Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Bill Jackson

Still discussing flood bonds

It’s complicated.

Harris County officials Tuesday said the “clock is ticking” on its call for a bond referendum for $1 billion or more in flood control projects, as requirements to provide matching funds for federal grants being disbursed in Hurricane Harvey’s wake threaten to deplete local coffers.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday stopped short of setting a date for the possible election amid questions about what projects could be included in such a bond issue and how much it would cost per year to complete them. The court directed staffers to hammer out specific proposals that would help determine how much debt the county should ask voters to approve.

Calling Harvey a game-changer, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and other members of Commissioners Court pledged last September to call for a bond election for upward of $1 billion to pay for wide-ranging flood control projects. The bonds likely would come with an increase in property taxes.

At the heart of Tuesday’s discussion was concern over the increasingly high stakes surrounding the fate and necessity of the bond, as well as the county’s ability to take on a host of large-scale projects aimed at preventing a repeat of the flooding and devastation wrought by Harvey.

See here and here for the background. Federal grants, some of which have already been approved, require local matching funds, which constrains what the county can do right now. The county will need to figure out how to balance what it’s doing now with what it wants to do with the bonds.

Officials also wrangled over several other logistical and political issues surrounding the proposed bond referendum, which would be one of the largest ever put before county voters.

“There are a lot of dilemmas facing us here,” Emmett said. “When do you have the election? How much is it? Do you get specific? Do you leave it general?”

The level of a property tax increase accompanying the bond likely will impact the referendum’s fate.

Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said that if, for example, the bond election was for $1 billion and the debt was issued over 10 years, that would result in a $5 increase in property tax bills for the average $200,000 home in the first year. That number likely would rise to about $20 in the 10th year.

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said that if voters reject a bond referendum, the county cannot put the same issue on the ballot again for two years.

Commissioners Court at its next meeting in April could vote to call an election for June 16, but Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis expressed concern over turnout during the summer months.

An election during the summer would require a plan to locate and staff polling places around the county. The governor also would have to sign off on a summer date.

“To my knowledge, no governor has ever denied a local bond election,” Emmett said. “But there haven’t been that many that have been called for a special date.”

Pushing the election to November would mean more turnout but also would raise the possibility that voters cast straight-ticket ballots for political parties and ignore the bond, Emmett said.

Ellis said he also worried about limiting the scope of the bond issue to focus on matches for federal grants, stating that he would like to see more investment in lower-income areas, and a bigger bond package to pay for it.

“After the most horrific and historic storm event we’ve had, I’ve heard members of this body say it’s our opportunity to do something big, and we may not get another bite at that apple,” he said.

I don’t think we’ve had a June election (not counting runoffs from May special elections) anytime recently. As far as the voters ignoring the bond question, Harris County hasn’t had a bond election in an even-numbered year recently. The city of Houston bonds in 2012 had undervote rates in the 20-30% range, but that still meant over 400K people voting on them. Metro’s referendum that year had a 21% dropoff but nearly 800K votes cast, while bonds for HISD (19% undervote, 315K ballots cast) and HCC (23% undervote, 352K ballots) were similar. If all those entities could have bonds in a Presidential year, I think Harris County could make do with a referendum in a non-Presidential year. (Metro is planning on one this year, remember.) Plenty of people will still weigh in on it, and if the county can’t successfully sell flood control projects post-Harvey then something is really wrong. I say put it up in November and start working on the campaign pitch now.

County will try to repair criminal court building

Good luck with that.

After twice closing the 20-story downtown criminal courthouse due to flood damage since it was completed in 2000, Harris County leaders are planning to repair the shuttered building so the next time it floods it can be reopened within days – not months – of the water receding.

The retrofitting is a bitter disappointment to some of the building’s most frequent users, mostly defense lawyers and prosecutors, who hoped the year-long closing – the second in the building’s 17 years of operation – would convince county leaders to build a new courthouse on higher ground nearby.

The towering building, a block from Buffalo Bayou and home to county offices and more than 40 courtrooms, is completely unusable after Hurricane Harvey. It will remain closed for at least the next six to seven months, with some courts and offices not being able to return to operation until as late as July 2019, officials confirmed.

The delay means criminal court judges will likely spend a year presiding over dockets in the concrete basement of the county jail and almost all Harris County judges, civil and criminal, will stay doubled up in packed courtrooms in three other courthouses. Grand jurors meet in the historic 1910 courthouse, a blocks away.

Four months after the Hurricane Harvey flooded the lower floors, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he does not know yet what is in store for the iconic downtown criminal courts facility. Emmett said he waiting for a recommendation from the county engineer, and the county engineer noted that a squad consultants hired by the county are just beginning their analysis.

