In the Harris County Commissioners Court meeting on 8/25/2020, Commissioners again considered the purchase of Woodridge Village from Perry Homes – at least one small aspect of it that would have allowed them to lock in the price while other details are worked out.
For months, the County has considered purchasing the property to create a regional flood detention facility along Taylor Gully. On Tuesday, County Engineer John Blount placed an item on the agenda requesting that Commissioners declare the purchase of the property north of Elm Grove a “public necessity.”
The declaration is a procedural formality that would allow the county to enter into an earnest money contract to lock in the price. The terms of the contract, however, would not have obligated the county to write a check until all conditions placed on the sale had been dealt with satisfactorily. After a half hour of debate, the Court took no action.
Ellis Goes On Attack Again
Once again, Commissioner Rodney Ellis used the opportunity to try to add two new conditions to the purchase. In the process, he exaggerated the cost of the deal and misrepresented the substance of previous votes.
The proposed new conditions were that the City should pay for half of any new lawsuits arising from the property and that the City should pay for half of the maintenance costs.
You can view the thirty minute discussion in the video of the meeting. Click on Departments (Part 2 of 2). Then advance to about 2:00:45 as Mr. Blount introduces Item 1T on the agenda.
Ellis starts out by openly worrying that new assets would require additional funds for maintenance and operations. He also worries about:
- Trusting the City to keep its promises.
- Completing projects in the bond fund.
- Committing cash to a deal he doesn’t like.
- The City’s progress on reshaping regulations tied to Atlas-14 adoption.
- Whether the City will continue to approve ill-conceived projects in its ETJ.
- Timing of the commitment relative to a vote on whether to increase taxes.
- How the project will affect the Flood Control District’s maintenance budget.
- Whether the City is acting in good faith
- Detracting from projects in his district
- Spending taxpayer money in another county (even if it helps people in Harris County).
Previously, Commissioner Ellis introduced motions to make the City:
- Pay for half of the purchase price
- Adopt NOAA’s Atlas-14 rainfall precipitation frequency estimates and implement changes in floodplain-development regulations tied to Atlas 14.
- Pay for half of construction costs
Highlights of Discussion
The following timecodes are approximate. This is a summary, not a transcript. These portions of the 30-minute discussion stood out because of their importance or inconsistencies.
2:00:45 County Engineer John Blount introduces Item 1T on page 4 of the agenda. It reads:
“Recommendation that the court find a public necessity exists for the Flood Control District to purchase Tracts G503-06-00-01-001.0 and G503-06-00-01-002.0 in Montgomery County from Figure Four Partners, Ltd., in the amount of $14,019,316 plus closing costs for the Woodridge Village stormwater detention basin, and that the Real Property Division Manager or Assistant Division Manager be authorized to sign any agreements or closing documents associated with this transaction.”
Ellis Leads Off Discussion With Leading Questions
2:01:12: Commissioner Ellis says “Judge, I have a few questions…” and the debate begins. As usual, Mr. Ellis begins by asking leading questions. And the answers are usually obvious. On this day he asked whether the purchase would lead to increased maintenance costs.
2:01:40: Russ Poppe, executive director of the Flood Control District replies, “Yes.”
2:01:50: Ellis asks how much the District’s maintenance budget would decrease should the county adopt a “no-new-revenue” tax rate for next year.
2:02:10: Poppe says that he has seen spreadsheets [which have not been made public] that indicate reductions to operations and maintenance budgets could begin next year, but he doesn’t mention a percentage.
2:02:37: Ellis says, “So the costs will go up” and “…It will be a significant increase.” [Editor’s note: the amount of the increase was never mentioned. You need to be a fast listener when Ellis has the floor.] “So my question is, ‘Why would the district proceed with construction of mitigation assets if we don’t know if we may be unable to maintain them?
Would it make more sense – if we adopt the no-new-revenue rate – to pause third and fourth quartile bond projects until revenue is sufficient to maintain?Rodney Ellis
[Editor’s Note: by accelerating projects in LMI and SVI neighborhoods, Ellis has delayed projects, such as this one, in other precincts.]
Ellis continues. “Why will we keep starting more projects and we have no idea how we’re going to maintain them?” [Editor’s Note: He does not ask the same question of projects in his precinct.]
2:03:27: Poppe replies, “You bring up a concern that I had, too, Commissioner. Because I know our funding is going to have to increase in order for us to take care of all this infrastructure to the level that our residents are going to expect us to make sure that it functions when we need it to function.”
Confusion over Previous Conditions
2:03:40: Ellis asks Blount or Poppe to restate the conditions previously imposed on the deal that should have preceded the County moving forward with the project. [Editor’s note: I submitted a FOIA request to the County asking for the exact text of that motion, approved in open court. The County denied the request. I appealed. The County submitted it to the State Attorney General’s office for review. The attorney general has not yet ruled on the issue.]
2:04:10: Poppe starts his reply by talking about the demand for half the purchase price. “The city has indicated they do not have the cash available to make up their half of the contribution to acquire the site, which is around 14 million dollars. And the city has indicated that they would rather transfer land assets in the value of at least half of the purchase price to us for use as flood-risk reduction projects. That was condition number one.”
“Condition number two was that the City of Houston adopt updated detention and mitigation rates commensurate with the Atlas-14 rainfall rates. And that was both to be adopted inside not only their city of Houston limits, but also their ETJ.”
“And then the third…”
2:04:45 Ellis interrupts. “And have they done that?”
