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Local politics

March For Our Lives rally

On Saturday, March 24, community members from Houston will gather for a “sibling march” as part of the March for Our Lives movement. The march is one of hundreds happening around the country planned by students and survivors of gun violence in communities big and small, in all 50 states. The national day of action will focus on calling for lawmakers to make students’ lives and safety a priority and to pass common-sense gun safety legislation. The March will take place on Saturday, March 24th at Tranquility Park in downtown Houston starting at 9 AM. To RSVP please text March to 644-33 or go on to the Facebook invite to tell organizers you’re coming.

I don’t have to tell you that Texas is a pretty cordial state for gun ownership. The Republican-controlled Legislature has been working to make it more so in recent years, thanks to open carry and campus carry laws. There are quite a few legislators who think we haven’t gone nearly far enough, too. Their endgame is the bizarrely-named “constitutional carry”, in which there are basically no restrictions on ownership or limits on where you can bring your guns. You want to fight back against that, this is a good place to start. It is just a starting place, though, because the ultimate goal is to elect more people who agree that gun ownership and possession can and should be subject to reasonable and rational limits. Some come out to Tranquility Park on Saturday – and be sure to RSVP to the event, so organizers know how many people to expect – and stay engaged and active afterwards. You can live in the world you want, or you can live in the world we have now. The difference between the two is what you make of it.

January 2018 finance reports: City of Houston

We didn’t have any city of Houston elections in 2017, and while we ought to have some charter amendments on the ballot in 2018 we won’t be voting for people till next year. Still, everyone has to file campaign finance reports. Let’s see how everyone has been doing since last July.

Candidate       Office    Raised      Spent     Loan    On Hand
S Turner         Mayor   308,744    123,288        0  1,901,225

C Brown     Controller     1,400     19,559        0     62,811

M Knox      At Large 1    36,125      8,191        0     51,946
D Robinson  At Large 2    41,575     12,117        0    126,924
M Kubosh    At Large 3     8,575      7,364  276,000     32,267
A Edwards   At Large 4    16,900     24,311        0    140,866
J Christie  At Large 5     1,264      3,892        0     28,711

B Stardig       Dist A     3,750     18,173        0     89,964
J Davis         Dist B     5,934     15,988        0    137,038
E Cohen         Dist C    10,100     31,528        0     41,691
D Boykins       Dist D    27,950     66,249        0     18,492
D Martin        Dist E     2,510     26,887        0     92,371
S Le            Dist F    21,800     11,237   30,823     13,015
G Travis        Dist G    27,050      8,211   76,000     70,817
K Cisneros      Dist H    
R Gallegos      Dist I    32,850     12,963        0     69,181
M Laster        Dist J       300      8,510        0    161,402
L Green         Dist K    29,100     36,617        0     77,110

I started writing this post before the tragic death of CM Larry Green. CM Green was among the members who are term-limited; the others are Stardig, Davis, Cohen, Laster, and Christie. I did not find a finance report for Karla Cisneros; she had $25,336 on hand in the July ’17 report. No one raised a whole lot – not a big surprise, especially given how there was already a bunch of Congressional fundraising going on in the latter half of 2017 – and in fact many people spent more than they took in. If one of the potential negatives to the change to four-year terms was that it gave incumbents that much more time to accumulate cash, I’d say that effect has so far been muted. Among the first-termers, Amanda Edwards was a big money-raiser in 2015 and Greg Travis still has loan money. Mike Knox got a boost in this period, which he will need because he’s got a big target on his back for 2019. Steve Le doesn’t have much on hand, but he too can self-fund to an extent.

While those term-limited candidates continue to be among the top cash-holders, none of them increased their shares during this period. I continue to believe that at least some of them have another candidacy in their near-term future, but that’s just my impression. Some of the possibilities they may contemplate will depend on how the 2018 elections go. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. I’m just reporting what we know now. I’ll check back in July. Look for a post on the HISD and HCC reports as soon as I can get around to it.

Firefighters sue to get their pay parity petitions certified

I’m just going to put this here.

Houston firefighters on Monday asked a judge to force the city secretary to validate signatures on an equal pay referendum petition that has been backlogged in City Hall for eight months.

The referendum would require firefighters to receive the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank. It was first submitted to the city in July but wasn’t validated before the November election. In December, leaders of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued, asking a judge to give City Secretary Anna Russell 30 days to count and validate the petition signatures.

State District Judge Dan Hinde did not issue an immediate ruling after a three-hour trial Monday.

City attorneys argued the firefighters’ claim lacks the urgency needed to secure a court order.

State law forced Russell last year to count a petition related to alcoholic beverages in the Heights within 30 days, after which she returned to tallying a pension-related petition to amend the city charter that her office received in April, said Assistant City Attorney Brian Amis.

The firefighters’ petition, which also would amend the charter, was submitted in July. State law sets no deadline by which charter petitions must be validated.

When neither petition was verified in time for the November 2017 ballot, Amis said, that removed any urgency behind the count, as the next municipal election will not be held until November 2019.

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s a long section in the story that goes into City Secretary Anna Russell’s process for certifying petitions and how she doesn’t take direction from the Mayor or accept help from the petitioners, both of which I think are good things. I’ll say that it feels a little ridiculous to me that this hasn’t been completed by now – I mean, if it had taken this long to count the anti-HERO petitions, that one may never have gotten on the ballot. On the other hand, maybe this isn’t the sort of thing that should be decided by an oddball sure-to-be-under-ten-percent-turnout election in May. And on the other other hand, I’m hard pressed to imagine any ballot language that won’t be seriously challenged in court regardless of the outcome, which given past history makes one wonder if it wouldn’t be more expeditious to litigate first and vote later. All I know for sure is that as with the District K special election, if we don’t have this ready for the ballot by March 26 – that is, two weeks from today – it ain’t happening in May. Good luck sorting this all out.

RIP, CM Larry Green

Very sad news.

CM Larry Green

Houston City Councilman Larry Green was found dead at his home late Tuesday morning, prompting an outpouring of sadness from City Hall to the southwest Houston district he represented for more than six years.

The cause of death was not immediately known, though Houston police said foul play was not suspected.

Green, 52, remains the only person elected to lead District K, one of two seats added after the 2010 Census led the council to grow from nine to 11 districts.

Green’s ubiquity at civic club meetings and dogged work ethic took a district created from the “stepchildren” neighborhoods of two former districts and made it “better than the sum of our parts,” as Westbury civic leader Becky Edmondson put it. Texting Green at midnight often would produce an answer, she said. Meyerland/Westbury civic leader Art Pronin agreed — but put the time at 1 a.m.

“He’s at my civic club meeting, he’s at the coalition meeting, he’s at the Super Neighborhood meeting,” Keswick Place civic leader Linda Scurlock said. “He’s there. He’s not on a pedestal. I’ve lived in this community for 41 years, and we’ve never had a council member like that. It was like your friend. I’d call him all the time.”

Even residents pleased with their representatives do not always view those politicians as “friends,” but Edmondson used the same word. When she informed her daughter of Green’s passing, her daughter wept. And when her 9-year-old grandson heard the news, he cried, too.

“He’s been planting trees with Larry since he was 2 years old. He considers Larry as his friend,” Edmondson said. “He was a leader for the city, he was our advocate in District K – and he was my friend. And he was a friend to hundreds of other people like me that met him during his tenure. I’ll really miss him.”

I interviewed CM Green in 2011, when he ran for the then-new District K, but I had met him a few years before that. He was thoughtful and passionate about his community. I liked him, both as a person and as a Council member. He won that race, for a new seat in a part of town that did not lack for political talent, with little opposition. Especially on a day where we’re all feeling positive about the political process, I’m stunned and saddened by the loss of CM Green. My sincere condolences to his family and many friends.

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner’s communications director, Alan Bernstein, said late Tuesday the city legal department still was reviewing the procedures for naming Green’s replacement. The city charter authorizes council to fill vacancies by majority vote, but does not specify a timeline for doing so.

To be honest, I had assumed there would be a special election, probably in November but possibly in May, to serve the remainder of CM Green’s term. That’s what happened with other vacancies in the past. I’m not sure if the process is different in the event of a member’s death, or if this was an effect of the term limits referendum. Whatever the case, that person will have to run again for a full term in 2019. There will be time later to think about that in more detail.

The case for the Astrodome

Lisa Falkenberg lays it out.

We have a plan!

But here’s the thing: leaders have to balance today’s needs with tomorrow’s. The long view has its virtues. And frankly, it’s been all to absent in the decision-making of Houston and Harris County. Shortsightedness has gotten us into a lot of trouble – from poor investment in flooding infrastructure to irresponsible growth that increased the region’s vulnerability during storms and rain events.

It has led us to pave over prairies. To bulldoze historic architecture and old trees and character. And yes, to leave an expensive, beloved, world-famous landmark with a lot of tourism potential rotting away in full view of visitors and homefolk alike.

