Harris County’s best hope to fully fund the 2018 Flood Bond just vanished into a political black hole. Watching the video of Commissioners Court on Tuesday made one dizzy. My head was spinning so quickly with all of the contradictions, that it reminded me of a Chucky horror movie.
Almost 2 Years After Leaving the Starting Gate…
After almost 2 years, the County’s Community Services Department (CSD) still has not even started working on a process that would define where $750 million in Hurricane Harvey Flood Mitigation money would go.
But its new director, Thao Costis, did recommend taking 58% of the money away from Harris County Flood Control District. County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis, Precinct Two Commissioner Adrian Garcia, and Precinct 4 Commissioner Lesley Briones all voted FOR CSD’s vague proposal that gave $326.5 million to “Harris County” and almost $100 million to “planning and administration” with no further definition.
Ramsey Reminds Court of Purpose of HUD Money
Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey PE reminded his fellow Court members that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) grant was originally intended to fill a funding gap in the flood bond.
For those who may not remember, roughly a third of the $2.5 billion 2018 flood bond was designed to attract matching funds from state and federal entities such as HUD. Harris County Flood Control District hoped to double taxpayers’ money that way. The bond actually had projects in it totaling roughly $5 billion.
At the time, HCFCD saw HUD dollars as the best way to support the hard-hit Halls Bayou watershed where 71% of the residents have low-to-moderate incomes (LMI).
Not Even Enough Left for HCFCD to Complete Halls Projects
But the money remaining with HCFCD after commissioners voted to divert more than half of the $750 million won’t even be enough to complete Halls projects.
The Flood Bond included Halls projects estimated at almost $383 million. Halls has already received projects worth $48 million, leaving a $335 million need. But giving only $326.5 million to HCFCD would leave Halls more than $8 million short.
That would leave no money for flood control projects in other watersheds. They would vanish into a political black hole.
The good people of Halls Bayou have had their projects lined up for years. Yet at 6:28:40 into the meeting video, Director Costis admits, “Our focus is to get projects lined up.”
For Halls Bayou residents who follow Commissioners Court, the video of Tuesday’s meeting will have their heads spinning faster than Chucky’s.
Partnership Funding Merry-Go-Round
Commissioner Garcia, who couldn’t wait on partnership funding to get started on projects, demanded a partnership policy. Ditto for Commissioner Ellis.
But Ellis didn’t want to back away from the county’s “equity principles, because some cities might not have a match.” This could further reduce funding.
At 6:34:20, Ellis, who often brags about transparency, introduced a motion to prioritize projects using unspecified criteria before CSD comes back to Commissioners Court on March 3 with final recommendations.
Admission of Funding Gap
Then Ellis complained, “Even with this money, we don’t have enough money to do everything in the 2018 Flood Bond.” Where’s the other $425 million going, Mr. Ellis, that you’re diverting from HCFCD? Into that political black hole?
More Delays Could Jeopardize Funding
At 6:41, Dr. Tina Petersen, Executive Director of HCFCD, complains, “We’ll need to get an extension.” That’s something the Texas General Land Office (GLO), which manages HUD grants in Texas, has feared. The GLO worries that additional delays could cause HUD to take its money back. Harris County has been dragging this process out for almost two years.
Garcia again asks, “Is a partnership process in place?” (6:41)
Costis admits, “No. We’re starting that process now.”
Hidalgo abruptly cuts off the embarrassing discussion, takes a vote, and moves on to the next agenda item at 6:43:48.
Saying One Thing, Doing Another
Actions speak louder than words, especially in politics. It’s one thing to say flood mitigation is a top priority and that you want to help the county’s less fortunate first. But the figures below clearly show that…
To get a clear picture of political priorities, let’s visualize flood-mitigation spending as a percentage of the total value of projects in the flood bond for each watershed. This shows important differences in the progress toward completion of promised projects. See the table and map below.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the location of these watersheds, see below.
Greens has received 74.9% of its funding and Brays 79.4% of its. But both have lower LMI percentages than Halls, Hunting, Sims and Vince.
For instance, Sims has the third highest percentage of LMI residents in the county (65%), but has only received 4.4% of its anticipated funding.
Eight watersheds in Harris County have majority-LMI populations. But the LMI percentages have little to do with the percentage of money actually spent out of their anticipated budgets.
Contrary to promises, some of the least affluent watersheds are being prioritized last.
This is, in large part, because Commissioners Ellis and Garcia have constantly tweaked their equity-allocation formula to ensure money goes where they want it to go.
High Price of Turnover
The Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) learned of its $488 million allocation from the GLO the same day in May 2021 that Harris County learned of its $750 million. But H-GAC developed its distribution plan and received final approval from the GLO by September of 2022. And H-GAC had to coordinate more than 100 entities!
This comparison shows the high price of turnover in the executive ranks. Costis is the sixth executive director at CSD under Hidalgo. Ms. Costis previously ran a charity for homeless people. While admirable, that’s no qualification for managing hundreds of millions of dollars. And certain commissioners have not helped the process by making it more complicated than it already is with constantly changing demands.
If Harris County wants this money, it needs to hire leaders with business acumen, wall them off from political interference, and prohibit political patronage hires. Now that would really make people’s heads spin! It would also eliminate a political/financial black hole.
Posted by Bob Rehak on February 23, 2023
2004 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.