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ReBuild Houston and the Mayor’s race

It’s all about the conservative voters, because no one cares what anyone else thinks.

When the most conservative candidate in the Houston mayor’s race dropped out two months ago, the battle to win over right-leaning voters became a two-man show: former Kemah Mayor Bill King versus City Councilman Stephen Costello.

Both candidates bill themselves as moderate fiscal conservatives chiefly concerned about the city’s finances – pensions in particular – and, by all accounts, neither is an ideal choice for the far right.

Nonetheless, support among local Republicans has begun to coalesce around King, who has taken a hard line against ReBuild Houston, the city’s controversial streets and drainage program.

Now, with Houston recovering from severe flooding and the state Supreme Court ruling against the city in a lawsuit over ReBuild, program mastermind Costello only looks to be in trouble.

“The timing of this couldn’t be worse for Costello,” said Rice University political scientist Bob Stein, adding that King now has a window to break through.

ReBuild Houston is designed to allow the city to pay down existing debt while financing drainage and road improvements primarily through monthly drainage fees collected from property owners.

Earlier this month, hours after the Texas Supreme Court ruled the language of the 2010 charter amendment did not adequately describe the drainage fee to fund ReBuild, King released a statement attacking the program and Costello.

Last week, he called for ReBuild to be put back on the ballot this November.

Meanwhile, candidates to King’s left barely have touched on ReBuild.

Yes, it would be nice to hear what Adrian Garcia, Chris Bell, and Marty McVey have to say about this. It’s been more than a week, guys. What kind of race are you running here? I don’t even know what to think.

As 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 Costello’s campaigns and various Republican types. I won’t repeat myself, so I’ll just take a moment to marvel at how issuing debt is now considered the preferred “conservative” choice over pay-as-you-go. Given the way debt has ballooned at the state level and the fact that this particular PAYGO plan involved creating a new revenue stream instead of cutting something or pretending to cut something, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m going to wait to hear what a court says about the status of the current litigation before I get too deep into all this. I hope to hear what the rest of the Mayoral field has to say before then.

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20 Comments

  1. joshua ben bullard says:

    Stephen costellos campaign has to be scrambling at this point,there are major problems for Stephen Costello that severly damage his campaign at this point,but not just the fact that he used council member david robinson to launch his 100’s of millions from the tax payers with the creation of re “hose” houston, you see david robinson was used by Costello threw the management districts that david robinson was on and the super neighborhood alliance’s that costello was directing(basically giving david robinson the key map to legally steal from the public) if you go back and look at the city video tapes youll see david robinson almost ona monthly loop going to have key sit down meetings with david robinson,attempting the fine tuning for the creation and implementation of lets re hose Houston,let me be very clear to all of my critics and friends that have stayed with me over the years ,what Stephen Costello and david robinson did to Houston is qausi criminal in my opinion,aside from that Stephen Costello and david robinson both suffer from “I am the most important person in the room disease”these two just never did get it,my thoughts are is Stephen Costello should withraw his candidacy and cm david robinson should refrain from refilling the office I help get him elected to.

    I would think that all would stand down and far away from both Stephen Costello’s campaign and david Robinsons campaign, with both you would get better mileage just throwing your money out the window,stephen Costello and david Robison should assume the postion.

    we are going super hard with critical thinking on these candidates this cycle,
    joshau ben bullard

    spellcheck it yourself.

  2. Paul kubosh says:

    Kuff, what makes you think there are republicans on the ballot?

  3. Paul, there are at least two who are going to work on appealing to Republican voters. Beyond that, label it as you will.

  4. Steven Houston says:

    Let me run this by y’all and see what you think. There are two main ways to financing projects for a city, either issuing bonds or out of each year’s budget. Some suggest the more liberal approach of issuing bonds because construction costs are on the rise makes more sense, the costs of fees and interest over time usually at least doubling the actual cost. The other down side to this approach is that large capital works projects push costs of construction up by virtue of doing a lot at once, developers getting the feast or famine rates on labor and materials. This approach works best when there are a limited number of projects because once you’ve received voter approval, you’ve tied up billions for decades so projects that don’t make the first cut tend to get pushed back a long time.