So, sure, it may seem tone deaf to pour money into the Astrodome right now, but the decision seems to be in tune with Houston’s future needs.

And critics of the decision either don’t understand the facts, or willfully ignore them.


So let’s address the naysayers, point by point, with a little help from Emmett, the county judge.

*CLAIM: Harris County voters already voted to demolish the dome.

No, they didn’t. They voted down a proposed bond for a much bigger $217 million renovation project. They said loud and clear that they didn’t want county commissioners borrowing money to fund a dome project, and Emmett says the county listened. He says the stripped-down plan to raise the dome for parking and open it for special events makes financial and logistical sense, as it will produce revenue, and also provide space for first responders during a storm, and potential storage for the medical supplies during those events. “Would you really want us spending $35 million to tear down a perfectly usable building?” Emmett says he asks people who bring up the vote. And he points out that demolition is no longer an option anyway, since the Texas Historical Commission has designated the Astrodome a state antiquities landmark, giving the stadium special protections against demolition.

See here for some background. As you know, I think this is a decent and workable plan. I expect people will disagree with that – Emmett’s Democratic opponent Lina Hidalgo has made the “voters rejected the bond proposal” and “we have other priorities” arguments on Facebook. I believe the case for it is sound, and I appreciate Falkenberg laying it out as she did. If you don’t see it that way, take what she wrote as your starting point and take your best shot from there.

The latest report on city finances

A little light reading for you.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Even after Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark pension reforms, the city of Houston is on pace to spend $1 billion more than it will take in over the coming decade, and must cut spending and raise revenue bring its annual budget into balance, according to an exhaustive new report.

Failing to do so, the authors state, risks letting the city inch toward insolvency with all the symptoms that accompany such a fiscal crisis: Worker layoffs, an erosion in police staffing, fewer library hours, decaying parks facilities, a hollowing out of the city as the suburbs boom.

The analysts from Philadelphia-based consulting firm PFM did not shy away from controversial recommendations, including some that would dramatically restructure city government.

Among dozens of other reforms, the authors suggest Houston should:

  • break up its mammoth Houston Public Works department and consolidate its finance, procurement, human resources, and information technology staff;
  • cut the $9.5 million annual subsidy to the Houston Zoo roughly in half;
  • shrink the Houston Fire Department by up to 845 positions through attrition and lengthen firefighters’ work weeks; reduce the number of fire stations; hire civilians to do fire inspections and take 911 calls; and raise ambulance fees;
  • hire civilians for the Houston Police Department to enable cops now doing administrative tasks to get back on patrol; free up officers’ time by arresting fewer low-level offenders and writing more tickets; use civilians to conduct crash investigations and issue non-moving traffic tickets; consolidate with Metro’s police staff, and, perhaps, local school districts’ too;
  • cut health benefits for active and retired city workers; and
  • submit trash pickup, building maintenance and street repairs to “managed competition,” giving all or part of each task to city departments or to private companies, whichever submits the most efficient proposal.
  • City Council hired PFM for $565,000 in 2016, Turner’s first year in office, to craft a 10-year financial plan. Turner made clear in comments last week, however, that he views some of the recommendations as impractical.

“When you talk about structural changes, just because it’s identified doesn’t mean it’s easily done. It’s not about taking a report and just implementing it,” he said. “There are some things that, from my vantage point, yes, we will accept. There are some things that are going to require additional study. There are some things that will be more long term. And then there are some things that we’ll never get there.”

The report is here; it’s quite long, but the executive summary is only 16 pages, so read that if you want a feel for it. At first glance, a lot of it sounds reasonable and even doable. I appreciate the fact that they recognize that revenue is part of the equation and that removing the stupid revenue cap would go a long way towards alleviating the problem. Some actions could be done by Mayoral fiat, some by Council action, and some will require negotiations with third parties and/or legislative approval. It’s always possible that a report like this becomes little more than a doorstop, but I think we’ll see at least some of it happen.

County approves Astrodome plan

Like it or not, here it comes.

Take a last look at it

Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with the final design and construction of a $105 million project to transform the cherished piece of Houston’s sporting history into what officials hope will be coveted event space.

“It gives us a huge national story line,” said Holly Clapham, chief marketing officer for Houston First Corp., the city’s main marketing arm. “This, obviously, is a very significant building and we can tell the story of its new life, and serving a new constituency that didn’t know it as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.'”

Construction on the project is expected to begin in October and end in February 2020.

“The first thing we have to do is get it back to where it’s structurally sound,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said after Tuesday’s court meeting. “Nine acres of open space, under cover, in Houston, Texas, is a big deal. We’ve already been contacted by all sorts of groups that want to come use it, so it’s exciting.”

See here and here for some background, though obviously there’s a lot more to this long-lasting story. I like this idea – unlike so many other proposals, this plan makes sense to me, it’s not outrageously expensive, and it keeps the property in the hands of the public. I’m not sure if it will make sense to keep calling it the Astrodome when all is said and done, but we can cross that bridge when we get to it.

Not everyone sees this as I do, of course, and we’ll be hearing plenty from them.

State Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who co-sponsored legislation last year that would have required a public referendum on the Astrodome project, called Tuesday’s vote by Commissioners Court “tone deaf.”

“We just need to recognize the obvious,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “If the county has money to ignore a public vote and refurbish the Astrodome, then they have the capability to offer flooded-out homeowners disaster reappraisal and to cut their property tax rate.”

Bettencourt and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have called on local taxing jurisdictions to allow residents whose homes were damaged by Harvey to have their properties reappraised to reflect their lower values.

Through a spokesman, Emmett called Bettencourt’s remarks “ill-informed” and said the project would allow the county to generate revenue for upgrades to the NRG Complex that otherwise would fall on taxpayers.

See here and here for more on the failed bill to require a vote on something that we wouldn’t normally require a vote on, since no bonds are being floated. The preview story goes into the funding source for the remodel.

In response to Harvey, the county is poised to call a bond referendum of at least $1 billion to pay for flood control projects, and Commissioners Court has imposed tougher regulations on new development in floodplains, as well as authorized up to $20 million to facilitate buyouts of Harvey-flooded homes.

Of the $105 million cost to renovate the dome into convention and meeting space, about a third would come from the county’s general fund, largely made up of property tax revenue. The other two sources — hotel occupancy taxes and parking revenue — would not be used for flood control Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

“We’re the third largest county in the country. We’re having to renovate a lot of buildings. This is another building,” Emmett said. “We need to renovate it and make it usable.”

He added that $35 million “does not go very far flood control-wise” when billions of dollars in improvements and repairs are needed.

People are going to have feelings about this, that’s for sure. There’s no direct vote on the Dome plan, but there will be that bond referendum, and Ed Emmett will be on the ballot, so the politics of this could work out in a number of ways. I’ve said my piece. We’ll see what develops from here.

Stanart’s workshop

Our County Clerk has been doing some tinkering.

The Harris County Clerk has spent hundreds of hours and millions of dollars to build, from the ground up, an electronic voter check-in system at the polls, Channel 2 Investigates has learned.

“It’s taken more than two-and-a-half years. There’s been investments of more than $2 million, and we don’t really have anything to show for it yet,” said Adrian Shelley, Texas Director of Public Citizen, a citizen advocacy group.

Based on receipts provided by his office, Stan Stanart, an elected official in his second term, has spent $2.75 million of public funds, so far, inventing what he calls an “electronic poll book.”

It is unclear how much more Stanart plans to spend to bring the project to fruition or how much the system will cost in annual maintenance.

Stanart has said his project could ultimately offer substantial savings to Harris County versus an “off-the-shelf system” which by Stanart’s estimates would cost between $3.99 million and $6.12 million. (View document)

Stanart’s project principally consists of an iPad, custom software and a customized stand to hold the iPad. The finished product will alleviate long lines at voting locations by making the check-in process more efficient, Stanart has said.

The clerk procured hundreds of individual parts for the project, including thousands of dollars of washers, magnets and foam.

The purchase of 2,400 iPads was made in July 2015. The vast majority of those iPads stayed in a warehouse, unopened and unused for more than two years.

Stanart has said he is now in the process of mating the iPads to his custom-built stands. He rolled out less than 100 of them in November for a test run. The county clerk has not publicized the results of that initial foray, but has said he plans the full implementation of his system in March’s primaries.

“I think most reasonable would say you probably shouldn’t have spent $1 million on iPads if you weren’t going to use them sometime soon,” Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said.

Both Ellis and Shelley said the idea of automating the voter check-in process is a worthy pursuit, but questioned why the project has not had more transparency.

I’ll cut right to the chase and say that I agree with Ellis and Shelley. It’s entirely possible that this was a worthwhile project for the County Clerk to take on, but:

1) Are we sure there wasn’t a commercial or open source solution out there? Even if it was more expensive, being able to deploy it in earlier elections would have mitigated the extra cost.

