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More details on the flood bond referendum

This is the longer version of the original story.

Through at least two-dozen public meetings across the county’s watersheds, County Judge Ed Emmett said residents have a crucial role to play as they provide feedback for the projects they think most will benefit their neighborhoods.

“As that comes in, Flood Control can make adjustments,” Emmett said. “You could have some projects just completely dropped. You could have some projects added we hadn’t thought about.”

The bond vote is an all-or-nothing gamble by Commissioners Court, whose members hope residents will commit to strengthening flood infrastructure after Harvey flooded 11 percent of the county’s housing stock this past August. If the bond passes, Harris County will have access to as much as $2.5 billion to make, over the next 10 to 15 years, the largest local investment in flood infrasctructure in the county’s history. If the bond fails, engineers will be limited to the flood control district’s annual operations and capital budgets, which total a paltry $120 million in comparison.

“This is the most important local vote I can remember in my lifetime,” Emmett said. “We either step up as a community and say we are going to address flooding and make our community resilient, or we kind of drib and drabble on, and it wouldn’t end well for anyone.”

A preliminary list of projects includes $919 million for channel improvements, $386 million for detention basins, $220 million for floodplain land acquisition, $12.5 million for new floodplain mapping and $1.25 million for an improved early flood warning system.

Also included is $184 million, coupled with $552 million in outside funding, to purchase around 3,600 buildings in the floodplain – more than the flood control district’s buyout program has bought in its entire 33-year history.

The draft list includes $430 million — nearly a fifth of the total — for contingency funding and “opportunities identified through public input.”

[…]

The bond would not finance the construction of a third reservoir in west Houston, but does include $750,000 to study, with the Army Corps of Engineers, whether another reservoir is necessary.

Other line items call for de-silting channels that lead into Addicks and Barker reservoirs, or possibly providing funding to the Army Corps to remove silt and vegetation from the reservoirs. Addicks and Barker are managed by the Army Corps, not Harris County, leaving any decisions about the future of those basins in the hands of the federal government.

The flood control district plans to work through the summer on the list of projects the bond would fund, and Emmett has pledged to publish a complete list by the time early voting begins in August. Until then, Emmett said plans may continue to change based on input from residents.

See here for the background. The county has a lot of work to do to finalize what the to-do list is, and to educate voters about it. Of course, first they have to make sure that the voters even know this is on the ballot in the first place, in August, at a time when no one has cast a vote in recent memory. I’m going to keep harping on this, because while I understand the reasons for expediting the election, I remain skeptical that it was a wise idea. I just don’t know, and neither does anyone else. It’s going to be fun trying to guess what turnout will be, I’ll say that much.

County officially puts flood bond referendum on the ballot

Here we go.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously agreed to place a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond before voters on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. If passed, the bond would be the largest local investment in flood mitigation since the storm flooded 154,000 homes across the county.

“I think the whole nation is going to be watching us,” County Judge Ed Emmett said of the region’s approach to flooding post-Harvey. “Everyone is saying Houston, Harris County, the whole region — we have the chance to do it right.”

[…]

Emmett last month said the number of projects to be included in the bond issue would be in the hundreds. He has said he hoped to publish a complete list of projects to be funded with bond proceeds by the first week of August, when early voting begins.

Three residents spoke in favor of the bond proposal Tuesday. Belinda Taylor of the Texas Organizing Project said the nonprofit would support the bond only if it includes projects that benefit northeast Houston, around Mesa and Tidwell, in the Greens Bayou watershed.

Taylor also said residents who volunteer their homes for buyouts should be able to move to comparable housing in drier areas.

“Any buyouts … must leave people with the same kind of housing, no additional debt and in non-flooding neighborhoods,” Taylor said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said that a priority for bond funds must be communities that are less likely to benefit from federal assistance. He said that the federal government uses a formula for dispersing disaster recovery money that places a premium on increasing property value rather than assisting the most people, which Ellis says skews unfairly toward wealthy neighborhoods.

See here and here for the background. The 2018 Harris County Flood Control District Bond Program webpage is here, the proposed project list is here, and the schedule and locations for the remaining public engagement meetings is here. Don’t worry, I plan to do some interviews to help you make sense of this. I’ll need to for myself, too. I agree with Judge Emmett that the country will be watching as we vote. I’m sure the first thing they’ll say if this fails to pass will be “What the heck were you thinking, having this in August?” There doesn’t appear to be any organized opposition to this yet, but as we’ve discussed before, that doesn’t matter. Unless there’s a strong pro-referendum campaign, it’s at best a tossup. We’ll see how that goes.

You got something to say about the Harris County bond referendum?

You’ll get a chance to say it.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Wednesday announced a series of public meetings to seek input from residents on an estimated $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond that commissioners plan to put before voters on the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey in August.

“On August 25, the voters of Harris County will make one of the most important decisions, I think, in our history,” Emmett said.

Throughout June, July and August, the county will hold public meetings on the bond in each of the county’s 23 watersheds.

[…]

Flanked by Harris County Flood Control District head Russ Poppe, Emmett said the $2.5 billion sum is a ballpark figure, and projects may be added or subtracted before commissioners decide on a final amount on June 12.

Emmett said the county intends to publish a list of planned projects by the first week of August, when early voting on the bond begins.

An initial list of possible projects and information about the community meetings can be found at www.hcfcd.org/bondprogram.

See here for the background, and here for a list of the meetings that have been scheduled so far. There’s one for each watershed, though as you can see most are not yet on the calendar. There’s a lot we need to know about this, and just two months before we start voting on it, so find a meeting near you, learn what you can, and ask questions. We all need to know what we’re voting on.

HISD begins prep on a 2019 bond issue

Wait till next year.

Administrators on Thursday recommended Houston ISD seek voter approval for a $1.7 billion capital projects bond in May 2019, charging forward with long-term spending plans even as the district faces uncertainty about its leadership and ability to maintain local control over decision-making.

District leaders said the $1.7 billion bond would finance much-needed rebuilding of 18 existing elementary and middle schools, construction of three new campuses, security upgrades at all 280-plus schools and the purchase of new buses, among other costs. HISD administrators said it was unclear whether the proposed bond package would result in a tax increase, saying they will have a better idea when the Harris County Appraisal District finalizes property values in August.

HISD trustees would have to approve a measure to send the bond referendum to voters, with board members likely making a decision in late 2018 or early 2019. If approved, the bond would be HISD’s first since 2012, when 67 percent of voters backed a $1.89 billion package.

The 2019 proposal, however, could meet more resistance than usual amid ongoing upheaval in the district.

[…]

Houston ISD voters have approved four capital projects bonds since 1998, totaling $4.2 billion. In recent years, residents of school districts throughout the five-county Greater Houston area also have overwhelmingly supported large school bonds, passing 30 out of 31 packages that totaled at least $100 million.

Few districts, however, have sought bonds amid such turbulence.

“Comparing ourselves to surrounding districts, they’re not making national news for negative reasons right now, so we need to remember what the public opinion is of our district overall,” HISD Trustee Sue Deigaard said, referring to media coverage of last month’s school board meeting.

University of Houston political science Professor Richard Murray said the district’s more affluent voters, who turn out in higher numbers during off-year May elections, likely will be key to the referendum. Those voters traditionally have supported school bonds, but they also have seen their local tax bills dramatically rise in recent years as property values have gone up.

The district’s upheaval, Murray said, also makes it more challenging to win support for a bond.

“It’s obviously a loss to have this vacuum of a visible superintendent in place that could be the public face of the effort,” Murray said. “You’ve also got a board that’s made some headlines that are not particularly attractive. It’s not going to be an easy thing.”

HISD’s recommendation Thursday represented a shift from its first presentation about a potential bond in January, before all the tumult. At that time, HISD leaders discussed the possibility of a $500 million bond issue that would result in no tax increase, or a $1.2 billion bond that would come with an increase of 3 cents to 7 cents per $100 in taxable value.

[HISD Chief Operating Officer Brian] Busby said the proposed bond amount has changed as district leaders further assessed campus and maintenance needs.

See here for more on what was presented in January. At that time, it looked like the goal was to get something on the November ballot, but like some other might-have-beens, that’s not what will happen. I don’t mind pushing this off till next year – I agree with everyone who says that a bit more time, as well as things like the hoped-for Harvey waiver, a new Superintendant, and a (hoped-for, again) return to normality will help their chances a lot – but I do object to doing it in May. Have it in November, when people expect to vote. The suggestion that May turnout levels would be better for this than November turnout levels is questionable to me, both as a logical proposition and as a matter of representative government. If we’re going to take the extra time to do this right, then do it all the way right. Campos, who sees a lot of obstacles ahead, has more.

Abbott approves August flood bond referendum

One more step forward.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday approved Harris County’s request to call a multi-billion-dollar bond election to pay for flood control measures on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey.

By state law, the county needed Abbott’s permission to call the “emergency special election” in spite of his oft-stated goal of reducing property taxes. The flood control bond package almost certainly will be accompanied by an increase in Harris County’s property tax rate.

Abbott granted the county’s request to put the issue to the voters, affirming his stated belief that responding to Harvey does “qualify as an emergency” and stating that he is “committed to working with Harris County to achieve its goals in the most efficient way possible.”

“As this request for an emergency special election was duly passed by a unanimous vote of the Harris County Commissioners Court, I hereby grant approval as governor of Texas for this emergency special election to be called for bonds to fund flood-related mitigation projects that respond to Hurricane Harvey,” Abbott wrote in a letter accompanying his decision.

[…]

The county plans to launch a public outreach campaign to seek input on what to include in the bond package, as well as drum up support for the measure. [County Judge Ed] Emmett said the focus would be on helping the most people possible.

“The worst thing we can do is say, ‘Just give us money and trust us,’” Emmett said. “It’s got to be a very open, transparent process.”

See here for the background. Commissioners Court still has to officially call the election, which means they have to define what the issue covers and what the wording of the referendum will be. There’s stuff in the story about that, but we’re not really any farther along than the “well, we could have this and we could have that” stage yet. That will all work itself out one way or another.

I’m more interested in the politics of this. What will the county’s strategy be to sell people on this idea and get them to come out at a weird time of year to vote for it? Who will spearhead the effort, and how much money will they spend on it? Who will be on Team Referendum, and who (if anyone) will stand in opposition? As I’ve said before, while city of Houston bonds tend to pass with room to spare, Harris County bonds tend to have less margin for error, and can’t be assumed to be favored even in the absence of organized resistance. They’re going to need to figure out what this thing is quickly so they can start selling it ASAP. Among other things, the difference between an election in August and an election in November is that people expect to vote in the latter. The first part of the sales job is going to be making sure people know that they need to vote at a different time. I’ll be keeping a close watch on this.

