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ReVote Houston?

Mayoral candidate Bill King calls for a do-over on Renew/ReBuild Houston.

Bill King

Bill King

Houston mayoral candidate Bill King wants to put ReBuild Houston, the city’s controversial streetand drainage program, back up for a vote.

[…]

King, the most vocal opponent of ReBuild Houston in the race, has seized the moment to attack ReBuild.

“I only see one way out of this quagmire,” the former mayor of Kemah said in a statement Thursday. “We need to have another election on the ReBuild Houston program in November. But this time with clear and transparent ballot language.”

Should ReBuild make it back on the ballot this year, King said he would continue to oppose the program, proposing instead to finance city infrastructure projects with bonds.

See here and here for the background. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to call for a revote, but I’d like to hear something from the trial court first.

King’s full statement is here, and I now have a statement as well from Steve Costello, which is here. Not surprisingly, the two don’t agree on the path forward.

For me, as I have said before, whatever else you may say about ReBuild Houston, it has provided for a supplemental revenue source for infrastructure projects, while also helping to retire existing debt. I support having that supplemental revenue source for this purpose, and would support it again if it does come to a revote. I understand King’s point about bond payments being cheaper than construction cost increases, but that doesn’t do anything to increase the revenue available to pay for it all. Also, debt service comes out of general revenue, meaning that when there are limitations on the budget due to increases in other expenditures and/or the revenue cap, it puts an extra squeeze on everything else. I’m not at all opposed to bond financing, but it’s hardly a panacea. Bond issues do sometimes get voted down and they can generate plenty of their own controversy and opposition.

Basically, King is saying we should go back to financing street and drainage projects as we did before the 2010 Renew Houston referendum. Which is fine as far as it goes, but I believe it is entirely inconsistent with any promise to improve or hasten such projects. I mean, either you’re for increasing funding over what we used to have or you’re not. As I’ve said many times now, if not this, then what? One could promise to kill off TIRZes as a way of adding resources for infrastructure (good luck with that), or cut funds from other projects and programs (please specify, and remember that public safety is 2/3 of general revenue), or perhaps adopt the leadership strategies of America’s most innovative supervillains, among other potential options. As with pretty much every other issue in this race so far, I look forward to hearing more details.

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16 Comments

  1. Steven Houston says:

    It’s not surprising that the man who continually claims to be fiscally responsible panders to folks via social media deploring Houston’s “over $20 Billion in debt” and complains about previous administrations “kicking the can down the road” now wants to issue billions more in debt while decreasing city revenue. I’m just glad we don’t have miles of teak handrails for him to restore because apparently, he’d get out the city checkbook for that too (ref: a column of his that showed his priorities).

    While it’s great to focus on increases in construction costs, the largest cost being labor which is reportedly on the decline with oil prices falling so much, and compare them with the total funding costs (interest, fees), if you take a step back you might remember a government spending truism both political parties have espoused when convenient: “There will always be an endless supply of projects to undertake while a limited supply of resources to pay for them.” (I’m paraphrasing) With bonded debt costing more each year than all three pensions combined, going further into debt to address political wishlists seems curious from anyone claiming to be a fiscal conservative or “well versed in finance” because there is literally no end to how much you can spend on such projects before the rest of the vultures come out of the wood works to say “For a little bit more, wouldn’t it be nice to…?” (fill in the blank with the park project, bike trail, restoration project or other use of city money that “just can’t wait”).

    And seeing how city council renewed their individual yearly million dollar slush funds despite ever increasing pressure on revenues, I hope future leaders will refrain from taking money from ReBuild Houston, or if it comes to a vote, install language to the effect that pilfering for other purposes is prohibited (adding some legal sanctions). I know that is a fantasy just like listening to wannabe mayors telling the world how one expenditure has to be funded as we go yet others can be handled with bonds costing hundreds of millions more for projects we can’t afford now in the first place. Sigh…

  2. Manuel Barrera says:

    Steven do a little research and see how much of the money that is raised by water, sewage, and the rain tax stay in public works for public works projects.

    They changed their story a few years back but it used to be that they increased water and sewage rates for infrastructure, but the money never seemed to be there. Recently the new story is it costs more so we have to charge more.

    Again water rates are regressive tax or fee if you prefer. If we need more more lets put something out there that will allow us to raise property taxes. Call me a socialist when it comes to taxes or fees if you prefer. Let me state something about fees. We build roads that can handle cement trucks and 18 wheelers. The fee that they pay do not begin to compensate for the very large additional costs that it takes to build streets and highways to handle the heavy loads. Car owners are subsidizing heavy vehicles. We don’t raise property taxes or seriously consider doing that because it impacts the expensive homes and commercial buildings the most. Even with our low tax rate commercial building seem to be undervalued by the tax assessors.

  3. Ross says:

    Manuel, we don’t raise property taxes because there is a prohibition on raising them beyond a certain limit. Property taxes are no better than charging the actual costs for water and sewer.

