Harris County Creates Trust To Fully Fund Flood Mitigation Projects Without Partner Assistance For At Least Next Six Years

On Tuesday, 6/29/21, Harris County commissioners voted unanimously to shift Harris County Toll Road Authority and other county funds into a trust designed to help bridge potential shortfalls in partnership funding. The amount would be $40 million per year. As a result, construction of Flood Bond Projects can continue without interruption or delay for at least the next six years. If more partnership funding materializes during that time, funds deposited in the trust could help cover non-bond projects farther into the future.

The issue of a potential shortfall in bond funding boiled into headlines back in March. Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis demanded to know where the money would come from to finish construction projects in Halls and Brays Bayou Watersheds if partnership funds did not materialize as planned. He gave Budget Management and the Flood Control District three months to develop a plan for backstop funding.

As of June 2021, HCFCD Needed to Find Additional $951 Million

When considering all flood-bond projects – not just those in Halls and Greens watersheds – the situation looks like this as of the end of June. See explanation of chart below.

As of 6/28/21, without any additional partnership funding, the potential need could be $951 million.

In 2018, voters approved a $2.5 billion flood bond that included $5 billion worth of projects (first column). Part of the $2.5 billion voters approved (third column) was designed to help attract another $2.5 billion in partnership funding. But only $1.25 billion has materialized so far (fourth column). With other transfers already made (fifth, sixth and seventh columns), that leaves a need of $951 million.

Commissioners wanted to know where that money could come from. Especially after HCFCD received nothing in a statewide competition for $1.1 billion in US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) hazard mitigation funds. General Land Office Commissioner Bush later requested a direct allocation of $750 million for Harris County, but that could take years – if it comes.

Trust Not a Substitute for Partnership Funding

The county intends to step up the search for partner funding. But if that funding does not materialize, it has also created a Flood Resilience Trust. The Trust would:

  • Backstop the 2018 Bond Program
  • Mitigate risks of increased construction costs
  • Potentially fund future flood risk reduction projects beyond the 2018 Bond Program

The Trust does not eliminate the need for partner funding. If partner funds materialize as hoped, HCFCD can use any excess money in the trust to construct future flood mitigation projects beyond the bond program.

The graphic below shows that $489 million has already been identified and allocated to the trust from various sources. The new element added on Tuesday (column six) includes $343 million in HCTRA funds. With rounding and other funds, that would help create a proposed Flood Resilience trust of $833 million to help cover the $951 need.

$40 Million Transfer Per Year from Toll Road Funds

Approximately $40 million per year would be transferred into the trust (red line in chart below). That should cover any unsecured spending through about 2027. By then, hopefully, HCFCD will have identified more partnership funds.

Commissioners spent a considerable amount of time debating the legality of transferring toll road funds to flood mitigation projects. The consensus: toll road development has impacted flooding in Harris County. Flood Control identified a $15 billion need to mitigate increased stormwater runoff caused by historical development of roadways. So, it should not be hard to find a transportation connection to most flood control projects that would satisfy auditors.

Equity Prioritization Framework Will Apply to Trust

The pie chart below shows the weights that will be given to various factors when deciding which projects to develop first with the additional funds.

Weighting in new prioritization framework

This differs slightly from the original equity prioritization framework. Compare the table below.

Weighting in 2019 Equity Prioritization Framework

They seem substantially similar, but the names of some factors have changed. For instance:

  • “Cost per structure” has replaced “project efficiency.”
  • “Flooding Frequency” has replaced “Existing Conditions/Drainage Level of Service.”
  • “Structures Benefitted” has replaced “Flood Risk Reduction.”

Cost per structure is not home value. It is the cost of the project divided by the number of homes benefitted.

“Structures Benefitted” counts the number of structures only, not the the value of those structures.

Thus, this factor gives more weight to densely developed urban areas.

Commissioners Ellis and Garcia have complained bitterly and repeatedly that FEMA Benefit/Cost Ratios for flood mitigation projects include a weighting factor for home value that theoretically gives higher preference to affluent neighborhoods. But that’s only one of many factors that FEMA considers.

This report from William & Mary’s law school explains that “impoverished communities may receive a Federal cost share of up to 90 percent of the total amount approved under the Federal award to implement eligible approved activities in accordance with the Stafford Act, but these communities must meet stringent criteria to receive funding.”

Regardless, I see no weight given to more valuable homes in Harris County’s prioritization guidelines. In fact, the density factor and social vulnerability combine for 45% of a project’s total score.

The biggest problem with this framework is that it doesn’t differentiate between street flooding and bayou flooding. Additional flood control projects for the bayous may not help homes that flood due to water collecting in streets.

For More Information

Here’s the full presentation made by the Flood Control District’s new acting director, Alan Black. And here’s a high-level summary prepared by the Harris County Budget Management Department.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/1/2021 based on information provided by Harris County Flood Control and Budget Management departments

1402 Days after Hurricane Harvey