2:04:50: Poppe replies, “No, there’s an ongoing task force or work group for which I think John’s office (County Engineer) and my office both have people who sit in and contribute to those conversations. But no, they have not adopted increased mitigation requirements yet.”
“And then the last piece that has to occur, Commissioner, is we have to execute an inter-local agreement that addresses those issues I just mentioned, as well as other details, as one might imagine, come up as you start developing a site of this magnitude.”
Ellis Reminds Poppe about Getting City to Pay for Half of Construction
2:05:17: Ellis, referring to a second motion to include construction costs in the City’s half of the deal, asks, “And wasn’t that talk about paying for half the cost to do something with it? I thought that was in the motion. And also paying for half the cost in the event there’s a lawsuit … and … a commitment to pay for half of what it takes to maintain?” (Editor’s note: Paying for half the construction costs was in a previous motion. But the motion did NOT include the City paying for half of legal or maintenance costs.)
2:05:54: Poppe replies. “Yes, Commissioner, those were all issues we’ve talked about, but I don’t believe those were actually directed by court. I know that’s your intention and I want to get those issues addressed with the City as part of our inter-local agreement, too, because those are real costs.”
2:06:54: Hidalgo incorrectly states that Ellis’ additional requirements WERE part of previous motions. “And they WERE, Russ. I remember this is about the fourth time we’re going back over what we agreed. Maybe someone ought to just go back and listen to the transcript and send it around, because as I remember, it was that half of both the purchase and whatever happens and then the detention requirements and there could be assets of land. But we’ve had the same discussion quite a few times. I think in the end we agreed.” (Editor’s note: this contradiction may have something to do with why the FOIA request was denied and appealed to the State AG.)
2:07:45: After a long diatribe about how the City can’t be trusted, Ellis states that he can’t support the deal unless there’s an inter-local agreement that specifies objectives IN WRITING. (Editor’s note: Ellis previously insisted that an inter-local agreement was worthless and that the City had to actually comply with all County demands BEFORE the County moved forward.)
Ellis then worries that there won’t be enough money to complete projects in his district.
Ellis Likens Project to Buying Brooklyn Bridge
2:16:46: Ellis likens the Woodridge Village project to acquiring the Brooklyn Bridge.
2:17:00 Poppe explains that the County provided an inter-local agreement to the City that addresses all the issues under discussion.
“We are still waiting to hear back from them to actually sit down and have a negotiation meeting to make sure that they’re on the same page as us with those initial concepts and the inter-local agreement.”Russ Poppe, Exec Director, HCFCD
2:17:38: Hidalgo says, “So we can take no action on this item?”
County Attorney’s Office and Cagle Clarify Earnest Money Contract
2:18:43: Robert Soard from the County Attorney’s Office clarifies the purpose of the earnest money contract. It:
- Commits the seller to the price.
- Gives the County 120 days to work out an inter-local agreement with the City.
- Specifically says the inter-local agreement has to be approved by Commissioners Court before the court has to buy the property.
2:24:05: Commissioner Jack Cagle says, “This is not nearly as complicated as we’re trying to make it. We have people in Harris County that are at risk of flooding because of the property that’s upstream. We have a chance to lock in a very good price to be able to acquire property to help people that live in Harris County.”
“Understand that we have all the criteria that have been added to the initial idea. And the ball has moved a little bit since our very first meeting. But with all of that in place, to be able to at least lock in the price – as opposed to letting that price float with someone on the other side who is trying to decide what they want to do – I think is a reasonable thing.”
“And if we can’t meet the three criteria or the five criteria or the seven criteria that might come down the pike, then we don’t meet those. But at least let’s give ourselves a locked-in price and a set of targets to move towards. These are people in Harris County that we’re trying to help in times when they’re concerned with things that are coming in to our area with regard to water – tropical storms, hurricanes, flooding.”
Ellis Drops New Bomb; Commissioners Take No Action
2:25:40: Ellis says that he won’t support the declaration of necessity because it raises “false hope that we’re going to do it,” meaning purchase the property. He also says, “And the city is telling us that they are not going to make a decision on those policy matters [Atlas-14 implementation], but they would like us to commit to this 50 to 70 million dollars.” During this part of the discussion, Ellis doubles previous estimates and ignores the fact that the City would be paying for half, but no one corrects him. He couples the Woodridge-Village purchase with setting the tax rate, as if he’s getting ready to blame a tax increase on Elm Grove.
The reference to equity has to do with the application of poverty standards to the prioritization of bond funds. He explicitly states that if your neighborhood doesn’t meet LMI or SVI criteria – his definition of equity – you won’t benefit from the $2.5 billion bond fund.
The discussion ended shortly thereafter.
Commissioners decided to take no action and defer the motion to a later date.
Again, please don’t just accept my summary of Tuesday’s meeting; view the video yourself. The discussion was rambling, disjointed, and filled with “memory lapses.” But I believe this summary captures the main points.
Breaking a Golden Rule of Conflict Negotiation
It’s clear from Cagle’s cynical comment about the three, five, or seven conditions, that he despairs this deal will ever be finalized. Every time it comes up, Ellis tries to add more conditions. Most distressing is the fact that he’s also trying to redefine motions that the Court previously agreed to. And that the county refuses to produce the text of after a valid FOIA request.
Ellis is diverting money to projects in his district with new conditions that evolve in each meeting.
A golden rule of conflict resolution states that if you agree to a deal three times and someone still keeps trying to add conditions, you should disengage. That person is just not being honest with you.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/27/2020
1094 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 343 since Imelda
The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.