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bond referendum

Republican County Commissioners ponder another quorum break

It’s a thing they can do, and have done in recent times. They shouldn’t, not for this, but they can.

The three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday proposed cutting the overall property tax rate for the third year in a row, though the two Republican members left open the possibility they may force the adoption of a lower rate by skipping the vote in two weeks.

County Administrator David Berry warned that option would leave the county scrambling to pay for essential services, including debt service for the $2.5 billion flood bond program. Republican commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle, however, see an opportunity to compel the Democratic majority to cut what they view as wasteful spending.

“We are having a budget challenge because of wasteful spending, not because of tax rates,” Ramsey said, citing the creation of new county departments and hiring outside consultants for various studies. “So, when we adopt a tax rate, it should be in that context.”

Each year, Harris County sets the tax rate for the county government, flood control district, hospital district and Port of Houston; the first three together comprise an overall rate that is used to calculate each property owner’s annual tax bill.

Berry proposed an overall rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed property value. This would save the owner of a home valued at $200,000 with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption $27 since their last tax bill.

The three Democrats on Commissioners Court have expressed support for that rate.

Cagle’s pitch of 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, which included lower county and hospital district rates, would save this same homeowner $48.

The Precinct 4 commissioner said residents who still are struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic deserve more property tax relief.

“When we do the tax rate hearings, we need to be very careful that we make sure we don’t keep just the tax-spender mindset,” Cagle said. “The taxpayers, right now, are going through a rough season in their lives.”

[…]

The pair of Republicans have rare power over the tax issue because while they frequently are out-voted 3-2 by the Democratic majority on the court, Texas law requires a quorum of four members to set tax rates.

That means they simply can skip the Sept. 28 meeting when the vote is scheduled and thwart the Democrats’ plan; Cagle and then-commissioner Steve Radack did this in 2019 to block a tax hike the majority had proposed.

If the court does not approve new tax rates before Oct. 15, by law they revert to what is called the no new revenue rate, a steeper cut than even Cagle had proposed.

Berry said that would leave the county unable to fully fund the budget Commissioners Court unanimously approved in February. It also would constrain the county budget in coming years under a Texas Legislature-imposed revenue cap, which limits annual growth to 3.5 percent unless approved by voters.

“Over time, going to no new revenue rates are going to be very, very difficult for the county, given what we see in terms of rising health care and pension expenses,” Berry said.

He cautioned that reverting to the bottom rates would leave the county flood control district without enough to pay debt service on the bond program voters approved in 2018. That also could spook creditors and threaten the county’s robust AAA bond rating.

All five court members agree falling behind on debt payments would be foolish.

See here and here for more on the previous quorum break. If everyone agrees that a Cagle and Ramsey walkout would lead to a bad fiscal outcome for the county, then the very simple and logical solution is for them to not do that. They’re getting some of what they want, which is not a bad outcome for a political minority, and they have the option of campaigning for their alternate vision in an attempt to win back a majority position on the Court for next year. Done and dusted, let’s move on.

But if they choose to break quorum to force an even lower tax rate, in the name of “cutting spending”, then it is incumbent on the Democratic majority to respond. They can’t change the quorum requirement, which is a quirk of the state constitution, but like the Republican majority in the Legislature there are things they can do to make the price of breaking quorum higher. I would endorse two things to do in response: One, rewrite the budget so that the full cuts that would have to occur come entirely from Cagle and Ramsey’s apportionment. Do whatever it takes to make them feel the pain, since they were the ones who wanted the pain in the first place. And two, absolutely go for a maximalist redistricting map, to eject one of them from their current positions. Don’t play nice, don’t let bygones be bygones, just respond in kind and let them absorb the lesson that their actions have consequences. It’s basic stuff.

Now again, none of this has to happen. Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey can show up and vote how they see fit, and still get a lower tax rate even if it’s not as low as they would like. You can’t always get what you want, especially when you’re outvoted. Or they can go their own way and force their will onto the county, and see if the Dems have it in them to do payback. We’ll know on September 28 what they choose.

Let’s try again to fix that flood bond deficit

Hope this works.

Harris County on Tuesday [unveiled] a new plan to address a funding gap for its flood bond program, which will rely more heavily on diverted toll road revenue instead of federal aid that may never arrive.

The goal is to give the county greater control over its own flood control future instead of waiting on unreliable state and federal partners. To that end, the Commissioners Court also is expected to approve a new, permanent fund for flood control purposes and give priority to the most vulnerable areas to receive aid from it.

The plan still leaves approved projects $950 million short, however, raising the possibility that a new bond or flood control tax increases may be needed in the future to pay for all planned projects, according to budget office documents. Additional money would not be needed for about five years, according to the budget office.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said the fund, called the Flood Resilience Trust, is a good idea because it allows the county to stockpile money for projects in advance.

“It allows the county to, in a very effective way, set aside money every year, and that money will be there when they make any federal or state applications,” Ramsey said. “With a trust, we can move forward with a project while anticipating those (matching) dollars will come in.”

[…]

Because the Harris County Flood Control District purposefully underfunded some bond projects in anticipation of receiving federal aid, the snub resulted in lopsided spending across the county’s 23 watersheds. In March, the county announced that some of the watersheds with the wealthiest communities, such as White Oak and Buffalo bayous, had their projects close to fully funded.

Watersheds with some of the county’s poorest neighborhoods, such as Halls and Greens bayous, had less than half the necessary dollars. That angered the commissioners who represent those areas, Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia, because the court agreed in proposing the bond three summers ago that funds would be spent equitably.

The new plan aims to fix that. First, it would direct Harris County Toll Road Authority revenue — a lump sum of $230 million plus $40 million annually — to a new Flood Resilience Trust. This account would be used to plug funding holes in projects where federal aid failed to arrive.

Projects would be eligible based on their scores on the county’s prioritization framework, which considers factors such as how many structures would benefit from a project, how frequently a target area has flooded and the socioeconomic makeup of the residents there. This “worst first” framework, approved in 2019, initially dictated only the order in which projects were started.

The two Republican commissioners on the court, Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, voted against the equity language; Cagle said he saw no connection between social factors such as education or poverty and flood risk.

The county budget office estimates that if no other federal or state aid comes, the Flood Resilience Trust will be able to make up bond project shortfalls until about 2026. After that, the commissioners may need to issue a new bond to cover the remaining costs.

See here for the background. This was a preview story, published before the Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday. I presume this was passed, but the meeting ran late, and so as of Wednesday afternoon there wasn’t an updated version yet. I think this is a reasonable plan, and if it can buy them five years (and hopefully some real progress in getting projects done) before having to do another bond, then that’s a good outcome and the odds of having that bond passed will improve. It also allows for some time to un-screw the federal fund distribution, which would make all of this a lot simpler. For now, this will do.

Flood Control District director to resign

Interesting.

Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Russ Poppe submitted a letter of resignation to Commissioners Court on Friday, saying he plans to step down July 2.

Poppe, 45, said the demands of the job, which have grown significantly since Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and the passage of the historic $2.5 billion flood bond program the following year, had grown too great.

“While I greatly appreciate your continued support for making Harris County more resilient with natural disaster, the growing expectations associated with these efforts have adversely affected the quality of my personal life to a point I can no longer sustain,” Poppe wrote.

His departure comes at a precarious time for the agency, which is attempting to close a $700 million funding gap in its flood bond program. Poppe is due to present a plan to Commissioners Court June 29 to ensure all planned projects can be completed.

Poppe, who has worked as an engineer for Harris County since 2005, became head of the flood control district five years ago.

The rest of the story recaps the history of those five years, from Harvey to the 2018 bond referendum that is now massively underfunded thanks to a miscalculation in how federal matching funds would be allocated, the relationship Poppe has had with the Democratic-majority Commissioners Court, and the current mishigoss with the General Land Office and George P. Bush. HCFCD may have been a sleepy place when Poppe got there, but it’s on everyone’s radar now.

We can speculate as to the reasons why he is leaving now, but none of that really matters. What does matter is who and what comes next. The next director will have a full plate and a lot of directions to be going at once, with a state government that is outright hostile to the county. I hope whoever that is enjoys a challenge, because they’re going to get one. Best of luck to Russ Poppe in whatever comes next, and let’s all light a candle for his successor.

State Reps to P Bush: Reconsider

Nearly all of the Harris County State Reps have written a letter to Land Commissioner George P Bush asking him to reconsider the ridiculous process that completely shut Houston and Harris County out of federal flooding funds.

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers on Tuesday asked Land Commissioner George P. Bush to reconsider his agency’s move to deny Houston and Harris County any funds out of a $1 billion federal pot of flood mitigation aid stemming from Hurricane Harvey.

