Those few who attended a meeting at the Humble Civic Center on October 3, 2022, hoping to get more details about the proposed new Harris County bond offerings were sorely disappointed. County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis are asking voters to approve $1.2 billion in bonds before the three have identified projects totaling $1.2 billion. The lack of defined projects and the lack of language in the bond that would guarantee a fair distribution of money should have all voters on high alert.
Bait and Switch?
I got the distinct impression voters are being set up for a bait-and-switch.
- None of the messaging at the meeting discussed “equity” or the lopsided distribution of funds that Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia have pushed for months.
- Neither does the ballot language, the bond website, nor the promotional literature.
- Promotional literature mentions a minimum $220 million per precinct. But the bond language does not. And that’s the only thing that’s legally binding. So there’s no guaranteed minimum per precinct, even though Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia said there would be.
This reminds me of when Ellis bragged openly in Commissioners Court about how he tricked voters in the flood-bond election by redefining “equitable distribution of funds” after the vote. I just don’t trust these three.
Something Ain’t Right Here
My first tip-off that this meeting would be a bust was the nearly empty parking lot when my wife and I arrived five minutes before the start time. Clearly, the county had not advertised the meeting widely. Once inside, I noticed more strangeness.
- Many of the displays sat behind tables – too far away to see any detail.
- I found no one at the tables who would answer questions.
- Staff outnumbered residents.
- During most of the meeting, only three or four visitors at a time wandered through the cavernous space. I counted seven residents briefly at the high point.
- Translators outnumbered residents most of the time.
- I didn’t see one person entering suggestions at a table with a dozen laptops for that purpose during the hour I was there.
- No one could produce a copy of the bond language. One staff member said it was “on the bond website.” I visited the site as we talked; it wasn’t. And still isn’t.
Equity, Lop-sided Spending, Minimum Distributions, Maintenance Not Disclosed in Bond Language
The bond language is, however, now posted on a sample ballot at HarrisVotes.org, the election administrator’s website.
See the jpeg below. It’s notable for what it doesn’t include. The bond language mentions nothing about “equity”, the lop-sided spending proposed by Hidalgo, or a minimum per precinct. Nor does it mention maintenance.
If re-elected, they could change their minds about a minimum at any time, and blow it all on maintenance.
Compound Interest on Maintenance Expenses?
Let’s discuss maintenance. The official ballot language makes no mention of it. However, the bond website does.
So does the motion approved by the three in commissioners court (see pages 3 and 4). The omission of maintenance in the ballot language is intentional.
That maintenance money would be paid back over 30 years WITH INTEREST. So fixing that pothole could easily cost 7X the out-of-pocket costs at today’s interest rates.
And that’s why most bonds discourage spending money on maintenance.
Maintenance should be handled out of current income, not long-term debt. But Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia propose borrowing to pay for it. And that’s just a bad idea. The potholes they fix now will need to be refilled a dozen more times before the bond is paid off. Who will pay for those repairs? And how?
Misleading Project Sheets
The meeting handouts, bond, and bond website discuss spending CATEGORIES. But they still do not mention one actual proposed project within any category – the main criticism of this bond package to date.
The County did have “project sheets” at the display tables. But staff wouldn’t let residents take them. I suspect I know why.
If you look closely, you can see that they were labeled “current” or “active” projects. That means the projects shown already had funding. They were NOT candidates for the PROPOSED bond. After lengthy, pointed questioning, a staff member admitted that to me.
Were such sheets simply displayed to create the appearance of a plan?
Ellis, Garcia and Hidalgo haven’t yet made the effort to define one needed project, though they say the need is critical.
If it’s so critical, how come they can’t cite one example? This is such a contrast to the last bond election!
Free License to Spend Your Money
YES votes would give Hidalgo, Garcia (if both are re-elected) and Ellis a mandate to use your money when and where they want. And that would not include Republican-leaning precincts. One expert on Harris County government bond offerings told me that the lack of public input gives them license to do as they please. The language doesn’t even contain provisions that would force them to spend money within the categories they discuss.
As one finance expert told me today, “This is how Houston got into trouble. Once you get under that mountain of debt, it’s just about impossible to dig your way out,” he said.
Another bonding expert suggested, “A good slogan for this bond would be ‘Just Vote No. No Projects, No Transparency, No New Taxes – No Way!'”
Posted by Bob Rehak on October 7, 2022
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