New County Administrator Moves to Modify Formula for Allocating Flood–Bond Spending – Again

The new county administrator, David Berry, put an item on the Commissioners Court Agenda for next Tuesday that would modify the formula for allocating flood-bond spending among watersheds – again. Item #21-6881 (17th on the agenda) reads: “Request for discussion and possible action to modify the previously adopted “Prioritization Framework for the Implementation of the Harris County Flood Control District 2018 Bond Program” (Prioritization Framework).”

First Change in Flood-Bond Spending Priorities

Commissioners adopted the “Equity Prioritization Framework” in 2019, a year after the flood bond passed. That was the first change.

At the time, Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioner Adrian Garcia swore that the guidelines would only affect the ORDER in which Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) initiated bond projects and that they would cancel no bond projects.

Second Change in Priorities

Then in June this year, Commissioner’s Court changed the “weight” given to elements in the flood-bond spending formula when they created the Flood Resilience Trust. They created the Trust with money from other departments, such as engineering and toll roads, so that low-income watersheds wouldn’t have to wait on HUD funding (which isn’t guaranteed).

Changes included eliminating flood-risk reduction from consideration (formerly 25% in original formula). They also eliminated “existing conditions” as a weighting factor (formerly 20%). So for instance, if a creek near you flooded every other year and someone else lived near a creek that only flooded every 25 years, that risk would be eliminated from comparison for funding purposes.

Third Change in Priorities Attempted

Later, in October, as part of the redistricting process, Adrian Garcia attempted to shift money from part of his old district to a new area that he would inherit. The switch would have deprived Cedar Bayou of $191 million in previously allocated flood-bond funds. Luckily Commissioner Cagle reminded Judge Hidalgo of her promise and she voted with Republicans on that issue to defeat it.

Although Garcia lost that particular motion, before the debate ended, he made a demand – that HCFCD address flooding in the 500-year flood plain, not just the 100-year. This is a complex issue. Usually, homes flooding OUTSIDE the 100-year floodplain – on less than 100-year rains – indicates local (street) drainage systems are deficient.

Such flooding is a common complaint in large parts of Northeast Houston. See the reason why below.

I photographed hundreds of ditches like these while driving around NE Houston for an entire day in June this year.

HCFCD doesn’t build or maintain street drainage systems. That is the job of cities and precinct commissioners. Flood-bond spending was never intended to cover such repairs. So now, if flood bond money is forced to stretch to cover them, something else must give.

Garcia’s demand was really a veiled attempt to have flood-bond spending cover part of his budget. And in fact, that demand showed up in the…

Fourth Potential Change in Priorities

In my opinion, this latest proposal has the potential to cancel projects and shift money between watersheds. However, Berry’s office does not address either of those possibilities in backup materials provided to Commissioners and the public.

Here is the entire text of the proposal sent to commissioners by Berry. And here is some backup documentation.

Berry says of the changes to the equity framework, “We are proposing a number of modifications to improve the Framework to more effectively and more equitably allocate money from the Flood Resilience Trust, as well as to help prioritize new projects not included in the 2018 Bond Program.”

Key changes include:

  • Placing greater emphasis on the number of people that a project benefits.
  • Excluding partnership funding
  • Addressing flooding both inside and outside of the mapped 100-year floodplain

Here’s my take on these.

Number of People

While it’s always good to help the greatest number of people possible, in Harris County, most people live inside Beltway 8. That places areas outside Beltway 8 at a disadvantage – especially those in rapidly growing areas, for instance near the Grand Parkway.

It also places emphasis on flood mitigation at the expense of flood prevention. In that sense, it emphasizes short-term as opposed to long-term gains.

As the Grand Parkway builds around to the east, we have only to look at flooding on the west side to see the future on the east. This measure, if adopted, would be like a doctor who only treats disease and ignores disease prevention. Both are important.

Harris County’s Frontier program is currently buying up land on the periphery of the county in the Little Cypress Creek watershed in an attempt to prevent rapidly developing areas from inundating current residents downstream. We could use more of that! It’s much less expensive and more humane in the long run than waiting until after people flood to do something.

Excluding Partnership Funding

Approximately half of total flood-bond spending relied on Partnership Funding from sources such as FEMA, HUD and the Texas Water Development Board.

Voters actually only approved $2.5 billion in flood bonds. Officials at the time counted on another $2,389,261,250 in partner funds (grants) to complete the list of flood-bond projects. However, if this motion passes, we will no longer consider potential HUD funding. We’ll just pay cash out of the flood bond or flood resilience trust for projects in low-income neighborhoods, some of which have a 90% match for a 10% local share. Then, when the $2.5 billion runs out, the people with uncompleted projects (those that started last) won’t even be eligible for HUD funding, because they don’t live in low-to-moderate income neighborhoods with a high social-vulnerability index.

Basically, Berry’s proposal could increase out-of-pocket costs up to 9X for a large portion of the flood bond.

Inside AND Outside 100-year Floodplain

As previously mentioned, there’s not enough money in the flood bond to shift responsibility for street flooding to HCFCD, Even with the flood-resilience trust. Something has to give.

That something will likely be projects that are still in the study phase where right-of-way acquisition and construction have not yet started. Hmmm. Guess who that is!

Where Will Extra Money Come From?

Berry maintains at the end of his proposal that all of the projects in the bond have already started. True dat! But he also says that the new guidelines will determine how the flood resilience trust is used, without mentioning the potential shortfall in that.

A spokeswoman for the GLO said she expects HUD to rule on $750 million in grants to Harris County in January. That could make all of this juggling a tempest in a teapot. So why the rush?

Belly Laugh of Day

Mr Berry also proposed a new “Open Data Policy” for the County under the guise of providing more transparency (Agenda Item #20).

He provides three pieces of backup to explain it:

Legislation Text – which doesn’t contain the text of the proposed motion.

Legislation Details WITH Text – a duplicate of the file above.

Legislation Details – a blank page. See below.

Text of new County Administrator’s proposed legislation on “open data,” AKA transparency.

As if to underscore Mr. Berry’s commitment to transparency, he has placed yet another item on the Agenda – #119. It would take $20 million out of the flood resilience trust for engineering studies for projects that he considers high priorities. But he never describes what the projects are. Nor does he disclose who would get the $20 million.

So much for transparency!

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/10/2021 based on the agenda for the next Harris County Commissioners Court meeting.

1164 Days since Hurricane Harvey

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.