The Houston Chronicle reported this afternoon that Russ Poppe, the Executive Director of the Harris County Flood Control District, submitted a letter of resignation and plans to leave his office on July 2.
Poppe helped former County Judge Ed Emmett sell the historic $2.5 Billion Harris County Flood Bond in 2018 with a whirlwind, barnstorming tour of all 23 watersheds. After voters approved the bond, Poppe, in essence, became the head of multi-billion enterprise overnight.
Summary of Work to Date on Flood Bond Projects
His focus immediately turned to hiring staff and contractors to begin hundreds of projects identified in the watershed meetings. In April, he provided an update on the projects’ progress through the end of the first quarter of 2021.
The highlights included:
- Planning 181 projects
- Completing 19
- Managing 141 active projects
- Accepting 25 grants totaling approximately $960 million with Bond funds providing around $259 million in local matching funds
- Executing 326 engineering agreements totaling $241 million
- Awarding 39 construction agreements totaling $296 million
- Procuring 19 staff augmentation agreements providing 113 contract staff members
- Acquiring nearly 340 properties at a value over $208 million for construction projects, floodplain preservation, and wetland mitigation banks
- Making $115 million available to the Office of the County Engineer to manage and construct drainage improvements in nearly 100 subdivisions across Harris County
- Conducting 140 community engagement meetings with over 11,413 attendees
- Completing nearly 630 home buyouts at a value over $130 million with over 680 additional in process for a buyout (since Hurricane Harvey)
- Completing a repair program worth more than $125 million to address damages to District infrastructure caused by Harvey
At the end of March, only 21 bond projects had not yet been initiated. All in all, a pretty amazing record in less than three years.
In addition, Poppe made countless trips to Austin and Washington to lobby for funding. He reportedly had strong relationships in both places and helped attract $495 million in US Army Corps funding for Harris County projects currently being deployed. He also helped attract $260 million in funding for projects on Clear Creek and was head of the San Jacinto River Planning Group.
Navigating the Political Process
Most who watched Poppe in action at Harris County Commissioner’s court meetings were impressed by his calm, steady demeanor in a tumultuous political environment.
Shortly after the flood bond was sold to the public, Lina Hidalgo was elected County Judge in a blue wave of straight-ticket voting. That gave Democrats a majority in Commissioners Court and they systematically started replacing the heads of departments.
Despite his successes, Poppe came under fire from Democrats for not attracting partnership funds fast enough. That supposedly threatened projects in low-to-moderate income areas. Anyone who watched Commissioners Court regularly witnessed constant backbiting in recent months.
In March, it reached a crescendo. Democrats demanded that Poppe identify the next seven years of partnership funding in 90 days. Commissioner Rodney Ellis threatened “we’ll all have blood on our hands” if those projects in Halls and Greens Bayous don’t get completed. The implication was that Poppe was dragging his feet in adopting the Democrats “equity” plan.
FOIA Request Shows Poor Watersheds Already Far Ahead
To see if that last point was true, I started investigating those watersheds. I also submitted a FOIA request for HCFCD spending by watershed over several different time periods, including since Harvey and since 2000. I have now correlated that with other information and have spent months analyzing it. (It will soon turn into a series of articles.)
Suffice it to say that Poppe and his team were not dragging their feet.
You’d think that would make Lina Hidalgo, Rodney Ellis, Adrian Garcia, Shiela Jackson Lee and Al Green happy. However, it appears to this observer that the Democrats have driven out a tremendous asset who was working hard to please his political bosses. In my opinion, they should have just declared victory and let Poppe do his work.
It will be hard to find a replacement as qualified as he is. At their June 29 meeting, Commissioners will have three options:
- Take no action
- Name an interim director
- Appoint a new director
Make sure you watch that meeting. The fate of the flood-mitigation in Harris County is at stake. Poppe was highly respected according to multiple sources and will make a tremendous asset to some organization. People of Poppe’s calibre rarely make moves like this without having a plan in mind. I hope he decides to stay in the region.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/12/2021
1383 Days since Hurricane Harvey