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Omnibus 2022 election results post

It’s already midnight as I start writing this. I’m just going to do the highlights with the best information I have at this time.

– Nationally, Dems are doing pretty well, all things considered. As of this writing, Dems had picked up the Pennsylvania Senate seat and they were leading in Georgia and Arizona. They held on in a bunch of close House races. The GOP is still expected to have a majority in the House, but not by much. The Senate remains very close.

– Some tweets to sum up the national scene:

– On that score, Republicans appear to have picked up CD15, which they drew to be slightly red, while the Dems took back CD34. Henry Cuellar is still with us, holding onto CD28.

– Statewide, well. It just wasn’t to be. The running tallies on the SOS Election Result site are a bit skewed as many smaller red counties have their full results in while the big urban counties have mostly just the early votes counted. Heck, they didn’t even have Harris County early results there until after 10:30 PM (the point at which I went and snoozed on the couch for an hour because I was driving myself crazy). It will be a ten-point or more win for Abbott, I just can’t say yet what. A survey of some county results early on suggested Beto was around where he’d been percentage-wise in most of the big counties (Tarrant, where he was a few points behind, being an exception) but was going to need some decent Election Day numbers to approach his raw vote margins. He didn’t do as well as he had done in 2018 in some of the larger suburban counties like Collin and Denton and didn’t do as well in South Texas.

– He also didn’t do as well in Harris, which made for some close races and a few Republican judicial candidates with early leads. A couple of those had eroded by the 11:30 addition of more Election Day and mail ballots, but we might see a few Republican judges on the bench next year. As of that 11:30 PM vote dump, Beto was leading Harris County by nine points, well short of where he had been in 2018.

– But as of this time, and with the proviso that I don’t know which voting centers have reported and which are still out, the Harris County Democratic delegation was all ahead, though not be a lot. This includes Lesley Briones for County Commissioner, which if it all holds would give Dems the 4-1 margin on Commissioners Court that they sought. There are still a lot of votes to be counted as I type this.

– Going back to the state races, Republicans may pick up a seat or two in the Lege. HD37 was leaning their way, and they may hold onto HD118. Dems were leading in HDs 70 (by a little) and 92 (by a more comfortable amount), two seats that had been drawn to siphon off Dem voters in formerly red areas. As of this writing, the open SD27 (Eddie Lucio’s former fiefdom) was super close but all of the remaining votes were from Hidalgo County, where Dem Morgan LaMantia had a good lead in early voting. That one will likely be a hold for Dems. On the other hand, SBOE2 was leaning Republican, so Dems may be back to only five members on the SBOE.

– There were of course some technical issues.

Tight races in Harris County, where around 1 million votes will be tallied, could hinge on whether ballots cast after 7 p.m. will be included in the count, after an Election Day filled with glitches and uncertainty for voters and poll workers alike.

Harris County District Court Judge Dawn Rogers signed an order keeping all county voting sites open until 8 p.m., only to have the Texas Supreme Court stay her order just in time to create confusion at voting locations letting voters arrive late.

In a three-sentence order, the court said voting “should occur only as permitted by Texas Election Code.” The high court also ruled that votes cast in the final hour should be segregated. That means those votes can’t be counted until the court issues a final ruling.

That ruling could be critical in the event that certain county races, including the hard-fought battle for county judge between Democratic incumbent Lina Hidalgo and Republican challenger Alexandra del Moral Mealer, are close enough to be decided by those set-aside votes.

“Every single vote counts,” said Laila Khalili, a director at the voter engagement group Houston in Action. “Some elections can be won by just a couple of votes.”

Khalili watched a handful of voters file provisional ballots at the Moody Park voting location.

The request to keep the polling sites open late was made by the Texas Organizing Project, Texas Civil Rights Project and ACLU of Texas, citing what they said were late election location openings and poor planning that disenfranchised some voters.

“These delays have forced countless voters to leave polling places without being able to vote,” the groups said.

Harris County was unable to estimate or confirm how many votes were cast after the typical 7 p.m. cutoff that allows for anyone in line by that time to cast a ballot.

Voters who arrived between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. cast a provisional ballot, according to the county attorney’s office. Some voters, later in the evening, complained that election workers even denied them that option, as the Supreme Court stay was broadcast to the 782 polling locations.

There were some issues with temporarily running out of paper at some locations and some long lines at others. We’ll just have to see how many provisional votes there are.

– Finally, for now, all of the county and city bond issues were passing. The closest ones as of this time were city of Houston prop E, up by eight points, and Harris County prop A, up by 11.

I’m going to hit Publish on this now and go to bed. I’ll make updates in the morning, either here or in a new post.

UPDATE: It’s 2:30 and I never actually got to sleep. With 334 of 782 voting centers reporting, Dems have gained some more ground in Harris County. Beto leads by nine points, while Judge Hidalgo is up by almost two full points and over 15K votes. She has led each aspect of voting. A couple of Dem judges who trailed early on are now leading, with a couple more in striking distance. There will be some Republican judges next year barring something very unexpected, but the losses are modest. All things considered, and again while acknowledging there are still a lot of votes out there, not too bad.