The decision to spend what could be another $20 million to fix a $100 million building has critics asking whether the county is throwing good money after bad at the long-troubled skyscraper at 1201 Franklin.

“It’s time to scrap it and start over,” attorney Chris Tritico said in a widely circulated proposal in October. “There were errors in planning, design and execution. Our Commissioners Court should stop spending money on a building that will never work for the purpose it was intended and spend our money on a permanent fix.”

[…]

County officials say they want to fix up the courthouse then dive deep into what criminal justice, and county population, might look like in 20 to 50 years.

“With the population growing so fast, if we build a building today, are they going to see the same inefficiencies in 20 years,” asked County Budget Officer Bill Jackson. “When you build these buildings, you don’t build for what you need today, you build for what you’re going to need in 20 years.”

He noted that the internet has fundamentally changed the way we do business in the past 20 years, and the internet will undoubtedly change criminal justice in ways that should be studied before proposing any major construction. He cited Amazon.com as an example of an innovation that fundamentally changed the way Americans shop.

Jackson estimated that a new courthouse would cost at least $140 to $210 million. In 2016, Los Angeles built a 25 courtroom facility for $340 million. A 22-story courthouse in San Diego opened earlier this year with 70 courts and a jury assembly room at a cost of $555 million.

“Half a billion dollar courthouse and I bet they look at in 20 years and say, ‘What were we thinking?’ simply because of all the electronics and the way the younger people will do business,” he said.

See here, here, and here for some background. Seems to me that we’re still going to have arraignments and jury trials twenty years from now, so I’m not sure what lessons from Amazon Bill Jackson thinks we can learn. We’re probably going to have a Harris County bond issue on the ballot this year. Why not at least consider the possibility of starting over with the courthouse? It’s a big commitment and would mean a longer time frame for getting things back to normal, but the track record of the current building is not encouraging. How many times will it have to flood out before we think about other options?

Harris County considers its budget post-Harvey

They have some choices, and some constraints.

Harris County government departments could see their budgets reduced by up to 5 percent as property taxes take an expected dip due to Hurricane Harvey’s widespread destruction.

The estimate is preliminary, County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said Friday. The extent of an anticipated decrease in property tax revenues will be determined after properties are appraised Jan. 1.

Jackson said the county plans to keep budgets flat, if possible. Most departments have received increases every year since the 2008 recession.

[…]

It is not clear yet how much the storm has affected Harris County’s tax base as the extent of damage to property still is being determined.

Damaged homes will be worth less, and those owners can expect smaller property tax bills. In other cases, repairs to homes or other buildings could bring them back up to their original value. Properties unaffected by floodwaters could see a jump in value.

Jackson said the county’s public contingency fund – roughly $100 million – has helped pay for Harvey-related expenses, such as debris cleanup and overtime for county personnel who worked during and immediately after the storm. Jackson said Harvey-related overtime has totaled some $12 million, so far.

The county still is assessing what is likely to be hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to infrastructure, but most of that will be covered by insurance and some repairs can be reimbursed by the federal government.

Harvey’s impact on the county’s budget likely will come from a dip in property tax revenues, Jackson said. The county relies on property taxes for most of its revenue. Unlike the city, it does not collect a sales tax.

The possible property tax rate hike would come in the event the county does float bonds to rebuild and fortify its flood mitigation infrastructure. For now, the tax rate remains the same. The county also spent some money to buy out 200 homes in the more flood-prone areas. Needless to say, there would need to be a lot more of that to really make a difference, but it’s a start.

Harris County may do Harvey bonds

Turns out Harvey recovery will cost money. Who knew?

A majority of the Harris County Commissioners Court on Wednesday said they would support a large bond issue, perhaps upwards of $1 billion, and a tax increase to pay for it. The bond issue would bolster cash-strapped flood control initiatives, which could include a improvements to waterways and buyouts of properties that repeatedly flood.

After Hurricane Harvey’s widespread devastation and severe floods of the last few years, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, all Republicans, said in interviews Wednesday afternoon that they would favor a bond issue.

A bond proposal and corresponding tax rate increase would have to be approved by voters countywide, after a majority of the five-member Commissioners Court vote in favor of calling the election and placing the proposal on the ballot.

As to how early such an election could be called, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office was reviewing the potential timing of an election.

[…]

Emmett said the bond issue would likely need to be $1 billion at a minimum.

County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said it is not immediately clear how much of a tax rate hike, if any, would be needed to pay for the bonds. If the county issued $1 billion in bonds at once, today, it would need roughly a 2-cent hike in the property tax rate.

