County Discussing Another Billion-Dollar-Plus Bond
On 6/29/22, Harris County Commissioners Court discussed a billion-dollar-plus bond package presented by County Administrator Dave Berry, Budget Director Daniel Ramos and Engineering Department Head Dr. Milton Rahman, P.E. The presentation talks about a $1 billion package. But during discussion, commissioners asked to look at several higher options – $1.1 billion, $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion. The discussion, which you can see posted on the Harris County Commissioners Court website, starts at 3:32 (timecode) and goes to 4:20. Since that’s almost 50 minutes, let me try to summarize it below using some of the slides presented by Rahman.
Proposed Uses for Money
In fairness, understand upfront that Rahman presented an introductory outline, not a detailed plan. With that in mind, he pitched a $1 billion plan broken down as follows.
The package includes $200 million to improve neighborhood drainage. That’s over and above the $600 million in the current budget.
Rahman focused on both the number of people (20,000) and structures (4,000) benefitted with the $600 million. That averages to $30,000 per person or $150,000 per structure. That also works out to 5 people per structure. But the Harris County average per household, according to the US Census Bureau, is 2.84 people for the five years ending in 2020.
That made me question where Rahman obtained his numbers. He never says. Does he base his estimate on a combination of apartments and single-family households? Who will benefit from another $200 million? If that $200 million works as efficiently as the $600 million, it should help another 1,333 homes (4000/3). Where are they? Which precinct? Which neighborhoods?
Harris County already has neighborhood drainage improvements in the 2018 flood bond. Yet Rahman’s presentation says, “We do not recommend pursuing more voted authority for the Flood Control District at this time; approximately 74% of the 2018 Bond Program funds are not yet spent or encumbered.” That would mean 26% are. But Tina Petersen, the new head of the flood control district, submitted another presentation yesterday indicating that 21.8% has been spent.
I get the need for rounding at this early stage. But they’re talking about going to voters in four months. 4.2% of the $5 billion flood bond is more than $200 million dollars of rounding error! That made me wonder about the accuracy of the numbers in the slides above.
The fact that the total “ask” varied by 50% during the discussion also made me wonder about how much research and planning went into these numbers.
Yet Commissioners Ellis and Garcia are eager to put it on the agenda for a vote during the next commissioners court meeting – without any public input. That raised more red flags, because the Community Flood Resilience Task Force has demanded public input on future bond programs. In multiple languages. A majority of the task force felt so strongly about public input, that they even asked HUD to fund it!
Other Highlights from Discussion
Commissioner Ellis wants to review a tighter proposal and put it to a vote at the next commissioners court meeting on July 19, 2022.
Garcia wants it on the ballot in 2022, not 2023.
Ramsey wants to slow it down. He wants to listen to voters, develop a tight plan, communicate the elements to the public, and advocate for it. He stated that it would take a long time to recover from a bond proposal that failed. Ramsey would prefer a vote in 2023.
Commissioners Court spent considerable time discussing whether the proposal should have a list of specific projects or just generic categories of spending. But the commissioners made no decision on that point.
Milton Rahman stated, “The wish list is bigger than we can afford.” That raised another red flag for me. It means someone will have to make hard decisions about where the money goes and who benefits. Who will make those decisions? On what basis? When? After the election?
Commissioner Cagle suggested voting on this proposal with additional requests to fund flood tunnels and the coastal spine project. That could delay this bond proposal until we knew how much federal funding we could get for those projects. And that could take two years. Congress will vote on the next Water Resources Development Act in 2024.
Withholding Judgment for Now
Until I see more detail, I will withhold judgement on this bond proposal. I can see how there may be a need. But I’m not going to vote for a billion dollars of vague generalities. I want to see where the money goes and I want to have time to study the bond language. I was fooled once by a non-standard definition of “equitable” applied to the 2018 flood bond. What other surprises lurk in the wings?
One reader who prefers to remain anonymous said, “We should trust this Court with a blank check for projects that are not defined??? NO DAMN WAY!!! What is the formula to determine which Precincts get how much money? What is the prioritization framework to select projects? How will equity considerations affect funding? How will the public know where this money goes? We have NO IDEA where previous bond funding went!!! This Court has not earned our trust. Some members just cannot be trusted. NO BOND!”
Frankly, that’s a fairly typical attitude outside the Beltway from comments i get.
Yet Rahman, Berry and Ramos, in their last slide, suggest this proposal – with a barely defined project list – is a foregone conclusion. See below. They want to identify only a few flagship projects to complement other unspecified projects in the bond. And they want to start drafting bond orders now.
Let’s see if Berry, Ramos and Rahman can advertise and conduct dozens of precinct meetings; solicit public input; and define a plan responsive to community needs before the next commissioners court meeting. If not, perhaps Ellis, Garcia, Hidalgo and the Community Flood Resilience Task Force should demand their resignations.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/29/2022
1765 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.