UPDATE:

An email with the summary file hit my inbox at 4:51 AM. Democrats officially have a 4-1 majority on Harris County Commissioners Court. By my count, Republicans won five judicial races in Harris County.

Endorsement watch: The bonds

The Chron endorses a Yes vote for the Harris County bond propositions.

The Castlewood subdivision in northeast Harris County was one of many neighborhoods blighted by Hurricane Harvey’s torrential rains. One too many floods inundated the shallow drainage ditches and cracked the asphalt streets. The well-kept character of the affordable single-family homes and small businesses frayed.

Five years later, thanks to the $2.5 billion 2018 flood control bond that Harris County voters approved, Castlewood has transformed. The asphalt roads have been replaced with fresh concrete and lowered to improve drainage. Roadside ditches were replaced with sidewalks and curbs, with an underground storm sewer.

This year, county commissioners are asking voters for another $1.2 billion bond, divided into three separate ballot referendums: $900 million for roads, drainage, and multimodal transportation; $200 million for parks; and $100 million for public safety facilities. If not for these periodic bonds, projects like the Castlewood improvements would either never happen or languish in the planning process for years until funds became available.

Every six to eight years, the county asks voters to authorize leveraging its strong credit — an AAA rating, according to Moody’s, S&P, and Fitch rating agencies — to issue debt for investments into improving county infrastructure. Some bonds are dedicated to specific types of projects — the 2018 bond that included the Castlewood improvements was put on the ballot after Harvey exposed the dire flood control needs across the county — while previous bonds, such as the 2015 $850 million infrastructure bond, were more broadly defined.

While these bonds typically get approved, many voters may be wondering why the county is once again asking them to go back to the well this year, particularly as each bond comes with a slight increase to their property tax bills. Why not fund projects through a pay-as-you-go model, such as the one that the city of Houston has for roads and drainage projects?

The reason is primarily statutory; even if the county wanted to adopt a pay-as-you-go system, it would require a change to state law. The Texas tax system essentially forces counties to use debt as the primary instrument for capital improvements. And because Harris County has a healthy cash balance and credit rating with a rapidly growing real estate market, it can borrow for cheaper than most jurisdictions.

If voters approve the 2022 bonds, each county precinct will receive a baseline of $220 million worth of funding, though some will receive more based on the “worst-first” criteria the county has adopted to prioritize projects based on the number of people they benefit.

The average homeowner would pay an additional $32 per year in property taxes for the life of the bond program — 25 years — based on estimated 2022 tax values. But voters likely won’t see that large of an increase for years, because the county continues to retire more and more debt each year. For instance, the county is spending $54 million less on debt than it did four years ago and will pay off approximately $193 million of its general obligation debt next year. And as more properties get built every year across the county, the tax burden will be spread out even further.

See here for the background. Bond issuances usually pass, and I don’t see anything to suggest these will have much trouble. There are also city of Houston bonds on the ballot, but as of Monday evening the Chron had not weighed in on them yet. I don’t know if their decision to not endorse in the non-criminal courts will carry over from the primaries to the general; if so, then those races still need their attention as well. Otherwise, I think they’re basically done.

Community meetings about the Harris County bond referenda

Ask your questions, get some answers.

Harris County voters will decide in November whether to approve a bond package totaling $1.2 billion, with the vast majority aimed at road construction. On Monday, the county [began] a series of 24 community engagement meetings to share information and gather input about where the money will go if the bond propositions pass.

Voters will see three bond propositions on the ballot:

  • Proposition A: Up to $100 million for public safety, which could include law enforcement facilities, courtrooms, technology and improved data systems for court management and crime prevention.
  • Proposition B: Up to $900 million for transportation, including road rehabilitation and added capacity; roadway and neighborhood drainage improvements; walking, biking, and mass transit access; and safety projects to reduce transportation-related fatalities and injuries.
  • Proposition C: Up to $200 million for parks and trails, including construction and maintenance of parks facilities and trails, including floodable parks, trail projects, and inclusive parks for people with disabilities.

If all are approved, at least $220 million would be spent in each of the county’s four precincts, while the $100 million in public safety investments would be countywide.

The county will hold community meetings through Oct.. 20, including 16 in-person meetings divided evenly among the four precincts and eight virtual meetings. Spanish, Mandarin and Vietnamese interpreters will be available.

[…]

The dates and locations of the meetings are subject to change. Residents can check the latest schedule or submit their comments online at harriscounty2022bond.org.

See here for the background. The schedule as known at the time of publication is in the Chron story, but it is subject to change so check out that Harris County 2022 Bond page before heading out.

Harris County officially gets its $750 million from the GLO

With hopefully more to come, as well as something for Houston.

Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved an agreement Wednesday with the Texas General Land Office to receive $750 million in federal flood mitigation funding, and called on the agency for an additional $250 million the county had expected to receive.

The funding from the Texas General Land Office — the state agency charged with distributing Hurricane Harvey relief from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — comes more than a year after the GLO awarded the county and the city of Houston zero dollars in its first round of grants even though the area accounted for half the damage from Hurricane Harvey.

The county last year revealed a $1.4 billion gap in funding to supplement the $2.5 billion flood bond approved by voters in 2018. County officials attributed the shortfall to expected funding from state and local partners that had not materialized.