    The other approach, usually referred to as a more conservative way of doing things, is to pay as you go out of a yearly budget or from a fee. You don’t get to do everything at once but you can usually find contractors who will give you a price break to keep their employees busy and equipment in use. You also benefit by having more flexibility to address particularly bad trouble spots that arise from time to time. You don’t saddle the city with even more debt, the more debt you have the more it eats into the budget each year as well as your borrowing capacity (which means you pay more as you borrow more), but it takes longer to get things done.

    Neither approach is superior for all circumstances and most cities with healthy economies use both but Houston literally has many hundreds of miles of roadways in need of repair and upgrading and is already in debt enough that endless bond issues as one candidate would propose, would escalate yearly interest costs to the point where nothing else would get done and future administrations would be stuck with fewer firemen, fewer police, and shrinking services as interest costs increased from $300 million to $350 million or more.

    My problem with Rebuild Houston has been with the way elected city officials used the FEE (if it were legally a tax, it would fall under the revenue cap in my estimation) for other things. Those suggesting no list of projects done or coming up are either liars or incompetent as the city website most certainly shows both, the interesting thing to others being how so little an amount coming from individuals can make such a big difference. So while I think there are all sorts of ways the city spends money that I don’t believe it should (the “frills” mentioned in previous posts) or ways to prioritize spending to get more bang for the buck, suggesting this program has done nothing or tricked anyone of reasonably average capacity seems curious at best.

  5. Jules says:

    Steven, apparently it’s not LEGALLY a FEE or a TAX because the Mayor and her team choose poor ballot language.

    The ballot language was a controversy at the time, and she and her legal team refused to consider or wrongly considered what the Texas Supreme Court would say. It’s a huge mistake that will cost all taxpayers – both for and against the “drainage charge”.

    It’s not “curious” to suggest this program has tricked people, it’s an 8 – 0 ruling of the Texas Supreme Court that “it did not substantially submit the measure with such definiteness and certainty that voters would not be misled.”

    The Texas Supreme Court doesn’t even care if someone was actually tricked or not. From the ruling:

    “In reaching this conclusion, we do not consider the Contestant’s evidence that some voters were subjectively confused about the nature of the measure. Those who oppose election results will always be able to find voters who claim to have been misled. Admittedly, some court of appeals decisions have suggested that such evidence may be considered. Nonetheless, we base our decision solely on the failure of the proposition to present the measure’s chief features and its character and purpose. Because the ballot omitted a chief feature of the measure, it did not substantially submit the measure with such definiteness and certainty that voters would not be misled.”

    The conclusion:

    “The City did not adequately describe the chief features—the character and purpose—of the charter amendment on the ballot. By omitting the drainage charges, it failed to substantially submit the measure with such definiteness and certainty that voters would not be misled. Accordingly, summary judgment should not have been granted in the City’s favor. We reverse the judgment of the court of appeals, and, because only the City moved for summary judgment, remand to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

  6. Steven Houston says:

    Jules, the matter is still being litigated and like it or not, the Texas Supreme Court has made scores of highly partisan rulings in the past. Regardless, my post was not about the court ruling or the exceedingly boring semantics behind the monetary “charge”, but about the overall implications of financing such projects. Bonded debt or pay as you go (“charge” or no “charge”), each has significant impact on yearly budgets even before you hit the magic number the private sector suggests is your capacity to pay it back.

  7. Jules says:

    Re-read your last para. That’s what I was responding to. You specifically mention you think it’s not legally a tax and why you think that, and you say “suggesting this program has done nothing or tricked anyone of reasonably average capacity seems curious at best.”

    To say that my post doesn’t respond to your post suggests you haven’t read your post.

    If you don’t want me to respond to you about whether it is a tax or a fee, quit mentioning it. If you don’t want me to respond to you about whether or not people were tricked by the ballot language, quit mentioning it.

    The Supreme Court specifically remands to the trial court “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.” It’s unlikely that the City will prevail.

    The Mayor messed this up big time.

  8. Jules says:

    And whether or not you think the ruling is partisan and improper (I think it is absolutely the proper ruling and I have read the ruling), the Mayor and her team should have anticipated that.

    The ballot language was carefully crafted, it wasn’t written by an intern on her lunch break.