I presume it’s too late for this year. so it’s a matter of when this could be done in 2018. The county could easily do this next November, it’s more a question of whether they can get it on the ballot sooner than that if they want to. There will need to be details filled in on what this bond would entail, but it sure seems like a worthwhile thing to do. I mean, if you think repairing the damage and investing in better flood mitigation going forward are worthwhile, that is. Perhaps someone should ask the Harris County Republican Party, which reflexively opposed Mayor Turner’s proposal, saying the city should “follow Harris County’s lead”. One could argue the county is now following the city’s lead. I’d just argue that by taking action, both the city and county are leading. Isn’t that what we want?

County considers its bail options

I can think of one, if they need some help.

With just two weeks until the 193-page order from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal kicks in May 15, county officials are working to draft a plan to deal with the hundreds of misdemeanor offenders now behind bars and the new cases filed each day.

County officials and more than a dozen lawyers spent Monday in meetings deciding whether to appeal the order, said Robert Soard, first assistant at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. He said he anticipates the legal team will have a recommendation about whether to appeal before the next Commissioners Court session May 9.

Jason Spencer, spokesman for Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, said the changes will require collaboration among multiple agencies to comply with the ruling so quickly.

“It’s not just a flipping of a switch and now we can do these things,” he said. “It takes time and planning to put new systems in place that weren’t there before.”

Paula Goodhart, administrative judge for the misdemeanor courts, was also among those in the meetings.

“Like everyone else, we’re still trying to process it,” Goodhart said.

Goodhart declined to answer questions specific to the lawsuit, because she is one of the defendants. Instead, she spoke about changes that have been in the works for the past two years to reform the county bail system.

“We do recognize that low- and moderate-risk people should be out pending trial,” she said. “We just want to balance public safety with individual liberty interests.”

On any given day, between 350 and 500 people-about 5.5 percent-of the jail population are awaiting trial on misdemeanors. But about 50,000 people are arrested in Harris County on misdemeanors each year, so the number of people who would not have to pay a bondsman or plead guilty to get out of jail could be in the tens of thousands.

County budget officer Bill Jackson said his office is working to understand how many people may be released by the judge’s order and how much that could reduce the cost of incarceration at the overcrowded jail.

“This is such a moving target,” Jackson said. “There’s just way too many ‘what-ifs’ and variables.”

See here for the background. I can’t help with the what-ifs and the variables, but I can give them one solid piece of advice: Don’t appeal. Save your money on the high-priced lawyers and start implementing what the judge ordered. The county will save a bunch of money by not having so many people in jail, and with that there will be fewer deaths, fewer rapes, fewer allegations of brutality against the guards, and so on. There will also be a higher general level of justice in the county, with fewer people forced out of work and fewer people spending money they don’t have on bail bondsmen and court costs. Less cost, less death, more justice. Someone help me out here, what is it we have to think about here?

Some officials, however, bristled Monday at the judge’s opinion,which was handed down late Friday.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said the ruling was an example of a federal judge changing Texas law. Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack wondered whether the release of inmates could impact public safety.

“Just because somebody has been charged with a Class B or A misdemeanor doesn’t mean that’s a person that’s a real nice person, that’s real trustworthy and hasn’t been involved in an active assault,” Radack said.

Take your two-bit scare tactics and tell it to Judges Hecht and Keller, guys. And settle the damn lawsuit.

The Astrodome parking proposal is about to get real

Here it comes.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County commissioners are poised to make their largest investment yet in the Astrodome’s future next week.

They are slated to vote on the first piece of a $105 million plan to raise the ground level two floors to fit in roughly 1,400 parking spaces, which would make the Dome suitable for festivals or conferences and usher in potential commercial uses in the more than 550,000 square feet that surrounds the core.

A majority of the county’s governing body indicated support for the plan Friday. If approved, it would begin to provide a future for the stadium more than 16 years removed from hosting its last Astros last game.

“This is making something happen, finally, with the Dome,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

[…]

Tuesday’s vote would be on whether to allocate $10.5 million of the “design phase” of the parking project. If approved, the county would hire an architectural and engineering team and, over 12 months, lay out the blueprints of the overall project. It’s not another study, Emmett said.

“No, this is actually doing the engineering to raise the floors, put the parking in,” he said.

The county also, for the first time Friday, detailed how it plans to pay for the stadium’s $105 million redevelopment. Budget officer Bill Jackson said about one-third of the project, or roughly $35 million, would come from the county’s general fund, made up largely of property tax revenue.

Another third would come from hotel taxes, with the remaining third coming from county parking revenues. These new covered spaces inside the Dome could generate top dollar.

Emmett noted the general fund component, around $30 million, is roughly equivalent to the amount the county estimates it would cost to demolish the Dome. In other words, money the county would have to spend even if it wanted to get rid of the facility.

Currently, the Dome costs close to $170,000 a year to maintain, Jackson said.

