Tag Archive for: Partner Funds

Of Active HCFCD Bond Construction Spending Totaling $226 Million, Lake Houston Area Has $2 Thousand

Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) delivered its March 2022 Flood Bond Spending Update yesterday to Commissioners Court. It shows $226,476,745 dollars worth of active capital construction projects underway throughout the county. But only two of those valued at a grand total of $2,000 are in the Lake Houston Area.

That’s less than one-tenth of one percent, despite the fact that the Lake Houston Area was one of the most heavily damaged in the county during Harvey.

Maintenance Costs Harder to Determine

The update also includes active maintenance projects. However, those are grouped in ways that make it difficult to determine the exact cost of each. The Lake Houston Area had 3 out of 36 of those. At least one of the three is now complete. It consisted of cleaning a block-long stretch of the drainage ditch that parallels Stonehollow Drive in Kingwood. Judging by the group costs, none of the three qualifies as major.

The update does not disclose the value of past projects. Nor does it break out the value of studies, right-of-way acquisition, or future improvements.

For the full update, click here. I compiled the numbers above from the last two pages in the PDF. To see the location of projects, check the HCFCD’s Flood Education Mapping Tool. It shows the number of every ditch and stream in Harris County.

Other Insights

The report yields many insights.

  • 19.7% of the bond work has been completed as of the end of March. That’s up from 19.4% at the end of February. That percentage should increase faster as HCFCD completes more preliminary studies and moves into the expensive phases of projects, such as right-of-way acquisition and construction.
  • Of 1175 buyouts identified, 457 have completed – 39%.
  • Biggest winners to date in the flood-bond, mitigation-funding sweepstakes have been:
    • Brays Bayou – $173.1 million
    • Cypress Creek – $87.4 million
    • Greens Bayou – $82.7 million
    • Addicks Reservoir – $75.4 million
    • Little Cypress Creek – $53.7 million
    • White Oak Bayou – $53.2 million
    • Clear Creek – $38 million
    • Halls Bayou – $35.4 million
    • Hunting Bayou – $34.1 million
    • Willow Creek – $33.5 million
  • The San Jacinto River watershed has received $20.7 million despite being the largest in the county.
  • HCFCD completed two projects during the month and began construction on one other.
  • Eight other projects changed stages, i.e., from feasibility study to preliminary engineering.

“Partner Funds” To Date Virtually Equal “Bond Funds”

Virtually half of flood bond spending through the end of March 2022 came from partner funds. Local funds plus grants totaled $483 million. Money spent out of the bond itself has totaled $492 million. So, 49.5% of spending to date came from partner funds. It has gone largely to watersheds supposedly disadvantaged by partnership requirements. A popular political narrative claims low-to-moderate income watersheds get no partner funding and more affluent watersheds get it all. But that simply isn’t true.

The narrative is being used to accelerate the start of projects in LMI neighborhoods by decoupling grant approval and project initiation. However, as these numbers show, turning our backs on partnership funds could potentially double the cost of flood mitigation.

49.5% of mitigation dollars to date have come from partners. 50.5% came from the bond itself.

Glaring $750 Million Omission

Although the March update contained a discussion of several partnership grants, it failed to mention $750 million allocated to Harris County by HUD and the GLO for flood mitigation on March 18. The March update did, however, discuss several smaller grants, earmarks and partner funds. Those took up two and a half pages.

The $750 million, together with the flood resilience trust approved last year, would fully fund the flood bond. That means that no watershed should have to wait on partner funding for construction projects to begin once engineering is completed.

Only one step remains before Harris County can start using the money – approval of a “method of distribution.” That’s a final plan for how and where the money will be used.

Posted by Bob Rehak on May 11, 2022

1716 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.

