material in favor of a media story designed to generate controversy, it’s part of your charm. The entire Rebuild Houston project was never just about flooding and was NEVER sold as such no matter how much revisionists try to make that the case. And while drainage-related projects are at the heart of the drainage fee, the program clearly states that it includes administrative fees and operating expense. Those fees include those workers you rail about, their services certainly qualifying under the program. Your personal understanding of the program aside, as I have repeatedly pointed out in previous comments, government bodies deploy creative financing all the time to shuffle funds from one thing to another, this program not the first nor will it be the last, pointing it out doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with the shuffling but I recognize it as a fact of life.

    Former Mayor Lanier used 50 million a year in Metro money to fix city streets that were part of the city’s yearly operating budget for Houston, this allowing him to 1) de-fund attempts to build rail and, 2) spend that much more on public safety personnel; neither of those expenses listed in Metro’s statutory language. Every administration before and after used such shuffling to provide budgetary flexibility, the Rebuild Houston program focused more on street repairs and related projects than flooding by design. I’d think those who claim to hate bonded debt so much would understand the premise of “pay as you go” versus issuing large amounts of debt, both approaches having pros and cons. It’s also important to recognize that Houston and Harris County have catered to developers since the very beginning of their existence, public monies used on all sorts of stupid projects hawked by those companies that are more than willing to design & construct anything set before them. Enforcement of public contracts has been so lax for so long and expectations even lower, that backroom deals are understood as the norm just like in most other cities.

    PS: Hike and Bike trails were certainly included prominently on the list of projects for Rebuild Houston and always have been. I’m not a fan of them either but unlike some of you, I’m not going to live in denial that they were not so listed from the very beginning as part of the program. The drainage fee is only one part of the program’s funding and you can bet that proponents can come up with a reasonable explanation to tie the various projects together since they are integrated components, that doesn’t mean you have to agree with their stated logic.

  15. C.I. says:

    Until we get competent leadership to run our city, I am voting against any increase in my taxes……

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