2) What oversight did this project have? I’ve been involved in some big projects in the corporate world. We have timelines, signoffs, approvals, all sorts of things to ensure that the people who need to know about it do know about it and know where it stands. How much has Commissioners Court been looped in on this?

3) Are there any design documents, or other technical descriptions of what this is, what it is intended to do, what the requirements are, etc etc etc? In other words, is it written down anywhere what to expect when this thing finally debuts? And if so, where is that?

4) Finally, not to put too fine a point on it, but what was the original budget for this, and how does that compare with what has actually been spent?

Maybe this thing will be great, and maybe it will be a dud. The idea is a good one, but that means nothing if the execution isn’t there. It’s way past time for these questions to be answered.

Looking to hire more cops for Houston

We’ll see about this.

The head of the Houston police union announced Wednesday that city leaders had pledged to grow the Houston Police Department ranks by 500 officers over the next five years, far fewer than the city’s police chief said he needs.

“It’s no secret the Houston Police Department has been doing more with less, for far too long,” HPOU President Joseph Gamaldi said Wednesday afternoon at a crowded news conference at union headquarters.

The influx of officers would still be a fraction of the 2,000 new officers Chief Art Acevedo has said he believes the department needs to deal with the city’s growth, but comes as Houston has struggled for years to meaningfully increase the staffing in the department.

Gamaldi’s initiative, which the union is calling the “Drive for 500,” came after union officials visited all of the city’s council members, as well as Mayor Sylvester Turner, and asked them to pledge their support to increase the department that has nearly 5,200 officers on the job.


Currently, the HPD operates on a yearly budget of $827 million, and it costs the department around $3 million to run each class of recruits through its in-house academy.

The call for more officers comes as the city management last year had to close a $130 million budget shortfall.

The staffing proposal follows a concerted campaign last year to reform the city’s pension system, which officials warned was underfunded and threatened the city’s long-term financial health.

Meanwhile, Chief Acevedo and Gamaldi have stepped up calls for an large infusion of new officers into the department, saying it is dangerously understaffed, particularly compared to other large cities around the country.

Though Houston has fewer police officers per resident than other large cities, I remain unconvinced that we need to go on a hiring spree. At the very least, I’d like to understand what the plan is for a larger force. HPD’s solve rate isn’t so hot, so if the idea is to staff up on investigators with the goal of closing out more cases, then I can be on board with that. If it’s more like hire now and figure it out later, I’ll take a pass.

As the story suggests, hiring more cops would likely be part of the argument to alter or lift the revenue cap. Not my preferred approach, but I admit I’m not representative on this. I am ready for this argument to be fully rolled out, in anticipation of a vote this year.

Harris County could use a bit of cybersecurity training


On Sept. 21, not three weeks after Houston was ravaged by Hurricane Harvey, the Harris County auditor’s office received an email from someone named Fiona Chambers who presented herself as an accountant with D&W Contractors, Inc.

The contractor was repairing a Harvey-damaged parking lot, cleaning up debris and building a road for the county, and wanted to be paid. Chambers asked if the county could deposit $888,000 into the contractor’s new bank account.

“If we can get the form and voided check back to you today would it be updated in time for our payment?” read a Sept. 25 email from Chambers.

On Oct. 12, Harris County sent the money out. The next day, the county quietly was scrambling to get it back, after being alerted that the account did not belong to D&W, that Chambers did not exist and that county employees had been duped by a fraudster.

The county recouped the payment, but the ongoing investigation into who tried to take the county’s money and nearly got away with it has ignited a debate over the financial security and cyber security of the third-largest county in America. That debate comes as experts point to a growing number of increasingly sophisticated attackers from around the world, homing in on untrained employees or system vulnerabilities.

The incident now has become wrapped into an FBI investigation into a group that has attempted to extort local governments around the world, law enforcement officials said.

Meanwhile, some officials are moving to revamp their practices as others say further scrutiny of county defenses is necessary.

There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of room for process improvement. The county can provide training to employees to better recognize phishing attempts, and send out test emails to ensure that the training took hold. Extra checks and verifications, like pre-screening vendors an maintaining a list of approved vendors, can be put into place before any payments are made. Keeping on top of threat intelligence, to know what the new scams are that are going around, and ensuring that the email system and the proxy servers recognize junk mail and malicious websites. Cybersecurity is a process, and it contains multiple layers. The fact that the county almost got scammed is in itself not a great shame – it does happen, to many organization – but only if the opportunity to learn and improve from it is fully embraced.

Darian Ward resigns


Mayor Sylvester Turner’s press secretary resigned Friday afternoon, three weeks after news broke that she had been suspended for routinely conducting personal business on city time and failing to release public records.

Ward sent or received roughly 5,000 pages of emails about personal business from her government account over the last four years, many of which dealt with reality shows she was pitching to television networks or a charity for which she serves as an advisor.

Ward, who earned $93,712 annually, was suspended for 10 days without pay in late December.

Her resignation came hours before new emails showed Ward again had tried to block the release of a portion of the personal business documents she sent on city time. The Houston Chronicle and other news outlets sought the emails under the Texas Public Information Act.

“I believe many of the documents which include show concepts, treatments, etc. are protected through the Writers Guild Association’s registration. Legal needs to be advised,” Ward wrote to colleagues two weeks ago.

Assistant City Attorney Danielle Folsom replied last week, saying the city attorney’s office “does not believe that registration with the Writer’s Guild of America makes information confidential under the TPIA.”

Ward still wanted to seek an opinion from the Texas attorney general’s office, emails show. Pamela Ellis, founder of a charity Ward was promoting on city time, also asked the city to withhold documents.

As a result, the city released roughly 2,500 pages of Ward’s emails on Jan. 19.
With the release of that first batch, Ward expressed confusion that her attempt to intervene had not fully halted the city’s records release.

“How were emails released when I’m waiting to write the AG’s office?” she wrote to coworkers that evening.

The city distributed nearly 1,200 additional pages Thursday, accompanied by a letter to the attorney general’s office.

“The city takes no position with respect to the public availability of the requested information and will not raise any arguments on behalf of any third party,” Folsom wrote in requesting a ruling from the attorney general’s office.

See here for some background. As I said at the time, if that original story was all there was – if we knew all there was to know when that first story came out – then we’d all forget about it soon enough. That wasn’t the case, and so here we are. We’ve had email in the workplace for some 20 years now, and you’d think people would be clear on what “appropriate use” is by now. I honestly don’t know what Ward was thinking, but at least she’ll have more time to work on that show she’s trying to develop now. Her successor is Mary Benton, like Ward a former TV news reporter, who had worked for Gene Locke during his time as County Commissioner. I know Mary from the local politics scene, and I wish her well in the new gig.

Council approves new recycling deal


Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston residents are set to have their used glass and plastic bags picked up for recycling at curbside, but not until next year.

The 20-year, $37 million agreement City Council approved Wednesday is the product of two years of wrangling over recycling and positions Houston to pay less per ton to recycle.

Houstonians still have to wait another 14 months before putting bottles or bags in their green curbside bins, however, while the city’s chosen contractor builds a new processing facility.

To bridge the gap, the city plans to renegotiate its existing, costlier recycling agreement, which expires in April.

“From a financial point of view, it is a much better deal for the city of Houston,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, praising the deal with the Spanish firm FCC. “In terms of technology, it meets what our needs are and what we have asked for.”


Rosanne Barone, Houston program director for the advocacy group Texas Campaign for the Environment, lauded the city for “heading in the right direction” on recycling.

“This shows the mayor is committed to continuing moving forward to make the city of Houston more sustainable. We’re so happy glass is going to be back, and so happy and surprised and excited that plastic bags are now going to be included,” Barone said. “The next step is just to keep moving forward: To keep including more materials, to expand curbside pickup to apartments and businesses.”

See here and here for the background. CMs Knox, Stardig, and Kubosh were No votes, but CM Dave Martin, who had previously been a critic of the deal, voted Yes. I know a lot of people will be happy to have curbside pickup of glass back, though that will likely mean the end of one new business that emerged to fill that gap. Getting curbside pickup for plastic bags, which San Antonio has been doing since 2014, is a nice bonus. As Rosanne Barone says, let this be another step in the journey forward. Houstonia has more.

Darian Ward

I shake my head.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday staunchly defended his press secretary’s job performance following her recent two-week suspension for conducting personal business on city time and failing to turn over public records requested by a local journalist.

Turner also lectured reporters on the newsworthiness of the city’s disciplinary action against Darian Ward, saying other issues are more important than “whether or not somebody did something on an email.”

Ward, who was allowed to return to work Dec. 27, sent or received roughly 5,000 emails from her government account related to her company, Joy in Motion Enterprises, or other personal business matters over the last four years, according to a city memo. However, Ward, who at the time was among those responsible for fielding Texas Public Information Act requests for the mayor’s office, produced just 30 pages of emails in response to a journalist’s October records request.

