Tag Archive for: Proposition A

The Biggest Stories of 2019

With 2019 almost behind us, we should look back to see what we accomplished on flood mitigation. Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at the stories that will likely define 2020.

Limited Dredging

In 2018, FEMA and the Army Corps announced that they would dredge 2.1 miles of the San Jacinto West Fork when they were given authority to dredge 8 miles. Questions immediately started to swirl about why they were not dredging all the way to Lake Houston. The answer was “part of the mouth bar was there before Harvey and we can only spend disaster relief funds on what Harvey deposited.”

The mouth bar as it existed shortly after Hurricane Harvey. Photo taken 9/14/2017.

After arguing for more than a year with the City about how much sediment FEMA deposited, the Corps finally decided to dredge 500,000 cubic yards from a 600 acre acre in front of the mouth bar. They finished on or about Labor Day. Then the dredging contractors waited several more weeks to see if there would be an additional assignment. There was not. They then departed in October.

Regardless, they left the biggest blockage in the river. Imelda washed a tremendous amount of sediment downriver. In mid-October, RD Kissling sent me a photo from his kayak. He as standing in water less than knee deep 700 yards south of the mouth bar. It’s important to understand that sand bars are like ice bergs. You only see the tip above water. Most of the bar exists below water. And much of this mouth bar remains to be removed.

We need to cut a channel through this area to the lake to restore conveyance of the river. If Harvey couldn’t blow this dune out of there, nothing will.

To learn more about this controversy, search this site using the key words “mouth bar.”

Flood Mitigation Legislation: A Big Win

No one budgets for disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey. So after the disaster, cities and counties had to scramble for grant money to even qualify for matching funds from the Federal government. More than two and a half years after the event, money is finally starting to trickle down to the areas that need it to implement flood mitigation projects. That’s thanks in large part to Senator Brandon Creighton who authored Senate Bill 7.

SB7 creates dedicated Texas Infrastructure and Texas Infrastructure Resiliency Funds for flood control planning and the funding of flood planning, mitigation, and infrastructure projects. The Texas Water Development Board is finalizing rules for the distribution of those funds right now. SB500, a supplemental appropriations bill, includes funding for SB7 and an amendment that would dedicate $30 million for dredging at the confluence of the San Jacinto and Lake Houston. State Representative Dan Huberty authored the amendment to SB500 that provides the $30 million.

For more information about legislation affecting this area, see the Legislation page of this web site or search using the key words “SB7” or “SB500.”

Sand Mining Legislation: One Small Gain, Some Big Losses

Activists statewide pushed for legislation to reign in the excesses of an out-of-control aggregate industry. Here in the Houston area, State Representative Dan Huberty introduced HB 907. It passed and doubles the penalties for not registering a sand mining operation. It also increases the frequency of inspection from every three years to two years and established a registry of active sand mines.

Picture of the West Fork of the San Jacinto the day it turned white (11/4/2019). The TCEQ later issued a notice of enforcement to the Liberty Materials mine upstream for dumping 56 million gallons of white goopy pollution into the West Fork. Water samples indicated 25 times the normal amount of suspended solids.

That was the only bill that the high powered lobbyists of TACA (the Texas Aggregate and Concrete Association) would allow to pass. That’s mostly because their members are already registered.

However, other important bills died in committee due to the lobbying power of TACA.

  • HB 908 would have provided for penalties up to $50,000 for water code violations and every-other-year inspections.
  • HB 909 would have created best management practices for sand mines.
  • HB 1671 would have extended water quality protections to the West Fork of the San Jacinto currently enjoyed by the John Graves District on the Brazos and attached penalties for non-compliance with best practices defined under HB909.
  • HB 2871. Would require sand mines and other aggregate production operations to acquire a reclamation permit and to file a performance bond ensuring reclamation.

For more information about sand mining in the Lake Houston area, see the Sand Mining page of this web site. You can also search on the key words “sand mining, TACA, Triple PG, TCEQ, breach, Liberty, and white water.”

High Rises Near the Floodway of the West Fork

Early in the year, two investors from Mexico announced plans to build a series of high rises surrounded by more than 5000 condos in the floodplains and wetlands near River Grove Park. Their company, Romerica, proposed to build the high rises on land that was deed restricted to single family residential development. They even proposed underground parking!

Artist’s conceptual drawing of a high-rise development called The Herons: Kingwood.

The tallest buildings would have been 500 feet and located on the edge of the current floodway. That floodway will almost certainly expand in light of new Atlas-14 rainfall data. The developers also announced a marina that would have held 640 40-foot boats and 200 jet skis. There were no evacuation routes that would have remained above water in the event of a flood.

A massive public outcry arose. More than 700 people and organizations filed letters of protest with the Army Corps, TCEQ and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In the end, regulators showed good judgment and common sense. The Corps withdrew Romerica’s permit application.

