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Garcia’s $1.2 Billion Mystery Tax Going on November 8th Ballot

Three bonds that amount to a $1.2 billion mystery tax will go on the November ballot in Harris County. In a special Harris County Commissioner’s Court meeting on Thursday 8/18/22, three Democrats voted for the bonds in another carefully orchestrated meeting. They did not:

  • Make the bond language public before (or after) the meeting.
  • Release even a partial list of projects that the money will go towards.
  • Address how the bond will be promoted or who will promote it.
  • Discuss the lopsided distribution of funds ($160 million more for each Democratic precinct).
  • Define how phrases such as, “worst first” will be defined.
  • Allow Republican commissioners to ask questions.
  • Explain why they wanted another bond when approximately half a billion dollars remains from the last one in 2015.

Aside from three-high level categories of spending (public safety, roads and parks), nothing in the bonds says exactly how or where the money will be spent.

Debate Cut Off with Questions Unanswered

After Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia made three motions to approve three separate bonds, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis seconded them. County Judge Lina Hidalgo extolled their benefits and called members of the public who spoke against the bonds liars.

In a carefully stage-managed meeting, Hidalgo insisted the bonds would not raise taxes, but once again blurred the distinction between tax rates and tax bills. Budget Manager Daniel Ramos repeatedly said property valuations were going up. However…

Neither Hidalgo, nor Ramos discussed the combined impact of the rate multiplied by much higher property valuations over 25 years.

Hidalgo has consistently avoided that discussion.

Despite attempts by Republican Commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle to ask questions, the Democrats used their majority to invoke a parliamentary procedure known as “calling the question.” Calling the question stops debate (which never started in this case) and calls for an immediate vote on a proposal. The three Democrats voted YES to call the question. The two Republicans voted NO.

Hidalgo then called an immediate vote on the three bond proposals. Each passed 3-2. Hidalgo adjourned the meeting.

Video of Politics at Its Most Brutal

This meeting was a microwave version of most court meetings in the last four years. If you want to get a good feeling for Harris County politics before you vote, I highly recommend watching it. The last public speaker ends at 36:28 and approval of the bond begins. You can view the entire video here. It only lasts another 15-20 minutes.

But first, you may want to watch this 20-second clip posted on YouTube in which Hidalgo brands members of the public who spoke against the bond as liars.

Video clip showing start of discussion after public comments. Compare audio with official transcript below.

In the official transcript, someone redacted the lying comment.

8/20/22 screen capture of official transcript. Red type added to indicate text and location of omission.

Accidental or intentional? You be the judge.

Bond Language Concealed from Public Beforehand

While you are at it, click on the meeting’s agenda and see if you can find the bond language they “voted” on.

Clicking on the links and tabs within the agenda item for the bond showed no linked PDFs with bond language.

Clicking on Legislation Details brought up this page.

Blank page for Legislation Details where bond text should have been linked.

Clicking on “Legislative Details with Text” brought up these pages, which contained only a high-level summary of the bonds.

Omissions Open Door to Redirection of Funds

I had to specifically request the bond language from Commissioner Ramsey’s office. You can review the entire bond text here. Two omissions jumped out at me.

  • “Worst first” isn’t defined. Commissioner Cagle complained about that, among other things, starting at 47:30 in the video.
  • There is no mention of at least $220 million going to each precinct.

In 2019, Garcia, Ellis and Hidalgo cried “worst first” to justify their prioritization of flood-bond projects. After passage of the bond, they defined “worst” as watersheds with high percentages of Low-to-Moderate Income Residents, regardless of how badly those watersheds flooded. Those watersheds have received more than a billion dollars to date while areas that received 20+ feet of water above flood stage have received virtually nothing from the bond.

The bond language also makes no mention of at least $220 million going to each precinct, a concession approved in the previous meeting which Hidalgo repeatedly referenced.

When Cagle tried to raise these issues, Garcia and Hidalgo cut him off. The three called the question, voted and left the room.

The next meeting of commissioners court will vote on two proposals to promote the bond which have not gone through a competitive bidding process. See items 427 and 428. Sorry, there’s no backup on those either. So much for transparency!

No one except Garcia, Ellis and Hidalgo know why we need the bonds, where the money will go, or who will get the benefit. That’s why I call this bond a mystery tax.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/20/22

1817 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.

August Flood Digest: Brief Summaries of Nine Items in the News

Here’s a short digest of nine flood-related items in the news this month.

Fifth Anniversary of Harvey

This month marks the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact day for Harvey. The system moved off of Africa on August 13, 2017. It became a tropical storm on the 17th; moved into the Gulf on the 22nd; became a Cat 4 hurricane; and made landfall at Port Aransas on the 25th. The outer bands reached Harris County on the 26th.

Harvey dumped heavy rain over Houston for four days. It started moving back offshore on the 29th and 30th. Ninety percent of the river forecast points in southeast Texas reached flood stage; forty-six percent reached new record levels. Harvey dumped more rain than any storm in the history of North America. For more information, see the Hurricane Harvey tab on the Reports Page.

West Fork San Jacinto During Harvey. Looking NE toward Kingwood from the Townsend Park N Ride.

New SJRA Director From Lake Conroe

Most flooding in the Lake Houston Area during Harvey happened after the SJRA started releasing 79,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) from Lake Conroe to save homes there. Many Lake-Houston-Area residents blamed the absence of downstream representation on the SJRA board for what they saw as disregard for their property.