    Everyone ought to pay the cost of their water and sewer usage, even the poor. In general, that’s how it works in Houston.

    There is nothing the City can do to increase the amount heavy trucks pay. That’s all set at the State level. Metro does contribute some amount for their buses.

  4. Jules says:

    Charles, I agree that we should see this thing played out before any vote, and it would be the Parker Administration that would have to put it on this ballot and I don’t see that happening.

    What I have recently learned about TIRZ, thanks to you guys, is that the TIRZ money is outside the revenue cap. Also, perhaps the recent Kroger distribution center tax abatement and the Valero deal is outside the revenue cap? I don’t think the 380’s are, though. Any clarification or agreement on this?

    I’m still against TIRZ, 380’s and tax abatements, even more so. My feeling is that the revenue cap was to control government spending and keep property taxes lower for homeowners, not to find ways around the revenue cap for the benefit of corporations and the politicians who serve them to the detriment of home owners.

  5. Steven Houston says:

    MB, again, I’m in favor of the fee/tax/revenue stream/call it what you will being used only for the intended purpose and very, very closely related projects. We’ve previously established that I do not consider the poor a protected class who should get a free ride; if someone owns a large estate with a great deal of impermeable concrete poured on top of it, the fee charges more based on square footage. I doubt the truly poor have to worry about that issue since owning property with structures on it tends to happen only to people well off enough to afford such.

    Having lived in some of the largest apartment complexes in the state here in Houston, I can tell you that the owners do not pay anything close to what stand alone business or single family homes do in terms of taxes per tenant, nor do they charge as much (for the most part) so the ReBuild costs are fairly small BECAUSE they are spread out. If your alternative is to simply charge an extra couple of bucks per thousand gallons of water used or to simply stop building such projects in the first place, which really do seem to impact lower middle income people the most (less likely to have insurance, more often in flood plains, etc), that’s fine too. That said, no matter what funding mechanism you use, it is going to impact the poor.

    Otherwise, we don’t raise property taxes because legally, the revenue cap prevents that while using a “fee”, you avoid the problem. If improving flooding, drainage, and water related projects is needed, by all means pick your poison. Like Paul Kubosh, I don’t think voters will approve a revenue cap override nor do I think they will approve one of crazy Bill’s proposed endless bond measures so why would they approve a tax rate hike? Those with a direct stake, property owners, will be more likely to vote it down because they don’t want to pay more and they know the city will finagle the books to spend it elsewhere (or at least not on specific projects benefiting specific voters).

    If roads are not withstanding the rigors of commercial truck use, a common occurrence in a large city such as this without zoning, then build streets properly to handle the added stresses. Sure it costs more and sure, the streets most like to be improved will not be in areas of town where “poor” people reside, but showing some foresight is not a bad idea. User taxes like those in each gallon of gasoline do not even cover maintenance, and never have, never mind building new roads, and the money those big trucks contribute via fees, taxes, and such are substantial so adding in extra costs to diesel fuel probably won’t change the equation either.

  6. Jules says:

    Isn’t the person charged the drainage fee the person who has the water bill, not necessarily the owner? As in a poor person could rent a structure and pay the water bill and the drainage fee.

    Also, don’t forget elderly who have owned property a long time. Or anyone who owned property prior to the fee.

    A 2000 square foot one story house would have a greater fee than a 2000 square foot brand new 3 story townhouse. It’s not related to the cost of house, but the “impermeable” area.

  7. Steven Houston says:

    Jules, aside from the fact that seniors get significant exemptions, including another big chunk recently, if $5 or so is going to break you, you probably need to move to a cheaper location. Every expert in the field, not just the self proclaimed experts like King and Hooper, recognize the need for some serious infrastructure investment on a very large scale. Those needed improvements are not going to come cheap and they are not going to be donated by the “rich” or upper middle class who already pay significant amounts of taxes, fees, and such.

    The cost of living in a big city with all those big city services is always on the increase and always will be. Those that want to save money can move to a rural area or for seniors, even move to the county where seniors get to pay about 10% of the full ride for county taxes, other taxing authorities varying the exemption but virtually always much better for the aged regardless of need.

    As far as the 380 agreements and other corporate giveaways, there is an incentive for companies to simply shuffle stated “jobs” in order to qualify, the net gain to the city far, far less than what is stated and if the location is also in a TIRZ, doesn’t the additional revenue simply go to the TIRZ board and not the city in the first place. It’s wonderful that the agreements with abatement’s can add beautification projects and sidewalks to nowhere or other things no one would pay if it was their money being invested but the amount of cooking the books needed to make most of them look good on paper is part of the reason city finances are in such amazing shape.

    Seriously, does anyone think the Wal-Mart in the Heights (that few cared for) was not going to happen absent the deal that netted them $6 million? Was each of the stated projects under that deal really needed, most suggesting they did little to stave off the additional traffic and problems as they were supposed to. Was there really a lack of retail outlets within a short driving distance that anyone can credibly state the business was needed there? Same for Kroger and virtually every other such deal.