The developer’s web site now says the project is on hold, pending improvements to the West Fork and Lake Houston.

For more information on this development, see the High Rises page of this web site or search for the key words “Romerica, high rises, eagle, or The Herons.”

The $2.5 Billion Flood Bond Equity Flap

When the wording for Harris County’s historic $2.5 billion flood bond offering was worked out in early 2018, leaders from the Humble/Kingwood area in Precinct 4 argued to include the notion of an equitable distribution of funds. Why? Historically the Flood Control District had focused more on projects in other parts of the county, especially Precinct 1, that Precinct 4.

Humble/Kingwood voters turned out in record numbers to support the bond. It passed. But when it came time to implement the projects, Commissioner Rodney Ellis from Precinct 1 tried to redefine equity to mean reparations for historical discrimination, i.e., slavery.

In one meeting after another, Ellis’ ringers showed up in commissioners court to complain about discrimination in the distribution of funds for buyouts, construction spending, and more. Yet in every category, Ellis’ precinct already had the lion’s share of funding.

This is an on-going controversy that affects everyone in the Lake Houston area. Ellis is looting transportation dollars from Precinct 4. You have to hand it to Ellis. Even if he doesn’t know what equity means, he knows how to work the system.

For more information on this topic, search this site using the key words “equity or Ellis.”

Proposition A

In 2010, voters managed to get a referendum on the ballot that would create a dedicated fund for drainage improvements. It passed by a narrow margin. Almost immediately, city officials started using the money it raised for other purposes.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled that the language in the summary of the referendum on the ballot was misleading. It failed to disclose that the money would be raised through a new tax. So the Court ordered a revote.

In 2018, the Mayor “resold” the fee by saying, “If you want a lockbox around the money, vote FOR Proposition A. If you don’t want a lockbox around the money, vote AGAINST it.”

It was another artful dodge. There was nothing in the language of the bill to create a lockbox. The language in Prop A was almost identical to the original bill. But the funding formula was even looser!

Unaware voters once again approved the fee. And the Mayor continued to divert money from the fund. These diversions became a central element in the Mayoral campaign this year after thousands of people flooded in May and again during Imelda.

Nevertheless, the Mayor won re-election.

To learn more about this topic, search this site using the key word “Proposition A.”

10 New Gates for Lake Houston

The flood gates on Lake Conroe can release water 15 times faster than the gates on Lake Houston. During Harvey, that bottleneck contributed to the flooding of thousands of homes. A study showed that additional gates would have lowered the water level by almost two feet in the event of another Harvey. During smaller storms, the gates would also help pre-release water faster to create a buffer against possible flooding.

Lake Houston can shed water at 10,000 cubic feet per second. Lake Conroe can shed it at 150,000 cubic feet per second.

The City of Houston applied for a grant from FEMA and the Texas Division of Emergency Management to add ten new gates. FEMA approved the project. It’s happening in two phases. The first includes design and an environmental survey. The second includes construction. Each will take 18 months. We’re now six months into Phase One.

Details of dam improvement project.

For more information on this topic, search this site using the key word “gates.”

Temporary Seasonal Lowering of Lake Conroe

After Harvey, people in the Lake Houston area started pleading for more upstream detention, dredging and gates. Dredging started immediately. The project to add more gates to the Lake Houston spillway has also started. Upstream detention is still years way. The San Jacinto Watershed Study is only now beginning to identify possible locations.

To help provide Lake Houston area residents with an additional buffer against flooding while officials worked on these mitigation measures, the SJRA Board voted to lower the level of Lake Conroe seasonally and temporarily. One foot during the rainiest months in Spring and two feet during the peak of hurricane season.

Many lakefront property owners on Lake Conroe, however, claim the lowering hurts their property values and damages their bulkheads. Buses full of protesters showed up at the December SJRA Board meeting wearing red shirts that say, “Stop the Drop.” So many came that two busloads full of people had to be turned away.

Angry Lake Conroe residents showed up at the last SJRA board meeting in busloads.

Net: the policy to lower Lake Conroe temporarily is under assault. The SJRA will likely vote on whether to continue the policy in February. The SJRA will hold two additional meetings at the Lonestar Convention and Conference Center in January and February to give everyone who wants to provide input a chance to do so.

For more information on this topic, search this site using the key words “lake lowering.”

Flooding from Upstream Development

By far, the biggest and saddest story of the year had to be the flooding of Elm Grove Village, North Kingwood Forest, and even many homes in Porter. Not once, but twice this year. In each instance, runoff from Perry Homes’ newly clearcut 268-acre Woodridge Village development spilled over into surrounding streets and homes. Perry Homes filled in natural streams and wetlands without an Army Corps permit. And they still have not even installed 25% of the detention capacity required for an area that large.