The new funding from GLO will help narrow that gap, which now is down to $400 million, according to Harris County Budget Director Daniel Ramos. However, Ramos said the county’s plans were based on the assumption it would receive $1 billion from the GLO.

“We’re building billions of dollars worth of new infrastructure and it costs money to maintain it,” Ramos said.

County officials said they will continue negotiating with the GLO for the remainder of the money they expected.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called the $750 million allocation good news, but not enough.

“When the bond was passed, it didn’t account for increases in cost,” Hidalgo said. “It didn’t account for increases in maintenance costs. So, we need additional funds to make sure we can complete everything.”

See here for the previous update. As noted in the Tuesday preview story, this is the same $750 million that the GLO offered to Harris County after initially allocating zero to both Harris and Houston. Houston is still getting a goose egg – to their credit, all of the Commissioners spoke about the need for Houston to get what it’s due, about $1 billion – but there is still money to be disbursed, and there is still that HUD finding that the GLO used a discriminatory process to screw the city. I don’t know when the next appropriations are to be made, but if we’re very lucky Jay Kleberg will be in charge of the process by then.

Commissioners Court approves its bond package

But not without some bitching and griping.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted Thursday to put a $1.2 billion package on the November ballot this year, with the vast majority aimed at road construction.

Tensions flared when Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo cut off questions and moved forward with a vote over the protests of the two Republican commissioners, who were in the midst of arguing the bond measure lacked transparency and the plan for distributing the funds was unclear.

The debate grew heated after Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey raised his voice demanding transparency, earning loud applause from members of the public in attendance.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle insisted Hidalgo explain how the county would decide where the money goes, and what it meant for the county to prioritize areas deemed most in need: “What is ‘worst first’? What is the definition?”

“I am voting for this because I believe your precinct needs this money,” Hidalgo shot back, arguing the money would benefit all precincts.

When Hidalgo abruptly moved ahead with the vote, leaving Cagle uncertain about whether he had missed the opportunity to oppose the measure, the commissioner asked, “Do I not even get to vote on calling this?”

Faced with Ramsey and Cagle’s rising frustration, Hidalgo insisted members of the court “have had hours of discussion on this” at previous meetings.

The two Republicans criticized Hidalgo for cutting off further debate to take the vote.

“When those who are elected with the responsibility of delving into questions to be asked aren’t even allowed to debate those issues at the table, that’s wrong,” Cagle said.

The decision to place the debt issue before voters required the court to vote on three separate bond issues. Each was approved along party lines with the three Democrats voting in favor and the two Republicans opposed.

Likewise, the November ballot will include three separate bond requests: $900 million earmarked for roads; $200 million for parks; $100 million for public safety bonds.

See here for the background. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that I don’t give Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle’s complaints much weight. I don’t trust them to be acting in good faith. What I hear in their words is a demand for reassurance that their needs will be given priority, as this had been the way of the world for however many decades of bond issuances before now. Any indication otherwise, that more neglected areas will come first, or that people will be given equal or greater value than property values, is unacceptable. They may have some legitimate objections in there. That’s not what I’m hearing from them.

Houston will have a bond on the ballot

First I’d heard of this, but it should be pretty routine.

Houston will ask voters in November to approve a $478 million bond program to buy fire and police vehicles, renovate or replace city facilities and give the city’s animal shelter a new home.

City Council voted 16-1 Wednesday to approve an election for Nov. 8, Houston’s first bond referendum since 2017. District G Councilmember Mary Nan Huffman was the lone no vote.

If approved by voters, the city would sell the bonds to investors and use the proceeds on infrastructure. It would pay back the money, plus interest, with debt service over a longer term. The proposed debt package does not include an increase in property taxes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the strategy in formulating the plan was to be “very pragmatic” and avoid creating a “wish list” of spending items. A massive increase in debt service would put a drag on the city’s operating budget, he said. Houston has paid an average of $340 million over the last four years to pay down past public improvement bonds.

To that end, the package primarily would be used to fund $194 million in already-planned projects in the city’s capital budget that have no current funding source. They are listed in the plan as being paid for by a “future bond election.”

The proposal also would hold $156 million to address the city’s backlog of deferred maintenance and $60 million to help cover higher inflation costs. Also included are $45 million for a new animal care building, $13 million for new parks facilities, and a $10 million earmark for improvements to Agnes Moffitt Park in Timber Oaks. District A Councilmember Amy Peck won council approval on an amendment to tack that project onto the proposal during the vote Wednesday.

[…]

In the broader bond package, more than half — $277 million — would go to public safety, $50 million to parks, $47 million to BARC, $29 million in general government improvements, $26 million for libraries and $6 million for Solid Waste Management.

Among the projects already in the works: $87.5 million for police and fire vehicles and equipment, the $13.7 million replacement of Fire Station 40 on Old Spanish Trail, $9.2 million in other fire station renovations, $8.8 million for the renovation of five health and multi-service centers, and $2.8 million in upgrades to City Hall.

All of that spending will be dependent on voters’ approval in November.

