The Houston Chronicle reported this afternoon that Russ Poppe, the Executive Director of the Harris County Flood Control District, submitted a letter of resignation and plans to leave his office on July 2.
Poppe helped former County Judge Ed Emmett sell the historic $2.5 Billion Harris County Flood Bond in 2018 with a whirlwind, barnstorming tour of all 23 watersheds. After voters approved the bond, Poppe, in essence, became the head of multi-billion enterprise overnight.
Summary of Work to Date on Flood Bond Projects
His focus immediately turned to hiring staff and contractors to begin hundreds of projects identified in the watershed meetings. In April, he provided an update on the projects’ progress through the end of the first quarter of 2021.
Accepting 25 grants totaling approximately $960 million with Bond funds providing around $259 million in local matching funds
Executing 326 engineering agreements totaling $241 million
Awarding 39 construction agreements totaling $296 million
Procuring 19 staff augmentation agreements providing 113 contract staff members
Acquiring nearly 340 properties at a value over $208 million for construction projects, floodplain preservation, and wetland mitigation banks
Making $115 million available to the Office of the County Engineer to manage and construct drainage improvements in nearly 100 subdivisions across Harris County
Conducting 140 community engagement meetings with over 11,413 attendees
Completing nearly 630 home buyouts at a value over $130 million with over 680 additional in process for a buyout (since Hurricane Harvey)
Completing a repair program worth more than $125 million to address damages to District infrastructure causedby Harvey
At the end of March, only 21 bond projects had not yet been initiated. All in all, a pretty amazing record in less than three years.
In addition, Poppe made countless trips to Austin and Washington to lobby for funding. He reportedly had strong relationships in both places and helped attract $495 million in US Army Corps funding for Harris County projects currently being deployed. He also helped attract $260 million in funding for projects on Clear Creek and was head of the San Jacinto River Planning Group.
Navigating the Political Process
Most who watched Poppe in action at Harris County Commissioner’s court meetings were impressed by his calm, steady demeanor in a tumultuous political environment.
Shortly after the flood bond was sold to the public, Lina Hidalgo was elected County Judge in a blue wave of straight-ticket voting. That gave Democrats a majority in Commissioners Court and they systematically started replacing the heads of departments.
Despite his successes, Poppe came under fire from Democrats for not attracting partnership funds fast enough. That supposedly threatened projects in low-to-moderate income areas. Anyone who watched Commissioners Court regularly witnessed constant backbiting in recent months.
In March, it reached a crescendo. Democrats demanded that Poppe identify the next seven years of partnership funding in 90 days. Commissioner Rodney Ellis threatened “we’ll all have blood on our hands” if those projects in Halls and Greens Bayous don’t get completed. The implication was that Poppe was dragging his feet in adopting the Democrats “equity” plan.
FOIA Request Shows Poor Watersheds Already Far Ahead
To see if that last point was true, I started investigating those watersheds. I also submitted a FOIA request for HCFCD spending by watershed over several different time periods, including since Harvey and since 2000. I have now correlated that with other information and have spent months analyzing it. (It will soon turn into a series of articles.)
Suffice it to say that Poppe and his team were not dragging their feet.
You’d think that would make Lina Hidalgo, Rodney Ellis, Adrian Garcia, Shiela Jackson Lee and Al Green happy. However, it appears to this observer that the Democrats have driven out a tremendous asset who was working hard to please his political bosses. In my opinion, they should have just declared victory and let Poppe do his work.
It will be hard to find a replacement as qualified as he is. At their June 29 meeting, Commissioners will have three options:
Take no action
Name an interim director
Appoint a new director
Make sure you watch that meeting. The fate of the flood-mitigation in Harris County is at stake. Poppe was highly respected according to multiple sources and will make a tremendous asset to some organization. People of Poppe’s calibre rarely make moves like this without having a plan in mind. I hope he decides to stay in the region.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/12/2021
1383 Days since Hurricane Harvey
https://i0.wp.com/reduceflooding.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Headshot_Russ_Poppe.jpg?fit=824%2C960&ssl=1960824adminadmin2021-06-12 15:49:242021-06-14 14:52:34Russ Poppe, Head of Flood Control District, Resigns
The 3/9/2021 meeting of Harris County Commissioners Court started with a presentation by the Harris County Budget Management Director David Berry on the County’s Capital Improvement Plan. Mr. Berry asserted early in the meeting that the County had a shortfall of approximately $900 million to $1.35 billion needed to complete projects in the Flood Bond passed by voters in 2018. Is there really a shortfall? It depends on the exact way you phrase any number of possible questions.