In a letter to Bush, 22 state representatives — the entire Harris County delegation, aside from state Reps. Briscoe Cain and Mike Schofield — wrote that they found the decision “disappointing” and asked that the General Land Office “work to rectify this situation.”

The GLO, which Bush oversees, is responsible for disbursing more than $4 billion in federal aid to fund flood mitigation projects across southeast Texas. In the first round of aid payout last week, four smaller municipalities in east Harris County were awarded $90 million, but the city and county received nothing for the more than $1.3 billion in applications they submitted for various projects.

“We recognize there have been disagreements between local and state leaders on how to allocate various sets of federal funds around mitigation and recovery since Hurricane Harvey,” the lawmakers wrote. “(H)owever, no reasonable person could believe that the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development intended or … envisioned a scenario where a county of 4.7 million people and the fourth largest city in the United States, after experiencing three consecutive years of flood disasters, would not receive any of this $1 billion allotment.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the letter. As noted, the two Republican County Commissioners have also complained to P Bush about this. I’m not surprised that Briscoe Cain didn’t sign on to this – he’s a complete waste of space – but Mike Schofield’s omission is intriguing. I know things will change with redistricting to strengthen his position, but I thank him for providing the campaign fodder nonetheless. Whether this will make any difference or not I have no idea, but it was the right thing to do regardless. Kudos to Jon Rosenthal, the county delegation chair, for organizing this and to all of the members who did sign it.

P Bush tries to deflect blame on flood funding fiasco

You can run, but you can’t hide, George P. Bush.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush blamed local leaders Friday for Houston and Harris County’s failure to secure a single penny of roughly $1 billion in federal flood mitigation funds tied to Hurricane Harvey, though a county commissioner said Bush privately pledged his support for giving Harris County future aid directly rather than forcing it to compete for the money.

The Texas General Land Office, which is responsible for allocating U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development flood mitigation dollars, told city and county officials Thursday they would receive nothing of the more than $1.3 billion they had sought for 14 mitigation projects.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo blamed the result on certain project scoring criteria that disadvantaged urban areas.

A General Land Office spokeswoman said the agency was required to use the criteria developed by federal officials at the Housing and Urban Development Department.

HUD disputed that Friday evening, laying the blame squarely on Bush’s team.

“HUD has not prevented Texas from awarding CDBG-MIT funds to Houston or Harris County,” agency spokesman Michael Burns said in a statement. “The formula for allocation was created by the state of Texas. They have full responsibility and jurisdiction over who gets the money that was allocated to the state for flood mitigation.”

Burns did not say whether HUD would intervene. The agency’s comments capped a whirlwind two days where Bush visited areas that received awards. In all, the GLO awarded about $1 billion for 81 different projects across 40 counties, including $179 million in Galveston County.

See here for the background. The embedded image is a statement from Republican County Commissioner Tom Ramsey, so this isn’t just Democratic carping. (UPDATE: Commissioner Jack Cagle calls the GLO’s decision “shocking” and says it “mocks common sense”.) This isn’t and shouldn’t be just about formulas and algorithms. It also has to be about the goals, which should then be reflected by the formulas. As I said last time, it should be obvious that the city of Houston and Harris County need and deserve a significant portion of this funding. We suffered the most from Harvey, we have the greatest amount of current and future need, and this was the intent of Congress when that money was appropriated. There’s no world in which giving zero dollars to Houston and Harris County is rational, efficient, or just. The GLO was given the responsibility to distribute these funds – over the objections of the city and the county, by the way – and so it is entirely on them to ensure an outcome that made sense. Which is the opposite of what we got.

Bush, who on Friday toured those areas and others to announce award recipients, said “constituents have to start asking the City of Houston and Harris County who exactly are filling out these applications, and are they being effective in representing their constituents,” according to KTRK-13.

He did not specify what errors the city and county made that prevented them from receiving any funds. City and county officials said GLO staff never informed them of any mistakes on their applications nor asked for any additional information during the scoring process.

GLO spokeswoman Brittany Eck said she could not confirm nor deny Bush’s comment that cast blame on local leaders for Houston’s lack of mitigation funds, but suggested the city and county should have acted more strategically by submitting fewer projects, perhaps even offering a joint application to strengthen their chances for approval by increasing the number of people who would benefit.

GLO had capped the maximum award application at $300 million, however, regardless of the applicant’s population. That discouraged the city and county from submitting mega-projects for consideration.

[…]

Turner said the snub was just the latest attack by Republican state officials on the Democrats who run the state’s largest cities and counties.

He said while politicians may be the intended targets, the lack of flood protection funding hurts average residents.

“This is not about some paperwork; this is not about not scoring as high,” Turner said. “This is about state leaders intentionally deciding not to allocate one single dime to local communities that were substantially impacted by Hurricane Harvey.”

Steve Costello, the city’s chief recovery officer, said GLO staff failed to understand “the difference between urban drainage and regional drainage” when setting their scoring criteria.

“Our projects were neighborhood revitalization projects,” Costello said. “If you think about urban drainage, we were servicing 100 percent of the people in the service area of the urban drainage project. And yet, when you divide it by 2.2 million people in the city, you get this detrimental impact on the fact that it’s not enough people being served.”

In January 2020, Turner emailed Bush, recommending the GLO revise the metric that considered the share of residents who would benefit from the project for that very reason.

“The system is flawed. The evaluation was flawed,” Costello said. “Commissioner Bush should have read his email.”

This was a screw job, but it wasn’t a screw up. This was the intended outcome. Any assurances from Bush that he’ll personally help us out with the next distribution are extremely hollow. Just look at what he did to us this time around.

GLO to Harris County: Drop dead

Hard to see this as anything but a hatchet job.

Houston and Harris County officials said the Texas General Land Office informed them Thursday they would receive nothing from the more than $1.3 billion in applications they submitted for federal flood mitigation funding the state is disbursing.

Instead, about $1 billion in U.S. Housing and Urban Development funds the GLO is managing will flow to other local governments in 46 Southeast Texas counties that are eligible for the aid. Four smaller municipalities in east Harris County — Pasadena, Jacinto City, Galena Park and Baytown — will receive about $90 million combined.

The snub, delivered by GLO staff in meetings this week, surprised local leaders, who had expected the city and county to receive hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I would like to tell you the meeting was informative and productive. Unfortunately, the meeting was ridiculous,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who suggested the state had political motives for its decision. “The GLO is saying today that the largest county in Texas, the county home to the most significant elements of our state, local and national economy, does not merit the fair share of billions of dollars.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said it was “unconscionable” that federal funds Congress intended for Hurricane Harvey recovery would not flow to the Houston area, by far the most populous affected by the storm.

“Our community needs this federal funding and we have already begun the process of reaching out to the Biden Administration to identify alternatives — including a potential review of the process for this allocation and a direct carve-out going forward,” Hidalgo said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration said the city was preparing a letter Thursday evening in which it would ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to intervene. In a statement, the mayor called on the federal agency to “immediately halt the distribution” of the funds until it could review the situation.

“For the state GLO not to give one dime in the initial distribution to the city and a very small portion to Harris County shows a callous disregard to the people of Houston and Harris County,” Turner said. “And it is unfathomable that the state GLO would redirect most of these dollars to areas that did not suffer much from Hurricane Harvey.”

[…]

An appropriation from the state is crucial to closing a roughly $900 million funding gap Harris County has for its flood bond program. Without it, the county faces the prospect of issuing a new bond, diverting toll road revenue or scaling back the size or scope of flood projects.

Russ Poppe, the Harris County Flood Control District executive director, said he struggled to understand how roughly $300 million in applications his engineers prepared failed to secure a single dollar. He said he thought the county’s projects exceeded the criteria for awards.

“We’re curious to see how the GLO scored our projects, and why they declared us ineligible,” Poppe said. “I just don’t know until I see the numbers.”

See here and here for some background. I’d like to see those numbers too, because I cannot envision a scenario in which absolutely none of Houston or Harris County’s requests made the cut. Hell, if it had been looking likely along the way that Houston and Harris County were coming up short, you’d think it would make sense for the GLO to give them a heads up so they could maybe shore up their applications. Indeed, the exact opposite appears to be the case.

One might argue that the fix was in from the beginning.

It should be self-evident why the state should want Harris County to get its fair share of these funds. For that matter, the same is true for the federal government. As such, I hope Mayor Turner’s letter to HUD has an effect. I know George P. Bush has a primary challenge to run, but there are other concerns to deal with. The Press and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: Said letter to HUD, signed by Mayor Turner and Commissioner Rodney Ellis, can be seen here.

UPDATE: Judge Hidalgo sent her own letter to HUD as well.

Commissioners Court partially fills the flood bond funding gap

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court took initial steps this week to plug a $1.4 billion funding hole for its flood bond program by diverting revenue from the county’s toll roads system.