“Ms. Ward, you misrepresented to the requestor the volume of documents regarding the TPIA request under state law, and you misinformed the chief of staff and me; you spent a significant amount of city time conducting your personal business rather than focusing on your work task,” mayoral Communications Director Alan Bernstein wrote Ward on Dec. 11, informing her that she had violated multiple city policies.


“It’s pretty flagrant,” said Daniel Bevarly, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, based in Missouri. “I’m surprised the mayor retained this individual.”

Turner said “no employee ought to be utilizing personal emails on city time,” but said he was not concerned about Ward’s performance.

“She’s done her job extremely well since I’ve been here, over and above,” he said. “I have no question with regard to her work performance.”

The mayor, who bristled at reporters’ questions about Ward, added that he imposed a stiffer punishment than the city’s legal and human resources departments had recommended.

Ted Oberg had the initial report about Ward’s suspension. For what it’s worth, I once had a coworker who was fired for doing something very similar to what Ward was suspended for. She was a lousy employee and was probably going to get herself fired for something eventually, but her email follies provided the fulcrum. If there are no further revelations to be made, and if Ward manages to adopt a more work-appropriate posture going forward, then we’ll all forget about this in a few weeks. If not, then I don’t think it’s possible for her to be a good enough employee in other respects to outweigh the negatives. Campos has more.

Recycling deal held up again

I’ll take Unexpected Effects of Hurricane Harvey for $200, Alex.

Chris Brown

Chris Brown

A 20-year, $37 million recycling deal for Houston is in limbo after City Controller Chris Brown said his office was not prepared to sign off on the proposal, citing concerns with the procurement process and the winning bidder’s proposed subcontractor.

The controller, the city’s elected financial watchdog, chiefly is responsible for certifying that sufficient funds are on hand to make the payments associated with items City Council is asked to approve each week.

Brown’s Monday afternoon memo to Mayor Sylvester Turner, however, noted “concerns pertaining to the transparency of the procurement process and the MWBE sub-contractor’s status as the defendant in several federal lawsuits.”

Specifically, he said several sets of documents from the initial procurement stages were kept only on paper and were destroyed when Hurricane Harvey flooded City Hall, leaving his office unable to compare documents from the two final rounds of bid evaluations.

Turner threw out the first round of final bids last summer amid questions from council about the process used to select Spanish firm FCC as the winning firm; FCC again was announced late last month as the winner of the second round of final bidding, prompting more questions from council.

Brown said his staff was able to review documents from the two final bidding rounds only after signing “unusual” non-disclosure agreements for which he said “no legal reasoning has been provided.”

FCC’s proposed subcontractor, Taylor Smith Consulting, he added, has been named as a defendant in four recent lawsuits, three under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“In the interest of full transparency, I thought it important to bring these concerns forward,” Brown wrote.

See here and here for the background. Who knew people still used paper documents? The Council vote had been scheduled for this week but will be pushed back after the holidays now. From the story it doesn’t sound like there were any actual problems with the bid, though the losing firms were griping about it, just that it was delayed. We’ll see if it gets any better a reception from Council this time around.

RIP, Peter Brown

A dedicated public servant and a heck of a nice guy.

Peter Brown

Former Houston city councilman, mayoral candidate and civic leader Peter Brown has died, his family said Tuesday.

Brown, an architect and urban planner, was 81.

“A loving father, committed public servant, and fearless advocate, former Council Member Brown passed on to the next life the same way he lived in this one – surrounded by his family in the city he loved most,” his son, the elected City Controller Chris Brown, said in a statement.

“The Brown family would like to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers, and asks for privacy during this very difficult time.”

You can see Chris Brown’s statement here. After the 2009 Mayoral election, Peter Brown went back to his roots, talking about urban design and making city streets safer and more user-friendly for people on his Pedestrian Pete website. He was a visionary and an advocate for building a better city to the end. Rest in peace, Pedestrian Pete.

County approves floodplain regulation change

Five hundred is the new one hundred.

The Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously on Tuesday to make significant changes to the way the county regulates new development, including a slew of new restrictions in Hurricane Harvey’s wake that officials say are necessary to prepare the Houston area for future flooding events.

The regulations will, for the first time in two decades, increase the amount new homes must be elevated to avoid floodwaters, up to 8 feet higher than previously required in some flood-prone parts of the county.

The new rules also would, for the first time, impose regulations in a 500-year floodplain instead of a 100-year floodplain.

See here for the background. This would take effect on January 1, and the idea has support from developers’ groups. A lot more than this will be needed, but it’s a step in the right direction.

State of the County 2017: Ed Emmett versus state leadership

That sound you heard was a fight breaking out.

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday used his annual State of the County speech to blast state leaders who he said attack local governments and seek to cut needed taxes but offer no real solutions to the myriad problems Texas’ large urban counties face.

Before a crowd of hundreds at NRG Center, Emmett called on state officials to invest roughly $500 million in a third reservoir and dam to boost area flood control efforts, fund a beleaguered indigent health care system, and revamp “broken” tax policies that force the county to rely on property taxes to serve an unincorporated area that, on its own, would be the fifth-largest city in the country.

In addition to helping with the county’s flood control efforts, Emmett called on the state to contribute more for mental health care and transportation improvements, citing the need for an Interstate 69 bypass on the east side of the county and renewed emphasis on railroads and technology to move freight from area ports.

He also reiterated his call for state leaders to accept increased Medicaid funding from Washington.

“The next time a state official makes a big deal about a fraction of a cent cut in the property tax rate, ask them why they won’t help Harris County property taxpayers fund indigent health care,” the judge said. “State leaders who are eager to seek for disaster relief should also be willing to accept federal dollars to provide health care for poor people. That would be real property tax relief.”

The state, he said, should treat the county more like a city, which by law can levy a sales tax and pass ordinances. The county is an arm of state government and relies on property taxes for most of its revenue.

“The whole point of today’s speech was to say ‘enough is enough,'” Emmett said afterward. “We need to be able to provide the services and the government that people expect in an unincorporated area.”


Emmett criticized the bills that would have forced the county to get voter approval on taxes and spending.

“Such a populist approach might sound reasonable, but the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who nobody ever accused of being a liberal, described direct referenda as ‘a device for dictators and demagogues'” he said.

He also lit into lawmakers’ attempts to limit property tax collections during the last legislative session, saying leaders “attacked counties and cities and other local governments, all the while offering no real solutions.”

“County government relies almost completely on property tax revenue, but the property tax is widely hated, and wholly inadequate as a means of financing the unique urban government that we have. Unfortunately, narrow-minded politics has pushed unfunded mandates from the state onto county government,” Emmett said.

“It is just pure ugly politics. And, by the way, the portion of county taxes paid by business is, I don’t need to tell the business community in this room, growing. We are reaching the point where tax policies are a drag on economic development.”

You can read the whole speech here. Most of the criticisms Emmett made about state leadership and recent political actions are in the story, but the whole thing is worth a read. Oh, and he was introduced by outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus, which was a further provocation. Like the useless demagogues they are, Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt responded petulantly in the story. This is another skirmish in the culture wars of the Republican Party, and Republicans who are in the Ed Emmett/Joe Straus camp – including Emmett himself – are going to have to decide next year if they really want the likes of Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick dictating to them. A vote for the status quo is a vote for four more years of the things that Emmett was railing against in his speech.

Houston’s health care costs

Because dealing with pensions wasn’t enough.

Taxpayers also face a $2.1 billion liability for retiree health care costs in the coming decades, and Houston – like many state and local governments – has not set aside a penny to pay for those promises.

This burden is the city’s “next major long-term fiscal challenge,” according to PFM, a financial analysis firm Houston has hired to recommend ways to shore up its long-shaky books.

Turner said any financial hurdle concerns him, but the far-larger pension problem took precedence, as the city’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey will do now.

“That’s one of many issues that we have to address, but I am very much aware of it,” Turner said. “Let’s just say we tackled the biggest item and then we’ll tackle the other ones as we go. One step at a time.”

These costs for what are known as “Other Post-Employment Benefits” – OPEB for short – have become a growing issue for local governments, thanks to rising health care expenses and an aging population and public workforce. In Houston, retirees comprised a third of all the city’s health care beneficiaries in 2012, up from 18 percent in 1994.

A shift in accounting rules also has played a key role. In 2008, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board began requiring governments to report their retiree health care costs, not as an annual operating expense, but in the same manner as pensions: Trust funds fed by payments from the city and workers on which investment earnings accumulate to pay for benefits over the next few decades.

Houston and many of its peers have never stopped treating the expense as simply an annual bill to be paid, however.