Equity Myth Buster: “Rich Neighborhoods Get All the Flood-Mitigation Funding”

A myth being promulgated in Harris County Commissioners Court and certain low-to-moderate income (LMI) watersheds these days goes something like this:

  • The FEMA Benefit/Cost Ratio (used to rank grant applications for flood-mitigation projects) favors high-dollar homes.
  • That disadvantages less affluent, inner-city neighborhoods compared to more affluent suburbs.
  • Therefore, less affluent neighborhoods get no help and the more affluent neighborhoods get it all.

This post busts that myth. But it won’t stop activists from demanding more “equity.”

If you look at all flood-mitigation spending in Harris County since 2000, on average, less affluent watersheds already receive 4.7X more partner funding per watershed than their more affluent counterparts.

Analysis of data obtained via FOIA request

Myth Ignores Other Factors, Frequently Leaps to Wrong Conclusions

Like much of political discourse these days, the myth focuses on a narrow sliver of truth, ignores other factors, and frequently leaps to the wrong conclusions.

An analysis of Harris County Flood Control District data going back to the start of this century shows how far off the myth can be.

There are dozens of different ways to slice and dice the data. I’ve looked at most of them and validated “dollars invested” with aerial photography.

Today, I focus on partner grants because they represent such a huge percentage of the flood-bond budget and because there is so much misinformation floating around about them.

And I will look at partner funding from the standpoint of outcomes, not just processes (as in the myth).

Methodology for Analysis

For this analysis I obtained Harris County Flood Control District spending data between 1/1/2000 and 9/31/2021 via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. I requested the data by watershed, decade, pre-/Post Harvey, source of funding (local vs. partner), and type of activity (i.e., engineering, right-of-way acquisition, construction and more). I cross-referenced this with other data such as flood-damaged structures, population, population density, and percentage of low-to-moderate income (LMI) residents.

When considering grants, the percentage of LMI residents in a watershed takes on special significance. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants often require high percentages of LMI residents in the area under consideration.

In the charts below, you will see references to watersheds with LMI populations above and below 50%. Above 50% means more than half the residents in the watershed have an income LESS THAN the average for the region. Below 50% means more than half the residents earn more than the regional average.

Harris County has 23 watersheds. Eight have LMI percentages above 50% (less affluent). Fifteen have LMI percentages below 50% (more affluent).

When reviewing the charts below, pay particular attention to the italicized words: Total, Partner, and On Average. They represent three different ways to look at the same question: Do housing values disadvantage an area when applying for grants?

For this analysis, I focused only on the long term, since decisions on more than a billion dollars in flood-bond grants are still outstanding.

FOIA Analysis Contradicts the Popular Myth

One of the first things you notice when you look at watersheds above and below 50% LMI, is that the eight least affluent watersheds have gotten more than 60% of all dollars actually spent on flood mitigation since 2000.

Less affluent watersheds, despite being half as numerous, received 60% of all dollars since 2000.

Because the allegation was that partnership grants favored affluent areas, I then analyzed whether partner dollars went mostly to affluent or less-affluent watersheds. The answer is less affluent…overwhelmingly.

More than 70% of all partner dollars in the last 22 years went to the eight less-affluent watersheds.

The last observation by itself is telling. But because of the widely different number of watersheds in each group, I also wanted to calculate the average partner dollars per watershed in each group. This blows the “rich neighborhoods get all the grants” argument to pieces. Less affluent watersheds got, on average, 4.7X more.

Dividing the total partner dollars by the number of watersheds in each group shows that less affluent watersheds average 4.7X more than affluent ones.

This busts the myth. But digging even deeper into the data reveals two things: wide variation between sources of funding and within LMI groupings.

USACE Funding Skews Partner Totals

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) accounts for much of the partner funding. USACE has provided significant funding for projects in the Sims, Brays, White Oak, Hunting, and Greens Bayou watersheds. The Clear Creek watershed will also soon see work on a new USACE project. USACE has completed its planning process and proved positive benefits to national economic development. That made projects worthy of Federal investment. 