Court members also laid out a “backstop” plan to use Harris County Toll Road Authority debt for drainage projects in case federal matching funds, distributed by the state General Land Office, do not arrive.

“The hope is that GLO comes in before we have to use either of those,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “If they don’t, we’ll look at HCTRA funds first, and then, worst comes to worst, we’ll look at the road and bridge funds.”

Repurposing the toll road revenue, which court members unanimously approved Tuesday, ensures that $535 million worth of drainage projects across all four commissioner precincts are fully funded and can be completed in the next three to five years.

That will allow the Harris County Flood Control District to provide a modicum of immediate protection to neighborhoods while the county searches for money to complete larger, longer-term projects. The 91 projects will protect about 45,000 homes, according to the district.

The court transferred $230 million in surplus toll road revenue, which largely was derived from last year’s refinancing of Harris County Toll Road Authority debt. The sum will be divided evenly between the precincts.

In addition, Commissioners Court approved using $315 million in toll road revenue, road debt or funds from other county sources to complete the drainage projects in case federal help never comes. Toll road debt must be used for a transportation purpose, and therefore can only be used for flood control projects that in some way involve a road or bridge.

That will free up $115 million in flood bond money that was intended for this purpose. That money now can be used to fill massive funding shortfalls in several watersheds, including Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River.

See here and here for the background. There was a Chron story from a couple of days before this that went into the experiences of the neighborhoods that were the most affected by the way the funding was structured for this. I drafted a post for that but didn’t get to publishing it before the Court acted. Fine by me for that to become obsolete. There’s still more to be done to fix this, but we’re off to a good start.

Flood funding shortfall

Still trying to understand this.

Harris County on Tuesday revealed a $1.4 billion shortfall in funding for flood control projects under the bond program voters approved in 2018, a massive miscalculation that threatens to cause construction delays and cost taxpayers more than expected.

Budget Officer David Berry told Commissioners Court that projected funding from state and federal partners, which was supposed to supplement the $2.5 billion investment by county taxpayers, has not materialized. As a result, the county has committed to doing more work than it currently can afford to do.

“The hope after Hurricane Harvey that federal and state partners would really be focused on Harris County, where we saw the worst damage, has not altogether turned out to be true,” Berry said.

Berry said the county believes it can secure an additional $100 to $500 million from the state and federal governments, but that still leaves “a substantial gap.”

Projects in several watersheds are close to fully funded, though planned improvements in three — Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River — have less than half the necessary dollars. Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Russ Poppe said no projects will be delayed so long as the funding gap is closed by the end of this year.

The bond program currently is projected to be completed around 2028. The flood control district has spent money to design some projects in anticipation of receiving matching funds to begin construction.

[…]

Poppe said the shortfall dates back to early 2018, when Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act. The measure provided a collective $66 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Housing and Urban Development and FEMA to help the country recover from the previous year’s destructive storm season, which included hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Harris County and the city of Houston in 2019 received $1 billion each from HUD to repair and rebuild Harvey-damaged homes; the county received an additional $225 million from FEMA for buyouts.

Poppe said the county planned on receiving an additional $1 billion from HUD for flood control projects.

“The logic was … the federal government can get a level of protection on that investment they just made,” Poppe said.

That funding flowed from Washington through the state General Land Office, however, which decided instead to ask Texas cities and counties to apply for individual grants. Poppe said his office has made $900 million in requests, which he hoped would be decided later in the spring.

What’s not clear to me from this is how much of it was an over-estimation on the part of Harris County in putting together the 2018 referendum how much money from the feds and the state would be available, how much is money that we should have reasonably expected that wasn’t appropriated by the feds, and how much is just sitting there in the Land Commissioner’s office waiting to be handed out to cities and counties. All three can be addressed in one way or another, but getting the Land Commissioner to get off his ass and give us the money we’ve applied for would be the most direct. I fully expect there to be a massive infrastructure bill taken up (and hopefully passed) by Congress later this year, which can certainly include more funds for flooding projects (and maybe even the ever-elusive Ike Dike), but that depends on things that are out of our control right now. Commissioners Court has directed th flood control district to come up with a plan to secure more funds by June 30, and the commitment is there to complete the project list one way or another, which is what the voters were promised. Whatever the underlying issue is, let’s figure this out and get this moving forward.

Bike lanes for the Red Line

I approve.

The belief that Northside Houston residents will bike to buses and trains if it is safer to do so is bringing more curb work to Cavalcade, paid for out the same pot of federal money that brought the neighborhood trains.

Metropolitan Transit Authority on Nov. 19 approved the use of nearly $1.3 million left over from building the Red Line light rail extension — which opened nearly seven years ago — to add protected bike lanes to Cavalcade from Irvington to Elysian.

The upcoming work will extend bike lanes along Cavalcade from Airline to Irvington, adding about a half mile of protected lanes. Tikon Group won the contract with Metro, which includes altering the road where needed and striping for bike lanes in each direction, installing rubberized bumps — often called armadillos — to separate cyclists and motorists, and building new curbs at major bus stops.

The curbs and intentional curves force bicyclists to slow at spots where people will be standing for the bus, while making sure biking through “will not have a conflict with the buses,” said Bridgette Towns, vice president of project management and engineering at Metro.

The extension will connect bike lanes already in use along Cavalcade between Irvington and Airline to bike lanes along Hardy and Elysian that act as a major spine for cycling through Northside.

I’m a longtime proponent of combining bike capacity with transit capacity, so this makes a lot of sense to me. Fixing sidewalks is also a good way to make transit more attractive, as well as just being a general boon to the area. This work is being funded by some leftover money from the original Red Line expansion – it’s a bit of a story, read the article for the details. As we know, there’s more work coming from the 2019 bond referendum, but for obvious reasons things are taking their time getting started. There’s still other stuff in the meantime.

Metro moving forward with its construction plans

As well they should.

Carrin Patman greeted the supporter by grabbing both of his hands in a packed downtown Houston event space above a bustling sports bar. The buffet laid out for Metro’s 2019 election night watch party was thoroughly picked through and waiters and waitresses were bringing out more.

“I don’t want to jinx it, but everything is looking great. It’s going to pass,” Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board, told the man among a throng of celebrants clinking glasses and talking about the big win for buses and trains. As she let go, Patman said she was looking forward to starting the “real work” of building Houston’s future transit system.

A year later, Metro has to work its way through a pandemic that took away more than half its ridership and still is roiling its financial outlook before it can tackle more than a decade of rail, street and transit stop construction.

Nonetheless, transit officials are moving ahead with millions of dollars in engineering and design of new lines and services, confident they can plan now for major projects that riders eventually will demand.

“We don’t want to lose that time,” said Roberto Treviño, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction. “We don’t want to wait. Now is the time to plan.”

After months of discussion, contracts for design oversight and preparation of the lengthy federal environmental process for a major bus rapid transit line could be solicited by the end of the year, as Metro starts the work Patman predicted.

You can read the rest. Some projects have been de-prioritized for now, which is fine. The people voted for doing this work, and it would be a dereliction of duty to not do it. Unless you think we’re never going to get back to the level of activity and traffic we had before, there’s no reason to put this off. Keep moving forward.

HISD needs a bond referendum

Easier said than done, though.

Houston ISD appeared to be on track in mid-February to put a bond election on the ballot this November, taking a critical step toward asking voters for the first time since 2012 to let it borrow money to finance major facility upgrades in the district.

Two weeks later, federal agents raided the district’s headquarters. Three weeks after that, campuses closed due to COVID-19.

Once again, an HISD bond would have to wait.

As voters in Dallas, San Antonio and parts of Fort Bend County decide in the coming weeks whether to back billions of dollars in school improvements, residents of the state’s largest district will not see a bond request on the ballot for the eighth straight year, the longest absence among Texas’ major urban districts.

Despite promising signs earlier this year that HISD finally may have weathered a cascade of embarrassments, the district remains unable to garner support needed to provide students with much-wanted improvements. After approving a facilities assessment in February, a precursor to a bond vote, HISD administrators and trustees never publicly discussed seeking an election following the raid and pandemic-induced shutdown.

In addition to grappling with the novel coronavirus pandemic, HISD continues to face fallout from the abrupt departure of former Superintendent Richard Carranza, self-admitted dysfunction on the school board in 2018 and 2019, the Texas Education Agency’s ongoing effort to replace trustees and the raid tied to former high-ranking administrator Brian Busby.

“As a layperson on the outside looking in, with everything that was going on in the district, I personally would have had some reluctance supporting one,” said HISD trustee Kathy Blueford-Daniels, one of four new members on the nine-person board this year. “We’re not entangled in all that controversy now, and so it’s imperative that we look at trying to do a bond every five years. We’re way overdue.”