We’ll be voting on flood control bonds in August

Not my first choice, but it is what it is.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to seek a special election on Aug. 25 for what likely will be a multi-billion-dollar bond package that, if approved by voters, would be the largest local investment in the region’s flood control system after Hurricane Harvey.

The move comes a month before the start of the 2018 hurricane season and more than seven months after Hurricane Harvey, with the election timed to coincide with the storm’s one-year anniversary. County officials have spent months wrangling over when best to schedule the election, lest the measure fail and scuttle efforts to overhaul the area’s flood control efforts after one of the biggest rain storms in United States history.

“Why August 25?” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said. “It’s the one year anniversary of Harvey. I don’t think we want to go a year and not be able to say we’re doing something. People who care about mitigation, resilience, flood control, they’ll be energized and they’ll want to go out. Will there be somebody who wants to stand in the face of what we went through during Harvey and say ‘I want to be against it’? I kind of dare them to do it.”

It is not clear yet what the bond referendum will include. The court on Tuesday floated a $2.5 billion price tag — a number that could change as a priority list of flood control projects emerges. Emmett said the number of projects would be in the “hundreds” and likely would include the buy-out of all of the county’s high-priority areas at highest-risk of flooding, approximately 5,500 properties.

A huge chunk of funds, between $500 and $700 million officials estimate, could go toward local matches for federal grants and projects. A match could be required for the completion of four bayou widening and straightening projects underway with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along Hunting, White Oak, Brays Bayou and Clear Creek. Bayou engineering projects on Halls and Greens Bayou — some of the areas in the county most vulnerable to flooding — also likely would be targeted.

Emmett said all of the county’s 22 watersheds would see some sort of investment.

The bond funds also could help finance the construction of an oft-discussed third reservoir northwest of the city to contain storm water from Cypress Creek.

See here for the background. I would have preferred to have this on the November ballot, and from the article most of the Commissioners at least started out with that same preference. County Judge Ed Emmett pushed for the August date, and convinced them to go along. Again, I get the reasoning, but the county is really going to have to sell this. Recent history has shown that even non-controversial bond issues with no organized opposition don’t pass by much. This one will have a big price tag, a (minor) property tax increase, and no obvious benefit for anyone who wasn’t directly affected by Harvey, all wrapped up in a weird election date. This should pass – it’s easy to scratch your head and say “how could it not?” – but do not take it for granted. The county still has to get approval from Greg Abbott, which should be straightforward, then formally call the election. I hope they start gearing up the campaign for this in the meantime.

The timing of a Harvey bond referendum

How does August grab you?

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday will consider calling a special election for August 25 — the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey — to ask voters to OK a massive bond referendum for flood control projects.

The amount of the referendum has yet to be determined as the county continues to assess its needs and as other funds, including as federal grants, become available. At least three members of Commissioners Court said Friday they envision a measure that could reach $2.5 billion.

[…]

The referendum could help finance property buyouts, as well as a range of infrastructure projects, such as the widening and deepening of bayous or the construction of a much-discussed third reservoir in northwest Harris County.

Tuesday’s vote follows months of wrangling over the logistics of holding the bond election, including the cost of holding a special election and the ideal date to ensure voters turn out to support the measure.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis on Friday said he supports presenting the bond referendum to voters during the November general election, when turnout is expected to be considerable as voters weigh in on mid-term congressional elections.

“Without evidence of a clear path to victory for a summer-time bond election, which is likely to have low turnout, I have serious reservations about the proposed August date,” Ellis said. “The future of Harris County hinges on the success of this flood bond.”

It also is not yet clear what the bond referendum will include. Harris County Flood Control District Director of Operations Matt Zeve said that would be determined after Tuesday’s discussion at Commissioners Court.

County officials have said the necessity for bond money grows as federal grants pour in to prepare the Houston area for future floods or to recover from Harvey, many of which require a sometimes hefty financial match from local governments.

“The risk is that they may allocate the funds elsewhere and, thus, become unavailable for our region,” Emmett states in the proposed letter to Abbott.

See here, here, and here for the background. I get the reason for wanting to do this as quickly as possible, as grant money may get grabbed up by other places before we could approve a November referendum. August is a weird time for an election – looking at the County Clerk election result archives, the only August date I see is in 2014, for a special election runoff in SD04, which is only part of the county.

The last election that wasn’t in March or May or November that included the entire county was the 2003 Constitutional Amendment special election, which included the infamous tort “reform” measure and which was done in September specifically to reduce turnout from the Houston area, since we had an open seat Mayoral race that November. Turnout for that, which was a state election and not a county election, was 238,334, or 13.38% of registered voters. We have more registered voters now, but that percentage would still put us south of 300K. Compare that to the November 2014 general election, which had 688,018 voters, which was still only 33.65% turnout. I’d bet on November this year being closer to 800K voters, and likely a lot more Democratic than either of those other two contexts.

So on the one hand, you’ve got a need to get this done, and the one year anniversary of Harvey as a rallying cry, but a smaller electorate that may be more likely to not support any kind of spending measure. You also need Greg Abbott’s approval to hold this election, which you’ll probably get but is still an unknown factor. On the other hand, you could have a November vote with a bigger and likely friendlier electorate, but you risk losing out on some grant money, and maybe that much farther away from Harvey people will feel less of a sense of urgency to do something, or at least something that may be historically big. All things considered, my preference is still November, but we’ll see what Commissioners Court decides.

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.

HISD working on a bond issue

It’s going to be quite the year for HISD.

Voters living in Houston ISD could be asked to approve a new school bond totaling at least $1.2 billion as early as November, according to a recently unveiled district financial plan.

The bond would finance major construction projects, technology upgrades, fine arts purchases and other capital costs. If the bond request totals $1.2 billion, it would likely come with a tax increase of 3 cents to 7 cents per $100 of taxable value, depending on Hurricane Harvey’s impact on property values, district administrators said.

For a homeowner with a property valued at about $275,000, roughly the average in HISD in recent years, the increase would amount to $80 to $190 per year.

District leaders unveiled the plans over the weekend during a wide-ranging preview of major changes to the district’s budget, magnet schools program and approach to long-failing schools. HISD’s last bond election came in 2012, when two-thirds of voters approved a $1.89 billion request.

District leaders did not present specific projects or amounts, but they’re expected in the coming months to finalize a proposal for school board members. Board trustees must approve sending a bond election to voters.

Administrators said the bond would help finance new campuses in pockets of the city’s west and south sides, where student enrollment has grown, along with upgrades to outdated elementary and middle schools. The 2012 bond largely focused on renovating and building new high schools, with 26 campuses getting about $1.3 billion worth of construction.

The district’s financial staff estimates that a $500 million bond request could be passed without raising taxes, but the amount “would not do much for a school district of this size,” HISD Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby said.

“It would be something that would possibly pass, depending on what you do, but it would not be as impactful as we need a bond to be, based on our strategic vision moving forward,” Busby said.

Add this to the other items already on the plate and once again you can see what a busy year the Board has for itself. The initial reaction I saw to this on Facebook was not positive, which may have been the result of this coming on the heels of the announcement about changes to the magnet school program – lots of people I know are already plenty anxious about that. It’s also a weird year for politics, people feel like there’s too many things for them to keep track of, and I’m sure some people are wondering why there’s another bond issue six years after the last one. HISD bond issues generally pass easily – the one in 2012 got 69% of the vote – but I suspect the Board and Superintendent Carranza are going to have to put together a solid plan and sell it to the voters, with a strong promise of engagement and accountability. I would not take anything for granted.

My thoughts following the 2017 election

1. Turnout in Houston was considerably higher than anyone predicted. Adding in Fort Bend to Harris yields 101,178 voters. Harris County had 149,730. The Houston share of Harris County was 66.43%, which is lower than I expected as well.

2. Early voting in odd years is not the same as early voting in even years. In even years, a significant majority of voters are showing up before Election Day. In odd years, Election Day still reigns supreme. In Harris County, 59.49% of the total vote was cast on Election Day. For the Houston part of Harris County, that total was 58.74% of the vote. It’s not clear to me why this is the case, but if I had to guess I’d say that the presence of big well-funded campaigns is a big part of the reason people vote early, because they are being told to vote during the early process. In the absence of such campaigns, people don’t think about voting before Election Day nearly as much. Just a guess, but one that will inform how I think about the next odd year election.

3. After the 2015 election, the HISD Board of Trustees had four men and five women. After the 2017 election, it will have one man and eight women. It will also be all Democratic, as the three Republican men who served in districts V, VI, and VII have all been succeeded by Democratic women. Let that sink in for a minute.

4. A lot will be said about the national election results and what that means for Democrats and Republicans going into 2018. We haven’t really had an election that has been cast in that light – unlike the 2015/2016 cycle, for example, there have been no special legislative elections. I think you have to look at the 2017 HISD results as a piece of that puzzle, even if they weren’t run as Dem-versus-GOP referenda. The Democratic candidates won the three formerly Republican-held Trustee seats because more Democrats showed up to vote. I don’t want to over-dramatize that, but it has to mean at least a little something.

5. Of course, if one wants to be cynical, it could mean that the TEA will have more reason to drop the hammer on HISD if one or more of the Improvement Required schools fails to meet standards. Who at the state level will care about disbanding an all-Democratic Board of Trustees?

6. In the runup to Tuesday, the lower-than-usual turnout projections were cited as a reason why the city bond issues might have trouble. This was going to be a weird year with no city elections, and Harvey caused a lot of disruption, but the main piece of logic underpinning that was the assumption that lower turnout = a more Republican electorate, which in turn would be dangerous for the bonds. Remember, while no one officially opposed the pension bonds, the Harris County GOP and associated conservative groups did oppose the other bonds. It turned out there was no cause for alarm, as all the issues passed by huge margins. While I think that Republicans were more favorably inclined to the bond referenda than we may have given them credit for, this needs to be a reminder that sometimes it’s Republican voters who don’t show up in the expected numbers. The HISD results point to that. If we want to draw an inference for 2018, it’s that overall turnout doesn’t have to be huge for Democrats to have a good year. Who is motivated to vote matters.