    This is a huge mistake and it has potentially put the City on the hook for half a billion dollars. Even with the City’s big budget, that’s a lot of money. And, according to you guys, it didn’t even matter – you guys all think it would have passed even with the words tax, fee or charge in there. That makes it even worse.

  9. Steven Houston says:

    Okay Jules, you have no opinion on the bulk of the post. That’s fine. By all means focus on something else. I’ve said that I didn’t like the specific measure and I didn’t vote for it regardless of the junior supremes decision. I do think funding more projects on a pay as you go manner makes more sense than allowing some senile nutjob from Kemah who continually complains that the city is way too far in debt to bulk the city up further using such debt for everything under the sun.

  10. Manuel Barrera says:

    Pay as you go, works if one plans for it and sticks to the plan.

    Kathy Whitmire increased the sewage rate in excess of what was needed. The excess money was to be used for sewage infrastructure. Latter mayors and council members raided the fund.

    Rebuild Houston, increased taxes and or fees, and then raided the fund for projects and usage that should have been outside the “lock box”.

    The problem is not with how one chooses to pay, it is how the little boys and girls use the money to buy goodies for their contributors and or constituents.

    Someone explain to me how pouring concrete will help prevent flooding. What projects does the City have that will prevent flooding. The tax or fee was sold as a way to help prevent flooding. Some people think that the widening of Brays Bayou is in the Rebuild Houston plans, it is not.

    One has only to look at drainage projects (Rebuild website) to notice that flooding control is not one of the goals of Rebuild Houston. How does replacing a bridge help?

    If they were digging ditches maybe that would help a little, less concrete.

    Rebuild Houston mislead the people of Houston, it was a job creator for engineers and companies that do city construction.

  11. Ross says:

    So, Msnuel, what’s your solution, other than to complain?

    Replacing bridges improves drainage when the bridge is an impediment to stream flow, like the old rail bridge across White Oak Bayou was before the bike trail work replaced it.

  12. Manuel Barrera says:

    Ross, how much did replacing a bridge help with flood control? It helped the people down stream. How about the people upstream? How does placing a street on the banks of a bayou help with the flooding, eight feet of concrete.

    I won’t respond with extensive ways that Rebuild Houston may actually be making things worse (in regards to flooding) as your mind is made up. However, if your house was one those that was susceptible to flooding you might sing a different tune.

    Ross if you place all the water into the bayous when they get full what happens. Combine a high tide (a la hurricane) with lots of rain and what do you get? Can you picture that Ross?

    There are solutions and they cost money, I am not against paying for solutions, I am against wasteful spending for frivolous things such as bike trails for a few thousand people who do have leisure time. Rebuild Houston is wasteful and consists of projects that tend offset projects that the City is suppose to do with the general fund. I recycle but it is a losing proposition to the City, get rid of it. We can do it the old fashion way without getting the government to do it for us.

    The police and fire should be be paid for hours worked. They are paid while they are at lunch. How about 8 hours pay for 8 hours work? Ever wonder why you see fire trucks with a bunch of fire fighters shopping at the grocery store? They can’t shop before they go to work?

  13. Steven Houston says:

    MB, there are different components to every problem people want government to “solve”. Financing is a big one because it ties up money from every year’s budget for extended periods of time, often doubling the cost over the life of a bond issue. Given Houston’s current level of debt, the pension hawks have convinced much of the public that your pension is the biggest issue with city costs rather than a modest cost of doing business.

    Fund Raiding: It was always done, even pre-Kathy, and always will be. Heck, that was my biggest issue with this particular program too but since the days of Lanier when he “re-purposed” $50 million each year of Metro’s money into city coffers so locals could have their cake and eat it too, politicians have done it with pension money and anything else they get their hands on in much larger scales because we let them. But complaining that you won’t support anything because some of it goes to a project you don’t agree with or it contains graft for some supporter of the elected class, or any other qualifier, just means nothing would ever get done. Find a candidate that will fix the problem and hold them accountable.