[…]

Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, who has conducted dozens of school bond polls and led a survey on voter attitudes toward HISD last year, said he would be “shocked” if the district could earn the needed majority support for a package. If a bond vote fails, HISD must cover costs associated with administering the election.

“There’s just no confidence in the district, and I have no reason to think that confidence has increased with remote learning,” Stein said. “My guess is they’re not going to pass a bond anytime soon.”

Here’s a scorching hot take: Maybe the best way to get a very necessary bond passed is to hand that responsibility to the board of managers that will (one presumes) eventually get installed by the TEA as part of its now-held-up-in-the-courts takeover. If there’s not enough faith that the elected Board members are up to the task (a proposition I’d question, but let’s go with it for now), then give the new Board a crack at it. It’s not clear to me that the appointed Board would have a net gain in public trust, since so many HISD parents and other stakeholders are deeply suspicious of (if not outright hostile to) the TEA takeover, but maybe they could earn some trust, or have a honeymoon period, or just be able to bring it up without other issues getting in the way. I’m just spitballing here. The fact remains, the schools need the capital investment. I’m open to any reasonable ideas for making it happen.

The post-Harvey flood control march

It’s a long journey, with a lot to be done. It’s going to take awhile.

Most of Kenwood, a working class, mostly Latino neighborhood, is so deep in the 100-year floodplain that Harris County engineers have concluded no flood control project could protect it from a strong storm. Instead, the county began a voluntary buyout program in Kenwood and seven other vulnerable areas two years ago, but found few takers. Under pressure to spend federal Harvey recovery aid more quickly, the county this summer chose to make the buyouts mandatory.

The extraordinary step only underscores that, more than three years after Harvey rolled ashore as the worst rainstorm in continental U.S. history — and amid a record-setting Atlantic hurricane season — progress toward reducing Houston’s greatest vulnerability has been painfully slow and piecemeal at best.

Voters passed a $2.5 billion bond two years ago, giving the county a huge injection of funding to tackle nearly 200 flood control projects. Those projects take time, often years, to complete, however. And county officials concede the cost to fully protect against 100-year storms is more than 10 times higher than what voters approved.

City Hall lacks a comparable cash infusion and so mostly is waiting on the slow-motion arrival of federal aid. Meanwhile, its voter-approved street and drainage program has been shorted by more than $260 million over the last six years, money that has been used on other city services.

The city and county did update their floodplain building standards in the months after the storm, but City Council has yet to follow Commissioners Court’s lead in strengthening storm water detention rules.

“Folks are definitely still quite dissatisfied with the level of flood protection that’s been provided thus far from the city and the county,” said Chrishelle Palay, director of Houston Organizing Movement for Equity. “When it comes to historically underserved communities of color, those are the communities where the infrastructure has been disinvested, both from street flooding and from watershed protection.”

The Houston region’s most readily available defense against future floods is the $2.5 billion county bond.

To date, the county Flood Control District has begun work on 144 of its 188 planned bond projects, but only 18 have reached the construction stage, said Deputy Executive Director Matt Zeve. A dozen projects the district funded with other revenues also have been completed since Harvey, removing an estimated 5,000 homes from the 100-year floodplain.

The bond funds are helping to accelerate long-planned projects and start new ones, Zeve said, but large infrastructure improvements cannot be engineered and built overnight.

“There are places in Harris County that are right where they were three years ago, but there are several areas where we’ve completed projects or are constructing projects right now, and those areas will have a lower risk of flooding in a future storm event,” Zeve said. “It’s not as fast as everyone wants, but we do feel like we’re making good progress on major flood damage reduction projects all over Harris County, with more to come.”

Home buyouts, though some take a year to complete, move the fastest, making the 560 repeatedly flooded homes the county has bought since Harvey among the few tangible signs of progress the city and county have made toward reducing flood risk since the storm.

Even this seemingly simple task, however, can be an arduous process fraught with difficulties and heartache for residents.

There’s progress, but it’s slow and spotty. We should acknowledge that capital projects take time by their nature, and so does relocating people. There’s a lot to be done because there was so much that hadn’t been done over the past thirty or forty years. I don’t know what else there is to say about this. We should keep a close eye on the progress of all of the projects, we should continue to demand that more is done, and we should be voting for politicians who work towards these goals, but in the end and under the best of circumstances, this is going to take time.

Our students need laptops

The pandemic has made this clear.

Houston ISD officials hope to provide every student with a district-issued laptop in 2020-21 and beyond, an ambitious target that would deliver much-needed technology to children but require voters to approve a bond package in the next several months.

Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said HISD officials are “working toward a goal” of buying computers throughout the upcoming school year for all 150,000-plus elementary and middle school students. HISD high school students already get computers under an initiative, known as PowerUp, started in 2014.

The laptops would assist families struggling with a lack of at-home technology amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, which pushed most instruction online for the last 10 weeks of this school year and likely will cause some classes to remain virtual into 2020-21.

Once the pandemic subsides, the laptops also would help bridge the so-called “digital divide,” providing more opportunities for students from lower-income families to access the internet and other educational programs.

“The goal is, as soon as we get them in is deploy them out,” Lathan said. “It will just take time to get the devices in. As we get them in, we’ll look to see if they’ll be given to middle school students first or elementary school students, or some at both levels.”

The initiative, however, would carry enormous costs that are not accounted for in HISD’s $2 billion spending plan for 2020-21.

District officials said they would have to spend $65 million on laptop hardware — not counting warranties, repairs, carts and replacement devices — to outfit HISD’s elementary and middle school students.

HISD leaders also would have to hire dozens or hundreds of staff members to maintain the laptops and eventually pay to replace older technology in the years to come.

District administrators still are calculating the price tag for supporting 150,000-plus additional students with laptops, but Chief Information Officer Scott Gilhousen told board members Thursday that early estimates put the bill at $90 million over five years for middle school students alone.

“The part we’re working on right now is the elementary schools and what it would take to outfit those students,” Gilhousen said.

In a statement Friday, HISD administrators acknowledged the district “would need to have a bond program” to pay for the laptops and recurring costs — a potentially tall task given multiple headwinds.

The HISD Board has been talking about a bond referendum for awhile, in the vicinity of $2 billion. That would mostly be for facilities. I don’t know if they might simply scrap that and substitute in a much smaller bond for the laptops and related equipment. A smaller bond would be easier to sell, but the facilities need would still be there. I’ll leave that to them to decide. I’ll just say, we all agree that this is a necessity now, right? Not just because of the current pandemic and any future ones we may face, but also because of weather-related disruptions and just the fact that a lot of the curriculum is done online now. However this proceeds, we need to support this initiative. It’s what the students need.

So you want some flood bond project money?

Harris County plays a little hardball.

Harris County on Tuesday plans to restrict flood bond projects to municipalities that meet its floodplain development standards, effectively forcing the 34 cities within its borders to adopt stricter rules to access the $2.5 billion pot.

The policy change is meant to protect the county’s largest-ever investment in flood control infrastructure and create uniformity in building rules, following the principle that cities should not permit development than can worsen flooding for their neighbors.

“The goal isn’t to punish anybody,” County Engineer John Blount said. “It’s to announce, ‘Hey, these are the minimum standards we think you should enforce.’”

By the end of this year, cities must set minimum detention rules for new development, prohibit builders from filling in the 500-year floodplain and base standards on the newest rainfall rates, among other requirements.

Many, including the city of Houston, already have updated their rules. County floodplain experts are available to help the remaining cities do so, Blount said.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said forcing small cities to improve their standards helps them avoid conflict with developers who may oppose the changes. Harris County already haggled with the building community over upgrading its own rules last year.

“This gives them the opportunity to point to us and say, “Look, it’s the county that’s making us do this,’” Hidalgo said. “Hopefully, this will take some of the politics out of that.”

You can look at it that way, as Harris County helping the small cities help themselves by playing the heavy with the developers. You can also look at it as the county protecting its own legitimate interests by not wasting money on projects that will be undermined by lax standards, and you can look at it as the county using its financial might to enforce a rigid standards on smaller and more local government entities. It’s the local control fight in another context, and there’s more than one way to view it. I think the county is correct on the merits, and I’m not even sure there is a good counter-argument to their position in this case. But since local control and the heavy hand of the state government – quite a recent development there, as we know – is a regular topic here, I thought it was worth pondering this initiative from that angle.

HISD takes a step towards a bond referendum

Just a step. If there’s to be a bond referendum on the ballot, this year or later, they’ll have to vote again to authorize that.

Houston ISD trustees kept hopes alive for a November bond election during Thursday night’s board meeting, voting to approve spending on a facilities assessment that must be completed before asking residents to provide tax dollars for campus and security upgrades.

