Time for Judge Emmett to tell us how things are going in Harris County. (Spoiler alert: They’re going fine, thanks for asking.)
On the eve of what could be his final term as Harris County’s top elected official, County Judge Ed Emmett on Thursday called for the consolidation of various government entities and services, citing explosive growth in the unincorporated areas of the county, the city’s lack of annexation and deteriorating infrastructure.
Saying he was not advocating for a total fusion of city and county governments, Emmett cited several areas ripe for consolidation: ports, health care, affordable housing and law enforcement, including county and city forensic crime laboratories.
“The future state of Harris County will depend on the ability of the region to work together to best address the needs of our residents,” Emmett said in his annual State of the County address, delivered to a Hilton Americas luncheon crowd that included dozens of elected officials from the county, city of Houston and several of the 34 independent municipalities the county encompasses.
Emmett and other county leaders, particularly County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, have in recent years harped on census projections that indicate the number of people living in the unincorporated areas of the county – nearly 1.7 million in 2012 – is expected to exceed the number of people living inside Houston city limits by the end of the decade, if the city continues a policy of limited annexation.
Emmett, county judge since 2007, said that practice has created a “problem in unincorporated Harris County, where we don’t have ordinance-making power, we’ve got subdivisions where the streets are beginning to wear out because they were built 50 and 60 years ago.”
Without consolidation of services, Emmett said, “we’re going to end up with a county that is overwhelmed, with a city that is still going to not be able to take care of its streets.” He noted the creation of any “multi-county district” or consolidation of ports would have to be approved by the Legislature.
Mayor Annise Parker said Thursday the city and county “are working more closely together than any time in our history,” citing the processing center, libraries, Metro and the Port of Houston.
“We will continue to look for opportunities where we can meld operations for more efficiencies and savings for our citizens,” she said.
I have a copy of the speech here; it should be posted on Judge Emmett’s website shortly. There’s a lot to be said for further consolidation of county and city functions. A lot of functions overlap or duplicate each other, and the potential is there to make these services more efficient. I sometimes worry that the current level of harmony between Houston and Harris County is mostly a function of the cordial relationship between Mayor Parker and Judge Emmett. Whether that’s a ration fear or not, I’d still like to see if we can get a lot of this stuff formalized while the two of them are still in office, so we don’t have to worry about whether the next Mayor gets along with Judge Emmett and/or his future successor or not.
Along the same lines, taking a more regional approach to some aspects of governance and planning makes a lot of sense as well. This is a much tougher thing to do because it usually requires legislative assistance, and because as Judge Emmett notes there’s a tendency to protect one’s turf. But a lot of our problems and our needs cross political boundaries and can’t be solved or even approached without some level of cooperation. The advantage of regional agencies and districts is they can help ensure adequate levels of funding to solve those problems. And if we’re going to talk about regional approaches, and since Judge Emmett talked about transportation as a big problem that needs a lot of attention, let me suggest that maybe now would be a good time to start talking about Metro and whether it might make sense to expand its service area to include places like Fort Bend and The Woodlands. If it’s a good thing to avoid duplication of effort in government offices, it’s a good thing to avoid it in transportation agencies and function, too. Just something to think about as long as we’re thinking big.