“There are some that just really don’t want to save the Dome. They want it torn down,” Emmett said. “This saves it in a very conservative way that makes it useful and preserves options for the future.”

There are still several unknowns. It’s possible, Jackson said, that after the design phase, the cost for construction might push the project above the $105  million goal, at which point commissioners would have to decide whether to move forward.

What happens to the 550,000 square feet of space surrounding the area where the field was is also still not firmed up. Emmett said it likely will be hammered out over the next year.

The plan still would have to be approved by the state historical commission, which currently considers the Astrodome a “state antiquities landmark,” meaning it cannot be “removed, altered, damaged, salvaged, or excavated without a permit from the Texas Historical Commission,” a spokesman said.

See here, here, and here for the background. It sounds like the Texans and the Rodeo aren’t fully on board with this, but I don’t know that it’s worth worrying about that. The idea behind this is that once the underground parking is available, then other redevelopment plans for the Dome become more feasible. I guess we’ll find out. The Chron editorial board, which supports the plan, has more.

The pros and cons of merging the crime labs

The calls to merge the city and county crime labs are back, but not everyone likes the idea.

Merging Houston’s and Harris County’s crime labs, an idea that was rejected several years ago by the city’s mayor when forensic work was shifted from the police department to a new independent agency, is getting a fresh look by local officials eager to save money and avoid duplication.

All of the members of the Harris County Commissioners Court are renewing calls for the county to take over forensic work from the city lab, and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said last week that he is interested in pursuing either a merger or further partnership with the county, in contrast to his predecessor.

Yet some at the city’s forensic science center are loathe to forego its independent structure. They wonder whether a shakeup for a lab only just pulling away from its troubled history would cause more harm than good.

“I think cooperation between the two organizations is entirely possible,” said Peter Stout, chief operating officer of the Houston Forensic Science Center. “But merger? I’m not sure whether the citizens are going to get the benefit from that on a timeline that makes sense. And they risk backing up on demonstrable progress that we’ve made to this point.”

Even so, Turner has asked his chief development officer to explore what such a move would entail as county staffers examine potential funding and governance for such a venture and how it might affect the time it takes to process evidence.

“How much volume do they have at the City of Houston? What would have to take place as (to) not only the amount of space, but how would we merge?” are among the other questions, county budget director Bill Jackson said.

[…]

Despite mounting political enthusiasm for a joint venture, however, several city forensic science officials were skeptical of the idea, noting the logistical challenges of a merger they characterized as financially and scientifically risky.

“We’re not producing a widget here,” said David Leach, the group’s chief financial officer. “We’re producing a service which is helping protect the citizens. So, how much are you willing to risk?”

Such an endeavor would require negotiations over governance and funding rooted in the politically touchy question of control.

“What’s the structure going to look like? How’s that going to work? Who’s going to fund it? What are the working cultures of the two labs like? You could end up with two groups of employees with different working philosophies,” said William King, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University.

The county’s Institute of Forensic Sciences now reports to county commissioners, the county’s governing board. None of the staff work for law enforcement.

The Houston Forensic Science Center, on the other hand, is overseen by a board of directors appointed by the mayor. About four of 10 staffers are city employees, either HPD officers or civilians.

Governance was among the sticking points after a civil grand jury recommended consolidating the crime labs for the city of Los Angeles and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, said Barry Fisher, former director of their sheriff’s crime lab.

The move could have had potential savings of nearly $3 million, according to the grand jury. But they kept their operations separate, Fisher said, calling the prospect of the county taking over city police forensic work a “deal breaker.”

“Sheriff’s and LAPD management indicated that they did not believe it was feasible to consolidate the two agencies’ crime lab services into a single agency,” according to a 2010 audit of the project. “They believed that differences in forensic policies, possible conflicts over operations and prioritization of cases, and additional administrative requirements made consolidating the services unworkable.”

Fisher said city leaders worried about their ability to prioritize cases if they had to compete with other jurisdictions for crime lab services. Instead the city and county work together in the same building in a partnership with a local university, which has produced other benefits, Fisher said.

“There’s interaction on a regular, daily basis,” he said. “I’ve watched people who are working on a particularly difficult, high-profile case walk over to somebody in the other lab, the city lab, and say ‘What do you think about this?’ ”

Governance was the main reason why Mayor Parker declined to pursue a joint crime lab. She also noted in the exit interview she did with me that the projected savings from a joint operation would be minimal. Be that as it may, this Chron story from last July illustrates the concern over governance:

The thieves leave invisible evidence on kitchen countertops, china cabinets, garage doors and steering wheels that can lead to their undoing: microscopic skin cells that contain their DNA.

In Harris County, these “touch DNA” samples have in recent years identified hundreds of suspects in home burglaries and car break-ins that would have been nearly unsolvable without them.