Halls Bayou: Digging Deeper

The Halls Bayou watershed also went through the USACE planning process, but the results did not show enough flood-damage-reduction benefits to outweigh the costs of the proposed projects. Thus, the Halls Bayou watershed currently has no USACE-funded projects.

Despite that, Halls has received more partner funding than 16 other watersheds since 2000. Only two watersheds in the affluent group of 15 received more partner funding. See the table below.

Total and partner spending by watershed since 2000 arranged in order of highest to lowest LMI percentages.

USACE also evaluated the more affluent Buffalo Bayou; results showed that costs outweighed the flood-damage-reduction benefits there.

Despite Halls having the highest percentage of LMI residents in Harris County, Halls has received more total funding and 2.5X more partner funding than Buffalo Bayou in the more affluent group.

FEMA Considers More than Home Values, Not All Grants Come From FEMA

While it’s true that FEMA considers housing values as a factor in benefit/cost ratios, benefit/cost ratios (BCRs) also consider factors such as:

  • The number of structures damaged
  • Threats to infrastructure
  • Proximity to employment centers
  • Need for economic revitalization
  • Percentage of low-to-moderate income residents in an area
  • Number of structures that can be removed from the floodplain by a project.

And not all grants come from FEMA. For instance:

So don’t settle for soundbites. They often mislead.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/30/2021

1584 Days since Hurricane Harvey

“Excluding” Partner Funds Could Lead to Shortfalls in Flood-Mitigation Funding

The new Harris County Administrator has proposed “excluding” potential partner funds from consideration in the allocation of flood-bond and flood-resilience trust dollars. There’s only one problem with that. Without partner funds, there won’t nearly be enough money to cover all the proposed flood-mitigation projects in the bond, the trust, or future bonds.

The conclusions above come from comparing projected project totals in the 2018 flood bond with the December 2021 flood-bond update that Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) provided to County Commissioners. The exercise also illustrates why people who are TRULY interested in making informed decisions about HCFCD’s Bond Program need to dig deep into the data.

Making conclusions based on hearsay or a glance at a chart could be self-defeating. There is more to the story. 

Partner Funds Make It All Possible

We anticipated 43% of the dollars in the flood bond would come from partners such as FEMA, HUD and the TWDB. We also anticipated it would take another 16% in local matching funds to attract the 43%. So 59% of the flood bond revolved around partner funds. Only 41% was local cash to pay for projects totally out of pocket.

From the project spreadsheet approved by voters in 2018.

Excluding Partner Funds Could Accelerate Construction in LMI Neighborhoods, Deny Others

David Berry, the County Administrator, proposed the partnership exclusion to accelerate construction of projects in Low-to-Moderate Income (LMI) watersheds, such as Halls. Halls, in particular, has waited on grant awards from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) longer than most.

A HUD decision is expected sometime in January, according to the Texas General Land Office, which distributes HUD grants in Texas. So it’s not clear how much residents gain by Berry’s proposal. And they could lose big.

Most of the HUD grant applications for Halls are on a 90:10 basis, meaning the local share is only 10%. So excluding these grants means increasing the local contribution for that portion of the budget by 9X. That could cost local taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. For instance, HCFCD budgeted $500 million for Halls drainage alone. 90% of that is $450 million…to cover 2.4% of the county!

The effect would be to take money from affluent watersheds – which don’t qualify for HUD 90:10 grants – and shift it to LMI watersheds. No one then would get the grants and something would have to give somewhere down the road.

One Third of Way Through Flood Bond: Good Time to Take Stock

At the end of this month, exactly one third (3 years, 4 months) of the 10-year flood bond will have expired. So this is a good time to review spending versus projections.

Thirty-three percent of the way in, we’ve expended a little more than 16% of the flood-bond funds. While that may sound like a slow start, one must consider project lifecycles. Projects start with studies (feasibility, preliminary engineering, final engineering, design). These determine and validate cost projections. They also form the basis for grant applications, a plan and bids. But they are the least expensive part of a project. Together, they comprise only one eighth of project costs.