I know nothing about accounting, so I don’t understand the reasoning behind that 2008 change in standards. Be that as it may, the city has a lot more flexibility here in that the Mayor can order changes in the health insurance system. Mayor Parker did exactly that a few years ago, raising premiums and ordering retired employees to enroll in Medicare at age 65. That cut costs by quite a bit at the time, but they have since climbed back up, as health care costs are wont to do. Ultimately, of course, this is a problem that is too big for Houston to solve. Any solution to control health care costs necessarily involves controlling how much doctors and hospitals get paid. In the meantime, entities like Houston will do what they can to manage their own costs, but they’re going to need help in the long run.

Harris County to consider floodplain regulations change

Seems like a good idea to me.

Nearly three months after Hurricane Harvey, Harris County is proposing using 500-year floodplains instead of 100-year floodplains for new development, the first significant overhaul of county elevation requirements in nearly two decades.

The regulations, which still must be approved by Commissioners Court, would force developers to build new homes eight feet higher than previously required in some flood-prone areas.

They would also, for the first time, open up a broader geographic area to regulation by forcing developers building in 500-year floodplains to meet stricter elevation standards. Currently, there is little regulation outside the 100-year floodplains.

“Any time we can figure out how to make our regulations better and our infrastructure more resilient, we want to do it,” said county engineer John Blount. “We don’t want to be permitting houses that would flood. It’s not good for the county. It’s not good for people that are in the houses. You shouldn’t be building houses at an elevation you know they’re going to flood.”


The newly proposed regulations focus on the booming unincorporated region as opposed to areas within Houston city limits. Unincorporated Harris County has added nearly 1 million people since 2000, more than three-quarters of the growth in the county since 2000.

For some areas along the San Jacinto River, Spring Creek and Cypress Creek, the difference between the new and old regulations — 500-year versus 100-year flood levels — could be several feet of elevation required for new homes, which could increase the cost of development by thousands of dollars.

You can see the proposed new regulations here. This is in line with the larger vision County Judge Ed Emmett proposed in September. If this winds up making some new development more expensive, that’s fine. All that’s doing is more accurately pricing in the flood risk. As the story notes, though, the newest construction in the unincorporated county mostly escaped destruction during Harvey. It’s existing development that was the hardest hit, and that’s going to be a much more difficult and expensive problem to solve. And as Jim Blackburn says in the story, the 500 year zone may not be big enough to address this. Still, this is a positive step, and the Court will take up the proposal in early December.

One more thing:

Meanwhile, the proposed regulations would not govern development in the city of Houston. City regulations require new homes built in 100-year floodplains to be elevated one foot above the 100-year flood level — less than the 18 inches that the county currently requires.

Houston Chief Resilience Officer and “flood czar” Steve Costello said the city has not yet made any proposals regarding new floodplains, but has called a meeting in December among city staff to start the discussion. He said the city would consider the county’s changes.

“There’s no guarantee we will formally adopt everything that they have done,” he said. “Obviously we don’t want different criteria at the end of the day.”

I agree that the city should be in line with the county. I hope we have been involved in the discussion over these changes.

Dome bash planned

Mark your calendars.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

Next year, Astrodome lovers will be able to once again take a gander at the stadium’s iconic roof before it embarks on its next adventure.

During a mixer/meeting for friends and supporters of the Astrodome Conservancy, organizers revealed that a party to honor the Astrodome’s history is tentatively set for April 9, 2018.

In a fitting touch, the mixer was held at the 8th Wonder Brewery.

The party would be much like the 50th birthday bash held for the stadium in 2015 when nostalgia for the Dome was at a fever pitch. Fans were able to walk onto the floor of the Dome and see what it currently looks like inside. Thousands of Houstonians came from all over the city to take in the view and take selfies. The party itself won’t be in the Dome, but fans can wait in line to walk inside for a few minutes.


More plans for the 2018 party are still to be solidified, with more programming and entertainment details to follow.

One presumes this will be to help generate support for the Astrodome repurposing plan, whatever that winds up being. Would you be interested in attending this party? Leave a comment and let us know.

Is this development really necessary?

Boy, the optics of this sure are lousy.

CM Brenda Stardig

The Houston City Council has indefinitely postponed a proposal to build hundreds of homes in a west Houston floodplain amid questions about whether city leaders’ actions would match their rhetoric about mitigating the risk of flooding after Hurricane Harvey.

Mayor Sylvester Turner supported the move to refer the item back to his administration, a procedure that can be used to further study a controversial item or kill it.

Arizona-based Meritage Homes announced last May that it planned to build the single-family homes on the site of the recently closed Pine Crest Golf Club at Clay and Gessner in a master-planned community to be called Spring Brook Village. The finished project would include homes for up to 800 people, with properties priced between the high $200,000s and the mid-$500,000s.

The entire 151-acre site sits in a flood plain, Harris County Flood Control District maps show. Officials said the developers’ drainage plan, once built, will place most of the tract in the 500-year floodplain rather than in the riskier 100-year floodplain.

The builders have said they plan to build the homes at a higher elevation to remove the structures from the 500-year floodplain, and have noted their plan exceeds the city’s minimum requirements for detaining storm water.

Still, Turner acknowledged the optics of approving hundreds of new homes in a floodplain two months after a historic hurricane flooded thousands of homes across the Houston area.

“We are living in the post-Harvey world, and I want people to have the confidence that we’re thoroughly vetting these projects and that we’re asking the questions,” Turner said. “When I have said previously that we can’t do things the same way and expect a different result, I want to make sure this project has been thoroughly vetted, and all the council members agreed to that.”


City Council took up the item because the developers needed its consent to create a municipal utility district to pay for roads, water, sewer and drainage infrastructure on the site.

Council members Brenda Stardig and Mike Knox said the developers told them the inability to form a MUD could result in more homes and less storm water detention being built on the site, because the builders might then be required to finance part of the infrastructure costs themselves rather than repaying those costs through future homeowners’ property taxes.

The MUD is the crux of the issue and the reason why Council is involved – as the story notes, if it were simply a matter of permitting, it would not require a vote. The reason why a MUD is needed at all is not fully explained, though this Press story does add a few details.

According to correspondence between MetroNational and Council Member Brenda Stardig, who represents the district where the golf course is located, approval of the MUD would also allow for a detention pond 16 acre feet more than what the city requires and a linear detention pond with trails for walking around — but MetroNational seemed to indicate that if the MUD isn’t approved, these bonus items won’t be possible.

Still, Matt Zeve, director of operations at the Harris County Flood Control District, said that even with the building elevations and drainage plans, there’s still a risk of “overland sheetflow flooding during extreme rain events,” which is when drainage gets overwhelmed and street flooding gets serious.

“The off-site sheetflow could still cause flooding problems, but it isn’t considered in the analyses that have been completed,” Zeve said in an email.

Maybe building the retention pond and requiring the higher elevation for the houses will be enough to mitigate the risk, I don’t know. As the Chron editorial board notes, leaving a former golf course undeveloped is itself a pretty good flood mitigation strategy. What does seem clear is that this was a business-as-usual idea – the land was bought by the developer a year ago, and the project was announced in May – but we are not and cannot be in business-as-usual mode any more. Projects like this require a much higher level of scrutiny and skepticism now. Otherwise, we really haven’t learned anything from Harvey.

Curbside recycling will resume November 13


Houstonians stockpiling cardboard and aluminum cans, rejoice: the city will resume curbside recycling service next month.

Recycling service has been suspended since Aug. 30, when city waste crews dropped all efforts other than weekly trash pickup to focus on removing the thousands of piles of debris resulting from Hurricane Harvey.

Residents wondering whether their service will start the week of Nov. 13 – the “B” schedule – or Nov. 20 – the “A” schedule – can visit the Solid Waste Management Department’s website and click the “City Services Info Viewer” link.


Homeowners are reminded not to place any of Harvey debris in their 96-gallon green recycling bins, and also to keep glass out of the containers.

Pending the selection of a new recycling processer – an effort that was scrapped earlier this summer after council members questioned the procurement process – residents are stuck taking glass to any of the city’s six neighborhood drop-off sites or the Westpark recycling center.

See here for the background. Everything you need to know is here, so click over and remind yourself of the dos and don’ts, as well as the schedule. I’m just delighted to have a little piece of normality restored. Click2Houston has more.

LWV to look at Harris County election security

I look forward to seeing their results.

The League of Women Voters of the Houston Area plans to study the cybersecurity of Harris County’s election system, but the non-partisan group may not be able to gather all the information it wants.

The League, working with the non-profit civic-tech activist group Sketch City, hopes to finish the study and release recommendations by May 2018.

During an organizational meeting [last] Tuesday night at the Leonel Castillo Community Center, Sketch City founder Jeff Reichman said the group had received early cooperation from both the Harris County Clerk’s office, which administers elections, and the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector, which handles voter registration.

Reichman said the group wants to study all aspects of the election process, which uses Hart InterCivic eSlate voting machines that are about 15 years old. He said they want to look into the documented vulnerabilities of the machines; how easily computers involved in the election can be physically accessed both in storage and while in use in elections; and what the procurement process is for buying new machines.