7. There will be three runoffs on the menu for December, two in HISD (District I, Elizabeth Santos versus Gretchen Himsl, and District III, Jesse Rodriguez versus Sergio Lira) and one in HCC. One quick thought about that:

Meanwhile, Eugene “Gene” Pack and Pretta VanDible Stallworth were the top vote-getters in a three-way contest for an open seat in District IX. Pack, a retired auto broker, narrowly edged out Stallworth, a business consultant, for the top spot. But both fell short of the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. David Jaroszewski, a professor, was well behind.

Earlier Tuesday night, Pack expressed optimism that his early lead indicated voters endorsed him as an “outsider.”

“They’re tired of the direction the board has been going in,” he said.

Maybe, but with all due respect I’d suggest that Pack’s strong showing was a combination of his simple name and top spot on the ballot. My advice for the runoff to Pretta Stallworth is to make sure the voters there know that Pack is a Trump-supporting Republican. I’d guess that would outweigh any valorization of “outsider” status.

8. Finally, the Chron is in a scolding mood.

The ballot featured neither president, nor governor nor mayor, but Tuesday’s election was one of the most important to face Houstonians in decades.

So how did we respond? By not participating. Turnout – at less than 10 percent – was abysmally low.

By approving a $1 billion pension obligation bond, voters set City Hall on track to financial reforms that will cut expenses and, hopefully, usher our city out of a 16-year fiscal crisis. Months of negotiations, years of failed efforts, all came down to this vote – and the vast majority of Houstonians couldn’t be bothered to weigh in.

The immediate issues at City Hall – or Commissioner’s Court or school board – often have a greater impact on American’s everyday lives, yet the local issues have a way of getting lost in the cacophony of national politics. Blame it on media consolidation or the spread of Facebook and Twitter, but our government loses a core of its representative nature when elections that deserve all the attention of a professional sporting event pass with the fanfare of a Little League game.

Something has to change in our civic culture. Easier voting processes. Making Election Day a national holiday. Better promotion efforts. Local officials and nonprofits need to start work now on improving this atrocious turnout.

Actually, we know exactly what drives turnout in Houston municipal elections: the combination of a contested Mayor’s race and a controversial ballot proposition. This year had neither. But you know, one reason why those factors I cited generate turnout is that a lot of money gets spent by the campaigns to entice, encourage, and enrage people to go vote. Maybe what we need when faced with a low key slate like this is a dedicated source of funding to simulate a more exciting election year. How we can accomplish that is left as an exercise for the reader. Oh, and if we’re casting about for blame, I’ll just note that pre-Tuesday coverage from the Chron included one lame overview of the HISD races, and exactly nothing about the HCC ones. Maybe the lack of interest from voters was a reflection of that.

2017 results: City bonds

Pension obligation bonds pass easily.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston voters passed a $1 billion pension bond referendum by a wide margin late Tuesday, securing Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark reform package and, the mayor hopes, marking the beginning of the end of a 16-year fiscal crisis.

The ballot item’s passage now means the city can follow through on its plan to infuse $750 million into the police pension and $250 million into the municipal workers’ pension to improve their funding levels and lower Houston’s annual payments into its pension funds.

If voters had rejected the measure, up to $1.8 billion of the $2.8 billion in hard-won benefit cuts in the reform bill would have been rescinded, adding tens of millions of dollars in costs to the city budget overnight.

“This effort has not been easy,” the mayor said at an election night party. “Tonight is not a victory for Sylvester Turner. Tonight is not a victory for the members of city council. Tonight is not just a victory for the employees. Tonight is a victory for the city of Houston.”

[…]

Many City Hall insiders and political observers had predicted voters could balk at a $1 billion bond and produce a close vote. But University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said, because the GOP-run Legislature had approved the reform package earlier this year, there was no organized opposition to shake voters from their typical habit of granting approval to city bond issues.

“Because most conservative groups and Republicans and most big players on the state level endorsed the bonds, it was unlikely that there would be much of a fight, and there wasn’t,” he said. “My honest guess is that people probably weren’t that attentive to the importance of Prop. A; it was simply the case that the city was asking for more money, as they routinely do, and the good news is that people typically vote yes.”

I gave up and went to bed before the final results came in, but Prop A had over 77% support, with absentee, early, and Election Day totals all being at about the same level. Turnout was higher than predicted, with over 87,000 votes being counted with a fifth of precincts still not having reported. I’ll have more analysis of this for tomorrow, but in the meantime, the other bonds passed, too.

Houston residents can look forward to a smattering of facility upgrades – including repaired libraries, new community centers and renovated fire stations – thanks to what appeared to be overwhelming voter support for $495 million in public improvement bonds.

Propositions B through E passed easily Tuesday despite anemic local turnout in a city lacking a marquee race.

The bonds’ passage, which will not require a property tax increase, would authorize Houston to issue $159 million in public safety debt, $104 million for parks, $109 million for improvements to general government facilities and $123 million for libraries. They are the first the city has requested since 2012.

[…]

Meanwhile, residents of Houston’s Heights neighborhood, in the northwest, were set to further loosen restrictions on area alcohol sales.

Heights voters already had lifted a 105-year-old ban on the sale of beer and wine at grocery stores last year, but customers who wanted to drink at neighborhood restaurants or bars still had to join a “private club” by submitting a driver’s license for entry into a database.

Passing Proposition F lifts that requirement, leaving the neighborhood nearly wet. Liquor sales at grocery and convenience stores still would be banned.

I don’t expect that last bit to change any time soon. Props B through E were at similar levels of support as Prop A, garnering between 72 and 76 percent; Prop F, limited to just part of the Heights, had over 62%. I should note that the other four citywide props did have official, if perhaps not organized, opposition, as the Harris County GOP and conservative groups like the C Club and the HRBC opposed them. Didn’t have much effect, I’d say.

Elsewhere, school bond issues in Spring Branch and Katy were approved, while all seven constitutional amendments were passed. As I said, I’ll have more to say on Tuesday’s results tomorrow.

UPDATE: Final turnout in the Harris County part of the city was 99,460, which is higher than anyone projected it to be.

Election Day 2017

It’s time to vote if you haven’t already. Not many people have, as we know.

Harris County turnout is expected to remain feeble through Election Day, with no marquee race to draw voters to the polls and thousands still displaced by Hurricane Harvey.

Fewer than 59,000 of the county’s more than 2.2 million registered voters cast a ballot by the end of early voting Friday, a paltry showing even in a traditionally low-turnout state.

“Nobody’s voting because really nothing overly controversial is on the ballot,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said, projecting total voter participation will reach of 80,000 to 100,000.

Unlike in recent off-cycle elections, Houston residents do not have mayoral or city council races to weigh in on, thanks to a recent change to term limits.

Instead, the city ballot features several propositions, as well as races for the Houston ISD and Houston Community College school boards.

What’s interesting about this is that Prof. Jones is suggesting that somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of the total votes have already been cast. That’s a higher percentage than what I estimated, and it feels a bit peculiar to me because early voting has topped out at around half of the final total in odd-year elections. Maybe this year will be different – Lord knows, it’s different in many other ways – but I would like to understand the reasoning behind that projection. In any event, going by my “Houston is 70% of Harris County in odd year vote totals”, that suggests final citywide turnout of 56,000 to 70,000, which is similar to my estimate but with a lower ceiling.

Here’s the usual press release from the County Clerk’s office:

“Regardless of where voters reside in Harris County, voters will see seven state propositions on their ballot,”said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, alerting the registered voters in the County that Tuesday’s November 7, 2017 General and Special Elections is a countywide and statewide election. In addition to the State Propositions, the ballot also features items offered by 29 political jurisdictions within the County.  Polling locations will be open from 7 am to 7 pm.

“Voters can view their individual sample ballot and review the items on which they may vote by visiting the County Clerk’s election website,  www.HarrisVotes.com,Stanart specified. “This election merits the attention and participation of all voters. Aside from the State, there are five cities, 14 ISDs, and 10 utility districts with contests on the ballot.”

“Voters should know the address of their voting location and the acceptable forms of identification required at the poll before going to vote,” advised Stanart.  “The polling location in approximately 30 voting precincts in areas impacted by Hurricane Harvey, have changed.”  There will be 735 Election Day polling location available throughout Harris County.  On Election Day, voters must vote at the voting precinct where they are registered to vote.

“Voters in the City of Houston should be aware that this is the first odd-numbered year election when the Mayor, Controller and City Council races are not on the ballot,” informed Stanart.  “Don’t be surprised if you don’t see those contests on your ballot.”

Voters may find their designated Election Day polling location, view a personal sample ballot, or review the list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at their poll at www.HarrisVotes.com. Voters may also call 713.755.6965 for election information.

Stan Stanart is the Clerk, Recorder and the Chief Elections Officer of the third largest county in the United States.

 

List of Political Entities on the Nov. 7, 2017 General & Special Elections Ballot in Harris County, TX
State of Texas Pasadena ISD
City of Baytown Spring Branch ISD
City of Bellaire Stafford Municipal SD
City of Houston Tomball ISD
City of Missouri City Crosby MUD
Houston Community College System Harris County MUD No. 61 (defined area)
Aldine ISD Harris County MUD No. 551
Alief ISD Harris County MUD No. 552
Crosby ISD Mount Houston Road MUD
Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Northwest Harris County MUD No. 6
Deer Park ISD Northwest Harris County MUD No. 22
Houston ISD Cypress-Klein UD
Katy ISD Prestonwood Forest UD
Klein ISD Harris County WC & ID No. 133
New Caney ISD The Woodlands Township

Finally, if you have been displaced by Hurricane Harvey, please read this information from the Secretary of State Short version: you can still vote in your original precinct, as long as it is your intent to return there at some point. Note that state election law says you don’t actually have to return, you just have to say you intend to. You can re-register another time. So no excuses, go and vote if you haven’t already. I’ll have results tomorrow.

2017 EV daily report: Day 8, and one more look at a way to guess turnout

Here are the numbers through Monday. Now that we are in the second week of early voting, when the hours each day are 7 to 7, these reports arrive in my inbox later in the evening. Here are the daily totals from previous years:

2015

2013

2011

2009

2007

And here’s a select comparison:


Year    Early    Mail    Total   Mailed
=======================================
2017   24,442   8,201   32,643   21,320
2015   73,905  23,650   97,555   43,279
2011   23,621   4,958   28,579   14,609
2007   19,250   4,353   23,603   13,589

The first Monday of Week 2 was busier than all preceding days, by a lot in 2015 and by a little in 2011 and 2007. Each day after that was busier still. This year, the second Monday was less busy than Thursday and Friday last week. I suspect an Astros hangover from Sunday night may have had something to do with that – Lord knows, traffic on I-45 in the morning and in the downtown tunnels at lunchtime were both eerily mild – in which case we ought to see more of an uptick going forward.