  8. Manuel Barrera says:

    Jules what stops the city from increasing the property tax? Look real hard and see if there is anything the voters could do about it. Then come back and say our hands our tied.

  9. Manuel Barrera says:

    SH, the poor get a free ride, I don’t think so. Try being poor and come back and tell how great the free ride is. What is wrong with people who stand to risk more have to pay more? Whose homes depreciate more if they flood, or if the streets are in terrible shape? Do poor people care if they live in Democracy or a Communist country? Misery is the same no matter the type of government. Who did the government bail out, the banks or the people who got shafted with an increase interest because the banks messed up? I haven’t heard “too small to fail”.

    We don’t raise taxes because the voters capped it, the voters those well informed people that SH always knows what they are voting for.

    I stated that the water and sewage rate is sufficient for the infrastructure as to water and sewage lines. That would include the drainage lines to go to the bayous or where ever they drain.

    SH if anyone gets a free ride it is the rich, don’t look at the amount of money they pay but at the percentage they pay compared to the average person.

    There is a lot of waste at the City and most of it occurs at two departments, police and fire.

  10. Steven Houston says:

    MB, given those two departments comprise the lion’s share of the city’s operating budget, not just politician’s being unwilling to truly look at either operation in detail, I concur that the majority of operating budget waste occurs in them. I’ve said this a great many times here and elsewhere so we’re on the same page there (more or less).

    Being poor: Having lived immediately off Stella Link decades ago, back when nearby neighborhoods would order (yes, order) their hired guns working for the constables office to pull over any cars leaving our apt complex using what they called pretext traffic stops, at a time when I was working for minimum wage, I feel reasonably comfortable that I walked my mile (or more) in those shoes. Living in the Gunspoint area and the infamous Gulfton Ghetto for a period of time as well, I can honestly say that my personal diversity training with the less well off surpasses most people I’ve met. Not enjoying the resulting quality of life, I took personal steps to improve, not relying on handouts or special treatment so while I may have missed out on the largess you’ve enjoyed in the area, I’ve done pretty well for myself. Our society is built on the premise that people can work harder and smarter to improve their lot because they don’t want to be “miserable”.

    My take on the city’s water and sewage rate is that it isn’t enough to fix the flooding problems on an ongoing basis. Looking forward, and given existing debt loads, absent major changes in how money is spent (which could mean cutting programs like art funding, selling off the zoo, closing libraries, cutting back on cops and fire protection or whatever you like), means needing more money to fix infrastructure. Except under narrow circumstances, voters are not very friendly these days to voting in favor of increased property taxes, the battle cries in the state capitol the entire session being for property tax relief, not for spending more money.

    Right or wrong, they are rational enough to know how much they are spending on taxes (and fees) now and a great many rally to the idea that they are paying too much already. Even you carry that banner, suggesting great amounts of waste takes place yet never actually detailing any of it. At least when I fuss about something of that nature, I outline suggestions of lower priority spending or point out how those wealthy you think should pay the rest of the bills too are making bank off abatements and TIRZ programs. But the idea of a fee dedicated to fixing flooding problems that is small enough we can all reasonably expect to pay yet broad based enough that there is enough money to make an impact, seems reasonable in theory even if the slush fund loving city council wants to spend it on other things. Those who own larger properties generally pay more according to the structures on their property so the better off, almost by definition, are paying more into the fund by virtue of having bigger homes, larger driveways, and what have you. If any voter was under the impression that voting in favor of what has become ReBuild Houston would mean not paying anything, I think they might NOT “be smarter than a 5th Grader” (or whatever that show was).

  11. Manuel Barrera says:

    Steven the Gulfton ghetto was the place to be back in the 70s. So I am curious when you lived there. I did stay there for about a year around 1974.

  12. Paul kubosh says:

    Steven am I correct when I say Switzerland and movie reviews? If so then I do know who you are.

  13. Steven Houston says:

    PK, you’ve always known who I am. 😉

    MB, It’s funny you mention that because I had aerospace engineer friends live there when the infamous Michael Pollack owned Colonial House and handed out free VCRs in the swinging singles complex; all for $1400/month for a one bedroom (35 years ago). I lived there when rent was $350/month and the place was half empty. So yes, I missed out on all the good times…lol.

  14. […] for this story, it’s an expanded version of the one I blogged about Saturday, in which King called for a revote on the Renew Houston proposition, with more quotes from his and […]

  15. C.L. says:

    We all want more – more services, faster services, better streets, wider streets, cleaner air, nicer things, but the vast majority don’t want to pay for it. Crumbling infrastructure, pot-holed roads, above ground electrical grid… if only we had the money to pay for the quality of life we so desire. Gee Gomer, where would that money come from ?

  16. […] here and here for the background. As I said with the calls for doing over the election, I’d like to hear what the district court has to say before we do anything rash. Proceeding […]