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ReBuild re-vote?

It could come to that, but it’s not clear to me that it has to.

The funding scheme for ReBuild Houston, the city’s street and drainage repair initiative, remains in limbo after a state appeals court agreed Thursday that the 2010 charter referendum creating the program is void.

The Texas 14th Court of Appeals ruling affirms an October 2015 trial court decision ordering the city to call a new election on creating a dedicated pay-as-you-go fund for street and drainage projects.

The case does not appear to affect the city’s ability to continue charging a drainage fee, however, since City Council authorized collection of the monthly fee in a separate ordinance in April 2011.

Instead, voiding the 2010 charter election, essentially, removes the restrictions placed on how the city uses the drainage money it takes in, such as the ban on using those dollars to issue new road bonds or other debt. The court rulings have not led the city to alter how it uses the fee.

Andy Taylor, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said he believes Thursday’s ruling could lead to another vote on what he and many conservatives call the “rain tax” as early as November.

“The request to amend the city charter and seeking voter approval to impose a rain tax,” he said, “is going back on the ballot.”

Houston is considering whether to ask the appellate court to reconsider, or appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, among other options, mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said in a statement.

See here and here for the background, and here for Mayor Turner’s statement. I say there will not be another vote this November, for the simple reason that there’s nothing to compel Mayor Turner to put another referendum on the ballot, and the city can continue with the legal proceedings for now. I’d also agree with Prof. Richard Murray, quoted in this KUHF story on the ruling, in that if there were another vote, a reworded Renew Houston proposition would almost certainly win again, because who at this point is going to vote against money for drainage and flood mitigation? (Also, as Prof. Murray noted, black voters were modestly against Renew Houston in 2010. I strongly suspect they’d be much more in favor of a similar proposal put forward by Mayor Turner.) But as the story notes, City Council voted to implement Renew Houston in 2011, and this lawsuit has nothing to do with that. There’s nothing to stop Mayor Turner from having Council affirm the program, or to just state that the matter was decided by Council and we’re all just arguing over semantics at this point. Honestly, what we’re really fighting about at this point is whether Andy Taylor gets to decide the wording on all our city referenda or not. That’s a fight I’m happy to keep having, but let’s be clear on what the stakes are. Campos has more.

Be careful what you flush

Yeesh.

Grease blockages are the main cause of Houston’s epidemic of sewer overflows, a problem so widespread that it has drawn the city into negotiations with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The multibillion-dollar enforcement action that could result – likely increasing residents’ water bills – would be aimed at limiting raw sewage spills by replacing pipes and ramping up maintenance and education.

Houston, in other words, has enough sewer problems without residents making things worse.

The Department of Public Works and Engineering pamphlet, for instance, also urges residents to stop flushing paper towels, baby wipes and diapers. Many “flushable” products carry that label because they won’t plug a toilet, not because they won’t block a city sewer pipe, Houston’s wastewater division director Jason Iken said.

Any modern toilet will flush a tennis ball, for instance. But for that 2.7-inch diameter ball to avoid plugging a sewer line – most of which are 8 inches in diameter – that pipe had better be free of grease, mud and tree roots.

That’s not the half of it.

Microwaves, bowling balls, rolled up carpets, shopping carts, car bumpers, water heaters, tires, two-by-fours, hard hats, fence pipes, Beanie Babies (when those were hot) – even, city records show, “body parts” have turned up in Houston’s sewers – though Iken said that last one did not ring a bell. Larger items aren’t flushed, of course, Iken said, but tend to find their way into larger pipes via vandals or careless work crews.

Given that a big part of the problem here is simple ignorance, perhaps what is needed here is a public service campaign to deliver the message of Things You Should Not Wash Down Your Drain Or Flush Down Your Toilet. A few Youtube videos, promoted on social media, would probably get some attention and do at least a little good, at a reasonable cost. Just a thought. In the meantime, put grease and those “flushable” baby wipes in the trash, OK? Thanks.

Memorial residents file lawsuit over flooding

This ought to be interesting.

A group of residents sued the city of Houston and one of its local redevelopment authorities Wednesday, alleging that they approved commercial development in the Memorial City area without requiring adequate storm water mitigation, resulting in increased flooding in residential neighborhoods.