As for the other way of guessing turnout, which would be my third model for thinking about it, we have the May 2004 special city charter election, called by Mayor White to make adjustments to the pension funds, in the immediate aftermath of reports that recent changes had greatly increased the city’s financial obligations. A total of 86,748 people showed up for that election. I seriously doubt we’ll approach that, but my initial guesses on turnout for this year before I started looking at any data were 50,000 to 75,000, so it’s not ridiculously out of the question. Let’s file this one away for next May, when we may have to vote on the firefighter’s pay parity proposal.

What about those constitutional amendments?

Would you like someone to explain to you what those seven Constitutional amendments are about, in painstaking detail, with a recommendation for how to vote on each? Daniel Williams is here for you.

It’s that time of the biennium again! Time for voters to consider constitutional amendments on small minutia of public policy. Texas has the longest state constitution in the nation. It’s so detailed and specific that many ordinary and noncontroversial provisions of the law must be submitted to the voters for approval. That means that we the voters have a responsibility to educate ourselves on all that ordinary and noncontroversial minutia and do our best to vote in an informed and thoughtful way.

I’ve included the text of each proposed constitutional amendment, along with an attempt to briefly explain what the amendment is trying to do and how I’ll be voting when early voting starts tomorrow. I’ve also included information on how various advocacy groups and media outlets on all sides of the political spectrum have endorsed. If I’ve left off a group you think should be included let me know in the comments and I’ll add it.

Click over to read said painstakingly detailed explanations, the TL;dr version of which is “vote FOR props 1, 3, 5, and 7, and AGAINST props 2, 4, and 6”.

If you want further reading on the amendments, the League of Women Voters 2017 guide has you covered, though they don’t make recommendations. They do have information about the city of Houston bond referenda, and a brief Q&A with the HISD and HCC candidates; all but two of them provided answers. Finally, the Texas AFL-CIO has a guide to the amendments as well, along with their recommendations. You may find this exercise exasperating, but you can’t say you don’t have sufficient information to make good decisions.

On the matter of other elections, Instant News Bellaire has coverage on the elections for Bellaire’s Mayor and City Council. And if you live in Alief ISD, Stace has a slate for you. Now get out there and vote!

Early voting for November 2017 begins today

From the inbox:

“The best option to vote in the upcoming Nov. 7 election is during the early voting period,” advised Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart. Early Voting for the November 7, 2017 General and Special Elections begins Monday, October 23 and will run through Friday, November 3. There will be 45 Early Voting locations across Harris County.

“Voters should be informed before heading to the polls as several of the usual Early Voting locations have changed”, said Stanart. “Locations hit hardest by flooding such as those running along Cypress Creek and those located near the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs have seen changes to several of their Early Voting locations”.

In addition to the 7 proposed State Constitutional Amendments, there are 5 cities, 14 ISD’s, and 10 utility districts with contests on the ballot. Voters can find their individual sample ballot at www.HarrisVotes.com.

“The impact of Hurricane Harvey to South Texas has been huge, and while we are recovering, please realize that government needs your participation in this election,” concluded Stanart. The pulling together of neighbors helping neighbors has been truly inspiring. Please join your neighbors as we meet at your neighborhood early voting location.”

To find polling locations for Early Voting and Election Day, view a personal sample ballot, or review the list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at the poll, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965. Stan Stanart is the Chief Elections Administrator and recorder for the third largest county in the United States.

Below is a list of early voting locations, some of which are new and one of which is a previously-used location that is not available due to Harvey. For a map and the EV schedule, see here. I’ll keep track of the daily totals as usual, and we’ll try to make our guesses as we go along about turnout. Feel free to place your guesses about how things go in the comments. When do you plan to vote?

Harris County, Texas – Early Voting Locations
November 7, 2017 General and Special Elections

Location Address City Zip
Harris County Administration Building 1001 Preston Street, 4th Floor Houston 77002
Moody Park Community Center 3725 Fulton Street Houston 77009
Kashmere Multi Service Center 4802 Lockwood Drive Houston 77026
Ripley House Neighborhood Center 4410 Navigation Boulevard Houston 77011
HCCS Southeast College 6960 Rustic Street, Parking Garage Houston 77087
Young Neighborhood Library 5107 Griggs Road Houston 77021
Fiesta Mart 8130 Kirby Drive Houston 77054
Metropolitan Multi Service Center 1475 West Gray Street Houston 77019
Harris County Public Health 2223 West Loop South Freeway, 1st floor Houston 77027
SPJST Lodge 88 1435 Beall Street Houston 77008
Northeast Multi Service Center 9720 Spaulding Street, Building 4 Houston 77016
Alvin D. Baggett Community Center 1302 Keene Street Galena Park 77547
John Phelps Courthouse 101 South Richey Street Pasadena 77506
Sunnyside Multi Purpose Center 9314 Cullen Boulevard Houston 77051
Hiram Clarke Multi Service Center 3810 West Fuqua Street Houston 77045
Bayland Park Community Center 6400 Bissonnet Street Houston 77074
Tracy Gee Community Center 3599 Westcenter Drive Houston 77042
Trini Mendenhall Community Center 1414 Wirt Road Houston 77055
Lone Star College Victory Center 4141 Victory Drive Houston 77088
Acres Homes Multi Service Center 6719 West Montgomery Road Houston 77091
Hardy Senior Center 11901 West Hardy Road Houston 77076
Octavia Fields Branch Library 1503 South Houston Avenue Humble 77338
Kingwood Community Center 4102 Rustic Woods Drive Kingwood 77345
Rosewood Funeral Home 17404 W. Lake Houston Pkwy Atascocita 77346
Crosby Branch Library 135 Hare Road Crosby 77532
North Channel Library 15741 Wallisville Road Houston 77049
Baytown Community Center 2407 Market Street Baytown 77520
Kyle Chapman Activity Center 7340 Spencer Highway Pasadena 77505
Freeman Branch Library 16616 Diana Lane Houston 77062
Harris County Scarsdale Annex 10851 Scarsdale Boulevard Houston 77089
Alief ISD Administration Building 4250 Cook Road Houston 77072
Harris County MUD 81 805 Hidden Canyon Road Katy 77450
Nottingham Park 926 Country Place Drive Houston 77079
Katy Branch Library 5414 Franz Road Katy 77493
Bear Creek Park Community Center UNAVAILABLE    
Lone Star College Cypress Center 19710 Clay Road Katy 77449
City of Jersey Village City Hall 16327 Lakeview Drive Jersey Village 77040
Richard & Meg Weekley Community Center 8440 Greenhouse Road Cypress 77433
Juergen’s Hall Community Center 26026 Hempstead Highway Cypress 77429
Prairie View A&M University Northwest 9449 Grant Road Houston 77070
Fallbrook Church 12512 Walters Road Houston 77014
Klein Multipurpose Center 7500 FM 2920 Klein 77379
Tomball Public Works Building 501B James Street Tomball 77375
Lone Star College Creekside 8747 West New Harmony Trail Tomball 77375
Spring First Church 1851 Spring Cypress Road Spring 77388
Lone Star College – North Harris 2700 W W Thorne Drive Houston 77073

 

Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the city bonds

The Chron circles back to where they started this endorsement season.

The spotlight of public attention has focused on the billion dollar pension bond referendum, Proposition A, whose passage is absolutely critical to Houston’s financial future. But if you’re a Houston voter, you’ll also find on your ballot four bond issues that will pay for a long list of projects and equipment essential to our city government.

Proposition B would authorize the city to borrow $159 million for the police and fire departments. The Houston Police Department needs the money for everything from improvements to its training academy to pouring new pavement at HPD facilities. The Houston Fire Department would use its funds to pay for renovating and expanding some of its fire stations. And both departments need to tap the bond money to update their aging fleets of cars, trucks and ambulances.

Proposition C would authorize $104 million in bonds for park improvements, including upgrades to 26 of the 375 parks around the city, making sure they are usable, safe and fun. To take one example: Baseball and soccer are popular with both young and older athletes in many neighborhoods, but many city ball fields are equipped with old wooden light poles. The bond issue would allow the Houston Parks and Recreation Department to replace them with new metal poles, energy efficient lights and underground wiring. The upgrade would also include a remote control feature that would reduce personnel costs.

Proposition D would raise $109 million for a variety of public health and solid waste disposal expenses. Much of this money would go to renovating and rehabilitating old multi-service centers, which are used as everything from health clinics to election polling places. Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department, the people who pick up our garbage, would spend their share of this money on a “to do” list that includes a new disposal facility and a storm water mitigation project.

Proposition E would go a long way toward upgrading library services throughout the city with a $123 million bond issue, directly benefiting at least 24 of the city’s 42 libraries. Not everyone can afford a home computer, yet in this digital age access to a computer is crucial to success. That’s why it’s such a shame that so many of Houston’s neighborhood libraries are in disrepair. The bond proceeds will replace the roofs and repair the exteriors of ten libraries and will rebuild four neighborhood libraries.

Maybe you’re wondering why these propositions don’t include money for flood control after Hurricane Harvey. It’s a logical question with an equally logical answer. In order to appear on the ballot in November, the plans for these bond issues were presented to city council in early August, weeks before the storm hit.

Beyond that, flood control in the Houston area has mainly been the responsibility of the county and federal governments. When voters ask why more hasn’t been done to mitigate flooding, those are questions that need to be addressed mainly to the county judge and commissioners as well as our elected representatives in Washington.

The Chron had endorsed these bond issues in their first such editorial of the cycle, but that one was primarily about the pension bonds, and only mentioned the others in passing. You read what these are about, it’s hard to understand why anyone would oppose them, but a lot of people don’t know much about them, and of course some people will always oppose stuff like this. As you know, I believe the bonds will pass, but we’re all just guessing. We’ll know soon enough.

Endorsement watch: State propositions and Katy bonds

Hey, did you know that there are constitutional amendments on the ballot? It’s true! (Spoiler alert: There are constitutional amendments on the ballot every odd-numbered year.) The Chron has some recommendations for how to vote on them.

State of Texas, Proposition 1: For

This amendment would allow the Legislature to exempt partially disabled veterans and surviving spouses from paying property taxes on a home received from a charity at less than the market value. An exemption has already been granted when homes are given for free, and this opens the door to some cost sharing.

[…]

State of Texas, Proposition 2: Against

Consider it a form of post-traumatic stress. Any time banks ask for looser rules, we get flashbacks to the 2008 economic crisis. Financial institutions granted bad loans, good loans – some even made fake loans – knowing that the instruments would eventually be wrapped into a package and sold off. If the debt went bust, some other sucker would be stuck holding the bomb.

