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State of the county 2014: Let’s keep working together

Time for Judge Emmett to tell us how things are going in Harris County. (Spoiler alert: They’re going fine, thanks for asking.)

Judge Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

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.

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6 Comments

  1. Steve Houston says:

    While such a plan sounds good on paper, the problem arises when you discuss who will pay for what and who will control the other. Parker pushed for the city to have it’s own crime lab when the county lab was not only upgrading but has ample spare capacity, this despite the county offering her a “deal” in terms of costs. For years, the county offered to house city prisoners, the ones it doesn’t have to take by virtue of what level of crimes were committed, at a premium of course.

    Harris county can’t even consolidate their constable forces into the sheriff’s office, both sides fighting for those lucrative, marginally constitutional contracts to provide a bare bones level of law enforcement services since the county refuses to adequately staff enough deputies to cover the areas they are in charge of. For that matter, the county typically provides almost no services at all to residents, guess where water & sewer, street lights, garbage pick up, and a myriad of other services come from in the county versus in the city where the municipality provides them in most cases.

    With such basic differences in philosophies, I don’t think either side has any business fusing with the other. The cries in the county would be over the increase in taxes, regardless of the lowered cost to provide the same services residents get now from MUD’s and HOA’s. The cries in the city would be over how poor the services are despite a corresponding cost decrease, depending on which spending philosophy prevailed in a given case. There are so many more hurdles than these too…

  2. More sensible talk from Judge Emmett. I can’t say that I feel safer knowing that there are, what, thirty-some (or is it fifty?) law enforcement agencies operating in Harris County.

  3. Ralfff says:

    A poison pill for the city.

    The time to merge county and city was thirty years ago, before Houston had sprawled over county lines. Now that that Houston infrastructure is aging, the bill is in and our excessive roadways and low density have made it a very large one, only mitigated by Houston’s willingness to tax itself.

    Meanwhile, the subdivisions in unincorporated Harris County that Emmett cites (with even lower density) are the ones who have benefited from minimal taxation over the last 50 years. The last thing Houston needs is to choke on the bills dumped on us by people too cheap to live in an actual town. Even more super-low-density land would only hurt Houston, even if they paid more in taxes than they do now. I support Emmett when he suggests that the county and MUDs need to work out something to pay for unincorporated street maintenance, but not on Houston’s share of the county’s dime. The piper has come for 50 years of mindless sprawl, and suburbanites and Exxon should pay him.

    I agree with Emmett that pursuing some nebulous “world city” status is ridiculous for Houston (or any city). But he implies that trying to stop suburban sprawl or reconfiguring Houston to make it less auto-oriented is a fool’s errand, when in fact Houston’s auto-orientation is the exact mechanism which has caused the unincorporated areas to sprawl so much. If you have to drive everywhere anyway, there is no disadvantage to moving to suburbs where you enjoy lower taxes and get to drive into the city proper on huge freeways.

  4. Ralfff says:

    I should also say, in fairness, that I supported a county-city crime “superlab” and certainly support consolidating functions that are excessively splintered now and which are basically location-neutral, like policing. But the cost of these things is dwarfed by the cost of suburban road and cul-de-sac street maintenance. Houston needs to avoid being roped into paying for this any more than it already does through Metro.

  5. Steve Houston says:

    Ralff, Metro is financed via a portion of sales tax that also comes from the county and adjoining counties. Most would point out that Metro spends the bulk of such proceeds inside city limits, that being the basis for some communities to try and opt out of the arrangement not that long ago.

    In terms of relative tax costs, the only ones benefiting from low taxes are retirees who pay about a tenth of the usual amount in county taxes if they live outside the city while the rest of the residents pick up the tab. For those under 65 years old, once all service costs are added up there is very little difference between living in the city or the county, school taxes the same regardless (see above).

    As far as capital works projects are concerned, there is an endless list in both city and county that need to be addressed but I know of no one that truly wants to pay the requisite price to “fix the roads” as it were, something that would dwarf all other spending if allowed to. In the county, you’re lucky to get a 5 minute asphalt fix on a pothole after months of complaining to the right people while in the city you get to wait years for a black top overlay unless you’re special and get a reconstruction job that takes forever.

    Joint projects like a unified crime lab make sense, as would a joint water authority to serve the region, jail holding facilities, and libraries. Police and fire don’t make sense since each jurisdiction has such different philosophies, the city paying a lot for their superior fire service compared to the various volunteer services scattered across the county and so much more expected of city police than county (both are so under staffed as to make their job impossible).

  6. Ralfff says:

    Steve,

    It sounds like we agree. What I was referring to about Metro was the General Mobility Program: http://www.chron.com/news/politics/article/Voters-extend-Metro-s-tax-sharing-plan-4014412.php which certainly benefits the unincorporated areas of Harris County. This is one tax I would be happy to relieve them of if it meant they stopped getting a vote in Metro affairs.

    That said, I don’t know what the exact current breakdown in General Mobility spending is in terms of what towns or areas are benefiting. If some towns want to leave, let them. The one principle we should be able to agree on is that a public transit agency should not have to buy off its own constituency by funding roads for them. If they hate it that much, they shouldn’t have it nor have to pay for it.

    The one form of public transport the suburbs do need is paratransit. I just think that this should be the county’s direct responsibility, and not Metro, because this is another one of those location-neutral services.

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