The evacuation of Elm Grove after Perry Homes clearcut 268 adjoining acres.

They haven’t even finished the detention ponds they started, in direct violation of a promise to the City of Houston. In fact, Perry Homes has shown no interest in resolving the problems it created. They have scarcely done any work on this site since August. Meanwhile hundreds of residents live under the heightened threat of flooding.

This is another issue that will carry over into 2020.

For more information on this topic, search this site using the keywords “Perry Homes, Woodridge Village, Figure Four Development, PSWA, Elm Grove, Spurlock, cease and desist, detention, what went wrong, North Kingwood Forest, or drainage criteria.”

There’s your digest of the biggest stories of 2019. 2020 to follow.

Posted by Bob Rehak on December 19, 2019

842 Days after Hurricane Harvey and 92 since Imelda

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.

Background on Houston Proposition A: Drainage Fee Re-vote

Warning: I’m not making a recommendation in this post. I am just trying to provide background information that may help you understand this issue and why its on the ballot again.

History of the “Drainage Fee”

Historically, Houston issued bonds to finance capital projects related to drainage and street improvements. About a decade ago, a group of engineers worried that we spent too much on interest, perpetually underfunded drainage, and constantly diverted money to less important things. So in 2010, they managed to get a referendum on the ballot that would create a dedicated fund out of current revenue for such improvements.

Ads featured a man who had flooded repeatedly. He blamed politicians who diverted money away from needed drainage projects. He said we needed to create a “lockbox” around future funds to ensure they were spent for their intended purpose.

Photo by Kilee Northrup. Forest Cove Drive in Forest Cove. From Wednesday, August 30th, late afternoon, "once I was able to drive out of my villiage (Mills Branch)."

Photo by Kilee Northrup. Forest Cove Drive on August 30th during Harvey.

Voters narrowly approved the Amendment (51-49). Subsequently, the City Council voted to add it to the City Charter (Article IX, Section 22: Dedicated Pay-As-You-Go Fund for Drainage and Streets.)

Court Challenge

The new amendment ran into problems immediately, not because of the supposed lockbox, but because of the way the City worded the summary of the amendment on the BALLOT itself.

The summary simply said, “Shall the City Charter of the City of Houston be amended to provide for the enhancement, improvement and ongoing renewal of Houston’s drainage and streets by creating a Dedicated Pay-As-You-Go Fund for drainage and streets?”

In 2015, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the summary (not the amendment) was misleading. It failed to disclose that the money would be raised through a new tax/fee on residents. The Texas Supreme Court then remanded the issue back to a trial court. which voided the election and ordered a new one.

Re-vote Confusing

Now, in 2018, we’re getting a chance to vote again on the 2010 measure. However:

  • The City claims that a positive vote will affirm the drainage fee, but a negative vote will not invalidate it.
  • The wording for the funding formula has changed and no one has yet explained why.
  • The vote is being positioned as a chance to create the lockbox promised eight years ago, but the referendum’s wording is virtually identical to the 2010 wording.
  • Even though this is popularly known as the drainage fee, the language that created it allows money to be used for a wide range of things not related to drainage (streets, salaries, vehicles, etc.)
  • The wording does not define the terms used within the amendment, nor does it specify the percentage of the money that should go toward drainage.

Let’s look at each one of these issues.

Texas Supreme Court and the Do-Over Vote

When you read a summary of any proposed amendment at the ballot box, it’s supposed to be a fair and accurate reflection of the proposal. The Supreme Court ruled that the 2010 ballot language in this case could mislead voters. That’s because it did’t disclose that voters would pay for the dedicated fund with a new tax on themselves.

Justice John Devine said in the conclusion of the ruling (see page 15) that, “The City did not adequately describe the chief features—the character and purpose—of the charter amendment on the ballot. By omitting the drainage charges, it failed to substantially submit the measure with such definiteness and certainty that voters would not be misled.”

The court found no problem with any other wording in the amendment. The new 2018 ballot language DOES disclose the tax on residents this time. Here’s how it reads.

Ballot Language for 2018 Proposition 

[Relating to the Creation of a Dedicated Funding Source to Enhance, Improve and Renew Drainage Systems and Streets]

“Shall the Houston City Charter be amended to establish a Dedicated Pay-As-You-Go Fund, to be used for the enhancement, improvement, and ongoing renewal of Houston’s drainage and streets, funded annually from the following sources: (i) developer impact fees; (ii) drainage charges, to property owners or users, to recover costs of providing drainage to benefitting real properties; (iii) a portion of the City’s ad valorem tax levy; and (iv) third-party contracts, grants, or payments earmarked or dedicated to drainage or streets?”