Claiming federal and state constitutional violations, the west Houston group Residents Against Flooding, joined by several individuals, is seeking to require the city to prioritize neighborhood flood relief by expediting drainage projects in residential areas and halting commercial building permits for projects on large lots unless those developments are found to not increase residential flood risks.

The plaintiffs also are looking to bar the redevelopment authority for Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone 17 from executing new private development agreements until further drainage infrastructure improvements are made to residential areas.

“The defendants’ actions and inactions — knowingly sending stormwaters into the residential neighborhoods that lack adequate infrastructure, without mitigation or necessary infrastructure improvement, and favoring projects for the private commercial interests at great expense to the residential interests — should shock our collective conscience,” the plaintiffs wrote.

See here for some background. You can see a copy of the lawsuit here; the plaintiffs had threatened last month that this was in the offing. There’s a good summary of what it’s all about at Swamplot – short answer is that the plaintiffs aren’t seeking damages, but to undertake and/or finish previously recommended drainage mitigation projects, and to put a halt to commercial development permits in the area until those projects have been done. I have no idea what their odds of success are, but I will be keeping an eye on this. The Press has more.

The Greater Houston Storm Relief Fund

From the inbox:

After receiving calls from corporations and others who want to help financially, Mayor Sylvester Turner is establishing The Greater Houston Storm Relief Fund, to accept flood relief donations.

“We’ve been hearing from residents who are confused about where they should donate to get assistance directly to the residents of our city who are suffering, said Mayor Turner. “The creation of this fund will ensure the dollars donated stay in our community. The fund will focus on aiding storm victims and relief organizations in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties.”

Mayor Turner thanked Waste Management for making a $50,000 donation, the first since the fund’s creation.

The Greater Houston Community Foundation, a 501 (c)(3)nonprofit public charity, will administer the fund at no cost, so 100% of all donations will go toward helping flood victims. However, online credit card donations will be assessed a small fee, typically 3%, by the credit card companies. Donors have the option of increasing their credit card donations to cover this fee.

To donate, go to www.houstonrecovers.org and follow the instructions.

Donation instructions are here. If you’re looking for a way to help, this is a pretty good one.

Also from the inbox:

Commissioner Gene L. Locke’s crews will be picking up water-soaked debris that people re-move from their homes in unincorporated areas. Workers also will remove trees that have fallen on streets and sidewalks. Here’s how the program works:

Residents can place furniture, carpet and other items on curbside
Inform Commissioner Locke’s office about downed trees
Call Precinct One at 713-991-6881

In addition to the flood recovery that Precinct One is conducting in unincorporated areas of Harris County, Commissioner Locke has spoken with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and pledged to provide debris removal resources in portions of the city limits that are located in Precinct One.

A copy of the Commissioner’s flyer is here. Cleanup is a huge job, so if you’re in Precinct 1 and you need the help, reach out and get it.

In other news: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he would lead a project to develop a barrier system to prevent people from repeatedly driving into high water areas. Joke if you want, but three of the eight deaths reported in the Houston area attributed to the flooding happened in underpasses like these. If there’s something we can do to prevent them, we should.

The Addicks and Barker reservoirs are at record levels, and roads near them will be under water, likely for several days. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Mayor Turner was scheduled to give his first State of the City address this past Monday. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Sometime between now and whenever that gets rescheduled, he will be appointing a flooding czar. That person will have “the sole responsibility of pulling together all the different stakeholders and coming up with a definitive plan on how to address flooding in the city of Houston.” Best of luck to whoever that is.

Finally, if you’re still thinking about helping out, give a thought to the folks in Greenspoint who were flooded out. They could definitely use a little help right now.

On drainage and flooding

Two items of interest from Gray Matters, both on the subject of the week. First, from Cynthia Hand Neely and Ed Browne of Residents Against Flooding:

Man-made, preventable flooding has surged dirty, sewage-ridden water through Houston living rooms three times now in seven years, yet city government fails to prevent these recurring emergencies.

Really? If losing homes, livelihoods, retirement savings, health and sanity (and at least one life) aren’t reasons enough to make emergency detention and drainage improvements, what in the world does it take?

