The Chron proposes an agenda item for the Lege.
Unincorporated Harris County
The challenges of unincorporated Harris County are nothing new. For decades neighborhoods have sprouted up in the vast prairie west of Houston without any formal municipal governmental structure. Special districts have provided basic needs, such as neighborhood streets and water. The county government picked up the rest — notably law enforcement and roads. No mayors. No city halls. No local sales taxes.
This model is becoming unsustainable. If grouped into a single city, the total population of unincorporated Harris County would be the fifth largest in the United States. Issues like infrastructure costs and upkeep, law enforcement and the basic duties of government are piling up, and commissioners court lacks both the funds and the statutory authority to deal with it all.
Meanwhile, obscure rules written in Austin prohibit these neighborhoods from forming their own cities, which could levy sales taxes and pass ordinances. Already existing cities are hesitant to annex special districts, which often have long-term debt.
So why would the Legislature finally address this big-picture issue after ignoring it for so long?
Hurricane Harvey revealed the weaknesses of these special districts to meet residents’ needs and the ongoing fight over property taxes has the county looking for another way to pay for services.
Formal studies, notably from the Kinder Institute, are being published about the problems in these areas — and potential solutions.
The status quo in the unincorporated county can’t go on forever, and only Austin can change it.
I basically agree with the premise, but I seriously doubt anything will happen this session. This wasn’t a theme that Judge Lina Hidalgo campaigned on, and I expect she’s got her hands (and the county’s lobbyists’ hands) full right now. More to the point, it’s not clear what kind of legislation would be proposed to remedy the problems. Something like this needs to have a vetting period, with opportunities for public input, since any change would affect how current residents of unincorporated Harris County would be affected.
There’s an analogy here to the oft-lamented-by-the-Chron system of partisan judicial elections. What we have now is flawed, and it’s easy to say there must be a better way, but it’s all vaporware until something specific gets proposed and advocated. My suggestion would be to lobby Commissioners Court to put together a committee to study the options and propose something that can be turned into a bill one of our legislators can author for 2021. Something concrete has a chance to be enacted, so start with that and maybe we can actually make a change happen.