Board members voted 6-3 to spend up to $5 million on the assessment, which will document the conditions of HISD’s aging schools, space needs for campuses and demographic trends in the district. District officials said they will use the assessment to guide the creation of any bond proposals, which remain in the early stages of development.

[…]

Trustees and administrators who backed the assessment argued the analysis will provide vital information needed to create an accurate and updated picture of the district’s facilities needs. HISD last commissioned a facilities assessment in 2016, but the work only documented building conditions, with no alignment to academic and space needs.

Three trustees voted against the bond — Judith Cruz, Dani Hernandez and Elizabeth Santos — amid questions about timing of the assessment.

Board members and Lathan have not held extensive discussions about their detailed vision for the district since January, when four new trustees joined the nine-member board.

In addition, public trust in the district has waned over the past two years following extensive in-fighting, as well as the possible ouster of elected trustees due to multiple findings of misconduct by board members and chronically low ratings of Wheatley High School.

“It feels rushed, and I want to make sure we’re doing this the best way possible,” Cruz said.

The vote came after nearly 20 students, parents and educators spoke in favor of rebuilding crumbling schools, describing outdated facilities that disappoint children and scare away prospective families.

See here for some background, and here for a preview story from Thursday, when the vote was taken. The last bond was in 2012, and it’s getting to be time to do some more capital spending. Previous bonds have passed without too much commotion, and even with HISD’s current issues I think they’d be able to get one passed this year, if they do a decent enough job presenting what it would do and get sufficient buy-in from the community. The looming TEA takeover may work in their favor, as I for one have no idea whether a board of managers could or would attempt to authorize a bond, and waiting around for another four or five years seems like a terrible idea. Let’s see what the assessment says and we’ll go from there.

Meanwhile, the HISD Board of Trustees is still a thing

Meet the new Board, not the same as the old Board.

Hours after Houston ISD’s four recently elected trustees took office, enshrining the district’s first all-female school board, the new-look governing team on Thursday made its first big decision.

Trustees voted 8-1 to postpone approving a facilities assessment contract sought by the district’s administration, which would serve as a significant step toward asking residents to approve a multi-billion bond package in November. Board members will return in February to decide on the contract, giving them additional time to consider the ramifications of the deal.

Multiple board members said they wanted more discussion between the administration and trustees before spending up to $5 million on a facilities assessment. HISD likely will face headwinds in gaining support for a bond package, the result of dramatic state intervention looming over the district and a decline in public trust following months of board in-fighting.

“If it were that important, these conversations should have happened months ago,” HISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos said. “To spring it on brand new board members and expect a vote is unfair.”

HISD administrators said the facilities assessment would help the district craft a bond proposal, which would involve extensive construction projects at dozens of campuses, major investments in school security and hundreds of millions of dollars in technology upgrades.

Derrick Sanders, HISD’s officer of construction services, said the delay in a facilities assessment “wouldn’t be a fatal blow, but it would be a challenging one” for placing a bond request on the November ballot.

District officials have not placed a price tag on any potential bond packages, but it would likely exceed $2 billion and come with little to no increase in the tax rate. HISD residents last voted on a bond in 2012, approving a $1.9-billion proposal. Nearly all projects financed by the package have been completed.

So the obvious question to ask here, which the story did not address, is whether there could be a bond election called by the Board of Managers. It’s been long enough since the last bond election that there’s surely a need for some capital spending, and waiting four or five years till the elected Board is fully back in place could ensure that the need is too great to be sufficiently addressed. These bonds usually pass without too much trouble – the 2012 bond got 69% of the vote – but it’s not hard to imagine a 2020 issue being controversial. I don’t know what the best course of action is here, but I hope the new Board figures it out quickly. Aren’t y’all glad you signed up for this?

Endorsement watch: For the Metro bond

All of the candidate endorsements have been done by the Chron, but there remain the endorsements for ballot propositions. Which is to say, the Metro referendum and the constitutional amendments. I’ll address the latter tomorrow, but for now here’s the Chron recommending a Yes vote on the Metro bond.

Houston Metro is asking voters’ permission to borrow a busload of bucks to add a robust bus rapid transit network, new rail service to Hobby airport and badly needed bus improvements.

It’s a big ask, and if voters agree, the agency will add up to $3.5 billion in debt to its balance sheet.

But Houston needs a better set of transit options. Metro has promised to add the borrowed billions to a giant plan for the future, dubbed MetroNext, and all together the $7.5 billion spending plan is an enormous step forward for the agency and for the city. We strongly urge Houston voters to support this first step, by voting yes on the ballot proposition to give Metro permission to issue the bonds it needs.

Voters should know that the proposal won’t add a dime to the taxes all of us already pay for Metro. Our penny in sales tax is already committed, and the additional borrowing won’t change that. Metro simply wants to sell bonds so it can leverage its future sales taxes to pay for projects right now, rather than wait for the accumulation of annual revenues to grow large enough to finally pay for them. By pooling future revenues, it can fast-track improvements for which users in Houston would otherwise have to wait years, or even decades.

It’s a reasonable argument — so long as the plan to spend the money is sound. We’ve looked at the details of the proposal and heard from those who support it and from those who loathe it. On balance, we think voters should readily support it.

See here for more details about the referendum, and give a listen if you haven’t already to my interview with Carrin Patman, in which we explored many aspects of the plan as well as broader transit topics. You know that I’m all in on this, and the one piece of polling data we have looks good. Either we want more and better transportation choices in the greater Houston area, or we want everyone to be stuck in traffic forever. Your call.

Joint processing center opens

This was a long time coming, but it should be worth the wait.

More than a decade after city voters approved a bond measure to fund it, Houston and Harris County opened a joint inmate processing center Thursday that officials say will eliminate the redundant practice of booking inmates at the city jail before transferring them to the county lockup.

The downtown center, replete with a digital processing system, open booking areas and dormitory-style units, was designed to be more efficient and to square with the city and county’s evolving attitude on criminal justice, officials said.

“This streamlined, expedited booking process is a true game-changer for Harris County law enforcement families,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told a roomful of elected officials and law enforcement officers at the new facility Thursday. “Every minute an officer spends escorting a prisoner through the intake process is another minute that they’re off the street keeping our neighborhood safe.”

For years, Houston police have booked suspects at one of two city jails, before transferring them to the Harris County Jail and booking them again. Eliminating the excess work is anticipated to free up about 100 police officers assigned to jail duty.

The city is set to cover 30 percent of the facility’s annual operating costs, amounting to about $14.5 million, said Andy Icken, Houston’s chief development officer.

[…]

The facility’s new digital booking system means officers will be freed from much of the paperwork that typically bogs them down. Officers also no longer will have to escort suspects across public streets, Gonzalez said, because they will be able to park in a sallyport attached to the building. He estimated officers would be in and out of the center within 20 minutes.

The facility, located across from the Baker Street Jail on San Jacinto Street, covers 246,000 square feet and will begin processing detainees Saturday.

See here for the previous update, which was in 2015 when ground was broken following the successful 2013 bond referendum. A 2007 county referendum that would have built more jail space had been voted down, and boy howdy does that look like a good decision in retrospect. This will get people processed through faster, and will cost less to operate. I just hope it won’t be prone to flooding. Kudos all around for finally getting this done.

More floodplain buyouts

Gonna keep seeing more of these.

Fifteen months after Hurricane Harvey flooded more than 200,000 area homes and apartments, Harris County has begun purchasing homes in the floodplain using funds voters overwhelmingly approved in this summer’s $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond.

Using matching funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Harris County in the past month has purchased 12 homes. For this program, which combines local and federal dollars, the Harris County Flood Control District has used $53 million in bond funds to secure $159 million from FEMA. Another 512 homes are in the buyout process, and up to 400 more could be purchased using this funding source.

James Wade, director of the flood control district’s buyout program, said his staff aims to leverage local funding to secure federal dollars, which lessens the burden for Harris County taxpayers. Homes the county is targeting for buyouts are so susceptible to flooding that engineers have concluded the cost to protect them cannot be justified.

“There’s no practical flood control project that can save them,” Wade said.

Over the course of the decade-long bond program, the flood control district plans to use around $180 million in local funding, plus $550 million from federal partners, to purchase as many as 3,600 buildings in the floodplain. That total would more than double the number of homes the flood control district’s buyout program has purchased in its 33-year history.

Harris County plans to focus many of the buyouts on the San Jacinto River watershed, though the dozen homes purchased to date include properties on Vince Bayou, White Oak Bayou, Cypress Creek and Vogel Creek.

Not much to add to this. Buyouts are a necessary tool in the kit, but they’re also necessarily going to be limited in scope. I’m curious what our incoming County Judge thinks about the progress of this program, but it will remain a mystery to me, as she was not quoted in the story.