    Waste: Surely you can do better than shopping for food. They go as a team in case they are called for a run but they don’t go when a call for help is waiting for them. If they are out getting food when a call comes in, they go to it while out. Same thing holds with police, the lunch figured in as part of their limited compensation. Would you support a city ordinance requiring employees to clock out while going to the bathroom, getting a drink at the water cooler, or otherwise not engaged in a specific job related activity too (public and private sector)?

    “I am against wasteful spending for frivolous things such as bike trails for a few thousand people who do have leisure time.” Me too, same for the ~20% of Hotel/Car tax that goes to art funding, monies dedicated to duplicating services offered less conveniently by the county or state, liaisons to fringe communities versus training all employees to right by everyone, and many other items. I recycle on my own, throwing out very little since my large tumbling composter takes all yard waste and whatever I don’t stuff in my mouth, my cardboard is used in gardening, and I stopped getting magazines to lower my carbon imprint. Those LED bulbs at Lowes costing $2.48 @ and cheap attic insulation keep my bills pretty low too but there are benefits to the city to offer recycling which will never pay for itself. If that was the standard we applied to all city spending, “does it make money or not”, we’d be saving quite a bit though, I admit.

    Rebuilding decaying roads and in some cases, “pouring concrete”, can help drainage though. Perhaps not on a scale we’d like tried first such as widening bayous, requiring retention ponds, and encouraging drainage friendly building (such as driveways that are not a 3″ slab of concrete), but look at who was elected each time. Perhaps Kuff can add those kind of questions when he speaks to candidates but the throwing out the baby with the bathwater method won’t get anything done either.

  14. Ross says:

    Manuel, replacing the bridge reduces upstream flooding. The bridge East of TC Jester on White Oak had as much as a 3 foot drop in water level from one side to the other before it was replaced with a less restrictive structure that doesn’t trap trees, plants, and telephone poles.

    The bike trials are an awesome amenity that do not impact the bayous. Great cities have amenities. They may not be used by every citizen, but they make cities better places to live. The bike trails that are actually in the bayous have increased the capacity of the bayous, since they had to remove dirt to build them.

    HFD firefighters work 24 hour shifts. I am sure they would be thrilled to know that you want them to starve. They buy their own food, but since they work 24 hours at a time, they have to buy and prepare it while on shift. 8 hour shifts do not work well for firefighters, since fires don’t clock in and out. I may not like the pensions plans for HFD, but they should be compensated well for what they do (I would reduce the pension and increase base pay).

    It doesn’t matter that recycling loses money on a cash basis – it’s the right thing to do in the long term.

  15. Jules says:

    Did y’all see the article about rebuild Houston in the Chron today?

    ” City Attorney Donna Edmundson disputed the notion that the city could not collect the drainage fee if the trial court finds the ballot language was misleading, pointing out that the lawsuit targets the charter amendment, not the ordinance City Council later passed to begin collecting the fee. ”

    This seems like utter bull to me. What do you guys think?

  16. Manuel Barrera says:

    Wondering who would come to the defense of police and fire.

    SH why can’t they shop before going on their shifts like everyone else? I go grocery shopping for the week, they can’t?

    24 hours shifts, why not 12 hour shifts (could save money), http://www.reviewjournal.com/news/las-vegas/firefighters-24-hour-shifts-get-close-look

    Bike trails, concrete where grass and dirt existed does not contribute? How many miles of concrete have they poured next to the bayous?

    Many the homes flooded because the bayous went outside their banks. So getting more water into the bayous somehow solves the flooding problem?

    Why not a fee on bicycle trails? Those that want them should pay for them.

    Ross I am not denying that removing restrictions of water helps the people downstream. But it comes at the expense of the people upstream. Like building a dam to help prevent flooding upstream.

    Lanier did raid Metro and used the money on streets, rather than on rail. If Metro did not have rail, they could maintain all those major streets where their buses run. That would allow the City to use its’ resources elsewhere. I personally believe that the way Houston is set up that buses make more sense. Before all the train crazies go crazy, there have been opportunities like the track that ran from Katy that was abandoned. Plus rail should not be on the ground, if they can’t build it above or below they should not build it.

  17. Ross says:

    Manuel, I suppose we ought to make city park users pay a fee too. Why do you hate city provided amenities?