The expensive parts follow. They include right of way acquisition and construction. Those comprise more than three-quarters of all project costs. See the pie chart below which shows averages for the last two decades.

Average percent of costs in various project stages since 2000. ROW (Right of Way) Acquisition includes purchase of land upon which projects will be built.

For most flood-bond projects, we’re just now getting to the expensive phases. So I wouldn’t worry too much about that 16% overall average right now.

Spent/Unspent Funds by Watershed Gives Greater Insight

You can gain more insight by looking at spent and unspent dollars in each watershed.

Height of bars shows total amount budgeted per watershed in flood bond. Blue areas show dollars spent to date. Does not include any funds spent prior to flood bond.

From the charts above and below, you can see that spending rates vary widely among watersheds. Brays has consumed 57% of its budget already. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sims has consumed just 1.6% of its. Why the wide variation?

To understand, we need to look at unique circumstances in each watershed. The chart below makes it easier to see actual spending as a percent of the budget that voters approved for each watershed in the flood bond.

Percentages represent the portion of budget spent to date. See discussion below for explanations of ranks.

The height of some of the bars above could be “predicted” by referring to the flood bond equity prioritization framework. Brays and Greens Bayous, for instance, are two watersheds with high percentages of LMI residents (58% and 57% respectively).

But others cannot. More than half the residents in Goose Creek/Spring Gully, Hunting, White Oak, Halls, Vince and Sims Watersheds also qualify as LMI. But dollars spent to date in those watersheds are far lower as a percent of the total budget. To see why, you need to put the numbers in a bigger context that includes:

Investment Prior to Flood Bond

Size of Total Budget for Each Watershed

Percentage of Partner Funds

Grant Application Status

Stage of Project Lifecycle

Bigger Context Shows Reasons for Variance

Brays and Greens had a large number of shovel-ready projects that had already been studied and approved when the flood bond passed. They were just waiting for dollars to become available. So they had head starts.

Other factors explain LMI watersheds further down the curve:

  • Sims received $380 million in federal funding for 23 Army Corps projects that finished construction by 2015. As a result, Sims was the only bayou in Harris County that stayed within its banks during Harvey. None of that spending shows up in the Bond Program charts. Because it’s already done! 
  • White Oak received full funding in the Bi-Partisan Budget Act of 2018. The Army Corps also started addressing many projects there before the flood bond.
  • Vince lies wholly within the City of Pasadena and is primarily the City’s responsibility.
  • Halls is the poorest watershed (71% LMI) and has only spent 6% of its projected budget to date. Lest you attribute this to racism, understand that the bond allocated more than HALF A BILLION DOLLARS to Halls. In percentage terms, the $29 million dollars spent to date looks small. But in absolute dollars, it outranks 15 other watersheds.
  • Far more affluent watersheds – such as Buffalo Bayou, Cedar Bayou, the San Jacinto River, Barker, Willow Creek, Armand Bayou, Galveston, Luce Bayou and Jackson Bayou – have each received fewer dollars from the flood bond than Halls.

HCFCD had just finished a watershed plan for Halls Bayou in 2018 when the flood bond passed. That explains the size of the watershed budget as well as the late start compared to Brays, White Oak, Greens, and Sims.

Other factors also explain affluent watersheds further up the spending curve, such as Little Cypress. HCFCD started working on that watershed long before the flood bond, too. Dollars spent to date on Little Cypress primarily reflect right-of-way acquisition costs, not construction. It’s also important to understand that the total budget for Little Cypress is only 37% of the total budget for Halls.

Creating a Win-Win For Everyone

In another three years and four months, these charts will look totally different than the ones you see today. Construction costs will surge for some and be long gone in the rear view mirror for others.

In my opinion, we need to stop creating chaos with endless tinkering in the bond program. The people have spoken. Leaders should listen. Let’s stop changing the allocation formula, focus on construction, and work like hell to win those grants. Then everybody wins.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/28/2021

1582 Days since Hurricane Harvey