Confusing, Unexplained Map Triggers Almost 2 Hours of Discussion
Near the start of the meeting, Mr. Berry put up a very confusing map (below) that frequently heated the next 100 minutes of discussion to the boiling point. The discussion made every front page in town and many of the TV news shows.
The map showed the projected funding shortfalls by watershed as a percentage of the total funding allocated to each in the 2018 flood bond.
The stories featured sensational quotes by Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis (We will have blood on our hands if this stands.) and Precinct 2 Commissioner Garcia (I feel like someone hit me across the back with a baseball bat.)
The map implied that construction had started on projects that the County did not have enough money to finish, especially the ones in yellow and red below.
Was Flood Control Not Following Equity Guidelines?
To add more context to this discussion, understand that Halls and Greens Bayous rank among the poorest in the county. That they seemed so far behind more affluent watersheds in funding rankled Ellis and Garcia. The two had argued to prioritize flood bond spending by a “social equity” formula that addressed the poorest neighborhoods first. To say that the map above was like waving a red flag in front of two bulls would understate its effect.
So What’s Really Going on Here?
Did prices of flood-bond projects suddenly escalate, causing the shortfall? No.
Did Flood Control underestimate costs? No.
But Berry did not make that apparent in his setup. Commissioners Garcia and Ellis then peppered Russ Poppe, head of the Flood Control District, with angry, accusatory questions for more than 40 minutes. At one point, they asked 11 questions in a row before they gave Poppe a chance to answer one.
Poppe then explained that Flood Control relies on matching funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for low-income areas. Why? Unlike FEMA which requires a positive benefit/cost ratio, HUD does not. Flood Control is currently waiting for answers on HUD grant applications totaling almost half a billion dollars for mitigation work in the Halls and Greens Bayou watersheds.
Commissioners Court then spent another 40 minutes trying to understand the chances of getting those grants. They also crafted a motion directing the Flood Control District to develop a backup plan in case grant money didn’t arrive by June 30.
Text Of Motion
The motion reads as follows: “To direct the Flood Control District to work with Budget Management in developing a plan by June 30, 2021 to address the funding gap in flood mitigation projects under the 2018 bond while maintaining an equitable approach to the expenditure of funds, including plans to lobby federal, state, and local partners for funding, identification of alternative funding options, a description of projects that are currently stalled due to incomplete funding and how that affects timing of project completion, and a potential timeline for a future potential bond election regarding the funding of current and future flood control projects. If the County is unable to secure funding to complete all proposed projects, the plan should address how the County should prioritize the investment of existing resources to ensure equitable flood protection and comply with the prioritization framework adopted by Harris County.”
The motion eventually passed unanimously at 1 hour and 32 minutes into the meeting.
Answers to Questions About “Underfunding”
Is construction money in Halls or Greens Bayous invested so far at risk?
No. Money spent so far, according to Poppe, has only been for land acquisition and preliminary engineering studies. The County will need both regardless of how it pays for construction. So the County didn’t waste a penny of flood-bond money invested to date. Construction can start later when a path to funding becomes clear.
Did Flood Control try to hide a shortfall?
No. The partial reliance on partner funding now characterized as a “shortfall” was shown in the Bond Program from Day One. The projected shortfall was never greater than on the day voters approved the flood bond. At that point we had secured no partnership funding for those watersheds or any others. We still haven’t for Halls and Greens.
Have we found partnership funding faster in other watersheds?
Yes. Especially in watersheds where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plays a leadership role in construction or where partners could demonstrate a positive benefit/cost ratio for FEMA. In 2018, Poppe estimated Harris County Flood Control could find $2.3 to $2.4 billion in matching funds based on $872 million allocated for seed money in the Flood Bond. But Berry estimates the budget shortfall at $900 million to $1.35 billion. Subtracting one estimate from the other indicates Flood Control has already found a billion dollars or more in matching funds for other watersheds. That’s great work. And that accounts for the differences in colors on the map.
Can Harris County count on the HUD money?
No. The Texas General Land Office (GLO) is still reviewing Flood Control’s grant applications to HUD. We could get some, all, or none of the requested grants.
When will we know how much HUD money, if any, we get?
Initial indications were that we would get answers by late April or early May. Today, I learned from an independent source who requested anonymity that the answer may not come until October.