The global economic system ended up as the big loser in that game of hot potato.

Now the Texas Legislature is asking voters to tear down some regulations that help keep lenders in line. We recommend voting against.

[…]

State of Texas, Proposition 3: Against

The governor selects hundreds of unpaid appointees to serve on state boards and commissions, most of which run for four- or six-year terms. But if the term expires and no replacement is appointed, that volunteer is allowed under the state’s “holdover” provision to remain until the slot is filled. This amendment to the state Constitution would force out the incumbents even if there’s no new appointees and render the positions vacant.

We have no quarrel with the current “holdover” rule and recommend voting against.

There are seven of these in total, so I presume this was part one of two. I did receive a mailer the other day in favor of one of these, so there’s at least one active campaign involved. I don’t remember which one it was, though. This is why you need to send more than one piece of mail to ensure that your message penetrates, kids.

Moving a bit outside the usual boundaries, the Chron casts a virtual vote in favor of Katy ISD’s bond referendum.

Katy needs more schools.

That simple fact becomes obvious to anybody who looks at the Katy Independent School District’s explosive growth. During the decade between 2005 and 2015, Katy ISD’s enrollment rose by a whopping 47 percent.

Take a deep dive into the numbers and you’ll discover another telling insight from the state comptroller’s office, which diligently tracks data on Texas school districts. Between 2006 and 2015, Katy ISD’s tax-supported debt per student actually declined by a little less than 1 percent.

Now one of the fastest growing school districts in Texas wants voters to authorize a bond issue allowing them to borrow another $609 million. Katy ISD officials have earnestly made a compelling case for passing this referendum. Even some longtime activists in the district who’ve opposed previous bond issues fully support this one. Voters should, too.

As the piece notes, despite being one of the hardest-hit areas by Harvey, KISD’s enrollment was up this year, highlighting just how rapid its growth has been. This is one of those “you can pay now, or you can pay later” situations, and paying now – especially when interest rates remain low – is almost always the better choice.

Another contemplation of turnout

Let’s see where this one takes us. Last time, I made some guesses about turnout in the HISD races based on overall turnout in the city of Houston. Now I’m going to turn that around and take a shot at pegging city turnout based on HISD.

It was suggested to me that we do have a model for a low-turnout HISD election scenario, and that was the May special election to revisit the recapture question. A total of 28,978 people showed up for that exercise. How can we extrapolate from that to the full city? Most years there isn’t a direct connection, since most years there isn’t an election for all of HISD. But such a connection does exist in two recent years, years in which HISD had a bond issue on the ballot. Let’s take a look at 2007 and 2012, the latter of which works because there were also city bond issues up for a vote. Here are the numbers:

2007: Houston = 123,410 HISD = 85,288 Share = 69.1%

2012: Houston = 576,549 HISD = 388,982 Share = 67.5%

“Share” is just the ratio of HISD turnout to Houston turnout. It’s quite pleasingly compact. If we take the midpoint of the two – 68.3% – and apply it to the May 2017 special, and we get a projected total for the city of 42,428. Which, also pleasingly, is well in line with the numbers I was noodling with last time.

What does that tell us? In some sense, not that much, as we don’t have a district-wide election in November, we have six district races. But it does give another figure for our estimate of hardcore voters, and a tad more faith in my own guess of around 50K total for the city. We can get from there to numbers for the individual races if we want. It’s still all hocus-pocus, but at least it’s based on something.

On a tangential note, we do remember that there’s also another Heights alcohol vote on the ballot, right? I’ve heard basically nothing about this since the petitions were validated. The signs like the one embedded above started showing up within the past week or so, but that’s the only activity I’ve seen or heard about, and this light Press story is the only news I’ve found. The area that will be voting has some overlap with HISD I, so it’s not touching many voters who wouldn’t already have a reason to be engaged, and as such probably wouldn’t be much of a factor even if it were a hotter ticket. Anyway, I just wanted to work something about this item in, and this seemed like as good a place as any.

Still some fretting about the bonds

Generalized anxiety, nothing specific.

Pro-bond mailer

Fire engines bursting into flames at a scene. Roof leaks damaging walls at city health clinics. Bike trails eroding into the bayou.

Those are among the reasons Mayor Sylvester Turner is asking voters to approve $495 million in public improvement bonds this fall. Early voting starts Oct. 23.

As with the marquee item on the Nov. 7 ballot – Proposition A, the $1 billion bond needed to secure the mayor’s landmark pension reform package – Turner acknowledged that his chief opponent for city propositions B through E is Hurricane Harvey.

The historic storm not only knocked the city on its back, it also disrupted typical campaign efforts, cutting the pro-bonds Lift Up Houston committee’s fundraising targets and, perhaps, preventing it from funding a TV ad blitz, the mayor said.

“The biggest obstacle is not coming from political parties or political groups, it’s not that,” Turner said. “It’s that people are having to deal with some immediate concerns presented by Harvey. And we have to convince them to take some time to go to the polls to cast a ‘yes’ vote.”

[…]

City Controller Chris Brown, the city’s elected financial watchdog, said an organized “no” campaign might not be necessary to make the vote closer than past city bond elections, which tend to pass easily. Brown said he was concerned to hear contentious discussion on the improvement bonds at a Monday night meeting of the Super Neighborhood Alliance, a coalition of civic clubs.

“They had a lot of very specific questions about the bonds, which, you know, this is a standard issuance,” Brown said. “I guess they hadn’t gotten enough details about what exactly was going to be funded. I chalk some of that up to Harvey. But, especially post-Harvey, the needs just increase. It’s in the public’s best interest to approve these.”

Well, they’re sending out mail – the embedded image is a picture of what was in my mailbox on Friday. Again, I remain basically optimistic, especially with the lack of any organized opposition. The goal is not so much persuasion as it is reminding the people you expect to be in favor, or at least those who will be on the Mayor’s side when they know he’s got something he’s asking them to do, to go out and vote. And while the Lift Up Houston committee may be having a hard time making its fundraising targets, Mayor Turner has plenty of cash on hand to bridge the gap if he needs to. I fully expect them to send more mail, and to get some TV and radio spots up shortly.

The fire department’s needs

This is a conversation we need to have, but it’s one we need to dig into and work all the way through.

Fire Chief Sam Pena gave City Council a bleak assessment Tuesday of his department’s readiness to respond to significant rainstorms, or even daily fire and medical calls, saying a ramshackle fleet and inadequate training are putting the safety of citizens and firefighters at risk.

The Houston Fire Department must double its annual spending on new engines, ladders and ambulances, the chief said, and must ramp up its purchases of water rescue apparatuses and the training.

The department has a “moral and legal” duty, Pena said, to provide safe and effective vehicles and equipment to its 4,100 firefighters and the residents they serve.

Instead, he said, engines are catching fire on the scene or at stations; one dropped a gas tank en route to a call. Another time, he said, an ambulance broke down while carrying a cardiac patient to a hospital. Reserve vehicles have to stand in for broken-down front-line apparatus 85 percent of the time, he said.

“We haven’t allocated the right resources to ensure we’re preparing our firefighters to do the job we’re asking them to do,” said Pena, who became chief last December. “What Harvey put a spotlight on is the lack of resources that we’ve had, but it’s a reality that we’re living as a department every day. We have to make a decision about what we want our fire department to do and what we’re willing to fund.”

[…]

On Tuesday, he told the council’s public safety committee that HFD had received funding for 20 of the 47 engines it sought in the last three budget cycles. It also got 10 of 19 requested ladder or tower trucks, and 36 of 75 requested ambulances, he said.

The city has budgeted $5.5 million to $5.8 million in each of the next five years to purchase fire vehicles, but Pena said $11 million is needed annually to ensure HFD meets his recommendation of replacing 16 ambulances, nine engines and four ladder or tower trucks each year.

If voters pass the $495 million city bonds on the November ballot, officials said the department will get $10.8 million a year for five years to renew its fleet.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said it has been evident since he took office that HFD – along with police and city trash haulers – have been working with inadequate vehicles.

“Today Chief Pena painted a picture I know well. We are going to meet these needs as much as we can with the limited city revenues we have, hence the importance of the public safety bonds that the voters are asked to approve,” Turner said. “This is just one of the steps we need to take to get us where we need to be.”

See here for some background. The bond issue on the ballot would help the Fire Department replace old equipment, but it would not be enough to also buy more flood-rescue gear or pay for training on it. That will require further spending from the city, including from general revenue, at a time when there’s not a lot of spare change lying around and the city’s revenue stream is hamstrung by the stupid revenue cap. We should, as I have said here and in that earlier post, have a real discussion about what HFD needs and how we’re going to pay for it, and I trust everyone agrees that kicking the can down the road isn’t a great idea. But that discussion needs to include how HFD spends its money now, because as the Chron editorial board reminds us, their track record on fiscal matters is not good.

Tensions between City Hall and Houston firefighters have simmered for years, and things finally boiled over. Firefighters are frustrated because pension reform cut their benefits; they haven’t received a raise in years, and City Hall has failed to spend enough on much-needed high-water vehicles and other equipment.

Those grievances can sound pretty convincing until you look at things from the perspective of a taxpayer.

The firefighter pension system was unsustainable and needed to be reformed. In June, the firefighter union rejected a 9.5 percent pay raise as insufficient. And City Hall has budgeted more than $5 million per year for the next five years to purchase new fire equipment.

Fire Chief Sam Peña told City Council this week he wants double that amount.

Perhaps Peña should first ask his own staff for cash. HFD’s Life Safety Bureau alone racked up $5.6 million in overtime, according to a recent city audit, all while fudging building inspection numbers. And three years ago – under a different chief – a single year of unexpected overtime blew an $8 million hole in the fire department’s finances. Five percent of that budget gap was due solely to firefighters taking off the first weekend of hunting season. (Note to Peña: Deer season opens Nov. 4).

The board renews its call again for a blue ribbon panel to review HFD’s operations from top to bottom, noting that while the department is geared towards fighting a declining number of fires, the vast majority of the calls it receives are for emergency medical services, for which fire trucks are dispatched. I’m prepared to spend more money on HFD to bring them up to speed on the things we need from them, but I want to know that we’re using that money wisely. If we’re not also prepared to answer that question, then I don’t know when we ever will be. The Press has more.

Endorsement watch: The bonds

Endorsement season has officially begun.