There will also be a Harris County bond referendum on the ballot as well. If past form holds, both will be split into multiple items, each one specific to a purpose. In 2017, two years after the last Harris County bond referendum, all five Houston items passed with 72 to 77 percent of the vote. I will be surprised if there’s any serious opposition to this.

Harris County ponders a bond election

First one in awhile.

Harris County leaders will begin discussions Tuesday about whether to add a bond election to the November ballot.

The bond would be a hybrid measure to raise money for roads, parks, flood control, and public safety. It’s unclear how much the bond would be for, but Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s office said it could come in the ballpark of $1 billion.

Garcia, who asked the county budget office to look into the possibility of a new bond, said Commissioners Court will first have to hear from the office on whether the county’s finances can sustain new borrowing.

Garcia, a Democrat, is up for reelection this fall.

“I’m in favor of putting it on the same ballot that I would be on,” he said. “I think it’s important to show the folks that we’re working on their behalf, we’re making investments, and we need their support to make the investments that they want to see done.”

[…]

Garcia’s office says the commissioner is flexible on the bond amount, as he’s hoping to win bipartisan support from his fellow commissioners to put it on the ballot.

There was the post-Harvey $2.5 billion flood bond election in 2018, a bond package in 2015 that passed easily, and the 2013 joint inmate processing center referendum that just barely passed (the “save the Astrodome” item on the same ballot went down). That was a sort-of sequel to a series of bond issues in 2007 that included one for jail construction, which was defeated. So yeah, there’s room for a new issue. Obviously, what would be in it needs to be defined, and it would need to be approved by Commissioners Court for the ballot by mid-August or so. We’ll see what they come up with. The Chron has more.

We are making progress on the flood bond projects

Let’s not lose sight of that.

Three years into Harris County’s historic $2.5 billion flood bond program, progress can feel maddeningly slow. After decades of underinvestment in flood protection, however, any completed project is a welcome improvement for nearby residents.

Through October, 16 percent of the planned projects for detention basins, channel widening and other infrastructure was complete. All 181 projects are underway in some capacity, from design to construction, and each is on schedule.

“Our project life cycle is three to five years, and in some cases that cycle has just started,” Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Alan Black said. “But at least they’ve all been started. And on top of that, no project has been delayed due to lack of funding.”

Several completed works already are providing better flood protection for hundreds of thousands of homes, Black said.

Those include major maintenance along Cypress Creek and Spring Branch Creek, as well as the first phase of the Aldine Westfield detention basin project

In Kashmere, local officials heralded the progress of a $100 million Hunting Bayou channel improvement project that will remove more than 4,000 homes from the floodplain.

[…]

Whether the bond program is completed as originally planned remains an open question. Commissioners Court sold the bond to voters — who approved it overwhelmingly in 2018 — as, essentially, a buy-one-get-one-free deal. If voters agreed to pay $2.5 billion, the county predicted it could secure another $2.5 billion in federal matching dollars, bringing the total pot to around $5 billion.

So far, that plan has had mixed success.

You can say that again. I’m not going to rehash all of that – the article does so, you can keep on reading. The fact that we’re getting stuff done for flood mitigation is good. The fact that there’s so much more to do, well, that’s the reality.

[County Judge Lina] Hidalgo blamed some of the funding woes on the previous Commissioners Court, which she said was far too conservative in proposing a $2.5 billion bond. Flood control experts peg the total cost to protect Harris County against 100-year storms at more than $30 billion.

“Everybody will tell you, it should have been a much bigger number,” Hidalgo said. The leaders at the time thought it was a politically expedient number to select $2.5 billion.”

I think, if we had to do it all again and we knew that P Bush and the GLO were going to screw us on the federal funds, the Court at that time probably would have proposed a larger bond issue. I also think that the top number was going to be strictly limited by whether or not it would require a tax increase, even a small one. Maybe $30 billion is an overestimate of how much we need to spend to truly mitigate our flood risk. For sure, it’s more than $5 billion, and at some point we’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that we’re going to need to pay up for that.

HISD schools closed Monday and Tuesday

More effects of the storm.

Houston ISD plans to remain closed Monday and Tuesday, then hold online-only classes for the last three days of next week, as the district manages the fallout from water and power issues caused by freezing temperatures.

HISD officials announced the schedule Friday as employees continued to survey damage to the district’s 260 campuses and the city of Houston remained under a boil-water advisory expected to stretch to at least Sunday.

At the same time, the leaders of a few suburban Houston districts, including Katy, Klein and La Porte ISDs, announced plans to resume in-person classes Monday. While parts of those districts remain under a boil-water advisory, they are expected to face fewer water issues heading into next week compared to HISD.

In an interview Friday morning with CNN, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said district officials remained “very concerned” with water problems that could impact campuses next week. HISD could use unboiled water to flush toilets and run sinks, but the district would need to boil water for drinking and food preparation.

“If the water issue hasn’t been resolved, we can’t (reopen campuses),” Lathan said.

Safety is the first priority, and if the schools can’t open safely then they can’t open. This has other effects, mostly with food service for the students who need it, but there’s no real choice. Hopefully everything will be ready for the following week. What HISD and other districts will do to make up for the lost time, I have no idea. I’m guessing there will be some guidance from the state, but we’ll see.