Right now, too many real-estate developments do not detain storm water run-off from their new construction, and instead allow it to flow downstream into other neighborhoods, into people’s homes. This new development is responsible for unnecessary flooding of neighborhoods that previously weren’t flood plains, weren’t prone to flooding. That new development is also responsible for flood insurance rising 100 to 200 percent (before the Tax Day flood) in these non-flood plains.

City government is allowing this to happen. Developers use loopholes and grandfathering to avoid doing what the city’s laws require them to do. Is it ethical to allow a new office building to flood an entire neighborhood even if a loophole makes it legal?

And two, from Bruce Nichols:

We can live without zoning. We’ve proved that. What we cannot live without, especially in a no-zoning environment, is sufficient regulation and administrative municipal clout to make sure commercial development is done in a way that doesn’t harm its neighbors.

Politicians and bureaucrats excuse themselves for repeated flooding, blaming flat terrain, tropical rain and semi-permeable soil. This amounts to hiding behind Mother Nature’s skirts in a city with a tradition of overcoming natural challenges — digging a ship channel to the Gulf, putting a man on the moon, building the Astrodome and finding oil in impossible places.

Commercial developers are able to summon the technical imagination and political will to get the water off their property. Why can’t the city — why can’t we — do more to keep developers from dumping their excess runoff into our homes?

While homeowners spend their time making a living and raising families, the city’s developers, engineers, contractors and their hired minions lobby — and fund campaigns — to keep city development rules weak. We need a leading developer to recognize his or her enlightened self-interest in protecting neighborhoods that house the people who shop and work in developer-built malls and office buildings.

There have been feints in the direction of improvement. Houston in recent years enacted rules that, to the casual reader, require developers to create detention basins to keep from flooding their neighbors. But there are loopholes that developer lawyers use to avoid doing so. They can cite previous development of a plot to get it “grandfathered,” exempting it from detention requirements.

These loopholes offends common sense. If we really want to master our special Gulf Coast environment and topography, if we really want to have meaningful flood prevention, we should require detention under all commercial developments and redevelopments, even if the plot were previously paved over completely.

Why is this essay more focused on detention than on bigger pipes and ditches, although we need them, too? It is because our bayou-based drainage system is overtaxed. The U.S. Corps of Engineers and Harris County Flood Control District say flow rates into Buffalo Bayou are maxed out. The bayou cannot accept runoff any faster than it already does. That doesn’t mean it can’t accept more water over time. It can. But detention is needed to slow the rate of discharge and allow more time for the bayou to drain.

I don’t agree with everything said in these two articles, but I’m sure we can all agree that this is a problem and it needs to be addressed right away. What I would add to this discussion is that it’s not just a Houston problem. It’s very much also a Harris County problem, because an awful lot of formerly permeable grasslands and prairie have been paved over and developed into houses, shopping malls, parking lots, and our ever-expanding toll road network. What used to be absorbed is now runoff, and like everything else it flows downriver, which is to say in the direction of our fair city. We can enforce all of Houston’s ordinances to the letter, and we’re still going to have a problem thanks to the last 20 or 30 years of growth and development. What are we going to do about that?

Back to square one for ReBuild Houston

Here we go again.

A state district judge on Thursday voided the 2010 charter referendum that enabled the city to create the ReBuild Houston program, muddying the fate of the multi-billion-dollar funding scheme to dramatically improve Houston’s streets and drainage.

Visiting Judge Buddie Hahn ordered the city to hold a new election on the drainage fee, though that is unlikely to happen any time soon if the city appeals the decision. Hahn sided with a ruling issued by the Texas Supreme Court in June that said the city had obscured the ballot language surrounding the drainage fee, a major funding source for ReBuild Houston.

By omitting the drainage fee, the Supreme Court said, the city failed to adequately inform voters about the intent of the ballot measure.

In a brief court hearing Thursday, Hahn said he had little discretion because the “Supreme Court has just about said as a matter of law” that the election should be voided.

[…]

Mayor Annise Parker said the city has no plans to stop collecting the fee. She echoed City Attorney Donna Edmundson, who said during the summer that the lawsuit targets the charter amendment, not the ordinance City Council later passed to begin collecting the fee.

In a written statement, Parker said the city is “disappointed with the court’s ruling and are considering our legal options,” but “the ordinance remains valid and in effect.”