But now the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences has sent out a memo to the 69 law enforcement agencies it serves suspending touch DNA analysis due to diminished resources and burgeoning demand.

Officials were forced to temporarily halt the service, ironically, because testing for touch DNA has been so successful.

“We didn’t anticipate this remarkable growth and what law enforcement has done to embrace DNA testing services in general,” said Dr. Roger Kahn, the forensic institute’s crime laboratory director. “We need to reassess our service levels in order to keep up.”

The suspension will not affect the Houston Police Department, which relies on the city’s crime lab to perform DNA analysis. The Houston Forensic Science Center began performing DNA analysis in some property crime cases after the city cleared HPD’s backlog of thousands of rape kits awaiting DNA testing.

But the county crime lab’s suspension of the cutting-edge forensic testing, which it took the initiative to offer eight years ago, could impact property crime investigations for dozens of law enforcement agencies.

It’s a matter of how things get prioritized, and who gets to decide what those priorities are. Houston and HPD would be the biggest customer in a joint crime lab, but not the only one. What happens when the city has a disagreement with a decision the joint crime lab makes? Or when the city feels its needs are not being adequately met? These are not insurmountable problems, but they do have to be addressed before it makes sense to get hitched. If and when they are worked out to the point that everyone feels their needs can be met, then it makes sense to proceed. Until then, I understand why the city is reluctant to give up something that is working for them.

The parks part of the county bond package

The plans are more specific for the part of the bond package that’s easier to sell.

HarrisCounty

Commissioner Jack Morman thinks of the East Aldine residents waiting outside Crowley Park before dawn for workers to unlock the gates. Commissioner Steve Radack cites Easter weekend crowds of roughly 75,000 at Bear Creek Park. Commissioner El Franco Lee pictures the opening day parade of Little Leaguers at his eponymous park. Commissioner Jack Cagle riffs on the joy of encountering turtles, egrets, herons and bald eagles along his greenways, mere miles from neighborhoods.

Harris County officials said they are in locked in a steady struggle to keep pace providing plentiful green space amenities as the population of unincorporated Harris County continues to grow unabated. They’re asking voters to approve millions in improvements in four upcoming ballot measures that total $848 million.

The $60 million park bond will help fund land acquisition, as well as updates and improvements in the county’s 170 parks. If the voters approve it, the money will be split four ways and each commissioner has discretion to spend his pot on park projects of his choosing, pending approval of Commissioners Court. They don’t need to pin the money to any specific undertaking. Each commissioner takes a unique approach to doling out the funds.

Commissioners said they almost never request all of the money up front. It’s usually spent to supplement projects that are underway as the costs come up. Bill Jackson, the county budget director, said there isn’t a final deadline for cashing in on bond money. In some cases, if the need never materializes, the bond debt is not issued, as was the case of the bond for a family law center that never got built.

Constituent needs vary throughout the county and within each precinct: “What matters to somebody in the northeast might not matter to somebody in the southeast,” Morman said.

In his precinct, he said, “We err on the side of doing something the community would love. My personal tastes don’t come into it.”

You can read the rest for each commissioner’s detailed wish list. The sidebar reminds us of the other items in the bond package, the biggest part of which is $700 million for roads and bridges, though we don’t know what the particulars are for that. What are your thoughts on these bond proposals?

Harris County road bond

Harris County voters may be asked to vote on a bond issue this fall.

HarrisCounty

Rapid population expansion and development in unincorporated areas of Harris County have strained roads, facilities and infrastructure so much that for the first time in eight years the county is considering a major bond referendum for the November ballot.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday asked their engineering and budget management directors to review departmental needs and bring back a proposal by July or August. The end result could be separate bond measures: one for roads and bridges and another for flood control, parks, libraries and the county’s animal shelter, said Bill Jackson, the budget manager.

The last county bond package – approved by voters in 2007 – called for $880 million for buildings, roads and parks. Though there’s no dollar estimate on the current proposal it could exceed the previous one, especially considering this projection from Jackson’s department: The unincorporated areas of Harris County will surpass Houston’s population by 2019.

“We just can’t keep up with 80,000 people moving to our region every year right now, and doing it out of current cash flow,” Jackson said.

“We are going to have to take a look at what our priorities are – whether it’s the roads or it’s the buildings – and see what we need to do.”

The growth, primarily residential development, has increased the county’s lane miles by 40 percent from 2000 to 2014. More than 85 percent of the new homes built between 2005 and 2014 in Harris County were constructed in the unincorporated area, according to the county’s appraisal district.

County engineer John Blount issued a memo, dated May 29, recommending county commissioners place a bond referendum on the November ballot.

“The dramatic growth has overwhelmed the county road network causing an increase in congestion and travel time,” Blount said in his memo.