And speaking of the rest of the state:

The winter storm delivered another blow for parents, teachers and students already struggling to get through this academic year, as COVID-19 has destabilized the lives of many Texans. Already students were failing multiple classes learning virtually, feeling increasingly anxious and depressed, and worrying about their loved ones. Now, some families still don’t have power or water and some schools, given the damage to facilities, are unsure when they are going to be able to take students back in person.

Districts across the state are surveying their buildings and finding broken pipes, soaked classrooms and other major property damage, as rising temperatures thaw pipes. The Texas Education Agency said school districts still dealing with electricity outages and other issues next week can apply for waivers to provide completely virtual instruction or, in some cases, close completely.

The destruction may indefinitely delay in-person instruction — and more crucially may prevent schools from serving as immediate lifelines for their most vulnerable families. As temperatures plummeted over the last week, many schools could not serve as warming centers for their communities as they have done during past disasters. Some also could not distribute free meals to students, with staff members unable to leave their homes and refrigerators full of spoiled food.

The state doesn’t provide funds for building construction and repair – the districts do that themselves, via their capital budgets and bond issuances – so this is going to cause further need in many districts. The forthcoming federal COVID relief package, which will provide money for local and state governments, may help with this, but the state may need to find a way to assist as well. If this isn’t an issue in the legislative session already, it needs to become one.

Flooding affects toll roads, too.

This makes sense to me.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to create a local government corporation to manage Harris County’s toll road system in a move expected to provide a windfall to county coffers and allow surplus toll collections to be spent on non-transportation purposes.

Approved by a 3-2 vote along party lines, the local government model would allow the Harris County Toll Road Authority to refinance its debt at historically low rates and divert funds to help the county respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, and invest more in flood control, supporters said.

Under the proposal by new Budget Director David Berry, the county will receive a $300 million lump sum in toll revenue and then $90 million annually from the system. The toll road authority collected $901 million in the fiscal year that ended in February.

Peter Key, interim executive director of HCTRA, urged the court in a memo to adopt the new governance model.

“This is an unprecedented situation that presents unique financial challenges for the county and may require additional levels of financial support for the county to effectively respond to these challenges for the foreseeable future,” Key wrote.

The toll road authority’s current bond indenture and state law limit the use of surplus revenues to non-toll roads, streets, highways and related facilities, according to a Q&A created by the county budget office. After refinancing under the new governance structure, HCTRA revenues can be used by other county departments.

The proposal would not affect toll rates, the budget office said, nor would it privatize the system or sell off any assets.

[…]

While Fort Bend, Brazoria and Montgomery Counties use local government corporations to finance and operate their toll roads, Harris County’s will serve as a financing vehicle only. The toll road authority estimates Harris County will save $60 million by refinancing the system’s roughly $2.7 billion debt at lower rates through the corporation.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she supported the idea because the county can “maximize every dollar” in a challenging fiscal environment.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said diverting some toll revenues would be an effective way to boost flood control spending. It also could be used as matching funds to state or federal appropriations on ambitious capital projects like deepening the Houston Ship Channel.

I’m fine with this. If the toll roads are generating more revenue than is needed to operate and maintain the roads, then sure, let’s use some of that money for other necessary purposes. Flood control would be high on my list, but other capital projects make sense, too. Commissioners Court will still be accountable for all this, as they currently comprise the board of this LGC, and they will be responsible for appointing subsequent board members. Let’s put this revenue to some good use.

(You may say, if the toll roads were bringing in such excess revenue, we should have cut toll rates. I say that’s a policy choice, and my preferred policy would be to do something like this instead. Lowering tolls is pretty far down on my priority list. Your mileage may vary.)

In the “Would you like some cheese with that whine?” department:

Both Republican commissioners voted against the proposal. Jack Cagle in Precinct 4 lamented the fact that there had been no public meetings on the topic before Tuesday’s vote, unlike the extensive campaign in the summer of 2018 seeking support for the $2.5 billion flood bond program.

Precinct 3’s Steve Radack derided the idea as a ploy by the court’s Democrats who, in his view, are looking to siphon money from the toll road authority instead of asking taxpayers for more.

“This is a money grab,” Radack said. “They’re going to use it to pay for things that are normally paid for via (property) taxes.”

Hey, remember when Commissioners Radack and Cagle broke quorum to prevent the democratically-elected majority on Commissioners Court from voting on a property tax rate hike that was intended to cover future downturns in revenue resulting from COVID-19 and the state’s rigid new revenue cap? Good times, good times. Maybe let the majority vote on its policies next time, and campaign against them on the places where you have disagreements? Just a suggestion.

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.

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.

A look at the Constitutional amendments we will see this November

There are ten of them, including a couple I will vote against as hard as I can.

House Joint Resolution 4 would let the Texas Water Development dole out dollars from a flood infrastructure fund — created by Senate Bill 7, which would spend $1.7 billion from the rainy day fund — to be used for planning, seeking permits for or constructing flood-related projects. SB 7 is awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.

If approved by voters, the flood infrastructure fund would be created at the start of next year.