Voters approved a ballot measure in 2010 that did not make specific mention of the monthly fee, asking instead if the city charter should “be amended to provide for the enhancement, improvement and ongoing renewal of Houston’s drainage and streets by creating a Dedicated Pay-As-You-Go Fund for Drainage and Streets?”

Then, in spring 2011, City Council approved an ordinance that set the fee and authorized its collection.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. This is going to be tied up in court for awhile, and the question of whether or not the fee is in fact still in effect will be front and center in that fight. You know my opinion on this, but it’s not like that counts for much. As Bob Stein says later in the story, this ought to be a focal point of the Mayoral runoff, since the next Mayor will have to decide how to handle this – fight to the bitter end, seek to settle, surrender unconditionally, etc. I asked all the Mayoral candidates about ReBuild Houston – heck, I asked all of the At Large Council and Controller candidates about it as well – so go back and listen to some interviews on my 2015 Election page if you want to review their answers. Texas Leftist has more.

What now for road projects?

What do we do with road projects that were going to use ReBuild Houston funds now that the Supreme Court has ruled the 2010 referendum to have been illegal?

A necklace of neighborhood streets encircling Hudnell’s home is among the ReBuild projects, deemed beyond “economical repair” and originally scheduled for work late next fiscal year, which starts July 1, but recently pushed back several months.

Now, that delay could last much longer, and residents who have waited for their crumbling roads or poor drainage to be improved could simply be out of luck; a Supreme Court ruling two weeks ago found the ReBuild ballot measure voters narrowly approved in 2010 obscured the nature and cost of the drainage fee. The case is headed back to trial court where legal experts say a judge is likely to honor the unanimous Supreme Court decision.

If the city no longer can collect the drainage fee, ReBuild projects slated for mid- to late next year, like the one near South Acres, could be shelved. Next year alone, the city has budgeted more than $100 million in drainage fee spending, and the fee is projected to bring in $500 million over five years.

At a budget meeting last week, Mayor Annise Parker acknowledged the city’s Capital Improvement Plan could take a hit. Council members have pushed the administration for more clarity on the impact of the lawsuit as they consider the five-year plan, up for a vote Wednesday.

“The Supreme Court ruling, first of all, it’s ongoing litigation, it has no operational impact today,” Parker said. “But it would be the CIP. Probably a third to a half of the CIP would go away if we didn’t use the drainage fee. But there’s still other money in there.”

[…]

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

“The ruling by the Texas Supreme Court regarding the language for the Proposition 1 charter amendment has no bearing on whether the drainage ordinance continues,” Edmundson said. “The enabling ordinance adopted by City Council created the drainage utility and accompanying monthly fee that finances the streets and drainage program. For this reason, the ongoing legal dispute has no impact on the city budget for the coming fiscal year or the five-year Capital Improvement Program City Council will consider on Wednesday.”

South Texas College of Law professor Matthew Festa said that the charter amendment is struck down and the city continues to collect the drainage fee, it begs the question why they sent it to voters in the first place.

“It might be a technically correct legal argument,” Festa said. “But it might not be prudent to continue implementing a law where the basis on which the law is enacted is in grave doubt.”

See here and here for the background. As I said with the calls for doing over the election, I’d like to hear what the district court has to say before we do anything rash. Proceeding as if nothing has changed strikes me as unwise. I hate the idea of putting off needed maintenance, and I still think the Supreme Court ruling was politically motivated, but we are in uncharted waters here, and any further activity involving ReBuild funds risks putting the city in legal jeopardy. If there are projects that can be done without tapping into that funding source for now, then go ahead with it. Anything else, let’s get some clarity about what the Supreme Court ruling means in practical terms.

ReBuild Houston and the Mayor’s race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ReVote Houston?

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

Bill King

Bill King

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New litigation against ReBuild Houston

To be expected at this point.

A class action lawsuit has been filed against the city, seeking to reimburse residents who pay the drainage fee that helps fund ReBuild Houston, the multibillion-dollar streets and drainage improvement program that voters narrowly approved in 2010.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a Texas Supreme Court ruling issued Friday that found that the ReBuild ballot measure failed to disclose the cost of the drainage fee to the public. The case has been sent back to trial court, where plaintiffs expect a swift victory and legal experts said it’s likely a judge will honor the Supreme Court ruling.