Emmett speaks post-bond

With the flood bond referendum safely passed, we now turn to what comes next.

Land and housing preservation is key to the Houston region becoming more resilient, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday, on the heels of last weekend’s vote that approved a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond.

“We need to not fight with nature, we need to live with nature and allow those areas to be green that need to be green, and frankly, allow those areas to be wet that need to be wet and not try and change that,” Emmett said during a luncheon presentation to members of the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

Emmett specifically called for the Katy Prairie, a vast area encompassing much of western Harris and eastern Waller counties, to be maintained and expanded.

“I think that’s a very easy one for the federal government or the state to declare as a nature preserve and just set it aside and move on,” he told the crowd of several hundred developers and real estate professionals in the ballroom of the Junior League of Houston.

[…]

The challenges brought by Harvey will give city and county leaders the opportunity to make positive changes as it recovers, he said.

One such improvement: a better system of urban governance.

If unincorporated Harris County was a city it would be the fifth largest in the U.S.

“We cannot continue to do that,” Emmett said. “We have got to find a way for city for Houston and Harris County to come up with a new structure of urban governance. “I view Harvey as kick-starting a lot of these conversations.”

Preserving the Katy Prairie and other green space was one of the topics I covered with Judge Emmett when I interviewed him about the bond referendum. I agree this is a high priority and I’m glad to hear Emmett talk that way, but let’s be clear that there’s a lot less of it to preserve now than there was 20 or 30 years ago, before Katy Mills and the Grand Parkway were built. We can’t turn back the clock, but the fact that there’s far less of that open space to preserve now means that we have to take it that much more seriously. What’s left is so much more precious to us.

As for the governance issue, I welcome that conversation as well. If there’s going to be an obstacle to the kind of intra-governmental cooperation Emmett envisions, it may well be the Lege, as any new structure to urban governance will likely require new laws, and our Lege isn’t very interested in helping out cities these days. Let’s see what Emmett and the other powers that be in the region come up with, and then we’ll figure out how to make it happen.

In the meantime, the work has begun.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday gave the green light to 16 new flood control projects, three days after voters overwhelmingly approved a $2.5 billion bond aimed at boosting the region’s protections against future floods.

The projects include de-silting the Addicks and Barker reservoir watersheds, drainage improvements in the San Jacinto River, Cypress Creek, Luce Bayou and Cedar Bayou watersheds, a stormwater detention basin project along Greens Bayou and conveyance improvements on Willow Creek.

“It’s a matter of starting with the low-hanging fruit, the ones that are ready to go, and move forward,” County Judge Ed Emmett said.

As good a place to start as any. There’s a lot more where that came from.

Flood bond referendum passes easily

It was in the 85-15 range as of the 8:30 update from the County Clerk. Only a handful of precincts had reported as of that time, and I’m not going to stay up late waiting for more comprehensive numbers – I’ll post an update in the morning. There were about 95K early votes, and Stan Stanart was estimating another 60K on Saturday. The Yes vote had 70K more votes by this time, so it’s almost literally impossible for it not to pass if Stanart’s count of the Saturday tally is accurate. Not that this would have been likely in any event. The bond passed by a wide margin, so we go from here.

UPDATE: Final result, 129,944 in favor, 21,790 opposed, which is 85.64% in favor. Total turnout 152,305, for 6.66%, of which 57,365 were on Saturday. Some day I’d like to meet one of the 569 people who showed up at a polling place for this one election, and then did not pick one of the options available to them.

Flood bond election day is today

Here’s a Trib story about the bond.

Flood experts say the bond is a good start — and indicative of an unprecedented shift in the collective mindset of local leaders and residents — but that it won’t come close to fixing the region’s chronic flooding problems if it isn’t carried out as part of a holistic and thoughtful approach that accounts for future growth and a changing climate. Also, while the bond may be historic in size, it pales in comparison to the total cost of all the region’s identified flood control needs — a local advocacy group recently unveiled a $58 billion wish list of projects.

“It is encouraging to see that local officials are desiring to put serious resources into flood risk management,” said Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Wisconsin-based Association of State Floodplain Administrators. “Successful communities in the nation that manage flood risk put their own resources into the effort and do not just depend on federal funds.”

Berginnis said the list of bond projects “appears to be a good mix,” but he added that flood mitigation plans should account for “tomorrow’s flood risk,” which is by most accounts escalating in the region amid explosive and largely unmanaged growth and sea level rise. It’s also important to have complimentary land use and building standards — requiring homes to be elevated to a certain level, for example — in case flood control infrastructure fails, he said.

Local leaders already have made one significant change in that realm. Amid pushback from the development community, both the Harris County Commissioner’s Court and the Houston City Council approved policies that require structures to be elevated 2 feet above the 500-year floodplain rather than the 100-year floodplain. The building codes of most communities in the United States are based on the 100-year floodplain — an area that is supposed to have a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year.

“Those new codes are going to be some of the most stringent in the country from an elevation standpoint, so I was amazed those were able to pass,” said Sam Brody, a flood risk researcher at Texas A&M University at Galveston.

But he said they’re not going to do anything for existing, flood-prone structures. And he said he doesn’t see local leaders sufficiently accounting for future conditions, specifically how future growth is going to impact where rainwater flow.

Brody said his modeling on future land use shows that development in the Houston area’s floodplain may double by 2055 — along with the metro population.

“There are some jurisdictions — not in Texas — that when they plan, they are planing around a fully built-out watershed, and that’s a way to be conservative and also realize that future growth is going to take place and the environment is changing and our precipitation patterns are changing,” he said, adding that “Galveston Bay has been rising for the past 100 years, and that will continue.”

And here’s the press release from the County Clerk:

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart reminds registered voters that Saturday, August 25, 2018 is the last opportunity to vote in the Harris County Flood Control District Bond Election (HCFCD).

“On Saturday, polls will be open from 7 am to 7 pm,” said Stanart. “Voters should keep in mind that on Election Day they must vote at their designated polling location.” Voters can find their designated voting location for the precinct where they are registered to vote at www.HarrisVotes.com.

“Voters will be qualified using our new Electronic Poll Book at all of the 744 Election Day polling locations. The ePollBook matches the voter’s ID to the list of registered voters within seconds,” asserted Stanart, the Chief Elections Officer of the county. “We have received an overwhelming positive response from the Election Judges, Clerks, and voters who have used the new system in previous elections this year.”

To prepare to vote, voters can find information about the Bond Election, including a list of proposed projects to mitigate flooding, by visiting the Harris County Flood Control District website www.hcfcd.org/bond-program. “Study the Bond and then go vote,” concluded Stanart.

To obtain a sample ballot or a list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at the polls, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

It’s fair to say that find your polling location. It looks like many of the usual places will be open, but as always check before you head out. Don’t make needless assumptions, and don’t shirk your duty.

Final EV turnout for the flood bond referendum

Lower than initial estimates, though I think the initial estimates were on the optimistic side. But really, we were all guessing.

Tuesday is the final day of early voting for Harris County’s proposed $2.5 billion flood bond, and as residents continue to trickle to the polls, the county clerk has downgraded his turnout estimate by a third.

When early voting began Aug. 8, Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart estimated 10 percent to 13 percent of the electorate would turn out, totaling between 230,000 and 300,000 voters. He lowered that estimate Monday afternoon to 170,000 to 180,000 voters, around 7.5 percent.

Put another way: that’s less than one vote per Harris County home or apartment building flooded by Hurricane Harvey. Stanart pleaded with Harris County’s 2.3 million registered voters to take the time to cast a ballot.

“There’s no lines at all. Just come in and vote, we’re waiting on you,” Stanart implored. “You get the government you vote for, so here’s your chance.”

[…]

Robert Stein, a Rice University professor who studies elections, said he expects most ballots to be cast during early voting. Though Commissioners Court members chose to hold the vote on the one-year anniversary of Harvey in the hopes of raising turnout, Stein said he is doubtful voters will rush to the polls on Saturday.

Some Republicans, including state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, have called for an end to summer elections on tax-increasing items, such as bonds, because they historically have low turnout.

Stein said poor voter participation should be cause for concern, but the date of the election was unlikely to change the public’s level of support for the bond.

“For the health and welfare and democracies, we should have more people voting,” Stein said. “But I don’t think the outcome would have been radically different if we had it in November.”

I agree with Professor Stein on all points. I will also reiterate my position that going with a November election for this would have been the safer choice, all things being equal. This one is on a road to passage because basically no one has argued against it. Having it in August was a choice made for reasons symbolic and strategic, and one can agree or disagree with those reasons. It could have mattered, but in the end I’m pretty sure it won’t have mattered.

Anyway, here are the final EV numbers. Tuesday was the last day, and like other last days of early voting it was the busiest, with 13,680 in person and absentee ballots being cast. That brings the EV total to 92,691 overall. I have no idea what anyone expected, but I’m sticking with my final turnout estimate of around 150K. We’ll see.