The key referendum, Proposition A, is a solution to Houston’s potentially disastrous pension problem. A complex deal ushered through the Texas Legislature by Mayor Sylvester Turner would reduce the $8.2 billion unfunded pension burden now carried by Houston taxpayers to $5.2 billion. Union leaders representing police officers and municipal employees have agreed to sacrifice benefits worth roughly $1.8 billion. But the whole arrangement depends upon voters approving a $1 billion bond issuance, 1 of 5 city bonds on the ballot.

The pension bond wouldn’t raise taxes, nor would it increase the public debt. Houston already owes this money to its retired employees; this deal will take care of a debt that’s already on the books. The bonds will be paid off over the course of three decades. By coincidence, this happens to be a good time for the city to borrow money. This is like refinancing your mortgage when interest rates are low.

On the other hand, Turner bluntly and accurately told the Chronicle’s editorial board, if the pension obligation bonds go down, “it’s worse than the financial impact of Harvey.” Before this deal was struck, our city government was staring at the grim prospect of laying off more than 2,000 employees, about 10 percent of its workforce, a cut that would almost certainly impact police and firefighters.

[…]

Meanwhile, four other bond proposals would pay for facilities and equipment at everything from police and fire stations to city parks and libraries. At a time when our police officers are driving around in cars that are more than a decade old, we voters need to pass these capital improvement bonds.

The campaign for the bonds is underway, and I do expect them to pass. But this is a weird year, and turnout is going to be well below what we’re used to – and we ain’t used to particularly robust turnout – so anything can happen. The big task in this election for all campaigns is just making sure people know they need to go vote. If you’re reading this site, you already know that much. I say vote for the bonds as well, for all the reasons the Chron gives.

Lift Up Houston

Hey, you know there are bonds on the ballot, right? And Mayor Turner would like you to vote for them.

Mayor Sylvester Turner spent much of his first year and a half keeping the civic conversation focused on winning legislative approval of his plan to end Houston’s spiraling pension crisis, and then, last May, achieved it.

Then came the historic hurricane. It may take a little time to get the public’s attention back, but local leaders do not have much to spare.

“There are some competing issues and needs out there, but this is one time where we’re going to have to do more than one thing at one time,” Turner said. “This is one issue the city’s been grappling with for the last 17 years and November is the people’s opportunity to put a bow on this pension reform package and for us to turn the page and to really focus on our recovery efforts from Hurricane Harvey.”

If the bonds fail, many of the hard-won benefit cuts in the reform bill would be rescinded.

The mayor acknowledged he is concerned at the short window he has to grab voters’ attention – early voting starts Oct. 23 – but University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said local leaders may have just enough time to make their case.

“It’s these kinds of issues where people could change their minds, or see the value of the bonds and vote accordingly,” he said. “Partisan votes don’t happen that way, but on a bond election where people know just a little bit of information, a little bit of communication can go a long way.”

[…]

The Lift Up Houston campaign, which is advocating for the pension bonds and $495 million in city general improvement bonds that also will appear on the ballot, started knocking on doors in August, Turner said. However, he acknowledged the hurricane disrupted those efforts and several political fundraisers that had been planned to support them.

“The unfunded liability is $8.2 billion, is costing the city $1 million a day, and a ‘yes’ vote will reduce that unfunded liability by $3 billion. That is significant. And, let me add, without raising anybody’s taxes,” Turner said. “We’re on the 10-yard-line, but we need to complete the work, and it won’t be completed without a yes vote for the pension obligation bonds. That will complete the full package.”

Rottinghaus said local leaders would be in error if they assume the bond election will glide to victory because most bond elections do or because both Democratic and Republican leaders support it.

“There are still sentiments from the grass roots that reject any big-government initiative, including one that is developed from a Republican legislature to save the city pension system,” he said. “There’s only so much directing that those leaders can do.”

See here for more on Lift Up Houston. The good news is that there doesn’t seem to be any organized opposition to the pension bond issue. The Harris County GOP declined to get involved, while other Republican-oriented groups like the C Club did endorse it (though they oppose the other bonds). That gives the Mayor and Lift Up Houston a clean shot at getting their message out and targeting their voters. You never want to take anything for granted, but they ought to be able to get this done.

The Sports Authority at 20

A few stadia, a little mission creep. Where has the time gone?

As the Harris County Houston Sports Authority celebrated its 20th anniversary Monday night with a reception for current and former directors and board members, it moves into its third decade as a considerably different agency than the one that came into being in 1997.

While the city-county agency continues collecting and distributing the hotel-motel and rental car taxes that funded the billion-dollar construction cost of Minute Maid Park, NRG Stadium and Toyota Center, its more visible function these days is as a sports marketing arm that hopes to bring another NCAA Final Four, an MLB All-Star Game, the Pan American Games and other events to the city.

J. Kent Friedman, the board’s current chairman for more than a decade, jokes while that his predecessors – former Texas Secretary of State Jack Rains and Houston developer Billy Burge – presided over an eventful construction boom from the late 1990s into the early 2000s, his role is considerably less glamorous.

“We’re like the folks with the broom walking behind the elephant,” Friedman said.

It’s a pithy quip for a time frame that involves less flying dirt but still confronts Friedman and executive director Janis Burke with significant decisions and negotiations as the authority hopes to squeeze more years out of three buildings that are, in terms of their initial lease agreements, middle-aged.

Basically, at this point the mission of this committee that was originally formed to get NRG Stadium (née Reliant Sstadium), Toyota Center, and Minute Maid (née Enron) Park built encompasses three things: Handling the bond finances for said stadia, negotiating lease extensions for the occupants of same, and trying to bring big sporting events to Houston. They’ve done a pretty good job with the latter, and I suppose if they didn’t exist some other organization would have to be formed to do that work. I hope they do at least as good a job with item #2, because I don’t want to think about what might happen in the event one of those venues is deemed uninhabitable by its tenant. So good luck with that.

(The story mentions in passing the litigation with HCHSA’s bond insurer, saying they are “three years removed” from it. The last story I saw was that an appeals court had reinstated the lawsuit, which had been previously dismissed. Doesn’t sound like a resolution to me, but I’m too lazy to google around and see if there are further updates.)

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?

Bond issue set for November

Should be pretty straightforward, though I suppose you never know.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

November’s ballot will feature $495 million in public improvement bonds after City Council agreed Wednesday to send the package to Houston voters.

The general bonds, which would not require a tax hike, would fund improvements to libraries and parks, as well as items like new police and fire trucks. They will appear alongside $1 billion in pension obligation bonds.

“Many of our police officers are driving in vehicles that are 10 to 11 years old, if not longer. Same thing for firefighters,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “Solid waste – driving in trucks that are stopping while they’re out collecting trash. So the public safety issue is important.”

In all, the bond package before voters asks for authorization to issue $159 million in public safety bonds, $104 million for parks, $109 million for general government improvements and $123 million for libraries.

[…]

The general bond measure before voters simply would authorize Houston to issue additional bonds. It would not obligate the city to further spending without City Council approval.

If voters agree, the pension obligation bonds set to appear alongside the improvement bonds would complete the mayor’s pension reform deal by infusing Houston’s underfunded police and municipal pensions with $1 billion.

See here for some background. The last bond elections we had in Houston were in 2012. All five passed, four with over 60% of the vote and the fifth with 55%, with turnout in the neighborhood of 400K. Suffice it to say, turnout will be lower this time around. My guess for the baseline is in the 50-75K range, with the possibility of a bit more if the firefighters’ pay parity proposal is on the ballot and there’s a lot of money spent on it one way or the other. I don’t think this lower level of turnout affects the odds of passage in either direction. I do think the type of person who is likely to show up for this kind of issue is also the kind of person who probably supports bond issues; whether that gets us into 2012 range or not I couldn’t say. I also expect to take any polling for this with an enormous amount of salt. What do you think?

Bonds on the ballot

Mayor Turner has one more item to deal with this November.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner is poised ask voters to approve bonds this fall to fund improvements to city parks, community centers, fire stations and health clinics, adding hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to a crowded November ballot.

The proposed five-year capital improvement plan, unveiled at a City Council committee hearing Tuesday, calls for $6.7 billion in airport and utility projects, to be funded by user fees, as well as $538 million in improvements such as expanded police and fire stations, renovated libraries, miles of bike trails and repairs to city buildings to paid for with taxes or philanthropic gifts.

The plan relies on a November 2017 bond vote as one of its key funding sources, with about $190 million worth of projects in the five-year plan contingent on approval of new debt.

Houston’s last bond vote was in 2012, and the city’s capital spending is expected to quickly exhaust the debt voters authorized then.

“It’s not a question of going to voters with debt. We will be going to the voters with an investment proposal, a package of community improvements that are important to delivering the kind of services Houstonians expect and deserve,” Turner said. “Those improvements, whether they are police or fire stations, libraries or community centers or parks, make our city a better place for all of us to live.”

City Finance Director Kelly Dowe said Tuesday the size of the bond package has not been determined, but Houston typically seeks enough leeway to last a bit beyond any one five-year capital plan.

[…]

The mayor has pledged to ask Houstonians to repeal a voter-imposed cap that limits what the city can collect in property taxes. That rule is a lightning rod for conservatives, who spearheaded its passage 13 years ago.

Turner’s landmark pension reform bill, which takes effect Saturday, also requires voters to approve the $1 billion in bonds Turner plans to inject into the under-funded police and municipal pensions. Should voters reject it, those groups’ substantial benefit cuts could be rescinded, hiking the city’s costs overnight.

Adding a general bond issue to the ballot alongside the pension bonds and what amounts to a tax hike is risky, said Jay Aiyer, a Texas Southern University political scientist professor.

“The more measures you put on the ballot, the more confusing it becomes for voters and I think the more attention is taken away from selling the one item that absolutely must pass, and that’s the pension obligation bonds,” Aiyer said. “It would make a whole lot more sense to make the pension obligation bonds a standalone and push some of these other items off.”

First of all, “what amounts to a tax hike”? Leave the spin out, please. Four of the five bond issues in 2012, which totaled $410 million, passed with at least 62% of the vote; the fifth drew 55%. That was a very high turnout context – there were over 400K votes cast for each item – while this year will not be. Even if the Supreme Court intervenes and puts city elections on the ballot, far fewer people will vote this year. Still, bond issues usually pass. Especially if there aren’t city elections, all of these issues will come down to how successful the Mayor and his team are at getting the voters they need to come out and support him.

