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Diverting ReBuild Houston funds

I don’t know about this.


Expressing impatience with the pace of street repairs under the Rebuild Houston program, City Council on Wednesday voted to siphon off some of the drainage-fee supported funds to speed up projects and help resolve smaller neighborhood problems sought by their constituents.

In an amendment to the city’s five-year $7.8 billion capital improvements program, the council voted to draw down $31 million from ReBuild Houston, prompting a warning from Mayor Annise Parker and Department of Public Works and Engineering officials, who said the move could drive the program’s cash flow into the red within two years and force the delay of other projects.

“Council members today would get a lot of short-term relief, but council members in a couple years may see delays,” Parker said.

Councilman Jerry Davis and other council members pushed back, saying constituent concerns have forced them to look for new funds.

“I respect the voices of the engineers and I respect the voices of Public Works,” Davis said. “But again, this is why we’re voted in to be here to make these decisions based upon the wants and needs of the people.”

Davis said council members would revisit reserve spending if a cash flow problem proved imminent.

Councilman Stephen Costello, who proposed the amendment with Davis, said the $31 million still would be spent using ReBuild Houston’s “first-worst” prioritization model.

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Under the amendment, the $6 million would be made up of any money left over from bond-funded library, parks and street projects. If there is no leftover money – which Parker said was likely – the $6 million would come from ReBuild Houston funds. Those funds, however, would come with charter-prescribed spending restrictions.

Parker warned council members that the $1 million-per-council-district funds would not solve larger neighborhood problems.

“One of the challenges for council members is going to be managing expectations,” Parker said, adding that the funds approved Wednesday are “not going to pave a lot of streets.”

I get why Council did this – ReBuild Houston hasn’t exactly moved at breakneck speed – but that’s not what this fund was for, and I worry that this will set a precedent. Maybe this will turn out to be a good idea, and maybe any future delays will be offset by the earlier completion of some other work. Maybe there won’t be complaints about what gets prioritized from these diverted funds. Maybe, I don’t know. We’ll see. A statement from CM Costello, who opposed this proposal, is beneath the fold.

Houston City Council Member Stephen Costello will strongly oppose all Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) amendments allowing the use of ReBuild Houston Program funds for the proposed Council Member District Service Project Program. Amendments to the CIP will be considered at the Wednesday, July 8, 2014, meeting of the Houston City Council.

In voicing his opposition to the amendments, Council Member Costello issued the following statement:

“Voters supported the ReBuild Houston program because they recognized the overwhelming need to improve our city’s aging infrastructure. At the time of debate and passage, the Mayor and City Council promised that supported projects would be prioritized based on unbiased data, not politics. Unfortunately, today’s proposed amendments retreat from those promises. As a result, I will be voting “no” and will be asking that the mayor and my fellow city council members join me in opposition.

In the course of today’s debate, I will argue that ReBuild Houston funds are not designed for use by individual council members for projects of their own selection. That was never how voters perceived this program and I believe that the city has an obligation to keep the promises made.”

Background

Voters passed Proposition One in November of 2010 in order to create a pay-as-you-go “lockbox” fund for street and drainage repairs and improvements. Since its inception, this program, now known as ReBuild Houston, is responsible for reducing the city’s overall debt by over $130 million, yielding an additional $42 million for capital projects, with another $33 million expected this year. Further, the program contributes over $100 million annually to drainage improvements.

In the past, the city identified need based on a largely reactive, subjective, and often very political process. Conversely, ReBuild Houston incorporates advances in technology to assess infrastructure condition and uses a data-driven process to determine project need. This does not preclude council members from having input into the process. In fact, since the program began, the CIP Process Manual for Infrastructure Programs has been revised to allow for greater council member input.

More information on ReBuild Houston can be found at www.ReBuildHouston.org and including the CIP process manual specifically at http://www.rebuildhouston.org/images/pdf/cip_process_manual_2013_09_23.pdf

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