HJR 34 would let the Legislature temporarily lower tax rates on property damaged during a disaster declared by the governor. House Bill 492 would set the initial tax exemption rates, up to a full exemption, according to the extent of the damage.

HJR 38 would ban the creation of a state income tax, doubling down on a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1993 that requires voters’ permission for the Legislature to create a state income tax.

[…]

HJR 95 creates a tax exemption for precious metals held in the Texas Bullion Depository, which opened in North Austin in June 2018 with its permanent location in Leander expected to open in December.

While that depository made Texas the only state to have a state-operated depository, HJR 95 author Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said it is at a competitive disadvantage because it is also the only state allowing local property taxes on precious metals.

HJR 72 intends to ease the pressure put on smaller communities to find municipal judges by allowing one person to be elected to multiple cities’ judgeships. Currently a person can only hold multiple municipal judgeships by being appointed to each one.

Senate Joint Resolution 32 would let police dogs and other law enforcement animals retire in their old age to live with their handler or other caretaker. The state constitution currently prevents law enforcement from transferring valuable property to a private person or organization for free.

The other four are HJR12, HJR151, SJR24, and SJR79, all of which are financial in nature. As you know, I’m going to cast an enthusiastic but almost certainly futile vote against HJ38, the double secret illegal anti-income tax proposition. HJR95 also looks ridiculous to me – the whole Texas Bullion Depository thing is ridiculous, so it comes with the territory, while HJR72 and SJR32 seem reasonable. The rest I’ll figure out later. The ballot wording should be set in August. What do you think about these?

Appeals court affirms pension bond lawsuit

Hope this is now over.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas 1st Court of Appeals has struck down an appeal from a Houston businessman who contested the city’s 2017 pension bond referendum, appearing to end the legal challenge that began almost a year and a half ago.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office had denied former housing director James Noteware’s allegation that the mayor misled voters into approving the $1 billion bond sale with a “materially misleading ballot description.”

Noteware claimed that the election authorized the city to pay off the bonds by levying a tax that exceeds its voter-imposed revenue cap.

A state district judge last year dismissed Noteware’s claim without ruling on his motion for summary judgment in the case.

In the ruling, the judge agreed with the city’s argument that the court lacked jurisdiction because Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had issued an opinion approving and validating the bonds, while Noteware’s claim “depends on contingent or hypothetical facts.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for the ruling. Noteware’s claims are summarized in the Chron story, while the city countered that 1) the Attorney General certified the bonds as being in compliance with the revenue cap; 2) the election was held, the bonds were sold, and the taxes to pay for them were levied, so there’s no action for the court to take; and 3) any claim that payment of the bond may violate the revenue cap in the future cannot be litigated now. The court accepted the city’s arguments and the appeals court upheld the ruling. Based on this ruling, it’s theoretically possible there could be future litigation over that last point, but if so it will most likely be someone else’s problem.

Of course we could have done more on flood mitigation before now

From the Chron: Harris County faces challenge, opportunity managing $2.5B flood bond program. I want to focus on this bit.

Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, estimates the bond program will complete a third of the flood protection measures Harris County needs. He said leadership from the incoming Commissioners Court, which now will be dominated by Democrats and include a new county judge and Precinct 2 commissioner, will be essential to getting the county the rest of the way.

“We are in a good position, but it’s not an end position,” Blackburn said. “It’s the beginning for the conversation that needs to occur, which is, ‘where are we headed?’”

[…]

The flood control district has issued bonds several times to pay for improvements, including $425 million in the 1980s, but by the 1990s was spending half its revenue on debt service. The district downsized its workforce and opted to pay for future projects up front, which significantly decreased the county’s investment in flood protection to around $15 million per year.

In 2001, after Tropical Storm Allison flooded 73,000 county homes, Harris County significantly increased the district’s funding to $120 million, split evenly between operations and capital projects. That annual sum has remained the same since then, its purchasing power diminished each year by inflation.

Blackburn said Commissioners Court and local members of Congress during this period focused too narrowly on building transportation infrastructure to keep pace with rapid population growth, at the expense of flood control.

“We were, basically, more interested in building the Grand Parkway than we were in fixing Addicks and Barker,” Blackburn said, referring to the west Houston reservoirs the Army Corps listed in 2009 among the most dangerous in the country.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett acknowledged in September that the county could have done more on flood protection in the decade before Harvey, but said he doubted the public would have supported a bond to pay for it.

“Sure, you could say the leader is supposed to get out in front,” Emmett said. “But people were not writing me saying we’ve got to raise taxes and do more for flood control.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, the longest-serving member of the court, predicted a flood bond proposal during the dry years of the 2010s would have gone down in “sizzling defeat.” He rejected the idea that commissioners erred by neglecting to increase the district’s budget in the past.

“There are people who believe we’ve underfunded indigent health care, underfunded roads, underfunded basically every single thing,” he said. “You’ll never be able to make everyone happy.”

In the nine years between Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Harvey, Commissioners Court kept the flood control district property tax rate at roughly 3 cents per $100 of assessed value, less than 5 percent of the overall county tax rate. That figure omits about 2 cents the county carries on its books in the form of debt service on old flood control bonds.

The rate devoted to flood control was two and a half times higher from 1995 through 2000; it took until this year for rising property values to let the district collect more in property taxes — its main revenue source — than it did in 2000.