If the money doesn’t come from HUD, where will it come from?
It depends. Commissioners floated several ideas in the meeting. They included self-funding with another Flood Bond and shifting money from existing sources within Harris County, such as the Toll Road Authority. They could have mentioned Texas Senate Bill 7 (from 2019), but didn’t. Among other things, SB7 provided partial reimbursement for local matching funds for federal grants. The motion approved by Commissioners Court today requires Flood Control and the Budget office to explore all the possibilities and lay out options for consideration.
Another flood bond? Seriously?
Yes and no. According to former Judge Ed Emmett, the $2.5 billion approved by voters in 2018 was always pitched as a “down payment.” Even with partnership funding potentially doubling the size of that, it still would not be likely to solve all of Harris County’s flood woes. So what’s the real total? During the meeting, the Judge and Commissioners tossed out figures ranging from $10-$40 billion. But no one believes another bond is politically feasible. Especially at this time. First, COVID has siphoned off valuable funds. And some of the commissioners have seen fit to redefine equity in the bond language in a way that benefits their constituents at the expense of all others. Now, they may not be able to deliver for their constituents. And they’ve managed to honk off everyone else. Everyone believes the likelihood of passing another bond is zero at this point.
Why is HUD taking so long?
It depends (on whom you talk to). Reportedly, the GLO and HUD have had concerns about the City of Houston and Harris County administering flood-disaster-relief funds to homeowners (separate from mitigation money for flood control projects). Even though Harris County Flood Control wasn’t involved in that program, HUD decided to have the Texas General Land Office (GLO) administer/oversee a giant pot of mitigation money for the entire state instead of sending a portion of it directly to Harris County. That created an extra step. And Harris County must compete with the rest of the state, a process that has inevitably delayed announcements.
Is it worth waiting for a half billion dollars?
Again, it depends. On whom you ask. If your home is flooding and you can get someone else to foot the bill, hell no. If your home is not flooding and there’s still a chance that HUD could come through, why hurry?
Partnership funding maximizes the amount of projects Flood Control can develop, but it can also delay some projects. This is a glass-half-full debate.
Shouldn’t we be captains of our own fate?
It depends on when you ask. When the flood bond passed in 2018, Flood Control was applauded for aggressively chasing all of the Federal funding it could. Yet during Tuesday’s Court meeting, some commissioners criticized Flood Control for going after any partner funds – a complete 180 from just two and a half years ago.
Will funding shortfalls discussed above affect additional gates for the Lake Houston Dam?
https://i0.wp.com/reduceflooding.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Page-16-Budget-Shortfall.jpg?fit=1200%2C901&ssl=19011200adminadmin2021-03-10 20:20:512021-03-12 13:19:17Is There a Shortfall in Harris County Flood Bond Money? Yes. No. Maybe. It Depends.
In the Harris County Commissioners Court meeting on 8/25/2020, Commissioners again considered the purchase of Woodridge Village from Perry Homes – at least one small aspect of it that would have allowed them to lock in the price while other details are worked out.
For months, the County has considered purchasing the property to create a regional flood detention facility along Taylor Gully. On Tuesday, County Engineer John Blount placed an item on the agenda requesting that Commissioners declare the purchase of the property north of Elm Grove a “public necessity.”
The declaration is a procedural formality that would allow the county to enter into an earnest money contract to lock in the price. The terms of the contract, however, would not have obligated the county to write a check until all conditions placed on the sale had been dealt with satisfactorily. After a half hour of debate, the Court took no action.
Ellis Goes On Attack Again
Once again, Commissioner Rodney Ellis used the opportunity to try to add two new conditions to the purchase. In the process, he exaggerated the cost of the deal and misrepresented the substance of previous votes.
The proposed new conditions were that the City should pay for half of any new lawsuits arising from the property and that the City should pay for half of the maintenance costs.
“Recommendation that the court find a public necessity exists for the Flood Control District to purchase Tracts G503-06-00-01-001.0 and G503-06-00-01-002.0 in Montgomery County from Figure Four Partners, Ltd., in the amount of $14,019,316 plus closing costs for the Woodridge Village stormwater detention basin, and that the Real Property Division Manager or Assistant Division Manager be authorized to sign any agreements or closing documents associated with this transaction.”
