More than $400 million in Unexplained Harris County Transfers Receive No Discussion During Rants On Other Items
A Harris County Commissioners Court meeting yesterday lasted 8 hours and 30 minutes. While viewers were repeatedly treated to rants alleging racial discrimination, partially documented transfers of approximately $470 million received absolutely NO discussion.
Let’s begin with the rants. Here’s one example. A revision to equity guidelines for the Flood Resilience Trust consumed 20 minutes of discussion including a 6-minute monologue from Commissioner Rodney Ellis. In essence, Ellis said, “I support the new formula” in 894 words. I transcribed the rant in its entirety below. See if you can follow it. Among other things, Ellis:
- Says he hopes to reduce a HUD appropriation from $750 million to $250 million.
- Confuses the County with the City; and flood mitigation with parks and police.
- Drags Harris Health into the discussion for some unexplained reason.
- Invokes ‘back of the bus’ language to describe watersheds receiving the lion’s share of funding.
- Threatened to sue a federal agency trying to give the county $750 million.
- Claims the County didn’t make specific project recommendations/allocations for the flood bond (which it did).
- Overlooks the contribution of partner funding to build a case for not chasing partner funding.
It gets better! Read on.
Rodney Ellis on New Equity Formula
“Commissioner Garcia, some of the issues that you were raising and Commissioner Ramsey were raising, I think that this proposal for prioritization-framework modifications will address some of them. Commissioner Ramsey, first of all, I want to point out that the 2018 package of $2.5 billion would in no way fund all of the projects that people talked about. I also want to reiterate that coming off city council a long time ago, I argued to list specifically what the projects were. It was a short fuse. If you remember Commissioner Cagle, you might agree with me. I was worried about having the election in August, as opposed to when more people would show up.
“But I didn’t win that battle and it passed despite my misgivings. But we were on a short time frame and I was told you cannot lay out the specific projects, because if a project…If you put in 20 million and it costs 50 million, can you get the creek? Or you put in 50 million and it costs 40 million and it didn’t quite sound right to me. Because unless the city did a better job of projecting what parks and police command stations will cost, you know, inflation. But that’s what was said. And I was not going to argue with it and didn’t think I had the support of the court anyway.
“But 2.5 billion was never going to fund all of the items that were on the radar, shall we say, because a decision was made not to lay them out with specificity was how to do a cap improvement program. I also want to say that to my knowledge, maybe others’, two projects had come to my mind that weren’t on the radar. One was in your precinct. The education project came from them.
“The other one was in another county – Commissioner Cagle’s area. I don’t know where it is now, buying some land in another area that certainly had some political gravitas to it.
“I argued for two things. The varnish was coming off. What I wanted to despair to say, and everybody said that they were for getting rid of disparities until it was time to vote. Send somebody to do statistical analysis to see if they had one. And I was told, you pay for it. And you can do it. So Precinct One paid for it. Thank you to the women. Precinct One, you added $660,000 back. And of course, it showed there was a tremendous disparity. I would encourage you to listen to Harris Health’s discussion of why they’re going to lay off the expert study off. So it will be interesting to see what Bert came up with, but that’s history. Going forward, we will do better as we are doing better here, I think.
“The other item I wanted was the equity guidelines. Now, once it passed, there were those who thought equity meant just split 2.5 billion…four ways…which would be highly inequitable if we all agreed that chasing federal money with a cost benefit ratio and a host of other issues meant certain neighborhoods that flooded all the time didn’t get funding regardless of why, chasing federal money, that’s what happened. So all of these projects were started. We know three big ones, Commissioner Garcia, in your precinct and mine, and might touch all our precincts, in Halls and Greens.
“We were chasing GLO money or federal money that never came, so they were delayed. So, then resiliency was created as a way to get stuff here created to fill up the gap. And whether or not it would fill it all up, I don’t know. But I, for one, would not just talk the talk. You got to pay for it, pay for it. Or maybe politely find a way to just pass a resolution and say you resolve to do it down the road. This prioritization framework makes sense because it places a greater emphasis on the number of people that a project would address instead of what neighborhood you live in.
“I can’t say it enough. Something’s wrong. When this county had a system where you protect the neighborhood I live in now, but the neighborhood I came out of – even if that one historically flooded more. It also says we do not consider partner funding as a factor because who gets partner money? Well, that’s part of the funding.
“The neighborhoods have always been privileged. It’s just that way. And we use the latest data to invest in projects that address structural delay both inside and outside the 100-year network. So, I can’t wait until you bring it up and I’m going to vote for it when it comes up.
“And I tell you, just as I’m proud of what Texas Housers did, and I’m proud of what HUD did to get us our 750. Hope we get down to 250 and I hope the city gets this bigger because they deserve it. We both do.
“And if we don’t follow prioritization framework like this, I will be the first one finding somebody to file a lawsuit and raising all kind of hell at HUD because we will continue to neglect those neighborhoods that have always been on the back of the bus. But other than that, thank you very much.”
– End of Ellis Monologue –
How can one react to rambling, unsubstantiated rants such as this!
During the meeting, as I tried to look for backup on several agenda items, the county website froze on numerous occasions – shades of the IT debacle at Universal Services.
To set the record straight, Brays Bayou, the watershed in which Commissioner Ellis grew up AND in which he now lives, has received $575 million in flood-mitigation funding in the last 22 years. White Oak, the watershed where Commissioner Garcia now lives, has received $525 million in funding. That’s almost one third of all the flood mitigation money spent in the county since 2000 – on two watersheds out of 23. No watersheds have received more!
Greens and Halls received another $620 million. That makes $1.72 billion. And that’s 46% of all the flood mitigation money in recent history.
More than one long-time Harris County insider has characterized such rants as a diversionary tactic. Elsewhere on the agenda yesterday was a motion to make “routine transfers” between departments (see Item 17).
It received absolutely NO discussion and the Budget Management Department provided no backup for the agenda item. But the transfers totaled almost half a billion dollars. I had to obtain the backup through a special request. Notice how many of the transfers do not follow the industry standard for double-entry accounting – even though the forms request it.
Double-entry accounting shows where money is coming from and going to. That facilitates balancing the books and auditing. But in this case, the ‘from’ or the ‘to’ were omitted in 21 of 39 transactions for this year. Those 21 transactions alone totaled approximately $470 million.
I have no proof that anything illegal occurred and I’m not suggesting it did. But I am suggesting that Democrats, who pride themselves on transparency, could improve on that score.
Eight hour meetings filled with incomprehensible rants, agenda items without backup, backup that omits crucial elements, and a website that intermittently stopped responding during the meeting create barriers to public participation and government oversight.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/27/2022
1702 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.
Harris County still has not posted video of yesterday’s meeting. Here’s an audio recording of Mr. Ellis‘ rant so you can check the transcription yourself. He is admittedly hard to understand at times.