It was not until Harvey, the wettest storm researchers have ever documented in the United States, that Commissioners Court members saw the urgency in funding the flood control district.

Would it have been difficult to sell a flood control bond ten or fifteen years ago, after Allison but before we started getting walloped on an annual basis? Probably, but you know, Commissioners Court could have tried. They could have engaged with the public about the need to take flood control seriously, and upgrade and improve our infrastructure to do it, and they could have done that even outside the context of a two-month political campaign for a bond. They could have supported other policies that would have boosted flood control efforts. And if they had done these things and encountered resistance, and maybe lost a flood bond referendum and even put their own political careers in jeopardy, well, that’s the nature of public service. As John Culberson can testify, there are downside risks to not taking that kind of action.

Also, too: People, such as Jim Blackburn, have been warning for decades that rampant sprawl into the western and northwestern parts of the county, and the paving over of the Katy Prairie that accommodated it, were bad for flood control. We could have made different choices, including choices that allowed for growth but prioritized growth in a more sustainable fashion. The fact that we’re getting the bill for it now doesn’t mean we couldn’t have taken action then.

Also, too, too: I’ve said this before, but maybe these stories should include reactions and quotes and whatnot from our incoming county executives? You know, the ones who are going to have to take the next steps in this process? Just a thought.

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.

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.

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.

More on the latest Harvey funds

Here’s the full Chron story regarding that allocation of federal Harvey recovery money from Thursday. It wasn’t clear from the Trib story I quoted from, but that levee system is, at least in part, the Ike Dike.

Jim Blackburn of Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center said he looked forward to seeing how the $3.9 billion would be appropriated. He said the amount was not nearly enough to fund the “Ike Dike” project, the estimated cost of which runs upwards of $12 billion, but he said the money could be used to build levees on Galveston and Bolivar islands. The corps has not yet approved a design for the coastal spine. A preliminary proposal is expected in the coming months.

“It is irregular to appropriate funds before the internal Corps review is completed,” Blackburn said. “With the amount of money at about $4 billion, that is not enough to build the gates across Bolivar Roads, but you could build the levees with that amount of money. However, no one knows where the levee is to be placed — on the beach? Raising the roads? Behind the roads on Galveston and Bolivar? Usually there is not such uncertainty.”

There remained a lot of uncertainty about the Houston area’s preparedness for the next big storm after 7 inches of rain fell on parts of Harris County on Wednesday before tapering off in the early afternoon. The 6 inches recorded at Hobby airport set a record for the July 4th holiday, putting nerves on edge in a region still recovering from Harvey’s catastrophic flooding.

Those totals fell short of the rainfall during the Tax Day and Memorial Day floods of 2015 and 2016, which each dumped more than a dozen inches on the area, and well short of Harvey’s 30 to 50 inches. Still, the rain fell hard and quickly Wednesday morning, flooding streets, stranding motorists, spurring Harris County to open its emergency operations center and forcing Houston to cancel its Freedom Over Texas celebration for the first time ever. Skies did clear in time for an evening fireworks show near downtown Houston.

“This was a relatively minor storm that almost reached catastrophic proportions,” Blackburn said. “I don’t think it’s really sunk in that these types of storms will occur more and more often.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the July 4th flooding, from a mere 4 to 6 hours of rain, highlighted the need for a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond that will go before voters on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Harvey making landfall. Some of the bond proceeds would go toward reducing street flooding in extreme rain events, according to the Harris County Flood Control District’s website.

Officials from Houston and Harris County said Wednesday that the preparedness level of first responders is the same or better than when Harvey hit, thanks to the addition of rescue boats and high-water vehicles to several agencies. But most of the flood infrastructure damaged by that historic storm has yet to be repaired, and it weakens each time a new system batters the region.

“I would expect to see that where there were previous damages, they probably start to get incrementally worse,” said Alan Black, director of engineering for the flood control district. “Anytime you’ve got exposed slopes, the erosion just keeps on going.”

Blackburn said just 5 percent of the $150 million in needed infrastructure repairs has been completed. He estimated that crews will need until the end of 2019 to complete the rest. The projects that the flood control district has completed so far, at a cost of $6 million, have focused on damaged infrastructure that posed the greatest risk to public safety.

See here for the background. I think of the Ike Dike as mostly protection for Galveston and the Port of Houston, but it is intended to extend down the coast. As Jim Blackburn notes, there are still many questions about the Ike Dike, which is why there are still bills to study it rattling around in Congress. We’ll see what happens with this. As for how the rest stacks up with the county bond referendum, I imagine they’re complementary, which is how it should be.

Your Houston PAC

There’s a new player on the local scene.

Bill Baldwin, a longtime real estate broker, volunteer and member of Houston’s planning commission, has launched a political action committee aimed at improving the city’s neighborhoods, schools and local governments.

The tenets of the nonpartisan PAC, called Your Houston, will center around issues of quality of life, resiliency, mobility and neighborhoods. It will focus on local elections and referendums.

[…]

The new PAC, he said, will work to support the efforts of local advocacy groups, many of which lack funding and influence.