But it’s just not roads that need attention. Some buildings housing the county’s justices of the peace were built to serve the population 50 years ago. New libraries may need to be revamped to provide books in tablet format. The county’s animal shelter – built in 1986 – was designed to take in 12,000 pets but now sees about 25,000 every year.

Jackson said the county is doing well financially – it began the year projecting a fund balance of $515 million – which means it can issue more debt without having to increase property taxes. County Judge Ed Emmett noted the county’s triple-A bond rating.

The county maintains the courts, jail, roads, bridges and bayous, but it does not levy a sales tax like Houston to help cover its expenses.

“My primary goal is to not make this a tax rate increase,” Jackson said. The county would issue debt over seven years that would be picked up by investors who buy Harris County bonds.

I’m sure that the intent is to do this without a tax increase, and I feel reasonably confident that the county is in good enough financial shape to make good on that. Doesn’t mean it won’t be called a tax hike by whoever decides to oppose it. I would remind Commissioners Court that even issues that have no formal opposition and carry no tax hike and would do a lot of good for the community, such as the 2013 jail referendum, can come perilously close to failing in the absence of a visible campaign advocating in its favor. Go big on a campaign for this if you decide to do it, or risk going home, is what I’m saying. I would also note the recent Montgomery County experience, in which the main lesson seems to be that what makes all kind of sense to some people may well be – or at least be seen as – an existential threat to others. I don’t have any specific advice for that, I’m just throwing it out there. The Highwayman has more.

Commissioners Court approves body camera purchase

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved District Attorney Devon Anderson’s plan to spend $1.9 million in seized assets to equip Houston police officers and Harris County sheriff’s deputies with body cameras.

County officials also said they would move toward giving about 700 deputy constables the same equipment, though the precise amount of funding has not been determined.

“If we’re going to go in this direction, which I think is a good direction to go, give all our patrolmen body cameras,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said.

[…]

Radack asked county budget chief Bill Jackson to determine how much it would cost to equip some deputy constables with the cameras.

After the meeting, Radack predicted the cost would be relatively low, perhaps totaling $700,000 if each camera costs $1,000.

“If it costs $700,000, it’s a necessary expenditure,” Radack said.

Jackson, however, cautioned that the cost could go beyond the cameras, pointing out that back room technology would increase the total.

“You’re holding a telephone in your hand, but it has to connect to something,” Jackson explained. “That’s just a piece of it.”

If approved, funding for outfitting constable deputies with cameras would come from the county’s general fund.

See here for the background. Adding in the constables is a great move, as they’re the next biggest law enforcement group after HPD and the Sheriff’s office. I’ll be interested to see what the back office costs of this are, and of course what policies get put in place to manage the video data and allow access to it. But for now, the main thing is getting the cameras. Kudos to all for that.

Astrodome referendum officially on the ballot

It’s been a long, strange trip, but at last you will get to vote on the fate of the Astrodome.

The Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously voted to place a bond election for up to $217 million to convert the iconic stadium into a massive, street-level convention hall and exhibit space, saying residents should take part in deciding the historic structure’s fate.

Should voters reject the bonds, County Judge Ed Emmett and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman said Tuesday they see no other alternative than to demolish the former “Eighth Wonder of the World,” which has sat vacant since city inspectors declared it unfit for occupancy in 2009. The Reliant Astrodome has not housed a professional sports team since the Astros moved to Minute Maid Park in 2000.

“If it does not pass in November, then that should be the death knell for the Dome,” Morman said.

[…]

While the vote to put the measure on the ballot was unanimous, court members’ personal support for the project is not.

Only Emmett and Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee said they definitely will cast a vote in favor of the bond referendum. Both, however, said they have no plans to launch – or, in Emmett’s case, participate in – campaigns to get the measure passed.

“There needs to be some plans made to do it, if it’s going to be a success,” Lee, who wants to save the Dome, said of a campaign. “The judge is our leadership, so we’ll just see what occurs from there.”

The Commissioners Court on Tuesday also approved $8 million for work that needs to be done to the half-century-old stadium regardless of whether it is torn down or renovated. That work includes asbestos abatement, demolition of the exterior spiral walkways and the sale of signs and other salvaged items that qualify as sports memorabilia.

County engineers and consultants, who estimated it would cost $217 million to repurpose the Dome, also determined it would cost $20 million to demolish it, not including the $8 million.

If the bond fails in November, Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said it “would make no sense to me at all” to spend millions of dollars demolishing the structure.

“There’s another day to have another election,” he said. “Why are you going to spend $8 million and then tear it down?”

The vote to call the bond election was made with one condition championed by Radack: That the ballot language explicitly say that the project would require an increase to the county property tax rate, which has not been raised in 17 years.