Day Seven flood bond EV totals

The word of the week is “slow”.

Fewer than 46,000 ballots have been cast in the first week of early voting on Harris County’s $2.5 billion flood bond referendum, but county officials on Monday said they expect many more voters leading up to the Aug. 25 anniversary of Hurricane Harvey’s landfall.

According to the county clerk’s office, 2,692 voters went to the polls in person Monday. Combined with 575 mail-in ballots returned Monday, the first six days of early voting have seen a total of 45,517 ballots.

“Bond elections don’t usually get voters excited, but there are plenty of days of early voting,” Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart said.

Last week, Stanart estimated that 230,000 to 300,000 voters would cast ballots on the bond referendum. By Monday, he had dropped his projection to 150,000 to 200,000 total votes by the end of the election, even as he expects turnout to increase closer to the one-year anniversary of Harvey, when media coverage and advertisements in support of the flood bond will increase publicity.

[…]

Rice University political scientist Robert Stein said he is skeptical the number of voters will increase come Aug. 25, but he added that low turnout does not necessarily signal a lack of support for the bond plan. He predicted the bond would pass with at least 60 percent of the votes cast.

A University of Houston poll last week put support for the bond around 62 percent.

Stein said low voter turnout is a “free rider” issue for residents who assume their vote does not matter.

“The public believes this (flood control bond) will pass and want it to pass,” he said. “But the assumption is perfectly reasonable that, ‘I’m not going to vote. Someone else will do it.’”

See here for more on that poll. I tend to agree with Professor Stein on both counts here. I suspect that the bulk of the ballots will be cast early, and I don’t see much in the way of opposition, at least not at a level to push people to the polls.

I suspect Stanart’s initial optimism was based on the number of mail ballots sent out. There were about 68K of them sent out for this election; by comparison, there were about 89K mail ballots sent out for the November 2014 election, of which about 71K were returned. More people vote by mail these days, and an election like this is going to be especially heavy with older voters, but that’s still a significant enough number to suggest a level of turnout that’s a decent fraction of a regular November off-year election. It’s just that the in person EV totals have not been consistent with that.

In any event, here are the EV toitals after one full week. If there’s an uptick coming, it has not yet arrived. After seven days, 16,277 people have voted in person and 34,388 by mail, for 54,665 in total. I do think we will see an upward trend in the last few days, as we usually do, but for now we are just toddling along. And as Campos notes, the original idea was for this to have modest-at-best turnout, so I suppose we are more or less where we should have expected to be. Have you voted yet? I figure I will on Friday.

Flood bond referendum: Interview with Lina Hidalgo

Lina Hidalgo

I do have one more interview to bring you for the flood bond referendum, for which we are already in the early voting period, and that interview is with Lina Hidalgo, the Democratic candidate for Harris County Judge. Had this referendum been on the November ballot, I’d have asked her questions about it as part of a regular interview, but as we have two elections and it didn’t make sense to have this discussion after the referendum was decided, we will have two interviews. My previous interviews, published last week, were with County Judge Ed Emmett, and with Jen Powis on behalf of CEER Houston. I will present the usual biographical information about Hidalgo for the subsequent interview that will be about her candidacy, as this is about the referendum. My goal with these interviews was to do what I could from my little corner of the Internet to make people aware of this election and of the issue at hand. I hope it has been helpful for you. Here’s what we talked about:

I’ll be back with the usual candidate interviews in a couple of weeks.

Day Two flood bond EV totals

Sorry I wasn’t able to post the Day One totals yesterday, but here are the Day Two EV totals for the flood bond referendum. So far 4,984 people have voted in person, with almost exactly the same number on Monday as on Tuesday, and 28,660 mail ballots have been returned, with 26,856 of them coming in as of Day One. That’s 33,644 total votes two days in. Some 68,014 mail ballots were sent out, so a bit more than 40% have been returned so far. I have no idea how to handicap any of this, but I feel sure y’all want to see me pull a number out of the air, so my initial wild-ass guess is about 150K total votes. Needless to say, I reserve the right to amend the hell out of that as we go along. To put this another way, we are likely to fall short – possibly well short – of 10% turnout. I get the reasons for having this now, but I can’t shake the feeling that we’re doing it wrong, no matter what the outcome winds up being. I’ll have more of these as we go along.

Flood bond referendum: Interview with Jen Powis

As we know, early voting for the flood bond referendum on August 25 begins today, running through the 21st. There are a lot of groups and organizations that are keenly interested in this bond issue and how it will affect the people and places they represent. A collection of such groups has organized under the banner of CEER Houston, the Coalition for Environment, Equity, and Resilience. While they are not taking an official position on the bond referendum itself, they have been involved at the community meetings to influence what’s in it and to ensure their members know what is happening. I spoke with attorney Jen Powis, who acts as general counsel for a variety of local non-profits, on behalf of CEER Houston to get their insights about the issue and what they are pushing for. (I did an interview with County Judge Ed Emmett about the referendum on Monday.) Here’s our conversation:

I don’t expect to have any further interviews on the referendum at this time, but things do come up when I don’t expect them sometimes, so stay tuned.

More details on the flood bond referendum

Early voting starts today.

The Harris County Flood Control District on Monday released its complete list of projects that would be funded by the county’s $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond proposal, two days before early voting on the measure begins.

The 237 projects include $1.2 billion for channel improvements, $401 million for detention basins, $242 million for floodplain land acquisition, $12.5 million for new floodplain mapping and $1.25 million for an improved early flood warning system.

Matt Zeve, the flood control district’s operations director, said the vast majority of projects will address problems engineers identified years or decades ago but lacked the funding to tackle. The flood control district’s budget totals just $120 million annually.

“It’s always been OK, how do we afford to solve these problems?” Zeve said. “With the bond, we’ll have funds to solve some of these drainage and flooding issues.

[…]

The bond also would put $184 million, coupled with more than $500 million in outside funding, to purchase around 3,600 buildings in the floodplain. It would not pay for a third reservoir to complement the Addicks and Barker reservoirs in west Houston, but would chip in $750,000 to help the Army Corps of Engineers study the idea.

Thirty-eight projects were added based on ideas from residents at more than two-dozen public meetings this summer. These include $6 million to improve flow in Horsepen Bayou, $15 million to do the same in Brays Bayou and $30 million to design and build new bridges over Buffalo Bayou.

Here’s the updated projects list. I’m sure there will be more added as we go along. I don’t have a lot to add at this time, as I haven’t had a chance to read through it all. The main thing you need to know right now is that early voting for the referendum begins today and runs through the 21st. Hours are a bit odd, so check the map and schedule before you head out.

Poll shows flood bond referendum in good shape

Standard caveats apply.

A majority of Harris County voters say they will support a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond at the polls later this month, according to University of Houston research released Monday.

Sixty-two percent of residents who said they are certain to vote said they will support the bond, compared to 55 percent of all respondents. Just 10 percent said they oppose the bond, while one-third remain unsure.

“People see flooding as a Houston and Harris County problem, not a problem affecting only certain neighborhoods or people,” Jim Granato, executive director of UH’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, said in a statement. “They believe the region’s future will be decided, at least in part, by how we respond.”

[…]

Residents who sustained property damage from Hurricane Harvey were slightly more likely to support the bond than those who remained dry, 60 percent to 52 percent.

Partisanship appears to play little role in residents’ views on the bond, as 58 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats support the proposal, which has wide support elected officials from both parties.

Sixty-nine percent of college-educated residents said they’ll vote yes, while the poll found residents 65 and older support the bond to the tune of 58 percent. Seniors whose homes are worth less than $200,000, as well as residents who are disabled, would not see their taxes rise because of the bond.

Just 18 percent of the youngest polling cohort, residents 18 to 25, said they support the bond, though 59 percent professed they remain unsure.

Harris County residents found most agreement when asked whether Austin should help the region’s recovery by tapping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Almost 88 percent said the Abbott administration should.

You know the drill: It’s one poll, polling local races is always tricky because the turnout model can vary wildly, nobody knows who is going to show up for a weirdo August election. That said, the fact that 55% of all adults were in favor of the bond, with the number climbing to 62% for the self-proclaimed likely to vote, is a positive sign. At the very least, it suggests that the people who are paying more attention are also more likely to favor the bond. The low numbers for those who are against it, much lower than those with no opinion, also augur well. I think this poll is probably correct about the outcome, though getting the exact numbers right is anyone’s guess. Early voting starts Wednesday – you know, tomorrow – so we’ll know soon enough. How are you voting on this? Since I was asked in an earlier post, I’ll state that I am voting for it. What about you?