I would push back on the notion, as expressed by the Chron’s Rebecca Elliott, that having these bond issues makes the November ballot “ugly”. We are basically talking three items – revenue cap change, pension obligation bonds, and these bonds, though they will likely be split into multiple smaller items – in an election where there may be no city candidates on anyone’s ballot. Remember, there will be no Metro vote or Astrodome vote – what we have now is all we’re likely to get. Frankly, unless the Supreme Court sticks its nose in and orders city elections this fall, the number of votes people will be asked to cast will likely be smaller than what it usually is in an odd-numbered year. In addition, only the revenue cap vote is one that will be in any way complex – we have bond issues all the time, people understand them, and the pension obligation bonds are just a special case of that. Ugly to me will be having a bunch of campaigns put together on short notice and sprinting towards the finish line with far less time to do the sort of retail-politics outreach that most city candidates get to do. YMMV, but if what we have now is what we end up with, I’ll consider it a relaxing stroll. Campos has more.

The State of Metro

Metro Chair Carrin Patman gave a “State of Metro” speech at the Greater Houston Partnership this week, and among other things she said that another referendum is in the works to finish some tasks from the 2003 vote and to address the issues we see today.

HoustonMetro

One of the projects that remains unfunded is the proposed 90A rail line that would bring commuters in from the west. And Patman says Houston still doesn’t have rail service to Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports.

“I think there’s a lot of popular support for that,” says Patman. “Another one is some kind of connection between downtown and the Galleria.”

In her speech, Patman called for a regional plan that would link Metro’s services with other transit providers. But how much will it cost to do all this?

“Once we have the projects we want to go back with, we’ll then be able to go back with cost estimates on those and then determine from there the amount of bonding authority we need,” adds Patman.

You can see video of the speech here, and I have a copy of Chair Patman’s slideshow here; unfortunately, there is no written copy of her speech. I don’t think there’s anything in this that we didn’t already know – all of the possible rail projects are left over one way or another from 2003, though not all of them were on the referendum. The main piece of news is that the bond referendum that would be needed for any further rail construction might be next year. That would make for an interesting companion to the revenue cap-lifting proposition; at first blush, they ought to go well together, with the type of person who would vote for one probably also likely to vote for the other. It would also intensify the opposition, but I doubt there was any way around that. I’ll be keeping an eye on this. Write On Metro has more.

HISD board members against the HISD ballot item

I missed this when it first appeared.

Three Houston school board members on Thursday evening publicly urged voters to oppose a measure that would authorize the district to forfeit $162 million to the state.

Trustees Jolanda Jones, Harvin Moore and Rhonda Skillern-Jones went on the offensive at the live-streamed board meeting, asking voters to join them in voting “no” on the Nov. 8 ballot measure required under the state’s school-finance system.

The board members are taking a gamble, calling on state lawmakers to revamp the funding system to relieve the Houston Independent School District when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“We are King Kong in this state,” Jones said, noting that the Houston school system is the largest district in Texas and should have influence.

[…]

Here’s the rub: If the ballot measure fails and the education commissioner detaches property from HISD — an unprecedented move — the district will not be able to tax those properties to fund the repayment of debt. And the district has significant debt, including the ongoing $1.9 billion construction bond program approved by voters in 2012.

The district overall cannot take a position on the measure. However, it has launched an educational campaign, focused on the confusing state-mandated ballot language that will ask voters whether they approve purchasing attendance credits from the state. A “yes” vote to the credits means the district sends the $162 million.

If the funding system does not change, the Houston school district estimates that its “recapture” payment will rise to $257 million in 2017-18, $308 million in 2018-19 and $386 million the following year.

See here for the background. As the story notes, former HISD board member and current “education czar” for Mayor Turner Juliet Stipeche is also opposed to the referendum. I get where they’re coming from, and the escalating recapture payments are daunting, if not crippling. There is definitely an urgency in trying to get the Legislature to do something to avert the problem, or at least to mitigate it. The problem is that there’s no sign that the Legislature, or Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, have any interest in lifting a finger for HISD. Indeed, it’s quite clear that at least on the Senate side, all the energy in 2017 is going to be on making things worse for public education in general. I get the idea, and I don’t think approving the issue does any good. I’m just not sure that defeating it isn’t worse, even if it does have the potential for an upside. See here for the official HISD page on recapture. What do you think about this?

Mayor Turner announces pension fund deal

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Negotiators for the City, the Houston Police Officers’ Pension System, the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund and the Houston Municipal Employees Pension System have developed Preliminary Points of Understanding on a structural approach to long term, sustainable, defined benefit pension reform. Detailed formal plans continue to be developed and will need to be presented to the governing bodies of the three pension systems, City Council and the state legislature for approval.

“This reform accomplishes the objectives I set at the beginning of this process,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “The plan I am outlining today immediately reduces and later eliminates the unfunded pension liability, controls costs going forward, allows us to retain employees and allows us to present to the state legislature a much more united front. It is a budget neutral, 30-year fixed payoff plan that includes significant cost avoidance from what the City would need to pay in the absence of reform. No other plan does this and takes the issue off the table permanently. We will have fully funded, secure, sustainable and affordable defined benefit pension plans that our employees can rely on and our taxpayers will find fiscally responsible.”

With implementation of the changes, the City’s unfunded pension liability immediately drops by $2.5 billion and continues dropping for the next 30 years, at which time it will be paid off. This approach replaces the present practice of restructuring the liability every year with a 30-year closed amortization model that is a pension best practice and a requirement of the City’s financial policies. Just like a fixed rate consumer mortgage, the liability will be paid off at the end of 30 years.

To substantially reduce risk related to market performance and in keeping with the national trend for pension systems, the assumed rate of return on pension investments will be reduced to 7%.

To further stabilize the pension funds, the City will be required to make the full annual contribution to all three pension systems. Payroll contribution rates will be fixed over the 30-year period, providing more predictable budgeting. The proposal cuts the City’s annual obligation to a manageable level and, most important, is budget-neutral while significantly reducing what the City would need to pay to cover the full annual contribution without reforms.

The plan also employs $1 billion in pension obligation bonds for funds that have not received the full annual required contribution from the City in recent years. This will increase the City’s debt, but earnings from pension investments are anticipated to more than offset the borrowing costs.

To ensure the City does not find itself in the same place again, there is a cost-management component. If future market changes cause costs to exceed specified limits, the City and the pension systems will return to the negotiating table to work out adjustments to bring costs back in line. Mayor Turner characterizes this as a cost management corridor that contains a thermostat that must be kept at a set temperature. The thermostat concept is the only point on which all of the parties lack unity. The police and municipal pension systems have gotten comfortable with it, but the firefighter pension system has not, so far. Talks are continuing.

“These points of preliminary understanding are historic in nature because of how impactful they are,” said Mayor Turner. “I have discussed them with numerous stakeholders and key members of the state legislature. The response has been very positive. To my knowledge, no other city in the nation has crafted a plan that addresses the problem in quite the same way. We have a way to solve our pension issues for good, and our approach can serve as a model for other cities.”

There will be changes in employee benefits. They are different for each pension system but, basically, will affect one or more of the following: cost of living adjustments, future benefit accrual rates and the DROP program. More details will be forthcoming once the finer points of negotiation are finalized and the governing bodies of the pension systems consider these agreements.

“These changes are being made in a manner that minimizes the impact on the thousands of police, fire and municipal workers eligible to retire today,” said Turner. “We must retain these employees to continue to serve the residents of this city. I appreciate the pension system representatives who have recognized the status quo must change and have been willing to move away from previously held fixed and non-negotiable positions. The pension systems have also shared more data than ever before and are committed to continue working on the right way to share the data we need to manage our costs going forward. There is still much work to be done, and I know there will be disagreements along the way, but we have come so far since we first began talking seven months ago.”

Mayor Turner has never wavered from his promise to accomplish pension reform while still maintaining defined benefit plans. However, he did have his financial analysts study implementation of defined contribution plans. They found that option would increase immediate costs and provide no financial relief for at least 30 years.

This contribution from City employees is step one of the shared sacrifice model Mayor Turner is asking everyone to help with. He does not expect City employees to shoulder the entire burden. Once pensions are fixed, he intends to ask voters to repeal the revenue cap that handicaps the City’s ability to keep up with the needs of a growing population. No other governmental body in the state has such a restraint.

“I took this job knowing that our City faced difficult public policy challenges,” said Turner. “I promised pothole repairs in record time, and we delivered. We followed that achievement by closing Houston’s biggest budget gap since the Great Recession. We delivered a budget built on sustainable, recurring improvements, and it was adopted by City Council unanimously and in record time. Now, we bring you a solution to Houston’s pension challenge that meets the needs of our City, its employees and its taxpayers. To all concerned, I say you can trust this solution to deliver on our promise of pensions that protect our employees’ retirement security while remaining affordable and sustainable for the City and its taxpayers”

The proposed pension reforms announced today have been discussed with numerous stakeholders and key members of the state legislature with very positive results.

The annoucement of the press conference for this came out just after midnight last night. ABC’s Miya Shay posted news of it on Facebook a couple of hours before then. The actual press release shown above hit may mailbox at 3:45 PM. As the Chron story notes, representatives of the police and municipal employees’ pension funds were there, but no one from the firefighters’ pension fund was in attendance. This press release, which I received maybe ten minutes after the one above, explains why:

The Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund (“the Fund”) is continuing to work with the City of Houston, but as yet, no agreement has yet been reached on adjustments to the Fund’s current plan “We have discussed economic changes that would fit within the guidelines set forth by the Mayor. We have also presented issues that are important to us. However, no resolution has been made,” says David Keller, the Fund’s Chairman.

“This has been a challenging process for numerous and various reasons along the way. The HFRRF became the strongest of the three Houston pension funds and one of the most successful in the State by careful deliberation and due diligence. We have been applying the same approach here. Every adjustment proposed was considered based on the impact it would have on the various populations of the membership.”

The Fund began discussions with the City of Houston with the purpose of helping to shape reforms rather than having them imposed by the Legislature. It is the Fund’s goal to resolve issues with no threat to the earned benefits to Houston firefighters. The Fund believes these benefits are part of the total compensation of its members.

The statutes that govern the Fund are thorough and reasonable, employing a sound formula that determines contributions and solid funding. The Fund is one of the best funded public pension plans in the State of Texas. The City of Houston pays only about 20% of the cost of benefits going to retired firefighters with the remaining 80% or so coming from the Fund’s investments over the long term of the Fund’s existence and the firefighters’ own contributions to the Fund.

