Bills proposed in both the Texas House and Senate could transform the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) into the Gulf Coast Resiliency District (GCRD). The proposed legislation would make the management of the GCRD a board appointed by the Governor instead of Harris County Commissioners Court.
Senator Paul Bettencourt introduced SB2431 and Representative Dennis Paul introduced its companion bill, HB5338, in the House. Both go back to the enabling legislation for HCFCD in 1937 and change the original language in key places. For example:
- “Gulf Coast Resiliency” replaces “Harris County Flood Control.”
- “The bounds of the district” replaces “Harris County.”
- “The Board” replaces “Commissioners Court.”
- “Presiding officer” replaces “County Judge.”
Check out the bill language yourself by clicking on the links above. Virtually all HCFCD capabilities and functions remain the same. GCRD can issue bonds, build projects, partner with other entities, and acquire property as it always has.
The big change: the governor-appointed board would manage GCRD instead of Harris County Commissioners.
Why These Bills Would Benefit Harris County
While local control is normally a good thing, excessive political interference can also hinder professionals in the performance of their duties. And in fact, that has happened in Harris County. Below, I discuss eight distinct performance-sapping issues I have observed under the current administration.
1. Limited Purview of Some Harris County Commissioners
Language in both the 1937 enabling legislation for HCFCD and the 2018 flood bond let HCFCD acquire land and build projects in neighboring counties. This is necessary because floodwaters do not respect political boundaries. We need a regional approach to solve watershed-wide problems.
However, Commissioner Rodney Ellis has blocked virtually all such efforts and his Democratic colleagues have gone along with him.
Ellis rarely misses an opportunity to express his regret over letting HCFCD purchase the Woodridge Village property on the Montgomery County line. It contributed to flooding up to 600 homes in Kingwood/Harris County twice in 2019. Since acquiring the property in 2021, the county has spent less than $1,000 to build a flood-mitigation project on it.
Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to projects inside the Beltway where most of Ellis’, Garcia’s and Hidalgo’s constituents live.
2. Undermining Regional Cooperation
Ellis’ stonewalling of projects across county lines also cut the legs out from under an HCFCD/Engineering Department program called Fix Flooding First.
The program proposed five “minimum drainage standards” for adjoining counties draining into Harris County. The only inducement Harris County could offer neighboring areas to cooperate was flood-bond money for partnership projects.
Without that incentive, neighboring counties, such as Montgomery and Liberty, have been slow to upgrade their drainage standards. And predictably, areas in outlying parts of Harris County have suffered as a result of insufficiently mitigated development projects upstream.
3. Punishing Republican Areas
Democrats Ellis, Garcia, and Hidalgo have consistently steered 2018 flood-bond money away from areas on the periphery of the county. This has punished political opponents.
For instance, not one capital-improvement construction project is currently underway anywhere in Precinct 3. P3 is the last remaining precinct led by a Republican in Harris County.
Screen Capture from HCFCD Active Capital and Maintenance Construction Projects on 4/8/2023. Purple dots represent capital construction projects. Orange represent maintenance projects. Precinct 3 is pink area.
4. Minimizing Flood Risk in Funding Formulas
Having spent billions of dollars since 2000 to mitigate flood risk in Low-to-Moderate-Income areas, Harris County’s Democratic majority now seeks to de-emphasize flood risk in its funding formula.
They have also eliminated common-sense metrics such as flood damage, deaths, depth of flooding, and protection of infrastructure such as schools and hospitals when scoring projects.
Flood risk now accounts for only 20% of project scoring. Non-flood-related factors such as income, population and ethnic origin account for 80%.
Using this system, projects in areas with 50-year flooding could get funded before those with 2-year flooding. But that seems to be the way the Democratic majority wants it.
5. Exhausting Local Dollars to Avoid Waiting on Federal Dollars
Roughly $2.5 billion – half the money for 2018 Flood Bond Projects – originated locally. And about a third of that was designated to attract matching funds. For instance, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development often pays up to 90% of projects, but it requires a 10% local match.
This leverage could have doubled the funds available for Harris County flood-mitigation projects. But two catches existed:
- HUD prioritizes projects in low-to-moderate-income areas.
- HUD money takes longer to work its way down from Washington to Austin to Harris County.
So the Democratic majority simply voted to eliminate any partnership funding from its scoring matrix – despite the fact that historically, almost a third of Harris County flood-mitigation funding has come from partners.
Instead of waiting on HUD, Democrats started using local money in LMI neighborhoods. Now there may not be enough money to cover projects in predominantly Republican neighborhoods like Kingwood, Spring, Cypress and Huffman.
6. Falloff in Partner Funding
When Commissioners voted to plow ahead with local dollars instead of waiting on Federal dollars, they said they would continue to seek partner funding wherever possible.
But almost two years after the GLO announced Harris County would get $750 million in funding, the County still hasn’t submitted a complete plan for how it would spend the money. In fact, it changed its plan twice in the last month.
Problems like these do not inspire partner confidence. And it shows.
7. Slowing Progress on Flood-Mitigation Projects
Political interference in HCFCD has led to 100% turnover in the executive ranks of HCFCD under County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
Data obtained from HCFCD via FOIA request. Decline coincides with departures of key executives.
The flood bond passed in the third quarter of 2018 when Russ Poppe, Matt Zeve and Alan Black led HCFCD.
Under their leadership, spending more than doubled in a year a half as they launched 136 projects.
Then in 2021, Poppe, the executive director, resigned after relentless backbiting in Commissioners Court over made-up equity issues. Zeve, the deputy executive director, resigned in January 2022 under similar circumstances. And Alan Black, operations manager (and later acting director), left later that year.
This slowed down HCFCD performance and placed the entire county at higher risk.
Preliminary data for the first quarter of 2023 indicate that spending could decline even more radically this year.
The turnover issue is not limited to HCFCD. It’s endemic. Under Lina Hidalgo, the heads of virtually every Harris County department have turned over – some as many as six times!
8. Equity Obsession
Commissioners had criticized the executives for not spending enough money in minority and low-income areas. In fact, HCFCD was already spending as much in eight watersheds with LMI-majority populations as they were in all 15 others combined. See below.
Still unhappy, Democrats have had to think up new ways to send even more projects to their constituents inside the Beltway.
Hence, the constant revisions to the equity scoring matrix. According to several former employees, the revisions have led to starts, stops, wasted work, frustrations and delays. These contribute to slowdowns and keep flood risk high.
Benefits to Citizens
An article by Holly Hansen in the Texan quotes Rep. Paul on why he introduced the companion bill to Bettencourt’s in the House. He cites Harris County’s mismanagement, lack of progress, and the politicization of infrastructure planning.
Solving these problems will reduce flood risk, increase productivity, and save taxpayer dollars.
Those don’t seem important under the current leadership in Harris County. Can we afford to wait another four years for a change in administration?
Normally, I favor local control. The more, the better. But with HCFCD, that local control has failed us. That’s why I wholeheartedly support these bills.
Posted by Bob Rehak on April 10, 2023
2050 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.