Flood bond referendum: Interview with Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

Believe it or not, early voting for the August 25 flood bond referendum begins this week, on Wednesday the 8th. Those of you who make the effort to show up and vote will get to decide whether or not to ratify a $2.5 billion bond package put forth by Commissioners Court for a variety of projects involving bayous, detention basins, wetlands, emergency response systems, and more. You can find all of the county’s information about the bond package here. There’s a lot to read and there are lots of maps to look at, and you really should try to learn as much as you can about this not just so you’ll know what you’re voting on but also so that you’ll know what to expect and how to stay engaged should it pass. I’d like to do my part to help people understand the issue by doing what I do for elections, which is to say interviews. The logical place to start for that is with County Judge Ed Emmett, as he helped spearhead the drive to get a bond issue before the voters, and because he pushed to have it in August, on the one-year anniversary of Harvey, rather than in November. We talked about what’s in the package now and what might be in it later, why we’re doing this at such an unusual time, what else there is to be done, and more. Here’s the interview:

I’ll have another interview on Wednesday. Let me know what you think.

Early voting for the flood bond referendum

It’s a little weird, but there’s two full weeks of it and for the most part you can vote at the usual places.

Harris County will have 25 balloting locations during the first weekend of early voting for the $2.5 billion flood control bond election, and almost twice that during the rest of early voting, the Harris County Clerk’s office said Tuesday.

Roughly 700 voting locations will be open on the Aug. 25 election day, a date chosen to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, Chief Deputy County Clerk George Hammerlein told Commissioners Court.

Early voting will begin Aug. 8. The number of early voting locations will be 45, except during the weekend of Aug. 11 and 12, when there will be 25 polling places.

[…]

County Judge Ed Emmett and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis had raised concerns about the clerk’s initial balloting plans, which they said called for just one early voting location downtown during the first weekend.

“We’re expanding so the goal is one per state representative district that first weekend,” Hammerlein said.

You can see the map and schedule here. Not clear to me if Hammerlein is saying that there will be more EV locations during that first weekend, but as noted there are two full weeks, including a second weekend. So you should have plenty of opportunity to turn out.

Two views of the flood bond referendum

View One, from Joe B. Allen and Jim Blackburn: Vote for it because there’s no real alternative.

Proposition A — the proposal to allow Harris County to issue $2.5 billion in flood control bonds — will be on the ballot in Harris County on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. We agree that this bond issue is essential to the future of our community.

[…]

With the passage of $2.5 billion in bonds and an estimated $7.5 billion in matching federal funds, HCFCD would be able to spend $1 billion per year for the next 10 years on flood management. This will not solve all of our drainage problems, but it would represent a dramatic improvement.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has announced funding for four federally approved and permitted projects: Brays Bayou, Clear Creek, Hunting Bayou and White Oak Bayou. All four projects have a significant local match requirement. If the bonds are approved, these projects could start immediately.

[…]

There is no Plan B. Either this bond election passes or the current flooding conditions continue. The world watched as we came together to help one another in the aftermath of Harvey. Now is the time to come together to show the world that we are willing and able to solve major problems to ensure the long-term success of the place we proudly call home.

We plan to vote FOR Prop. A, and we urge you to do the same. Early voting begins Aug. 8.

Jim Blackburn is a well-respected and very outspoken authority on flooding and related environmental matters, so his endorsement of the referendum carries a lot of weight.

View Two, from Roger Gingell: More flood detention basins, please!

If voters approve Harris County’s proposed $2.5 billion flood control bonds, the County Flood Control District will have more than 41 times its annual budget to spend on flood mitigation. That’s great news if the money is used wisely.

A wise use of the bond money would include water detention basins in neighborhoods that flood, built on land already owned by the public.

Recently, myself and a few others had a private showing of the flood bond proposals for our older neighborhoods in Spring Branch. A friendly gentleman from Flood Control showed us a map with purple circles and green triangles representing projects. If you are lucky, your neighborhood is awarded a purple circle which represents a bigger project. A green triangle on the other hand could be just a tiny, micro-project like fixing some unspecified damage to a drain. None of the projects, however, are set in stone. That is how the bond is being sold — citizens can influence or even add projects.

During that hour intensely staring at a map of triangles and circles, it became clear that the biggest thing missing from the bond proposal was water detention basins actually being located inside the neighborhoods that have flooding problems. There wasn’t a single proposed water detention basin inside the neighborhoods surrounding Memorial City, which flood heavily.

[…]

Having a budget 41 times your existing yearly budget means that new responsibilities will follow. With a bond of this size, Flood Control can’t just be in charge of the bayou while a financially distressed city of Houston is in charge of drainage to the bayou. Thinking must be done outside the box. The institutional mindset of Flood Control must change and grow for the better.

To serve all tax payers who would potentially be paying for the $2.5 billion bond, county planners must take the innovative approach and look for publicly owned land inside neighborhoods that flood. These are the places that water detention basins must be built to save neighborhoods inside the city.

Gingell is the general counsel for Residents Against Flooding, a nonprofit that filed suit against the city in 2016 for approving commercial development in the Memorial City area without requiring adequate storm water mitigation. He doesn’t explicitly say he’s against the bond, but you can see he has reservations. I don’t have anything to add to these, I just wanted to flag them for those of you who still want to know more about this referendum. I’ll have a couple of interviews next week to add on.

On campaigning for the flood bond

This is good, but I don’t know if it will be enough.

The Harris County Flood Control District’s summer barnstorming tour of county watersheds to seek public input on its $2.5 billion flood bond proposal is getting officials exactly what they want: an earful.

Flood-weary residents throughout the county have mostly packed auditoriums and community centers to offer their thoughts, desires and frustrations to flood control engineers and county officials. They also have brought ideas.

To date, the flood control district has added 16 projects to its list of repairs, remediation and prevention strategies to be covered by the proposed bond that goes before voters on Aug. 25. Each of those 16 projects came out of the meetings with residents, district officials said.

Along the way, the county has gotten something else: an audience receptive to its pitch to undertake what would be the largest local investment in flood infrastructure after Hurricane Harvey swamped the region 11 months ago.

Of the more than 25 residents who spoke with the Chronicle at four meetings, few said they oppose the bond. Most said they understand Harris County badly needs to invest in better flood protection, even if that means an increase in property taxes.

[…]

To date, the flood control district has held 15 public meetings, with nine more scheduled through Aug. 1, one for each of the county’s 24 watersheds. The number of attendees has ranged from several dozen to more than 700. Instead of a lecture format, the flood control district opted to take an open house approach: Engineers manned charts and tables spread across the space, and residents also could examine projects on a bank of computers.

As a reminder, there’s an interactive map here and a full list of projects here. If you want to know what’s in this bond issue, the information is there, and you can attend one of the meetings if you have questions. All this is good and necessary, and anecdotally it appears to be working for the county, but let’s be honest: The number of people that will go to these meetings in total is probably measured in the hundreds, maybe a thousand or so if you’re lucky. There are over two million registered voters in Harris County, and even for an oddball election date you have to figure at least 100K show up to vote. Face to face interaction can only get you so far. Traditional voter outreach – advertising, direct mail, etc – is going to be needed as well. We’re a month out from election day, and two weeks or so away from the start of early voting. The clock is very much ticking.

CD07 candidates endorse the August flood bond referendum

What I would expect.

U.S. Rep. John Culberson and his challenger, Lizzie Fletcher, found rare common ground on Wednesday as both endorsed Harris County’s proposed $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond proposal.

Culberson said he can match every local dollar Harris County puts toward flood recovery with up to three federal dollars, ensuring the county would have access to additional flood mitigation funds it would not have to repay.

“I support that bond proposal, because that will increase the amount of money Harris County can put on the table, which allows me, as the appropriator, to put more federal dollars into the projects,” Culberson said.

Fletcher, his Democratic opponent, said the bond is critical to addressing the county’s chronic flooding problem.

“We saw as recently as last week how essential these investments in projects are to our community as Independence Day became another flood day in Houston,” she said in a statement.

It’s hard to imagine either candidate not endorsing any remotely sound flood bond measure. It would have been highly iconoclastic, and very much a campaign issue, if one of them did not do so. By the same token, it’s hard to imagine this bond passing if it doesn’t get robust support from within CD07. Go back to the 2013 referendum to build a joint processing center for the jail and combine the city jail into the county. It barely passed despite there being no organized opposition but very little in the way of a campaign for it, and it owed its passage to the voters in Council districts C and G, for which there is significant overlap with CD07. (This was an odd year election, and while the County Clerk has made some changes to its election canvass data since then, the only district information I had for this was Council districts.) Having both Culberson and Fletcher on board helps, but it’s not sufficient by itself, especially for a weirdly timed election. It’s a start, but more will be needed for this thing to pass.