    What’s with the hate for firefighters? They shop when they have time, and their required tasks have been completed. If they get a call, they stop shopping and leave. I’ve seen this happen several times at the Kroger near us. If you think HFD shifts should change, feel free to ask for that.

  18. Steven Houston says:

    MB, again, the shopping practice was looked into several times and found not to significantly impact operations. Some of the comments on the surveys included words to the effect that with a full crew, getting everyone together to shop before a shift was often impractical and rotating having one or two do likewise caused all sorts of friction (apparently, not everyone is a born shopper for others). Regardless, since the focus here is on cost savings and there aren’t any, I’ll defer to the several Chiefs that found the practice of “little or no budgetary consequence”. For police, they generally eat in the areas they work and are on call for emergencies, often writing reports as they eat or tending paperwork issues. The official city website had a FAQ about it and the answer pointed out that the workers negotiated it into their contract instead of more money (making it a savings to do so).

    24 Hour Shifts: There have been several large scale, academic studies on shifts as well as a great deal of individual departments looking into a “best practices” approach. Some of these date back a few decades so I’d have to refresh my memory for specifics but there was no definitive answer that served all situations. Unlike those FF’s in DC making $190k a year, HFD employees average far, far less and their input has led me to believe that many could not afford to work for the city if they had rotating shifts or worked more days. You would get even fewer qualified applicants by changing shifts too though I freely admit that I think 12 hour shifts are probably healthier.

    Bike Trails: I am all for private sector entities paying for bike trails and having the city make them the lowest priority expense given the realities that few are going to stop using their cars to bike to work in our humid climate. Without enough EMTs and cops to cover the additional trails, they will be more dangerous too. Still, they can be used to channel water, divert it and otherwise have minimal impact according to FEMA. BTW, I’d put parks just one notch above trails in terms of budget priorities, making surrounding neighborhoods find sponsors for upkeep.

    Rail Tracks: I believe Lanier used his influence to get TxDOT to have the tracks along Old Katy Rd removed so rail couldn’t be built there. Given development along major freeways such as Katy Fwy, 290, 59 and 45, those are the best places for rail to move lots of people for the least cost rather than the toy train downtown but it won’t happen in our lifetimes because no one wants to subsidize each fare the usual $3 or so.

  19. Manuel Barrera says:

    I don’t hate firefighter, as I have stated publicly they rush in when others rush out.

    I guess if anyone says anything negative that means they hate? Guess parents, teachers, etc better never say anything negative, give them all hundreds or they will think you hate them. That argument means one has no valid reasons to argue.

    Parks and library have much greater use than bike trails.

    SH- are those HFD chiefs? Would they tend to be as fair and balance as Fox news?

    Would love to see that FEMA study on bike trails in Houston. But the FEMA study that you refer to would be nice.

    Rail, In fact, it’s the tail-end of a five-year agreement between the Texas Department of Transportation, which purchased the land in a $78 million deal in 1992, and the railroad company, which agreed to remove the tracks by the end of this year. Source http://www.bizjournals.com/houston/stories/1997/03/31/focus1.html

    This a rebuild Houston article, however, they were misusing the money.

    How many pieces of straw did it take to break the camel’s back? Answer- the last one. A little here a little there and pretty soon we be talking big stuff.

  20. Steven Houston says:

    MB, yes, they were HFD Chiefs that came to the conclusion (regarding breaks). If you take exception to the hired experts in the field maybe hiring better experts would make more sense in the future. Other experts have come to varying conclusions regarding shifts but if you profess more expertise, I’m sure the mayoral candidates would listen.

    Some parks and libraries have much greater use than others too; if you believe use levels should be a factor in one program, why not use it as a factor in other endeavors since resources are scarce?

    I can’t speak for studies limited to Houston but FEMA does have some material on bike trails as do conservation groups and other experts in the field. It’s a moot point to me since I don’t support bike trails.

    I remember the rail deal and believe the former chairman of METRO and Texas Highway Commission played a role in the tracks being removed. He sure implied that at city council meetings enough back in the early to mid 90’s.

    While I don’t think you hate HFD or their brothers in blue, that was the last stop on the “government waste train” you were riding. I think various policy decisions could be made to make more people happy using less resources but changing schedules is iffy at best.