After touring the extensive damage by helicopter, Governor Abbott appointed two Lake-Houston-Area residents (Kaaren Cambio and Mark Micheletti) to the seven-person board. Cambio later resigned to avoid a conflict of interest when she joined Congressman Dan Crenshaw’s staff. Last month, the Governor appointed a Lake Conroe resident to fill her vacancy, Stephanie Johnson. That now leaves Micheletti as the lone downstream representative.

Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District Elections

Sometimes it seems that the main requirements for membership on the LSGCD board are half a brain, a willingness to kiss Simon Sequiera’s ring and indifference to science. Sequiera owns Quadvest, the largest private groundwater pumping company in Montgomery County. And excessive groundwater pumping in MoCo has been linked to subsidence and flooding. But concerned citizens will have a chance to take back the LSGCD board from a slate of directors backed by Sequiera. The deadline for applying is August 22. This page on the LSGCD site is all about the election and how to file if you are interested.

Edgewater Park

Harris County Precinct 3 is trying to jumpstart the development of Edgewater Park at 59 and the San Jacinto West Fork. The county has stated it is hiring a new consultant to re-design the park and that construction could begin 1 to 2 years from now. Quiddity Engineering will get the nod. The project will provide a boat launch, an additional park for the Humble/Kingwood Area, and a connection to the Spring Creek Greenway hike and bike trail. Quiddity’s contract will cover design, engineering, and other pre-construction expenses. Quiddity is the new name for Jones and Carter.

Houston Planning & Development Department News

The Planning and Development Department has a new initiative called Livable Places. The objective: create more housing options for Houstonians. The four options they visualize all increase housing density and impervious cover. I wrote them asking, “Won’t that increase flooding?” In essence, they said, “But it may help other places stay green.” True. But that’s not going to help flooding in the City much. Wasn’t our Drainage Fee designed to provide an incentive to REDUCE impervious cover. Oh well. These are different times. Can we get our drainage fees back now?

Flood Tunnels

Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) released Phase 2 of its $30 billion flood tunnel study last month – along with a recommendation to study the recommendations in more detail. The current plan for Phase 3 is to spend the next 4-6 months:

  • Working with the Army Corps to explore possible federal involvement
  • Scoping the Phase 3 study
  • Beginning procurement.

HCFCD hopes to start Phase 3 in early 2023. Said Scott Elmer, P.E. CFM and Assistant Director of Operations for HCFCD, “We expect it to take approximately 3 years to complete.” For the complete Phase 2 study, click here.

GLO HARP Program Deadline

The Texas General Land Office (GLO) announced that applications for its Homeowner Assistance and Reimbursement Program (HARP) will close at 5 p.m. on Aug. 31, 2022. Those include applications for repairs/rebuilds from Tropical Storm Imelda in 2019. To be eligible, you must submit applications by the deadline … unless funding runs out first. So hurry. 

The program includes repair or reconstruction of owner-occupied single-family homes and reimbursement up to $50,000 for certain out-of-pocket expenses incurred for reconstruction, rehabilitation, or mitigation. Repayment of SBA loans is also eligible for reimbursement.

The GLO has $71,604,000 to help residents of Harris, Chambers, Liberty, Jefferson, Montgomery, Orange, and San Jacinto counties. HARP is only available for a primary residences, not second homes. Interested homeowners should visit recovery.texas.gov/harp to apply online or download an application.

Harris County Attrition and Pay Reports

As reported in April, the loss of employees and managers in dozens of Harris County departments has created a brain drain that impacts delivery of county services. On Tuesday, 8/2/22, Commissioners considered two related reports. The first had to do with attrition. The second had to do with pay and benefits.

Commissioners did not discuss the first, but they did discuss the second at length. They also voted unanimously to have the Office of Management and Budget investigate pay disparities. Certain commissioners wanted to apply equity guidelines to low-paid employees and freeze pay for those making more. I didn’t hear the words “Pay for Performance” once during the discussion.

In the end, commissioners recommended having HR create a job architecture, pay structure, and new evaluations that would determine pay increases or freezes. More in future posts.

New Bond Package

Discussion of a new $1.2 billion bond package consumed the last 90 minutes of commissioners court this week. The County Administrator still cannot say where the money is actually needed. Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis want to apply equity guidelines to this bond. And neither wants to say which projects they would spend the money on. Garcia even threatened in a previous meeting that Republican-leaning precincts would not get ANY of the money if their commissioners voted NO on the bond.

When Hidalgo suggested guidelines for distribution of the money, Garcia stomped out of the meeting. He later reluctantly agreed to a split that would give his precinct and Ellis’ $380 million each while Republican precincts would get only $220 million each.

During the debate, it came out that much of the money from the 2015 bond program still has not been spent. That raised the question, “Why do we need another bond?”

Bragging About Trickery on One Bond While Pitching Another

Also, Commissioner Rodney Ellis publicly bragged that he purposefully didn’t define “equity” in the 2018 flood bond. “It was side language,” he said. “It was not in the language that was on the ballot, but that was the side agreement we agreed to.”

Ellis later said, “Those poor neighborhoods are the ones who have gotten the short end of the process.” But the HCFCD July flood-bond update shows that Halls, Greens, White Oak, Brays and Hunting Bayou Watersheds have received $400 million out of the $1 billion spent to date from the flood bond. Twenty percent of the watersheds are getting 40% of the money. Short end?

I personally don’t plan to vote for another bond until I start seeing some benefit from the last two. Especially when there’s no guarantee how, where or on what the money will be spent. To me, this looks like a $1.2 billion dollar slush fund for Garcia and Ellis.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/6/22

1803 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.