Ellis Leads Off Discussion With Leading Questions
2:01:12: Commissioner Ellis says “Judge, I have a few questions…” and the debate begins. As usual, Mr. Ellis begins by asking leading questions. And the answers are usually obvious. On this day he asked whether the purchase would lead to increased maintenance costs.
2:01:40: Russ Poppe, executive director of the Flood Control District replies, “Yes.”
2:01:50: Ellis asks how much the District’s maintenance budget would decrease should the county adopt a “no-new-revenue” tax rate for next year.
2:02:10: Poppe says that he has seen spreadsheets [which have not been made public] that indicate reductions to operations and maintenance budgets could begin next year, but he doesn’t mention a percentage.
2:02:37: Ellis says, “So the costs will go up” and “…It will be a significant increase.” [Editor’s note: the amount of the increase was never mentioned. You need to be a fast listener when Ellis has the floor.] “So my question is, ‘Why would the district proceed with construction of mitigation assets if we don’t know if we may be unable to maintain them?
Would it make more sense – if we adopt the no-new-revenue rate – to pause third and fourth quartile bond projects until revenue is sufficient to maintain?
[Editor’s Note: by accelerating projects in LMI and SVI neighborhoods, Ellis has delayed projects, such as this one, in other precincts.]
Ellis continues. “Why will we keep starting more projects and we have no idea how we’re going to maintain them?” [Editor’s Note: He does not ask the same question of projects in his precinct.]
2:03:27: Poppe replies, “You bring up a concern that I had, too, Commissioner. Because I know our funding is going to have to increase in order for us to take care of all this infrastructure to the level that our residents are going to expect us to make sure that it functions when we need it to function.”
Confusion over Previous Conditions
2:03:40: Ellis asks Blount or Poppe to restate the conditions previously imposed on the deal that should have preceded the County moving forward with the project. [Editor’s note: I submitted a FOIA request to the County asking for the exact text of that motion, approved in open court. The County denied the request. I appealed. The County submitted it to the State Attorney General’s office for review. The attorney general has not yet ruled on the issue.]
2:04:10: Poppe starts his reply by talking about the demand for half the purchase price. “The city has indicated they do not have the cash available to make up their half of the contribution to acquire the site, which is around 14 million dollars. And the city has indicated that they would rather transfer land assets in the value of at least half of the purchase price to us for use as flood-risk reduction projects. That was condition number one.”
“Condition number two was that the City of Houston adopt updated detention and mitigation rates commensurate with the Atlas-14 rainfall rates. And that was both to be adopted inside not only their city of Houston limits, but also their ETJ.”
“And then the third…”
2:04:45 Ellis interrupts. “And have they done that?”
2:04:50: Poppe replies, “No, there’s an ongoing task force or work group for which I think John’s office (County Engineer) and my office both have people who sit in and contribute to those conversations. But no, they have not adopted increased mitigation requirements yet.”
“And then the last piece that has to occur, Commissioner, is we have to execute an inter-local agreement that addresses those issues I just mentioned, as well as other details, as one might imagine, come up as you start developing a site of this magnitude.”
Ellis Reminds Poppe about Getting City to Pay for Half of Construction
2:05:17: Ellis, referring to a second motion to include construction costs in the City’s half of the deal, asks, “And wasn’t that talk about paying for half the cost to do something with it? I thought that was in the motion. And also paying for half the cost in the event there’s a lawsuit … and … a commitment to pay for half of what it takes to maintain?” (Editor’s note: Paying for half the construction costs was in a previous motion. But the motion did NOT include the City paying for half of legal or maintenance costs.)
2:05:54: Poppe replies. “Yes, Commissioner, those were all issues we’ve talked about, but I don’t believe those were actually directed by court. I know that’s your intention and I want to get those issues addressed with the City as part of our inter-local agreement, too, because those are real costs.”
2:06:54: Hidalgo incorrectly states that Ellis’ additional requirements WERE part of previous motions. “And they WERE, Russ. I remember this is about the fourth time we’re going back over what we agreed. Maybe someone ought to just go back and listen to the transcript and send it around, because as I remember, it was that half of both the purchase and whatever happens and then the detention requirements and there could be assets of land. But we’ve had the same discussion quite a few times. I think in the end we agreed.” (Editor’s note: this contradiction may have something to do with why the FOIA request was denied and appealed to the State AG.)
2:07:45: After a long diatribe about how the City can’t be trusted, Ellis states that he can’t support the deal unless there’s an inter-local agreement that specifies objectives IN WRITING. (Editor’s note: Ellis previously insisted that an inter-local agreement was worthless and that the City had to actually comply with all County demands BEFORE the County moved forward.)