See here for the last update. We were headed towards a referendum in 2008 back when Astrodome Redevelopment was proposing a convention center as the Dome replacement, but the economic collapse knocked that off track, and so here we are now. The big question at this point is who lines up to oppose this. The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, whose renovation plan is what the Court approved for the ballot, will take the lead in communicating the referendum and the reasons to vote for it to the public. I have no idea how much money they’ll have to mount a real campaign, however. It’s certainly possible that some deep-pocketed types could show up to fund a campaign in favor of this, or in opposition to it. It’s also possible that there will be little more than earned media and some online presence to inform the voters. If I had to guess, I’d say this passes, but who knows? How do you plan to vote on this? Leave a comment and let’s get a totally unscientific data point to bat around. Texpatriate and Swamplot have more.

Astrodome referendum headed for the ballot

If you’ve been waiting for the chance to vote on the fate of the Astrodome, your wait will soon be over.

Commissioners Court next Tuesday is expected to approve a measure asking voters to authorize the county to spend as much as $220 million to transform the vacant stadium, County Budget Chief Bill Jackson said Wednesday.

County engineering staff, with the help of hired consultants, determined that the conversion project the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. proposed in June will cost $217 million. The sports corporation, which runs Reliant Park, had estimated its plan to turn the decaying structure into an energy-efficient meeting hall dubbed “The New Dome Experience” would cost $194 million.

Engineers also determined that it would cost $20 million to demolish the Dome and create an open space and identified $8 million worth of additional work – including asbestos abatement and selective demolition – that needs to be done no matter whether the structure is revamped or torn down.

The last demolition estimate, released in March by the NFL’s Texans and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, showed it would cost $29 million to implode the structure and build a 1,600-space parking lot.

Jackson said the county may be able to come up with other kinds of revenue to offset how many taxpayer dollars would have to be spent.

[…]

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he not only wants to see the plan on the ballot but that he will vote in favor of it – even if it means a tax rate increase – because it will generate revenue.

“Would I build that building today? No, but it’s an iconic structure, it’s a part of our history, I think we can put it to use,” he said. “We can make Reliant Center, and Houston in general, a unique destination for exhibits and special events, and I think that’s worth doing just for the money that will come our way.”

Whether a bond would pass is debatable, court members and county staff say.

Commissioners Court had previously authorized the budget office to give the HCSCC plan the once over. If Harris County winds up borrowing the full $220 million, there could be an increase in the county’s property tax rate of up to a half of a cent. Because there could be a tax rate increase, you can be sure that there will be some opposition to this, though at this point it’s unclear which of the usual suspects will take the lead. Given that the county spends $2 million annually on Dome maintenance, no one really disputes the need to do something. The question is whether people will openly advocate for demolition, which is the alternative and the much cheaper price tag to renovation. Commissioners Court is set to approve this item on Tuesday, so we’ll get a better idea of the politics of this after that.

The New Dome Experience

Behold:

If the future of the Astrodome has been keeping you up at night, you’ll rest easy knowing that a major step was taken in favor of preservation at a board meeting on Wednesday afternoon: The Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation (HCSCC) board unanimously agreed on a recommendation to repurpose the Houston landmark.

Willie Loston, executive director of HCSCC, said that none of the 19 privately-funded proposals submitted by the June 10 deadline met the criteria required, but the public use option presented at the board meeting does — think of it as “The New Dome Experience.”

Loston, along with SMG-Reliant Park general manager Mark Miller, presented the plan for a 350,000-square-foot column-free exhibition space, which would require removing the seats and raising the floor to street level.

Other improvements would include adding glass at the stadium’s four compass points for enhanced natural light and aesthetics, with a signature entry at the south end; installing solar panels on the domed roof and incorporating other building systems to improve energy-efficiency; and removing the berms, entrance ramps and ticket booths from the building’s exterior to create a more continuous and useable outdoor plaza, with food vendors and restroom opportunities as well as green space.

“What we want the ‘Dome to become for major events in Reliant Park is the front door,” explained Miller.

The reimagined space could serve, he said, as the headquarters for Reliant Park’s 24-hour security post, and would help facilitate emergency operations within the county in the case of disaster. The interior could be easily reconfigured to accommodate swim meets, graduations and other community events, football games, conventions and more.

The project is estimated to take about 30 months to build out at a cost of approximately $194 million, including everything from architectural and engineering fees to food service, according to Miller, although board chairman Edgardo Colón said that the HCSCC hopes to reduce that amount even further with alternative sources of financing.