Andy Taylor, attorney for the plaintiffs in that case, is also behind Wednesday’s class action suit. The named plaintiff, or class representative, is resident Elizabeth Perez, one of the plaintiffs in the original ReBuild suit.

In order for the class action suit to move forward, a judge must agree that there is a group of similarly disadvantaged people, constituting a “class.” Taylor is attempting to include all residents who receive a water bill to which the drainage fee is tacked on every month. His argument hinges on the idea that property owners were “under duress” when they paid the drainage fee because they could have their water shut off if they failed to do so.

See here for the background. Is there a form I can fill out to attest that I’d sooner have an arm gnawed off by wombats than consent to be legally represented by Andy Taylor? Because while I have no doubt that there are many homeowners who would like to get a refund on their drainage fees, there are plenty – like me and the commenter on this Chronicle story – who are happy to have paid a few extra bucks each month to help fund infrastructure improvements, however imperfectly they were done. If Andy Taylor tries to claim that all homeowners were coerced into paying the fee, then he deserves to lose, because he sure as hell doesn’t speak for me.

A later version of the story suggests Taylor’s actions are indeed odd.

In order for the class-action suit to move forward, a judge must agree that there is a group of similarly disadvantaged people, constituting a “class.” Taylor is attempting to include all residents who receive a water bill, to which the drainage fee is tacked on every month. His argument hinges on the idea that property owners were “under duress” when they paid drainage fees because they could have their water shut off if they failed to do so.

City Attorney Donna Edmundson called the class action lawsuit “very premature” because the trial court case over the legality of the ReBuild ballot measure hasn’t been resolved. Without establishing that the fee is illegal, Taylor’s class action suit would be moot.

“This presupposes we’ve lost,” Edmundson said. “We haven’t lost on remand yet. We still get our day in court. The charter amendment has not been struck.”

Stanford law professor Deborah Hensler said Taylor’s case is ambitious because he is not only seeking to halt the fee, but also to reimburse residents going back five years. The sheer logistics involved in repaying residents and the financial hardship to the city could factor into a judge’s decision even if the legal case is sound, Hensler said.

“Most judges are sensitive to the size of the damages,” Hensler said.

Well, no one has ever said Andy Taylor doesn’t reach for the stars. He seldom gets there, but he does reach. We’ll see what a judge makes of it.

On a related note, I went and checked the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of each of the five candidates for Mayor who had not made a statement about the Supreme Court ruling as of my previous post. Here’s Sylvester Turner’s statement, posted on June 15 at 11:44 AM. The other four – Chris Bell, Adrian Garcia, Marty McVey, and most puzzling to me Steve Costello still had nothing to say on the subject as of last night. I will ask again: What are you waiting for?

Supreme Court deals a blow to ReBuild Houston

Ugh.

Houston’s divisive, multibillion-dollar effort to fund two decades of street and drainage improvements faces an uncertain future after the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that the ballot measure voters narrowly approved in 2010 obscured the nature and cost of the drainage fee at the heart of the ReBuild Houston program.

The case now returns to the trial court level, where experts say the justices’ strongly worded opinion appears to make a victory for the city unlikely. At issue was whether the ballot language made clear what voters were being asked to decide.

“The city’s semantic obfuscation is particularly egregious here, considering that the ballot proposition at issue concerned a revenue-raising measure,” Justice Eva Guzman wrote, having taken the extra step of penning a concurring opinion to accompany her colleagues’ ruling.

Though the final outcome is far from certain, the possible absence of the largest of ReBuild Houston’s four sources of revenue – the hundreds of millions of dollars Houstonians have paid through the drainage fee – would greatly undermine the city’s infrastructure repairs. As of this spring, $655 million had been spent or earmarked for new projects under ReBuild Houston, with almost 100 projects completed. That work includes 515 miles of rebuilt or repaved streets, 697 miles of ditches graded and 188 miles of storm sewers cleaned – all while paying down old debt, supporters say.

Conservative activists, however, cheered Friday’s ruling as fervently as they long have railed against the drainage fee, which they deride as a burdensome “rain tax.” The lawsuit in question concerns a related criticism: that the ballot language was misleading, making the charter amendment illegal.

