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Harris County releases $2.5B flood bond project list, two days before voting begins

The Harris County Flood Control District on Monday released its complete list of projects that would be funded by the county's $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond proposal, two days before early voting on the measure begins.

The 237 projects include $1.2 billion for channel improvements, $401 million for detention basins, $242 million for floodplain land acquisition, $12.5 million for new floodplain mapping and $1.25 million for an improved early flood warning system.

Matt Zeve, the flood control district's operations director, said the vast majority of projects will address problems engineers identified years or decades ago but lacked the funding to tackle. The flood control district's budget totals just $120 million annually.

"It's always been OK, how do we afford to solve these problems?" Zeve said. "With the bond, we'll have funds to solve some of these drainage and flooding issues.

If approved, the bond would be the largest local investment in flood infrastructure since Hurricane Harvey flooded more than 154,000 Harris County homes a year ago. Voting begins Wednesday and concludes on Saturday, Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of the storm's landfall.

The bond also would put $184 million, coupled with more than $500 million in outside funding, to purchase around 3,600 buildings in the floodplain. It would not pay for a third reservoir to complement the Addicks and Barker reservoirs in west Houston, but would chip in $750,000 to help the Army Corps of Engineers study the idea.

Thirty-eight projects were added based on ideas from residents at more than two-dozen public meetings this summer. These include $6 million to improve flow in Horsepen Bayou, $15 million to do the same in Brays Bayou and $30 million to design and build new bridges over Buffalo Bayou.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the additions to the projects list proved that the flood control district was serious about incorporating ideas from residents.

"We said from the start that we recognized that this effort was going to have to be as transparent as anything the county has ever done," Emmett said in a statement.

More than 4,500 residents attended the meetings, according to the flood control district's head count. They submitted around 2,400 comments and made 682 requests for flood infrastructure maintenance.

The flood control district left $500 million un-allocated on the projects list. Zeve said while engineers initially planned to draw down that sum as more projects were added, the flood control district decided to leave room for new projects over the 10- to 15-year lifespan of the bond.

"We want to give ourselves some wiggle room," Zeve said.

The proposal is a gamble by Harris County Commissioners Court, whose members are betting residents see the value in a significant investment in the area's flood management system. There is no option for skeptical voters to approve a smaller sum.

If different funding sources become available, such as through the state or federal government, the county may not need to borrow the full $2.5 billion. Emmett said last month that $700 to $900 million of the bond would be used to secure federal matching funds, potentially netting the county an additional $2 billion to spend on flood infrastructure.

The bond will increase property taxes for homeowner 2 to 3 cents per $100 of assessed home value, according to county budget analysts. Those who are disabled or above the age of 65, and whose home is worth less than $200,000, would pay no additional taxes.

For a full list of the 237 Projects approved by Harris County Flood Control

https://www.hcfcd.org/media/2907/2018bondprojectlist2018-08-06-1130.pdf

 

"Let's Raise Taxes for More Police":  We Saw this Movie in 2006

Last week it was suggested that Houston voters should agree to pay more in property taxes in order to hire more police. We have already done that once, in 2006.  Perhaps before we rush to allow the City to increase property taxes by more than the 4.5% annual amount the City charter now allows we should take a look at how that 2006 increase worked out.

As most of you know, in 2004, Houston voters amended the City charter to keep the City from raising property taxes by more than the sum of inflation and population increase. In 2006, the City came back to voters and asked for an additional $90 million above that cap, in perpetuity. That is to say, $90 million would be added to the calculation of the 2004 cap each year in the future. That extension of the cap has now been in place for 11 years, so Houston taxpayers have forked over nearly a billion additional dollars over the original cap for "public safety."

How much additional public safety has our nearly one billion dollars bought us? Turns out, not so much.

FY2006-2007 was the last year before the City began collecting the extra $90 million each year. According to the City's annual reports, since 2007 the City added a whopping 20 employees to the police department's payroll, a three-tenths of one percent increase (0.3%). [ii] Seventy police officers and forty-five cadets have been added, but the number of civilian employees and cadets have fallen by ninety-five, meaning that more officers have been transferred from patrol and investigation to administrative jobs.

Of course, the HPD budget has risen significantly, going from $576 million in 2007 to $827 million this year, a 44% increase. The budget for personnel has grown from $535 million to $782 million, a 46% increase. The average per-employee personnel cost (salary plus all benefits) has grown from $85,283 to $123,553.  

Based on any objective measure I can find, there is no evidence that these added expenses have made the police department more efficient. The number of arrests made by HPD fell from 122,000 in 2007 to just under 52,000 last year, a 57% decrease. It issued 544,000 fewer tickets last year than in 2007, a 58% decline. The City only started reporting clearance rates in the budgets in 2012. That year, HPD cleared 18.6% of "Part I" offenses (all violent crime plus burglary and auto theft). In its budget request this year, HPD estimated it had cleared 13.4% in FY2016-2017. HPD estimates of its response times have not changed significantly.

Nor is it true that HPD is significantly understaffed compared to other cities. According to a 2016 Governing Magazine study, the ten largest cities in the US have an average of 25 officers per 10,000 residents. Houston has 22 and is, therefore, 12% below the average. However, there are three cities, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia which are significantly above the average at 42, 43 and 41, respectively. If you drop those three out, the average of the remaining cities is 21, slightly below Houston.  

Of course, it is patently absurd to compare Houston to New York in terms of police staffing because of all of the special risks New York faces, e.g., the United Nations. Chicago and Philadelphia have violent crime rates that are roughly equivalent to Houston's, indicating that their larger forces have not accomplished much. It is also worth noting that these three cities have the largest negative net deficits of all U.S. cities. So, they should hardly be examples by which we should manage our city.

The next five largest cities in Texas have an average of 15 officers per 10,000, well below Houston. Among the five, only Dallas is higher at 25.

  So, does Houston need more police officers?  Probably.  But personally I am fed up with throwing more money at the police department with no accountability.  I mean, have you ever heard anyone at the City ask why arrests are down by 57% in the last ten years, including a 16% drop last year?  Have you heard anyone ask HPD why the violent crime clearance rate is down by nearly 5% in the last six years?  I certainly have not.

  Communities all over this city are already coming out of pocket to hire constables and private security companies to patrol their neighborhoods because they cannot get HPD to do so.  Does anyone really believe that if we allow the City to raise property taxes, patrols will suddenly appear in their neighborhoods.  After the City used the drainage fees to pay for employees and pet projects, does anyone believe this money will really be used to hire police officers?  Until we have some demonstration that the City can more efficiently manage HPD and that it can keep its promises on how it will spend our money, I am not voting to give it another dime.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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