Vote Could Affirm, But Not Invalidate

After voters narrowly approved the 2010 amendment, a City Council vote actually added it to the City Charter. The City now argues that the Supreme Court ruling does not invalidate the City Council vote, only the results of the referendum. The tax will not go away regardless of how you vote, according to Mayor Sylvester Turner. So why are we having a re-vote if there is no real consequence?

Said Mayor Sylvester Turner in the Houston Chronicle, “We are simply saying in November to the voters: Go and reaffirm the dedicated purpose for which this fee is intended, put a lockbox around it. Voters are not being asked to increase the fee or create another fee, just to reaffirm what already is.”

Does the 2018 Language Create a Lockbox?

According to the Houston Chronicle, Mayor Turner believes that the Supreme Court decision removed a lockbox around the source of funding and that “approving the charter amendment this year would restore it.

Even though he feels the City does not need voter validation to retain the fee, for some reason, he feels the need for validation to keep the fee dedicated to drainage and streets. Perhaps he feels financial pressures.

Critics claim that revenues have been diverted for unintended purposes in the past. The City is trying to re-sell the concept by saying that a YES vote will create a lockbox around the money and a NO vote will allow money to be used in the general fund. There’s truth to this, and also some scare tactics, especially at a time when the firefighters are asking for large raises. However…

Critics say that there never was an effective lockbox. Moreover, there is NO new language in the 2018 amendment that creates or strengthens one. In fact, the 2018 language  is virtually identical to the 2010 language.

When I asked the Mayor’s office to point out the language in the 2018 referendum that created a lockbox around the money, I received a response from an aid who simply asserted it did so without explaining how.

Equal Vs. Equivalent

One key word has changed out of 518 words in the amendment. Amidst all the talk about lockboxes and affirmation, it has been overlooked.

The formula for allocating money to the fund mysteriously changed.

In section B (iii) the word “equal” became “equivalent.” There has been no public discussion of the impact of this change.

It’s not clear whether any change in the language of the amendment is even legal. The Trial Court’s Final Summary Judgment ordered a new election for Proposition 1 (what it was called in 2010), not a new election on a variation of it.

Here’s the change – in context of the funding mechanism in the bill:

City Charter Section B (iii) as adopted in 2010 (see Article IX, Section 22) reads:

“An amount equivalent to proceeds from $0.118 of the City’s ad valorem tax levy minus an amount equal to debt service for drainage and streets for any outstanding bonds or notes…”

B (iii) in the current 2018 ballot reads:

“An amount equivalent to proceeds from $0.118 of the City’s ad valorem tax levy minus an amount equivalent to debt service for drainage and streets for any outstanding bonds or notes…”

You might ask, “Don’t they mean the same thing?”  Not necessarily.

Equal means exactly the same in number; equivalent means the same value or weight. For instance, one 2010 dollar equals one 2018 dollar. However, adjusted for inflation, that same dollar would now be equivalent to $1.16. Another example: At this moment, $1 U.S. dollar is equivalent to $1.31 Canadian dollars.

Changing equal to equivalent makes me wonder whether something else is changing that could affect the debt-service calculation and therefore the amount that comes out of the city’s ad valorem tax. A change in the property tax rate? Interest rates? Home values affected by Harvey?

Usually when finance people talk about “equivalents,” they adjust for something: inflation, deflation, currency fluctuation, discounts, exchange rates, time value, etc. It’s not clear why they made this change….especially if the election is only to “affirm what is.”

The change might or might not be something crucial. But changing one word out of 518 makes me believe that someone did it intentionally, not accidentally, especially in this age of cut-and-paste.

Lack of Clarity

Vagueness and self-contradictions have plagued this amendment from the start.

  • Fees were originally intended for capital projects, but the amendment allows 25% of the money to go toward  maintenance and operations.
  • The public knows Proposition A as a drainage fee, but the fee also pays for street improvements. What constitutes a street improvement? New pavement and bigger storm drains? Surveys? Engineering fees? An asphalt patch? A bicycle lane? A bus lane? Stop signs? Traffic lights? Salaries of Public Works employees? The vehicles they drive? Turns out, it’s all of the above. Pretty much anything that touches a street.
  • Proponents keep talking about a lockbox. But the amendment contains no provisions for financial transparency, segregation of funds, council approvals, audits, or public reporting that would create a true lockbox.

Early Voting Starts Monday

If you believe money was diverted from this fund to pay for services other than drainage, then Proposition A won’t give you much comfort. The language is virtually identical to the last one.

How you vote will depend on:

  • How happy you are with the existing drainage fee
  • How much you trust people to do the right thing
  • Whether you’re a “something-is-better-than-nothing” person or a “let’s-start-over-and-get-this-right” type.
  • Whether you’re satisfied with the speed of mitigation efforts.

Now that you have the backstory, review the original language you’re voting on. Will it do what you want? If so, vote yes. If not, vote no.

Posted by Bob Rehak on October 20, 2018

417 Days since Hurricane Harvey