[…]

Houston appellate lawyer Richard Hogan, who is not involved in the litigation, said a separate legal action would have to be launched to make the drainage fee disappear from residents’ water bills. However, after reading the Supreme Court opinion and related filings, Hogan said he would put his money on an eventual victory for the plaintiffs.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that they’re not going to win the case when it goes back,” Hogan said. “I can’t imagine that, after the Supreme Court said all this, that a trial judge in Texas would thumb his or her nose at the Supreme Court and tell them, ‘No, it wasn’t misleading.’ ”

I have a copy of the opinion here. I’m still mulling this over, but for now I have three thoughts.

1. I freely admit this may just be sour grapes on my part, but I have a hard time seeing this ruling as anything but ridiculous. I don’t know how any actual voter who didn’t spend the last six months of 2010 in a coma could have failed to understand that voting for the Renew Houston proposition meant imposing a fee on themselves. I’m struggling to not see politics at the root of this decision.

2. So far the only Mayoral campaign reactions I have seen to this have been press releases from Bill King and Ben Hall, both of which hit my mailbox on Friday, and both of which were happy about the ruling. (Mayor Parker also put out a press release, which was quoted in full in the Chron story.) I’ve looked at the Facebook pages of the other five candidates, and so far nothing. Chris Bell, Sylvester Turner, Steve Costello, Adrian Garcia, and Marty McVey – what are you waiting for?

3. There’s still a lot of legal wrangling to come, but it’s fair to say that ReBuild Houston is on life support and may not survive. If it goes down, then what if anything replaces it? I feel like I spent a lot of time back in 2010 asking Renew Houston opponents what they would do to provide more funds for flooding and drainage improvements, and I never got anything resembling a coherent answer. So I’ll ask again, with an eye especially at the Mayoral candidates. If not ReBuild Houston, then what? How do you provide more funds to do more street repairs and flood abatement? Remember, we live in a revenue cap world, so simply proposing a property tax increase (not that anyone would, I suppose) is insufficient. If you don’t propose some kind of supplemental revenue stream, then as far as I’m concerned you’re not serious about wanting to do street improvements and flood mitigation. If you do have a proposal, then I want specifics, and I want to see evidence that you’re going to fight for it. Say what you want about Steve Costello, and I’m sure he’s going to take his fair share of abuse and criticism now, but he put his money where his mouth was in 2010, and he got something passed. If the Supreme Court has taken that away, what will you do instead?

Holmes Road

It kind of blows my mind that something like this could be the case in 2014 in Houston.

Holmes Road

Holmes Road in south Houston, for a stretch, feels less like a city street and more like a weathered country road in Central Texas, even though NRG Stadium and the Texas Medical Center shimmer in the distance.

On the surface, there is no reason this accessible area – over 1,400 acres – should be the city’s largest single mass of undeveloped land.

The problem lies underground. Neither the city nor private developers ever extended sewer service to the area, leading developers to skip it in favor of other sites with more infrastructure and lower up-front costs.

Houston and Harris County officials propose to remedy that by burying an $11 million sewer line along Holmes Road.

The project is still being negotiated but is scheduled for 2016, the same year Holmes is slated to be widened and rebuilt and when Buffalo Speedway is to be extended south through the area.

“A lot of migration in terms of development has moved south to the Pearland area, and I don’t think it’s because the developers desire to be in Pearland,” said Houston’s deputy director of development, Gwen Tillotson. “I just think it’s because we did not have the adequate infrastructure. The longer we delay moving forward on this project, the more opportunities for development we stand to lose.”

Linda Scurlock, president of the South Houston Concerned Citizens Coalition, has lived in the area for 37 years. Holmes Road, she said, has been an eyesore for many of those years, so isolated it invites illegal dumping.

“We’re close to the Medical Center, we’re close to Reliant (NRG) Stadium, we’re close to 610, we’re close to the Beltway, we’re close to 288,” Scurlock said. “We see those as pluses, and we can’t see why there has not been development out here. If you have the infrastructure there, then I think development will come.”