Still a few things to be worked out, I guess. Even without that, there are still plenty of details to be filled in about how this will work and what legislation will be needed to enable it. As for the pension obligation bonds, Mayor White floated some of them while in office. It would be nice to know whether the experts think that was a good idea or not. In this case, interest rates are sure to be lower than they were then, and this time there will be an overall plan in place for paying down the long-term liability. If this is everything Mayor Turner claims it is, and if all three funds and the Legislature are on board, it’s a huge win and a big item to cross off his to-do list. As always, the devil is in the details, and we’re waiting on those. But it sure does sound promising.

Precinct analysis: The Harris County bonds

Courtesy of Mike Morris at the Chron.

It’s an open secret of local politics that, when Harris County needs voter approval for big projects, they turn not to suburban county residents but to those in the city of Houston’s urban core.

Just look at this month’s elections: Though county offices are on the ballot in even-numbered years, county leaders put four propositions on the ballot, when Houston voters had much more of a reason to turn out (for an open mayor’s race and two city ballot measures) than those in the unincorporated area.

Once again on Nov. 3, Houston’s urban dwellers delivered, backing the county bond measures by wide margins even though they will see comparatively little of the spending in their neighborhoods (a note on that imbalance below).

It’s important to note that the vast majority of suburban precincts also passed the bonds, but the map below makes clear that support was weaker in the outlying areas and particularly strong in City Council District C, the progressive crescent west of downtown that was also the only district to support the city’s rejected equal rights ordinance.

for comparison’s sake, here’s how the 2013 jail bond went. That one was totally uncontroversial, but was basically left to its own devices. It passed – barely – with just enough support from Houston to overcome the (mild) opposition from the rest of the county. The lesson I took at the time was that you have to have some kind of campaign for even the most milquetoast issues. Doesn’t matter if all the Right People supported it, doesn’t matter if there’s no active opposition, you need a campaign. These bonds had one – it wasn’t much more than a couple of mailers, but it existed and that was good enough.

Bondings

Congratulations, Montgomery County!

After rejecting two bond measures for new and improved roadways in four years, including one last spring, traffic-weary voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly backed a $280 million plan to unplug bottlenecks in rapidly growing Montgomery County.

With all precincts reporting, the road bond received the support of more than three-fifths of county voters – a ballot-box reversal that officials attributed to the increasing difficulty in driving the once mostly rural county’s outdated roads.

“It’s a recognition that we’re growing rapidly, and congestion is getting worse every day,” County Judge Craig Doyal said. “It’s time for us to move forward.”

County leaders intend to use the money on 54 projects, including the widening of Texas 105 east of Conroe, a half-loop bypass for Magnolia and improvements along increasingly congested Rayford Road southeast of The Woodlands.

The previous road bond proposal, for $350 million, was defeated by a 14-point margin in May, primarily because of heavy opposition to a proposed extension of Woodlands Parkway for 6 miles through mostly undeveloped land west of The Woodlands. The project riled Woodlands residents who believed it would worsen the master-planned community’s traffic woes.

Backers rushed to get another bond measure before voters this fall, contending that drivers couldn’t wait for new and improved roadways.

The revised bond package didn’t include the controversial project, but opponents argued that it was still a flawed proposal because county leaders placed another measure on the ballot before the completion of two studies identifying the county’s most urgent road needs.

A special prosecutor is investigating whether county officials put the bond package together outside the public view in violation of the state’s open meetings law. Chris Downey, the prosecutor, said Tuesday he does not know when the inquiry will be complete.

The measure was placed on the ballot after Doyal reached a last-minute agreement with the Texas Patriots PAC on the new proposal. The tea party group, which had opposed the bond in May, campaigned for the trimmed-down improvement plan and focused on winning over voters in The Woodlands, where the previous bond failed by a nearly 9-to-1 margin.

So there you have it. What do you think will come next – the bond money will all get spent, or the next bond issue will get put on the ballot because the traffic up there is still too damn bad? Good luck, MontCo, you’re going to need it.

Harris County also scored some bond money.

The four bond measures – $700 million for roads and bridges, $64 million for flood control improvements, $60 million for parks and $24 million to update the overcrowded animal control facility – scored decisive victories in complete but unofficial returns.

The bonds will not result in tax increases.

“Citizens of Harris County spoke volumes tonight that they understand the growth that has occurred and the challenges that loom,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack. “In a county that hasn’t had a property tax increase in almost 20 years, these bond proceeds will help the county build the infrastructure people need.”

Radack said “the county will spend this money prudently, over numerous years, not quickly.” He said it will be structured wisely.

About 1 million more people now live in the county than in 2000 and 75 percent of those new residents live in the unincorporated portions of the county where government-funded roads and infrastructure projects have had to hustle to catch up with vast commercial and residential development.

Radack said the burden will continue to grow if Houston continues its recent non-annexation policy, citing statistics showing that 51 percent of county residents now live in Houston, down from 77 percent 50 years ago.

I’m sure sometime before Harris County starts spending their bond money, they’ll tell us what they plan to spend it on. Those of us here in Houston don’t need to worry ourselves about it, since none of it will be spent here anyway.

More on MUDs

The Chron covers this topic.

A few months ago, a cabinet maker and his wife were recruited to move into a manufactured home parked on a dirt road that was plowed into the woods on the west side of Conroe in Montgomery County.

Daniel and Deborah Spiecher are now the only residents of a newly created municipal utility district, or MUD, carved from 82 acres of land there. They are also the only ones eligible to vote Tuesday on $500 million in proposed bonds to develop that tract.

In fact, they are among just seven voters who will decide the fate this week of $1.07 billion in bonds for roads, water, sewer and recreational facilities in three such districts that were recently formed in this fast-growing county north of Houston. The debt will be repaid with taxes imposed on future residents and businesses. While some believe the MUDs provide a means to bring about high-end development in an orderly way, critics say they are out of control, with developers manipulating the democratic process to essentially take on the roles of cities and borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to make public improvements.

Montgomery County resident Adrian Heath decries the lack of transparency and citizen input into what critics call “rent-a-voter” MUD elections. Heath notes that the billion-dollar MUD proposals make the contentious, countywide election over a $280 million road bond package look like “kid stuff.”

Yet an attorney representing one of the developers for the three MUDs refers to these initial seven voters as “urban pioneers.”

“They move onto the land and help establish new communities, paving the way for the future homeowners,” said Angela Lutz, the attorney for Stoecker Corp., which plans to develop land covered by a separate MUD on Conroe’s west side and also north of The Woodlands. She stressed these elections are completely legal, as well as being “typical and ordinary” and the way MUDs have operated for decades.

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Without MUDs, much of Harris County and The Woodlands would not exist today, he said. In order for MUDs to be confirmed in an election as state law requires, developers have to move residents onto their property to vote, Melder said.

“While the method may seem unusual, it has led to hundreds of thousands of high-quality and affordable homes in the Houston area,” said Lutz, the attorney for Stoecker.

However, others, such as University of Connecticut School of Law professor Sara Bronin, question the “lack of formal democratic process” in these MUD elections, utilizing a small voter pool that is “handpicked by the developer.”

Bronin, who wrote an article for the Fordham Law Review on Texas’ MUDs, notes how MUDs were originally designed only as a vehicle for supplying water to unincorporated areas. Since then, as the number of MUDs has proliferated, their power also has grown, she said.

“The lines are so blurred that you can’t tell much difference between a MUD and what a city can do,” she said.

See here for recent coverage from Your Houston News. The defenders of these MUDs (and their cousin, road utility districts or RUDs) make some good points, but the whole thing feels like magic to me – just put a few people in trailers on some undeveloped rural land, and voila! instant access to hundreds of millions of dollars in credit for your construction dreams – not to mention completely non-transparent. I mean, school bond issues have their share of problems, but at the end of the day every penny gets accounted for. Does anyone believe there isn’t a little grease built in to this process? Good luck finding it. I’d also guess that the sudden appearance of these subdivisions in what used to be pastures and piney woods contributes more than a little to Montgomery County’s inability to keep up with its own infrastructure needs, but that’s their problem. I get that this is legal, but it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, and it doesn’t mean that the original intent of these districts hasn’t been swept aside. Chalk this up as another reason why I prefer city living. We may have our own problems, but I at least have some say in how things are done.

Chron overview of the Montgomery County bond referendum

The voters there are engaged in this issue, that much is for sure.

Life is on hold in the parking lot that is Rayford Road, 4 miles of too many cars squeezing into too few lanes. Even when it isn’t so busy, which isn’t often, there is a chance a passing train can bring traffic to a halt.

It is just the sort of bottleneck Montgomery County leaders intend to unplug with a $280 million bond measure to build new and wider roadways that voters will decide on Nov. 3.

The measure would set aside the biggest chunk of money – $60 million – for improvements along Rayford Road, one of the county’s most congested streets. While the project could bring needed relief to traffic-weary drivers, the roadway represents only a small part of the rapidly growing county’s mobility problems.

That’s because there are far more projects across the county than could be covered by a one-time burst of cash. A new study estimated road needs to be about $1.6 billion over the next quarter-century for just south county, roughly the area from the Harris County line to FM 1488 and Texas 242, including The Woodlands.

“The bond issue is only the start of the process,” said retired Montgomery County Judge Alan Sadler, who backs the measure. “The county has billions of dollars of road needs.”

If voters approve the borrowing, those funds could generate hundreds of millions more in state and federal aid for road projects, Sadler said. But voters have rejected the last two requests for new transportation money.

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Sadler, the former judge, said he expects the county to ask voters to approve more borrowing within next four or five years.

While H-GAC’s study made recommendations with cost estimates, it’s not a comprehensive mobility plan, said Carlene Mullins, a transportation planner for the regional council.

“It’s a concept,” she said. “It’s going to be up to local officials on how to implement a plan.”

But Mullins said they need to act. “Doing what you can with the funds you have would be better than nothing at all,” she said. “If you don’t build any roads, the people are still going to come. It’s just going to get more congested.”

See here, here, and here for some background. I have no dog in this fight and don’t really care what happens with this referendum, I just continue to be amused by it all. It’s a lovely combination of parochial self-interest, severe dislike of spending money, and utter lack of planning, which is ironic given the super-master=planned status of The Woodlands, with a dash of back-room dealmaking thrown in for good measure. I’ve wondered before what Montgomery County will do if they continue being unable to pass these bonds, but it’s also worth wondering if they can solve their problems even with a compliant electorate. There’s an awful lot of demand on their roads, with a rapidly growing population and few if any other tricks in their bag beyond building more roads. What does Montgomery County look like in 20 or 30 years if can’t ever get anywhere in a timely fashion? I’m glad that’s not my problem.

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?