“We want to look into the best practices that anyone with access to sensitive information should follow,” Reichman said during Tuesday’s meeting.

There’s been a lot of debate about the security of our election systems, locally and nationally. Less discussed is the fact that our voting system is just old, at least in technological terms. The eSlate made its debut in Texas in the 2000 election and has been in use in Harris County since 2002, which is five years before the debut of the iPhone. One would think there have been some advances in the engineering since then. As such, even without this particular elephant in the room, we have needed to be thinking about what comes next for some time. If this is even a small step in that direction, I’m glad to see it. I’m not sure what it would take otherwise.

Council passes dumb forced tax cut

This is where we are.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

City Council rejected Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposal to leave Houston’s tax rate unchanged from last year Wednesday, instead approving a tiny rate cut to comply with the voter-imposed cap on property tax revenues.

Turner had proposed using Hurricane Harvey to invoke a disaster exception clause in the 13-year-old revenue cap and leave the rate at 58.642 cents per $100 in assessed value. That plan would have let the city collect $7.8 million next year for storm recovery costs in addition to what the cap otherwise would allow, or about $7 next year for the typical homeowner.

It was the same process, Turner stressed, that his administration and former mayor Annise Parker’s administration had followed to collect funding above the revenue cap after floods in each of the last two years – actions that went unnoticed by council members and news media at the time.

The council nonetheless voted 15-2 to approve an amendment from Councilman Mike Knox to lower the rate by 0.221 cents – the rate City Controller Chris Brown had said the revenue cap dictated independent of Harvey-related expenses.

You can read the rest if you want to. I’ve said my piece, and I don’t have anything to add to that. If you need a little more, go read Mayor Turner’s response to Paul Bettencourt, which is exactly what needs to be said to that little toady.

Another property tax rate dustup

I have four things to say about this:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to ask city council on Wednesday to sidestep the voter-imposed revenue cap by approving the same property tax rate as last year.

According to City Controller Chris Brown, the city would need to cut the property tax rate by about one fifth of one cent to comply with the revenue cap. The difference would mean about $7 next year to the average Houston homeowner, but the potential political damage to Turner could be much more.

Council must set the tax rate at its Wednesday meeting, but no specific rate was listed on the council agenda and no explanatory backup material was provided to council members until Monday night. Several council members, informed of Brown’s Monday afternoon memo outlining the mayor’s plan, responded with an incredulous, “What?”

The information angered the mayor’s critics and confused his allies on the council a week before voters begin heading to the polls to consider a crucial $1 billion bond that would cement Turner’s landmark pension reforms and another $495 million in city improvement bonds.

To comply with the revenue cap, Brown said, the council would need to set the tax rate at 58.421 cents per $100 of assessed value, not leave it at last year’s 58.642 cents. The difference to the city general fund, he estimated, is $7.9 million.

“I’d love to think of it as a misunderstanding,” Councilman David Robinson said. “Conspicuously on the agenda today it was not disclosed, so it certainly raised a lot of questions. Call it, what – $8 million? It sounds like a very small amount to have a standoff about.”


Turner’s spokesman Alan Bernstein said Monday afternoon that the mayor’s proposal to leave the rate flat did not rely on invoking the disaster declaration language, but hours later acknowledged that clause is the basis for keeping the same rate.

“The mayor clearly said at this meeting, the press conference with the governor and everybody, ‘We are not going to be invoking the disaster clause,'” Brown said late Monday. “So, now they’re saying they’re going to do it. OK, they can do that. My opposition is not if they do it or don’t, my opposition is that they do it and nobody knows about it.”

A Monday evening memo from interim finance director Tantri Emo said the charter not only allows the mayor to invoke the disaster clause to collect an extra $7.9 million for Harvey expenses, but also provides no process by which Brown is required to verify the tax rate. Therefore, Bernstein added, it is not relevant that Brown cannot verify the city’s estimated $1.1 billion in general fund damages from Harvey before federal and insurance reimbursements.

“Since he can’t independently validate them, he’s not counting them,” Bernstein said. “Well, we’re counting them, and we feel like he’s not interpreting this all correctly. We’re certainly not busting the tax cap. The mayor disagrees with the controller’s conclusion.”

1. Let’s get one thing straight up front: This is not in any way an “increase”. This is because leaving something the same as it was before is not an increase, in the same way that my remaining the same height does not mean that I have gotten taller even if for some reason I was supposed to shrink. One of the Council members quoted in the story referred to this as an “increase”, and you can be sure others will echo him. Don’t fall for it.

2. I don’t know what was going on in the Mayor’s office with this, in particular with the peculiar lack of communication followed by the about-face on their rationale, but this was handled badly. They should have been up front about the fact that all their calculations were based on leaving the tax rate the same. Which, let’s be clear, in a sane non-revenue-cap world is exactly what would have happened without anyone even noticing that it was a thing that was happening. Bring it up early on, during the (successful) standoff with Greg Abbott, and there would be nothing more to it by now. Like I said, I don’t know what they were thinking, but this is a mess of their own making, and they need to clean it up.

3. More to the point, this was a missed opportunity to drive home the message that the revenue cap is stupid, harmful policy. If we didn’t have a revenue cap forcing this on us, would anyone have proposed a tax rate cut right now? Can you imagine it: “Hey, let’s make a tiny little cut to the tax rate that will have no effect at all on anyone but will cost the city eight million dollars at a time when we’re up to our necks in hurricane recovery expenses”? It’s stupid policy that forces us to make stupid choices. The revenue cap needs to go.

4. All that said, I think CM Robinson has the right answer. If this were the Lege, as Mayor Turner surely knows, they’d have solved this by delaying payment of an invoice or two from this accounting cycle to the next one, thus making the “deficit” disappear in a puff of magic pixie dust. I have to believe that the city can do something similar if it comes down to it.

The fire department’s needs

This is a conversation we need to have, but it’s one we need to dig into and work all the way through.

Fire Chief Sam Pena gave City Council a bleak assessment Tuesday of his department’s readiness to respond to significant rainstorms, or even daily fire and medical calls, saying a ramshackle fleet and inadequate training are putting the safety of citizens and firefighters at risk.

The Houston Fire Department must double its annual spending on new engines, ladders and ambulances, the chief said, and must ramp up its purchases of water rescue apparatuses and the training.

The department has a “moral and legal” duty, Pena said, to provide safe and effective vehicles and equipment to its 4,100 firefighters and the residents they serve.

Instead, he said, engines are catching fire on the scene or at stations; one dropped a gas tank en route to a call. Another time, he said, an ambulance broke down while carrying a cardiac patient to a hospital. Reserve vehicles have to stand in for broken-down front-line apparatus 85 percent of the time, he said.

“We haven’t allocated the right resources to ensure we’re preparing our firefighters to do the job we’re asking them to do,” said Pena, who became chief last December. “What Harvey put a spotlight on is the lack of resources that we’ve had, but it’s a reality that we’re living as a department every day. We have to make a decision about what we want our fire department to do and what we’re willing to fund.”


On Tuesday, he told the council’s public safety committee that HFD had received funding for 20 of the 47 engines it sought in the last three budget cycles. It also got 10 of 19 requested ladder or tower trucks, and 36 of 75 requested ambulances, he said.

The city has budgeted $5.5 million to $5.8 million in each of the next five years to purchase fire vehicles, but Pena said $11 million is needed annually to ensure HFD meets his recommendation of replacing 16 ambulances, nine engines and four ladder or tower trucks each year.

If voters pass the $495 million city bonds on the November ballot, officials said the department will get $10.8 million a year for five years to renew its fleet.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said it has been evident since he took office that HFD – along with police and city trash haulers – have been working with inadequate vehicles.

“Today Chief Pena painted a picture I know well. We are going to meet these needs as much as we can with the limited city revenues we have, hence the importance of the public safety bonds that the voters are asked to approve,” Turner said. “This is just one of the steps we need to take to get us where we need to be.”

See here for some background. The bond issue on the ballot would help the Fire Department replace old equipment, but it would not be enough to also buy more flood-rescue gear or pay for training on it. That will require further spending from the city, including from general revenue, at a time when there’s not a lot of spare change lying around and the city’s revenue stream is hamstrung by the stupid revenue cap. We should, as I have said here and in that earlier post, have a real discussion about what HFD needs and how we’re going to pay for it, and I trust everyone agrees that kicking the can down the road isn’t a great idea. But that discussion needs to include how HFD spends its money now, because as the Chron editorial board reminds us, their track record on fiscal matters is not good.

Tensions between City Hall and Houston firefighters have simmered for years, and things finally boiled over. Firefighters are frustrated because pension reform cut their benefits; they haven’t received a raise in years, and City Hall has failed to spend enough on much-needed high-water vehicles and other equipment.

Those grievances can sound pretty convincing until you look at things from the perspective of a taxpayer.