Ellis then worries that there won’t be enough money to complete projects in his district.
Ellis Likens Project to Buying Brooklyn Bridge
2:16:46: Ellis likens the Woodridge Village project to acquiring the Brooklyn Bridge.
2:17:00 Poppe explains that the County provided an inter-local agreement to the City that addresses all the issues under discussion.
“We are still waiting to hear back from them to actually sit down and have a negotiation meeting to make sure that they’re on the same page as us with those initial concepts and the inter-local agreement.”
Russ Poppe, Exec Director, HCFCD
2:17:38: Hidalgo says, “So we can take no action on this item?”
County Attorney’s Office and Cagle Clarify Earnest Money Contract
2:18:43: Robert Soard from the County Attorney’s Office clarifies the purpose of the earnest money contract. It:
Commits the seller to the price.
Gives the County 120 days to work out an inter-local agreement with the City.
Specifically says the inter-local agreement has to be approved by Commissioners Court before the court has to buy the property.
2:24:05: Commissioner Jack Cagle says, “This is not nearly as complicated as we’re trying to make it. We have people in Harris County that are at risk of flooding because of the property that’s upstream. We have a chance to lock in a very good price to be able to acquire property to help people that live in Harris County.”
“Understand that we have all the criteria that have been added to the initial idea. And the ball has moved a little bit since our very first meeting. But with all of that in place, to be able to at least lock in the price – as opposed to letting that price float with someone on the other side who is trying to decide what they want to do – I think is a reasonable thing.”
“And if we can’t meet the three criteria or the five criteria or the seven criteria that might come down the pike, then we don’t meet those. But at least let’s give ourselves a locked-in price and a set of targets to move towards. These are people in Harris County that we’re trying to help in times when they’re concerned with things that are coming in to our area with regard to water – tropical storms, hurricanes, flooding.”
Ellis Drops New Bomb; Commissioners Take No Action
2:25:40: Ellis says that he won’t support the declaration of necessity because it raises “false hope that we’re going to do it,” meaning purchase the property. He also says, “And the city is telling us that they are not going to make a decision on those policy matters [Atlas-14 implementation], but they would like us to commit to this 50 to 70 million dollars.” During this part of the discussion, Ellis doubles previous estimates and ignores the fact that the City would be paying for half, but no one corrects him. He couples the Woodridge-Village purchase with setting the tax rate, as if he’s getting ready to blame a tax increase on Elm Grove.
Commissioners decided to take no action and defer the motion to a later date.
Again, please don’t just accept my summary of Tuesday’s meeting; view the video yourself. The discussion was rambling, disjointed, and filled with “memory lapses.” But I believe this summary captures the main points.
Breaking a Golden Rule of Conflict Negotiation
It’s clear from Cagle’s cynical comment about the three, five, or seven conditions, that he despairs this deal will ever be finalized. Every time it comes up, Ellis tries to add more conditions. Most distressing is the fact that he’s also trying to redefine motions that the Court previously agreed to. And that the county refuses to produce the text of after a valid FOIA request.
Ellis is diverting money to projects in his district with new conditions that evolve in each meeting.
A golden rule of conflict resolution states that if you agree to a deal three times and someone still keeps trying to add conditions, you should disengage. That person is just not being honest with you.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/27/2020
1094 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 343 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.
https://i0.wp.com/reduceflooding.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Ellis-8.25.jpg?fit=1200%2C793&ssl=17931200adminadmin2020-08-27 19:38:582020-08-28 04:50:00Commissioner Ellis Tries to Add New Conditions to Woodridge Deal – Yet Again
The second district makes an arc around the north and west sides of Houston. So expect the discussion to cover more than just the Lake Houston area. Likely topics will include (but by no means are limited to):
Additional flood gates for Lake Houston
Houston Ship Channel
White Oak Bayou
Other local projects with shared Federal funding.
Attendees can ask questions online. Organizers have committed most of the time to answering those questions. The discussion should last 45 minutes, and in no case will exceed an hour.
https://i0.wp.com/reduceflooding.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Crenshaw-Webinar.jpeg?fit=1200%2C1200&ssl=112001200adminadmin2020-05-19 13:22:432020-05-19 13:22:55“Coffee Break with Dan Crenshaw” Will Discuss Flood Projects in Second Congressional District