Joint press conference between GLO and Harris County Commissioners

$750 Million May Be Swirling the Drain

Yesterday morning at a joint press conference, the Texas General Land Office and Harris County Commissioners pledged to work more closely together to speed up flood mitigation. But four hours later, a chaotic 90-minute discussion in Commissioners Court made me wonder whether the rapprochement would ever bear fruit. At risk: $750 million.

Almost 22 months after the Texas General Land Office (GLO) requested $750 million from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for Harris County Harvey flood mitigation, County Commissioners still haven’t agreed among themselves on which projects to support.

That’s important because GLO must determine that any proposed plan meets HUD requirements before the County can begin spending money…half of which must be spent in the next 33 months.

Harris County must spend all funds by August 31, 2027 and 50% by December 31, 2025.

Harris County Community Services Department

Given how things have gone so far, I’m beginning to wonder about those deadlines. However, hope remains. Read on.

County, GLO Pledge Cooperation

At a joint press conference early on 3/14/23 that featured four Harris County Commissioners and the new GLO Commissioner Dawn Buckingham, Buckingham emphasized the need for speed. In an effort to mend the GLO’s relationship with Harris County, Buckingham also pledged to work more closely with the county to help speed things up. To hear the entire 15-minute press conference, click here.

One of Buckingham’s top priorities is improving communication with local leaders to expedite funds available to benefit local residents.

Joint press conference between GLO and Harris County Commissioners
Joint Press Conference: Thao Costis, Interim Executive Director of CSD; Dr. Tina Petersen, Executive Director HCFCD; Lesley Briones, Precinct 4; Dawn Buckingham MD, GLO Commissioner; Adrian Garcia, Precinct 2; Tom Ramsey PE, Precinct 3; Rodney Ellis, Precinct 1; and Christian Menefee, County Attorney.

History of Grant

The Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) had projects that met the current HUD criteria for hazard mitigation funds back in 2020.

Most just weren’t competitive with other areas’ requests given the rules in the first round of statewide competition. But we’re in a different situation now. After getting so little in Round One, the GLO requested a $750 million allocation to Harris County in May 2021.

Shortly after that, Judge Hidalgo, Commissioner Adrian Garcia and Commissioner Rodney Ellis assigned planning responsibilities to the County’s Community Services Department (CSD) instead of HCFCD. But both organizations have had several changes in leadership since then. CSD has had a total of six different directors under Hidalgo so far.

It’s hard to get up much speed in a revolving door. So instead of a plan, we’ve gotten excuses.

“We’re working on it.” “We’ll have that for you in September.” “…in October.” “Before the end of the year.” “Definitely in February.” “Final plan in March.” Now it’s April!

Outline of Plan Approved Without Projects

Yesterday, Commissioners Court actually agreed on a high-level outline of the plan – but without any projects or partners defined.

CSD Interim Director Thao Costis proposed a confusing scoring matrix for potential projects and a spending breakdown that included:

  • $97.5 million for administration and planning
  • $502.5 million for 2018 Flood Control Bond Projects
  • $100 million for Partnership Projects
  • $50 million for Other County Flood Mitigation Projects.

That increased HCFCD’s allocation compared to her last presentation.

And as soon as discussion on the outline began, Commissioners started peppering it with amendments – for almost 90 minutes. In the end, it finally passed, but it was difficult to tell exactly what commissioners were voting on.

So they sent staff away to compile a marked up version of one section – partnership requirements – that reflected numerous changes requested by all commissioners. They brought the marked up version back several hours later and commissioners voted to replace the original partner section they had just approved with the marked up version. But as of this instant, the County Clerk still has not published the text of the final approved version. Good luck to the County Clerk.

Partnership Criteria Refined in Meeting

Re: partnerships, at Commissioner Ramsey’s request, the Court expanded the list of eligible entities beyond municipalities. It now includes MUDs, Public Improvement Districts, School Districts, Public Transit Providers, Economic Development Corporations, TIRZs, Management Districts and Public Ports located within Harris County.

Commissioners also preliminarily approved an amended list of draft criteria for partnership projects. According to Commissioner Ramsey’s staff, they include:

  • Preliminary engineering must be complete or almost so.
  • If right of way is needed, the applicant must already own it.
  • Applicants must adopt the minimum standards for communities in Harris County.
  • Projects can range in size from $3 – $20 million.
  • Partners must agree to cover all cost overruns.
  • Projects will be graded on:
    • Readiness
    • Percent of low-to-moderate income population
    • Efficiency (a combination of cost per person and cost per structure benefitted)
    • Ancillary benefits, i.e., protection of hospitals, schools, etc.
    • Partner’s contribution as percent of total project cost.

Next Steps

CSD will develop an application form for partners. Then:

  • CSD will invite potential partners to a workshop outlining requirements for any deal.
  • Potential partners must submit applications.
  • A consultant will score all applications and develop partnership recommendations.
  • CSD must publish the results and invite public comment.
  • Commissioners, GLO and HUD must approve projects before work can begin.

All that could take years that we don’t have.

Given the uncertainty surrounding the partner application process (which hasn’t even started yet), it’s hard to see how anyone could develop a definitive project list by April 4th, the next commissioner’s court meeting. Hats off to CSD’s Interim Director Costis if she can do it.

Frankly, the chaotic discussion surrounding the $750 million yesterday bewildered me. It was a civics lesson in the value of Robert’s Rules of Order.

The free-for-all starts at about 2:47:09 into the meeting video and goes for almost 90 minutes. Given how long it has taken to get this far and all the steps still ahead, one wonders about the county’s ability to make the final deadline.

Rays of Hope

At the press conference Tuesday morning, GLO offered to work more closely with CSD to compress timelines. Commissioners appeared to welcome the idea.

The GLO also mentioned that more funding might be possible for flood mitigation. However, Commissioner Buckingham could not give a specific figure.

As Harvey disaster relief efforts wind down, the GLO will roll any unused money into flood mitigation, so that it doesn’t have to return to Washington.

The difference between the two buckets? Disaster relief funds go to individuals for repairing damage from past floods. Flood mitigation funds go to government entities for reducing future flooding.

More about the status of disaster relief in a future post. The GLO will hold another press conference in Harris County Thursday on disaster relief efforts.

Posted by Bob Rehak on March 15, 2023

2024 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.