The firefighter pension system was unsustainable and needed to be reformed. In June, the firefighter union rejected a 9.5 percent pay raise as insufficient. And City Hall has budgeted more than $5 million per year for the next five years to purchase new fire equipment.

Fire Chief Sam Peña told City Council this week he wants double that amount.

Perhaps Peña should first ask his own staff for cash. HFD’s Life Safety Bureau alone racked up $5.6 million in overtime, according to a recent city audit, all while fudging building inspection numbers. And three years ago – under a different chief – a single year of unexpected overtime blew an $8 million hole in the fire department’s finances. Five percent of that budget gap was due solely to firefighters taking off the first weekend of hunting season. (Note to Peña: Deer season opens Nov. 4).

The board renews its call again for a blue ribbon panel to review HFD’s operations from top to bottom, noting that while the department is geared towards fighting a declining number of fires, the vast majority of the calls it receives are for emergency medical services, for which fire trucks are dispatched. I’m prepared to spend more money on HFD to bring them up to speed on the things we need from them, but I want to know that we’re using that money wisely. If we’re not also prepared to answer that question, then I don’t know when we ever will be. The Press has more.

“Not One Penny” rally

From the inbox:

Indivisible Houston ​to​ ​Host​ ​“Not​ ​One​ ​Penny”​ ​Rally and Press Conference at John Culberson’s Office​ ​to​ ​Demand​ ​Congress Stop​ ​Robbing from the Poor to Give to Big Business

Local Organizers Join Nationwide “Not One Penny” Campaign to Fight Against the Trump Tax Scam

Who: Indivisible Houston
What: Tax Scam Protest
When: Noon to 1 PM, Thursday, October 12th
Where: John Culberson’s Office
Why: To fight the upcoming congressional Tax Scam

Houston, TX​ — Indivisible Houston will hold a press conference and action at John Culberson’s Office located at 10000 Memorial Drive during congressional recess to demand that Congressman Culberson denounce the anti-poor, anti-middle class tax scam being pushed by the White House and congressional leadership.

The “Not One Penny” demands that elected officials pledge to give “Not One Penny” more in tax cuts to the rich or to wealthy corporations. It comprises a large, nationwide coalition of progressive groups and grassroots organizations.

The People are tired of watching donor class elites get away with robbing from the poor to give to the Corporate Industrial Complex. The proposed tax scam does as much to line the pockets of the rich as it does to raise taxes and cut protections for everyone else and we won’t stand for it. The proposed scam especially rich considering that the President has refused to release his tax returns.

All speakers are from the 99% (including small business owners). The event will also include the face of the Tax March: #ChickenDon.

Organizers also encourage constituents to sign the online pledge—at—to tell their elected officials to reject any tax proposal that includes tax giveaways to the rich or wealthy corporations.

For more information, visit

Indivisible Houston has been doing a lot of great work since the election, providing a concrete list of actions and instructions on how to do them. In the spirit of Molly Ivins, who always advised having fun while one is working to make the world a better place, this should be worth your time if you can make it.

We’re going to need another jury building

Good luck with that.

Harris County is unlikely to repair Hurricane Harvey flood damage to the six-year-old, $13 million jury Assembly Building that sits beneath a park in downtown Houston’s courthouse square near Buffalo Bayou, County Judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday.

While no official action has been taken, the county will likely find a replacement facility that is not underground, Emmett said after Tuesday’s county commissioners meeting.

“We’ll build another one somewhere, and I doubt if we’ll put it underground next time,” Emmett said. “That’s not my decision yet, but we don’t have basements in Houston for a reason.”

He characterized it as a “complete replacement of the Jury Assembly Building.”

“I don’t think there will be a re-do of that building,” he said.


When it was built in 2011, the architect said they reviewed 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison, which flooded the tunnels. They built the new jury center’s above-ground portion well above the historic high-water mark.

The above-ground part of the building is a glass structure the size of a bus covering an atrium staircase leading down to the auditoriums. The almost completely glass structure meant natural light poured into the subterranean facility.

To protect from rising floodwaters, the lower level and related tunnels were equipped with flood doors the size of cars.

The floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey went well over the underground building, apparently crashing out windows along the ground and flooding the building from the roof. It is still unclear if the massive submarine doors worked. If they did, they created a giant watertight bowl next to the bayou.

If we learned from TS Allison, then what happened here? If the answer is, “we just never anticipated a storm as big as Harvey”, then I guess this was an expensive lesson. Good luck figuring out what to do next. In the meantime, jury service is suspended through October 16.

Harris County considers its budget post-Harvey

They have some choices, and some constraints.

Harris County government departments could see their budgets reduced by up to 5 percent as property taxes take an expected dip due to Hurricane Harvey’s widespread destruction.

The estimate is preliminary, County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said Friday. The extent of an anticipated decrease in property tax revenues will be determined after properties are appraised Jan. 1.

Jackson said the county plans to keep budgets flat, if possible. Most departments have received increases every year since the 2008 recession.


It is not clear yet how much the storm has affected Harris County’s tax base as the extent of damage to property still is being determined.

Damaged homes will be worth less, and those owners can expect smaller property tax bills. In other cases, repairs to homes or other buildings could bring them back up to their original value. Properties unaffected by floodwaters could see a jump in value.

Jackson said the county’s public contingency fund – roughly $100 million – has helped pay for Harvey-related expenses, such as debris cleanup and overtime for county personnel who worked during and immediately after the storm. Jackson said Harvey-related overtime has totaled some $12 million, so far.

The county still is assessing what is likely to be hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to infrastructure, but most of that will be covered by insurance and some repairs can be reimbursed by the federal government.

Harvey’s impact on the county’s budget likely will come from a dip in property tax revenues, Jackson said. The county relies on property taxes for most of its revenue. Unlike the city, it does not collect a sales tax.

The possible property tax rate hike would come in the event the county does float bonds to rebuild and fortify its flood mitigation infrastructure. For now, the tax rate remains the same. The county also spent some money to buy out 200 homes in the more flood-prone areas. Needless to say, there would need to be a lot more of that to really make a difference, but it’s a start.

Mayor Turner lowers tax rate hike amount

I’m sure we’re all glad to see this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said the temporary property tax rate hike he has proposed would be cut in half after federal officials approved his request to increase reimbursement for the city’s Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts.

Turner earlier this month had pitched an 8.9 percent increase for one year, but said it would not be enough to cover all of the city’s cost of recovering from the unprecedented storm and flooding. It would be the first rate hike in two decades.

On Wednesday, he said that increase could be halved – to an extra $50 next yearfor the owner of a $225,000 home with a standard homestead exemption – thanks to a White House decision to boost reimbursement of many of the city’s recovery costs from 75 to 90 percent.

“We’re going to do everything we can to hold our line. We’re trying to minimize our request,” Turner said. “I understand what people’s concerns are with what they’re going through in their homes, and we don’t want to add to the burden.”


No tax hike would be necessary, Turner said, if state leaders agree to tap their roughly $10 billion rainy day fund. That suggestion drew support from council members.

“We need it now. It’s raining,” said Councilman Jack Christie, who has spoken against a tax rate hike. “We’re behind you to do that to where we don’t have to raise taxes.”

Several times in recent days, Gov. Greg Abbott has said he expects funds will be tapped to pay for Harvey costs, but said damage estimates must be completed before dollars are withdrawn. The latest tally Wednesday projected $574 million in damage to public infrastructure, including $177 million in Harris County.

“I think most people understand that Texas will be tapping into the rainy day fund,” he said in San Antonio last week. “The important thing, though, is that we address the economic issues appropriately. We need to first understand what obligations we’re going to have, how much they will amount to, and decide upon the best strategies to pay for that.”

See here and here for the background. You know what could eliminate the need for any tax hike whatsoever? If the state of Texas, which has some $10 billion sitting around doing nothing, were to cover the remaining costs that insurance and the feds won’t. I wonder if anyone has briefed Paul Bettencourt about this possibility, since he seems to be so entirely bereft of constructive ideas. To be sure, even Dan Patrick has been talking about using the Rainy Day Fund to help Houston and everywhere else recover from Harvey. That’s both good and necessary. But the city of Houston has to pay for things now, and it has to make sure it has the financial wherewithal to pay for those things now since it is not allowed to carry expenses over from one accounting year to another (this is another way of saying the city must “balance” its budget), so unless there’s a firm commitment in place from the state that the city can rely on, it’s got to make its own plans to pay for any uncovered expenses. If Paul Bettencourt and the usual suspects on City Council don’t like that, they are welcome to direct their concerns to Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick. The Press has more.

Harris County may do Harvey bonds

Turns out Harvey recovery will cost money. Who knew?

A majority of the Harris County Commissioners Court on Wednesday said they would support a large bond issue, perhaps upwards of $1 billion, and a tax increase to pay for it. The bond issue would bolster cash-strapped flood control initiatives, which could include a improvements to waterways and buyouts of properties that repeatedly flood.