“All of these groups are doing great advocacy work, but they don’t have money. They don’t have political power,” Baldwin said. “I’m going to add money and political power to advocacy, and elect amazing officials that think of our city as a 21st century city.”

Their Facebook page is here and their still-in-progress website is here. The Chron story says that they intend to engage in the Harris County flood bond election, “urging the county to clearly define the projects involved and then educating the public”. Which is fine, we can use all the engagement we can get on that. Beyond that, I’ll wait to see what they have to say on specific issues and which candidates they choose to back. A couple of their initial board members are people I know and trust, so that’s good, but as always the devil is in the details. Campos has more.

More details on the flood bond referendum

This is the longer version of the original story.

Through at least two-dozen public meetings across the county’s watersheds, County Judge Ed Emmett said residents have a crucial role to play as they provide feedback for the projects they think most will benefit their neighborhoods.

“As that comes in, Flood Control can make adjustments,” Emmett said. “You could have some projects just completely dropped. You could have some projects added we hadn’t thought about.”

The bond vote is an all-or-nothing gamble by Commissioners Court, whose members hope residents will commit to strengthening flood infrastructure after Harvey flooded 11 percent of the county’s housing stock this past August. If the bond passes, Harris County will have access to as much as $2.5 billion to make, over the next 10 to 15 years, the largest local investment in flood infrasctructure in the county’s history. If the bond fails, engineers will be limited to the flood control district’s annual operations and capital budgets, which total a paltry $120 million in comparison.

“This is the most important local vote I can remember in my lifetime,” Emmett said. “We either step up as a community and say we are going to address flooding and make our community resilient, or we kind of drib and drabble on, and it wouldn’t end well for anyone.”

A preliminary list of projects includes $919 million for channel improvements, $386 million for detention basins, $220 million for floodplain land acquisition, $12.5 million for new floodplain mapping and $1.25 million for an improved early flood warning system.

Also included is $184 million, coupled with $552 million in outside funding, to purchase around 3,600 buildings in the floodplain – more than the flood control district’s buyout program has bought in its entire 33-year history.

The draft list includes $430 million — nearly a fifth of the total — for contingency funding and “opportunities identified through public input.”

[…]

The bond would not finance the construction of a third reservoir in west Houston, but does include $750,000 to study, with the Army Corps of Engineers, whether another reservoir is necessary.

Other line items call for de-silting channels that lead into Addicks and Barker reservoirs, or possibly providing funding to the Army Corps to remove silt and vegetation from the reservoirs. Addicks and Barker are managed by the Army Corps, not Harris County, leaving any decisions about the future of those basins in the hands of the federal government.

The flood control district plans to work through the summer on the list of projects the bond would fund, and Emmett has pledged to publish a complete list by the time early voting begins in August. Until then, Emmett said plans may continue to change based on input from residents.

See here for the background. The county has a lot of work to do to finalize what the to-do list is, and to educate voters about it. Of course, first they have to make sure that the voters even know this is on the ballot in the first place, in August, at a time when no one has cast a vote in recent memory. I’m going to keep harping on this, because while I understand the reasons for expediting the election, I remain skeptical that it was a wise idea. I just don’t know, and neither does anyone else. It’s going to be fun trying to guess what turnout will be, I’ll say that much.

County officially puts flood bond referendum on the ballot

Here we go.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously agreed to place a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond before voters on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. If passed, the bond would be the largest local investment in flood mitigation since the storm flooded 154,000 homes across the county.

“I think the whole nation is going to be watching us,” County Judge Ed Emmett said of the region’s approach to flooding post-Harvey. “Everyone is saying Houston, Harris County, the whole region — we have the chance to do it right.”

[…]

Emmett last month said the number of projects to be included in the bond issue would be in the hundreds. He has said he hoped to publish a complete list of projects to be funded with bond proceeds by the first week of August, when early voting begins.

Three residents spoke in favor of the bond proposal Tuesday. Belinda Taylor of the Texas Organizing Project said the nonprofit would support the bond only if it includes projects that benefit northeast Houston, around Mesa and Tidwell, in the Greens Bayou watershed.

Taylor also said residents who volunteer their homes for buyouts should be able to move to comparable housing in drier areas.

“Any buyouts … must leave people with the same kind of housing, no additional debt and in non-flooding neighborhoods,” Taylor said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said that a priority for bond funds must be communities that are less likely to benefit from federal assistance. He said that the federal government uses a formula for dispersing disaster recovery money that places a premium on increasing property value rather than assisting the most people, which Ellis says skews unfairly toward wealthy neighborhoods.

See here and here for the background. The 2018 Harris County Flood Control District Bond Program webpage is here, the proposed project list is here, and the schedule and locations for the remaining public engagement meetings is here. Don’t worry, I plan to do some interviews to help you make sense of this. I’ll need to for myself, too. I agree with Judge Emmett that the country will be watching as we vote. I’m sure the first thing they’ll say if this fails to pass will be “What the heck were you thinking, having this in August?” There doesn’t appear to be any organized opposition to this yet, but as we’ve discussed before, that doesn’t matter. Unless there’s a strong pro-referendum campaign, it’s at best a tossup. We’ll see how that goes.