Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) flood-mitigation spending has plummeted. Data obtained via a FOIA request shows a precipitous falloff too prolonged and too steep to attribute to hiccups on individual projects.
The historical graphs below show annualized spending projections for 2023 based on first quarter spending (i.e., multiplied by four). HCFCD says that the first quarter of 2023 “has been slower than we want to see. But using Q1 spending as a proxy for the entire year is not a meaningful projection.”
However, spending decreased from $59 million in the first quarter of 2022 to $38 million in first quarter 2023 – a 36% drop. Likewise, looking at key spending components year over year:
- Right-of-way (ROW) acquisition fell 87%
- Partner spending fell 74%
- Construction spending fell 34%.
Those decreases follow other substantial decreases in the preceding two years.
It’s impossible to tell exactly what will happen in the rest of 2023. But given recent trends and acknowledging the uncertainty, it appears likely that we’re headed for the third straight year of declining flood-mitigation activity.
The Falloff in Historical Perspective
If my annualized projection is in the ballpark, spending will fall this year to its lowest level since the passage of the 2018 Flood Bond. Almost five years after the passage of the bond, many projects should be moving into the expensive construction phase. So, total spending should be increasing, not decreasing. But spending is:
- Half of what it was during the first full year of the bond in 2019.
- About a third of what it was at the peak of bond spending in 2020.
- Roughly equal to spending during 2017, the year before the bond vote.
So why the drop? Let’s start by looking at the major buckets of money.
Right of Way Acquisition and Construction Account for 79% of All Spending
Historically, ROW comprises 34% of all project spending since 2000, while construction comprises 45%. All other phases combined contribute only 21% to total costs.
The drop in total spending appears tied to a drop in right-of-way acquisition, including buyouts.
Before HCFCD can widen channels and build detention basins, it must own the property. So it’s a leading indicator.
But right-of-way (ROW) acquisition spending has fallen from a recent peak of $172 million in 2020 to an annualized rate of about $5 million this year. That’s a 34X decrease.
After reviewing the graph above, HCFCD responded that it purchased many properties for future projects upfront in the bond program. While true, it’s also true that many projects still require right-of-way acquisitions.
A District spokesperson also pointed to the time since Harvey. “It has been several years since our region’s last major flood event, and owner participation in the buyout program has declined. In our experience, owners are most motivated to sell their flood-prone property soon after a flood event.”
Certainly, buyout difficulty increases after people repair their homes.
But the county faces organizational challenges as well that go beyond HCFCD.
- Harris County reportedly severed its relationship with a private firm that managed flood buyouts for decades and has not hired a replacement.
- The Harris County Real Property Division, a part of the Engineering Department, now handles buyouts, but appears to be broken, like many other Harris County Departments. (See Brain Drain in Harris County Government.) According to people familiar with the turnover, the county has reportedly replaced seasoned professionals with political hires.
- Commissioner Adrian Garcia reportedly hates buyouts and Garcia controls the Engineering Department.
Drop in Grants, Partner Spending
Another factor has been a decrease in grants and partner spending. It dropped 74% from $20.6 million in Q1 2022 to $5.4 million in Q1 2023.
Decreases seem to be persistent. The graph below shows partner spending by month since the start of the flood bond through the end of last year.
In at least one high-profile case, $750 million in partner funding was delayed two years when Harris County Commissioners Court had the Community Services Department – NOT HCFCD – prepare a plan for spending U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Harvey flood-mitigation funds.
Harris County first learned that the Texas General Land Office (GLO), which manages HUD money in Texas, was recommending the $750 million allocation in May 2021. But Community Services won’t hold a conference soliciting projects until May 2023. And the GLO doesn’t expect a project list for approval from Community Services until June 2023 at the earliest.
HCFCD already had a list of projects ready that met HUD criteria in May 2021. HCFCD could have used all of that $750 million and then some. But with the political interference, HCFCD will now get less than half that amount for flood mitigation – $326.25 million.
HCFCD hopes to turn the decline in partner spending around. Their spokesperson said, “Looking ahead, we have worked with our federal, state and local partners to secure additional project funding opportunities, including opportunities through CDBG-MIT, CDBG-DR, FEMA, EPA, and others. This increase in funding will help to spur spending as well, especially given the timelines associated with several of the funding opportunities and partnerships.”
I pray they’re successful with that. But even if HCFCD can ramp up partner spending, sources cite several other problems.
Constant Changes in Direction
Before 2019, flood damage largely drove which watersheds received funding. But in 2019, Harris County Commissioners, led by Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis, passed an Equity Prioritization Plan. That plan has been revised constantly since then.
HCFCD claims that no projects have been cancelled or paused because of prioritization changes. That’s true. Once started, HCFCD works projects to completion. But the revisions do contribute to delays in starting projects.
It’s impossible to calculate exactly how much the revisions have slowed the total spending rate. However, former HCFCD employees have complained about wasted time and effort. “Why prioritize projects once when you can do it three or four times!”
Another former employee gave a more specific example, “The changes cause confusion and additional work as projects must be re-scored each time. A project may be just about ready to go to Commissioners Court for approval, then the criteria change so it might get pulled until it’s rescored. Then, Commissioners may ask additional questions about where that project now ranks among others. And those conversations take time. So it may take several court meetings which could take a month or more before an item can go back to Court for approval.”
No one seems very excited about such issues now. But I suspect they’ll demand answers after the next flood.
What Else Accounts for the Decrease?
In fairness, an HCFCD spokesperson pointed out that after Hurricane Harvey, emergency repairs accounted for a large portion of spending. Those exaggerated the peaks in the bar graphs above and made the drop-offs look steeper than they otherwise might. However, HCFCD did not quantify how much it spent on emergency repairs.
Posted by Bob Rehak on April 20, 2023
2060 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.
Footnote: an attentive reader might notice some variation between previously reported spending and the numbers reported here. HCFCD has transferred subdivision drainage improvement expenses to Harris County Engineering. The transfers involve both current and historical spending, so year over year totals are still comparable for other categories.