After Hurricane Harvey’s widespread devastation and severe floods of the last few years, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, all Republicans, said in interviews Wednesday afternoon that they would favor a bond issue.

A bond proposal and corresponding tax rate increase would have to be approved by voters countywide, after a majority of the five-member Commissioners Court vote in favor of calling the election and placing the proposal on the ballot.

As to how early such an election could be called, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office was reviewing the potential timing of an election.


Emmett said the bond issue would likely need to be $1 billion at a minimum.

County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said it is not immediately clear how much of a tax rate hike, if any, would be needed to pay for the bonds. If the county issued $1 billion in bonds at once, today, it would need roughly a 2-cent hike in the property tax rate.

I presume it’s too late for this year. so it’s a matter of when this could be done in 2018. The county could easily do this next November, it’s more a question of whether they can get it on the ballot sooner than that if they want to. There will need to be details filled in on what this bond would entail, but it sure seems like a worthwhile thing to do. I mean, if you think repairing the damage and investing in better flood mitigation going forward are worthwhile, that is. Perhaps someone should ask the Harris County Republican Party, which reflexively opposed Mayor Turner’s proposal, saying the city should “follow Harris County’s lead”. One could argue the county is now following the city’s lead. I’d just argue that by taking action, both the city and county are leading. Isn’t that what we want?

Council to hold hearings on proposed tax rate increase

Here’s your chance to be heard.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council set the ball rolling Wednesday on Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed 8.9 percent tax rate hike to help fund Houston’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey, in what would be the first hike from City Hall in more than two decades.

The council voted to schedule three public hearings on the issue, which is expected to reach a formal vote on Oct. 18.

Those hearings will be held at City Hall on:

Sept. 25 at 6 p.m.
Oct. 2 at 6 p.m.
Oct. 11 at 9 a.m.


The mayor said his staff will work over the next two to three weeks to better estimate what the insurance policies will cover, what the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse, and what the city will be left to pay itself.

After that review, Turner said, the proposed 8.9 percent increase could be reduced.

See here for the background. Campos says he wants specifics. Sounds like we ought to have them by the end of this process. I note in passing that the Harris County GOP has put out a statement opposing this proposal. I say no trash collection for them until all the Harvey debris has been carted off, too.

Mayor seeks one-year tax hike for Harvey cleanup

This stuff isn’t going to pay for itself, you know.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask City Council to approve an 8.9 percent hike in the city’s tax rate this fall to help Houston recover from Tropical Storm Harvey, in what would be the first tax rate hike from City Hall in more than two decades.

The average Houston homeowner would pay $118 more in property taxes next year under the proposal, which will begin a series of public hearings later this month and reach a formal vote in mid-October.

The tax rate would rise from 58.64 cents per $100 of appraised value – the lowest city tax rate since the late 1980s – to 63.87 cents. That was the rate from 2009 through 2013, when a 13-year-old voter-imposed limit on Houston’s property tax collections first began forcing City Council to cut the rate each year to avoid bringing in more revenue than was allowed.

Turner is able to propose an increase beyond the strictures of the revenue cap – allowing the city to collect an extra $113 million for one year – because Harvey placed Houston under a federal disaster declaration.

“If this is not an emergency, I don’t know what is. What we’re able to recoup from one year, the $113 million, will not even be enough to cover the expenses we will have incurred,” Turner said Monday. “What we don’t get from the feds we’ll have to come up with ourselves. I would be not doing my job if I did not advance it.”

Debris removal could cost more than $200 million and will require Houston to foot 10 percent of the bill without being reimbursed. The city also lost 334 vehicles to floodwaters and saw its municipal courts complex, city hall and its adjacent annex and two wastewater treatment plants knocked offline.


If adopted, the higher rate would take effect only for homeowners’ January 2018 tax bills. Come the following January, the emergency period would end and the city’s tax rate again would be dictated by the voter-imposed cap, which limits the annual growth of Houston’s property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston and key revenue cap proponent, said he wants to speak with the mayor to remind him that homeowners’ assessed values are rising, meaning a tax rate hike would amount to a double increase.

Bettencourt refrained from outright criticism of the proposal and praised much of the mayor’s response to the storm. He urged caution on the tax proposal, however.

“The rate is just one half of the equation. The other half is how much the value has gone up,” he said. “This is a delicate public policy issue because we’ve got Houstonians that are literally flooded out of their homes and many people have been affected so they’re not in a position to pay the bill easily, much less if it increases.”

The average Houstonian in a $225,000 home with a standard homestead exemption sends $1,321 to City Hall annually. Turner’s proposal would see that bill rise by $117.86 next year.

Let’s be clear about a couple of things. Thanks to the revenue cap charter amendment, this can only be a one-year increase. The rate will be what we had from 2008 to 2013, so it’s not like this is some unprecedented assessment. The city can’t run a deficit, and it can’t borrow money without getting authorization from the voters. The property tax rate is basically the only mechanism the city has to raise this kind of money. The city will get some federal funds, but it may not have control over their appropriation, and some of those funds as noted in the story are contingent on the city putting up money as well. Lord only knows what the state will pay for, and the county will do its own thing.

The point here is that the city has some big unexpected bills to pay. It has to pay for a lot of overtime for police officers and firefighters who were rescuing people during the floods and who are dealing with aftereffects like traffic control. It has to pay for a lot of overtime to Solid Waste employees who are working to pick up the enormous piles of trash around the city. Your taxes are going up by a couple hundred bucks to pay for this. If you have a problem with that, I don’t know what to tell you, other than I can’t abide that kind of thinking.

Some people will say that we should find costs to cut instead. I will remind you that the vast majority of the city’s expenses are for personnel, and in this particular case the extra unbudgeted expenses are largely for overtime pay. Unless you think all these people should have worked for free, this argument is nonsense. Every time a government entity faces a budget shortfall, I hear people justify cutting programs and services as “shared sacrifice”. In my experience, most of the people who say that aren’t themselves sacrificing much of anything. The difference between those cuts and this rate increase is that this time the bulk of the sacrifice is being felt by a different crowd. If you don’t like it, maybe keep that in mind for the next time.

To address Sen. Bettencourt’s concern, I’m fine with exempting the people who were flooded out from the rate increase. If you filed a FEMA claim, you get to be assessed at the current rate. As for the Council members quoted in the story who say they can’t go along with this, I say no trash gets collected in their neighborhoods until every last piece of Harvey debris has been carted off. There’s a little shared sacrifice for you. The Press has more.

Mayor Turner requests study of Confederate statues

From the inbox.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has asked top staff members to study whether statues related to the Confederacy should be removed from city property.

The mayor commented about the statues Tuesday at a City Council meeting after members of the public urged the city to remove the statues from its public spaces because, they said, the statues honor slavery and racism.

Staff members will compile an inventory of the statues and “provide me with recommendations about what steps we need to take,” the mayor said.

“It is my hope that we can, in a very positive and constructive way, move forward,” Mayor Turner added.

No date has been set for action on the issue.

Public comments may be sent by e-mail to

Here’s the Chron story related to this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston residents stirred by racial clashes in Virginia are demanding removal of a Confederate monument that has sat largely unnoticed more than 100 years in a quiet corner of Sam Houston Park.

The downtown monument – titled Spirit of the Confederacy – features a bronze statue of a defiant, winged angel holding a sword and palm leaf.

“To all the heroes of the South who fought for the Principles of States Rights,” reads the inscription.

For Timbergrove resident Christina Gorczynski, it’s time for the monument to go.

Gorczynski joined about a dozen residents at City Hall Tuesday in urging city leaders to take down a symbol they say celebrates slavery and racism.

“As a city, we must demonstrate our commitment to fulfilling the unfulfilled promise of equity for all,” Gorczynski said. “We must demolish the symbols that celebrate an evil institution of slavery – those that through their mere existence reinforce and maintain a culture of white supremacy.”

In response, Mayor Sylvester Turner ordered city staff to assess Houston’s public art collection and recommend future steps in light of the requests for the city to remove Confederate monuments.

“The important thing is that as we move forward, that we recognize history is also what it is,” he said during the City Council’s public session Tuesday. “History has its good. History has its bad. But I do think it’s important for us to review our inventory and then to make the most appropriate decision that’s in the best interest of our city and that does not glorify those things that we shouldn’t be glorifying.”

This is the statue in question. Which, like nearly all statues of its kind, was built decades after the end of the Civil War as a way of demonstrating the restoration of white dominance of political power. It’s the very history of these statues that tells us what they’re about. As a Yankee who has always understood the Confederacy to be a treasonous violent rebellion for the purposes of preserving slavery, I have no problem at all with ashcanning these anachronisms. Put them in a museum where their historic context can be properly documented, or put them in a basement somewhere, I don’t care. If Baltimore can do it, so can Houston. Gray Matters and the Press have more.