See here for all my recent blogging on the subject, and here for the complete presentation on the New Dome. Commissioners Court will take up the matter on June 25, and if Judge Emmett’s reaction is any indication, it will get the Court’s support as well. As this option would require public money, it will also require a vote from We The People, meaning that if it fails then a date with the wrecker is surely next. If you’re wondering what happened with the private proposals, here’s your answer:

In order to be considered, privately submitted proposals had to include private funding, must be compatible with lease agreements with the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, as well as the master plan of the Reliant Park complex. None of the ideas submitted by private groups or individuals met those criteria, Loston said.

Loston previously had said that some of the submissions were little more than ideas, while a few appeared to be professionally developed proposals.

That really shouldn’t be a surprise. If getting funding had been doable, someone would have made a formal proposal to do it by now, as almost happened back in 2007. I’ll be very interested to see how the usual anti-spending-on-anything suspects react to this, since it will be more public debt.

Speaking of which, it turns out that the existing debt on the Astrodome is only $6 million, which is probably less that you might have thought.

According to information provided by the County Attorney’s Office, three “categories” of debt can be linked to the half-century-old domed structure: One $3.1 million package from 2004, being paid with hotel occupancy taxes, will mature this year. Two others – totaling more than $28 million – are various voter-approved bonds issued between 1997 and 2009 that refunded debt originally issued for improvement work on the Astrodome.

Those packages, however, have been refunded so many times that the amount that can be tied directly to work done on the stadium is hard to nail down, especially when one considers that the oldest debt is paid off first.

The original $27 million general obligation bond that voters approved in 1961 to pay for construction of the world’s first domed super stadium was paid off 12 years ago.

Of the $245 million the county owes on the Reliant Park complex, nearly $240 million – issued in 2002 for construction of Reliant Center and a cooling plant – has nothing to do with the Astrodome, at least directly. That means the county owes less than $6 million on the decaying structure, on which it spends $2 million a year for insurance, utilities and upkeep.

There were only two other Astrodome-specific bond packages since 1961, both issued in 1988 back when we were trying to keep the Oilers from leaving, and they have been paid off. So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice. I have always sort of assumed that any action taken on the Dome now, whether a private proposal, a public proposal, or demolition, would include the existing debt as a part of it. Maybe this will make that part of it a little easier. PDiddie, who is delighted to see this plan, has more.

Not a big enough picture

The headline on this story reads “County mulls big-picture health council”, but a read of the story makes it clear that there’s a big piece of this picture missing from the discussion.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Harris County is discussing a big-picture approach to its complex and overlapping health care costs, proposing the creation of a council to coordinate spending on mental health, public health, the treatment of jail inmates and the county’s hospital district.

The proposed group would mirror the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, created in 2009 to improve the justice system and reduce jail overcrowding. Though they acknowledge many factors are involved, county leaders note the jail population has fallen since some of the council’s proposals – such as launching a public defender’s office and letting inmates who enroll in vocational or educational programs earn three days’ time for each day served – were implemented.

“We not only have about 30 percent of all the property tax money going to the hospital district, but we have other areas that we support: mental health, incarcerated health and public health,” said Budget Management Director Bill Jackson. “All those together add up to almost $600 million a year, and I think that this council would bring people together, show their different needs. It deserves a lot of attention and a lot of coordination.”

[…]

The issues the health council would confront are hard to overstate, Commissioner El Franco Lee said. The same citizens often cycle through the jail and public hospitals, he said, with great overlap among homelessness and mental and physical health troubles. The result, he said, is a huge burden on public resources.

For example, $47 million of the sheriff’s proposed $391 million budget would be allocated to inmate health care. The county jail has been called the largest mental health institution in Texas; a quarter of its inmates take psychotropic medications on a typical day.

“So much of our dollars go into dealing with health,” said County Judge Ed Emmett. “I think every member of the court has said, ‘We’ve got find a way to separate mental health from the criminal justice system,’ and I think if we get everybody sitting together talking about it at the same time, we can make that happen.”

These are good ideas, and if a coordinating council for county health care makes sense to implement some of them then I support its creation. But let’s face it, if we’re not also talking about the need for Medicaid expansion and the huge benefits it would have for health care in Harris County, we’re not seeing the full picture. As Grits reminded us back in September, expanding Medicaid could have a large positive effect on these very citizens that cycle through the jail and public hospitals, not to mention the bottom line for those public hospitals. Medicaid expansion may not be on the table for the state right now, but there’s no reason Harris County can’t join with Dallas and other counties to formally request the right to do its own expansion. I’d conservatively guess that expanding Medicaid would affect over 200,000 people in Harris County, and I’d bet that more than a few of them are well known to the jail and the public hospitals. We can pay for all that ourselves, or we can take advantage of the Affordable Care Act and get the federal government to pay for the vast majority of it. If advocating for that isn’t part of any county health care coordinating council’s mission, then I don’t understand what its mission is.