The 3/9/2021 meeting of Harris County Commissioners Court started with a presentation by the Harris County Budget Management Director David Berry on the County’s Capital Improvement Plan. Mr. Berry asserted early in the meeting that the County had a shortfall of approximately $900 million to $1.35 billion needed to complete projects in the Flood Bond passed by voters in 2018. Is there really a shortfall? It depends on the exact way you phrase any number of possible questions.
Confusing, Unexplained Map Triggers Almost 2 Hours of Discussion
Near the start of the meeting, Mr. Berry put up a very confusing map (below) that frequently heated the next 100 minutes of discussion to the boiling point. The discussion made every front page in town and many of the TV news shows.
- The map showed the projected funding shortfalls by watershed as a percentage of the total funding allocated to each in the 2018 flood bond.
- The stories featured sensational quotes by Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis (We will have blood on our hands if this stands.) and Precinct 2 Commissioner Garcia (I feel like someone hit me across the back with a baseball bat.)
The map implied that construction had started on projects that the County did not have enough money to finish, especially the ones in yellow and red below.
Was Flood Control Not Following Equity Guidelines?
To add more context to this discussion, understand that Halls and Greens Bayous rank among the poorest in the county. That they seemed so far behind more affluent watersheds in funding rankled Ellis and Garcia. The two had argued to prioritize flood bond spending by a “social equity” formula that addressed the poorest neighborhoods first. To say that the map above was like waving a red flag in front of two bulls would understate its effect.
So What’s Really Going on Here?
Did prices of flood-bond projects suddenly escalate, causing the shortfall? No.
Did Flood Control underestimate costs? No.
But Berry did not make that apparent in his setup. Commissioners Garcia and Ellis then peppered Russ Poppe, head of the Flood Control District, with angry, accusatory questions for more than 40 minutes. At one point, they asked 11 questions in a row before they gave Poppe a chance to answer one.
Poppe then explained that Flood Control relies on matching funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for low-income areas. Why? Unlike FEMA which requires a positive benefit/cost ratio, HUD does not. Flood Control is currently waiting for answers on HUD grant applications totaling almost half a billion dollars for mitigation work in the Halls and Greens Bayou watersheds.
Commissioners Court then spent another 40 minutes trying to understand the chances of getting those grants. They also crafted a motion directing the Flood Control District to develop a backup plan in case grant money didn’t arrive by June 30.
Text Of Motion
The motion reads as follows: “To direct the Flood Control District to work with Budget Management in developing a plan by June 30, 2021 to address the funding gap in flood mitigation projects under the 2018 bond while maintaining an equitable approach to the expenditure of funds, including plans to lobby federal, state, and local partners for funding, identification of alternative funding options, a description of projects that are currently stalled due to incomplete funding and how that affects timing of project completion, and a potential timeline for a future potential bond election regarding the funding of current and future flood control projects. If the County is unable to secure funding to complete all proposed projects, the plan should address how the County should prioritize the investment of existing resources to ensure equitable flood protection and comply with the prioritization framework adopted by Harris County.”
The motion eventually passed unanimously at 1 hour and 32 minutes into the meeting.
Answers to Questions About “Underfunding”
Is construction money in Halls or Greens Bayous invested so far at risk?
No. Money spent so far, according to Poppe, has only been for land acquisition and preliminary engineering studies. The County will need both regardless of how it pays for construction. So the County didn’t waste a penny of flood-bond money invested to date. Construction can start later when a path to funding becomes clear.
Did Flood Control try to hide a shortfall?
No. The partial reliance on partner funding now characterized as a “shortfall” was shown in the Bond Program from Day One. The projected shortfall was never greater than on the day voters approved the flood bond. At that point we had secured no partnership funding for those watersheds or any others. We still haven’t for Halls and Greens.
Have we found partnership funding faster in other watersheds?
Yes. Especially in watersheds where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plays a leadership role in construction or where partners could demonstrate a positive benefit/cost ratio for FEMA. In 2018, Poppe estimated Harris County Flood Control could find $2.3 to $2.4 billion in matching funds based on $872 million allocated for seed money in the Flood Bond. But Berry estimates the budget shortfall at $900 million to $1.35 billion. Subtracting one estimate from the other indicates Flood Control has already found a billion dollars or more in matching funds for other watersheds. That’s great work. And that accounts for the differences in colors on the map.
Can Harris County count on the HUD money?
No. The Texas General Land Office (GLO) is still reviewing Flood Control’s grant applications to HUD. We could get some, all, or none of the requested grants.
When will we know how much HUD money, if any, we get?
Initial indications were that we would get answers by late April or early May. Today, I learned from an independent source who requested anonymity that the answer may not come until October.
If the money doesn’t come from HUD, where will it come from?
It depends. Commissioners floated several ideas in the meeting. They included self-funding with another Flood Bond and shifting money from existing sources within Harris County, such as the Toll Road Authority. They could have mentioned Texas Senate Bill 7 (from 2019), but didn’t. Among other things, SB7 provided partial reimbursement for local matching funds for federal grants. The motion approved by Commissioners Court today requires Flood Control and the Budget office to explore all the possibilities and lay out options for consideration.
Another flood bond? Seriously?
Yes and no. According to former Judge Ed Emmett, the $2.5 billion approved by voters in 2018 was always pitched as a “down payment.” Even with partnership funding potentially doubling the size of that, it still would not be likely to solve all of Harris County’s flood woes. So what’s the real total? During the meeting, the Judge and Commissioners tossed out figures ranging from $10-$40 billion. But no one believes another bond is politically feasible. Especially at this time. First, COVID has siphoned off valuable funds. And some of the commissioners have seen fit to redefine equity in the bond language in a way that benefits their constituents at the expense of all others. Now, they may not be able to deliver for their constituents. And they’ve managed to honk off everyone else. Everyone believes the likelihood of passing another bond is zero at this point.
Why is HUD taking so long?
It depends (on whom you talk to). Reportedly, the GLO and HUD have had concerns about the City of Houston and Harris County administering flood-disaster-relief funds to homeowners (separate from mitigation money for flood control projects). Even though Harris County Flood Control wasn’t involved in that program, HUD decided to have the Texas General Land Office (GLO) administer/oversee a giant pot of mitigation money for the entire state instead of sending a portion of it directly to Harris County. That created an extra step. And Harris County must compete with the rest of the state, a process that has inevitably delayed announcements.
Is it worth waiting for a half billion dollars?
Again, it depends. On whom you ask. If your home is flooding and you can get someone else to foot the bill, hell no. If your home is not flooding and there’s still a chance that HUD could come through, why hurry?
Partnership funding maximizes the amount of projects Flood Control can develop, but it can also delay some projects. This is a glass-half-full debate.
Shouldn’t we be captains of our own fate?
It depends on when you ask. When the flood bond passed in 2018, Flood Control was applauded for aggressively chasing all of the Federal funding it could. Yet during Tuesday’s Court meeting, some commissioners criticized Flood Control for going after any partner funds – a complete 180 from just two and a half years ago.
Will funding shortfalls discussed above affect additional gates for the Lake Houston Dam?
No. At least not if the City can prove up its initial benefit/cost ratio. FEMA has already provisionally allocated funds for gate construction.
For More Information
See these links to:
Video of the Commissioners Court Meeting. Click on Departments (Part 1 of 4) and start about 7:36 in.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/10/2021
1289 Days since Hurricane Harvey