You know how I suggested we build more places to live proximate to the Medical Center as a way of coping with its mobility needs? This is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about. I had suggested it for the undeveloped land along Hiram Clark, but if you look at that Google maps image I provided with that post, you can see the gigantic plot of land south of Holmes Road mentioned in this story as well. I didn’t suggest it as a target for development in my post because I figured it had to be a park or something – it was just too big. You know that former KBR site in the East End that everyone was talking about awhile back? It’s 136 acres, which is to say one tenth the size of this plot. If this expanse of land south of Holmes Road were in the process of being developed right now, you think that might have an effect on Houston’s housing shortage? This is a smart move by the city, and I’m glad to see Harris County playing a role in it as well. I look forward to seeing what eventually comes out of this.

Revamped Chapter 42 ordinance finally passes

Strangely enough, in the end it was not very contentious.

Houston City Council on Wednesday voted 14-3 to allow greater single-family home density outside Loop 610, while also strengthening the proposal’s already robust protections for neighborhoods concerned about unwelcome development.

Council voted to drop the threshold of support needed to impose a minimum lot size in an area – preventing the subdividing of lots for townhomes – from 60 percent to 55 percent, and agreed to phase in the new rules, keeping new development out of residential areas for two years.

Mayor Annise Parker, who has said the changes will spur redevelopment of blighted areas and lower housing prices in the city, praised the first fundamental changes to the city’s development rules in 14 years.

“It’s about time,” Parker said. “The city of Houston has to grow, and we have to have a more flexible development tool. ”

Parker said she will engage a group of home-builders and civic leaders to continue the dialogue that allowed the package to come to a vote as related reforms move forward. Neighborhood support largely was won through city promises to improve standards in regulations outside the development code, known as Chapter 42.

In the ordinance itself, the Super Neighborhood Alliance got its phase-in of the new rules. The alliance raised concerns about eyesore Dumpsters at townhome developments; developers now must show where large garbage bins will sit when seeking permits. The alliance also worried about structures being built on property lines, leaving inches between homes; builders now must get written agreement from neighbors to come inside 3 feet.

There are still more things that the neighborhoods wanted, having to do with things like stricter drainage requirements and Complete Streets. Houston Politics goes into some detail on that.

On drainage, Councilman Stephen Costello has worked with engineering colleagues to draft reforms. Today, developers are not required to add detention when developing tracts of less than 15,000 square feet as long as they do not make more than 75 percent of the site impervious.

Costello’s proposal would drop that to 50 percent, a number he said is supported by data collected as part of the Rebuild Houston program. His proposal also would make developers add detention when they redevelop a dormant site in a way that makes water run off more quickly, something current rules do not address.

“I’m pretty pleased with what we have,” he said. “I’m always a little concerned about what happens after the development is done and how we manage the existing infrastructure in place. As areas start to redevelop, we need to make sure the city is there with Rebuild Houston to take care of any existing infrastructure that needs to be replaced.”

[…]

On drainage, Councilman Stephen Costello has worked with engineering colleagues to draft reforms. Today, developers are not required to add detention when developing tracts of less than 15,000 square feet as long as they do not make more than 75 percent of the site impervious.

Costello’s proposal would drop that to 50 percent, a number he said is supported by data collected as part of the Rebuild Houston program. His proposal also would make developers add detention when they redevelop a dormant site in a way that makes water run off more quickly, something current rules do not address.

“I’m pretty pleased with what we have,” he said. “I’m always a little concerned about what happens after the development is done and how we manage the existing infrastructure in place. As areas start to redevelop, we need to make sure the city is there with Rebuild Houston to take care of any existing infrastructure that needs to be replaced.”

The references letter is here. Jane Cahill West was quoted at the end of the story saying that “overall, we’re happy” and that working together on this was beneficial for all. The three No votes were CMs Jerry Davis, Andrew Burks, and of course Helena Brown, who tried but failed to pass an amendment that would have exempted District A from the new Chapter 42 rules. Texas Leftist has more.

Developer impact fee approved by Council

I did not know that this hadn’t been done yet.

Developers will join property owners in paying drainage fees following City Council’s approval Wednesday.

The developer impact fee was included in the voter-approved 2010 city charter amendment now known as Rebuild Houston, but city officials said the unwieldy process of setting the fee under state law slowed its implementation.

The developer impact fee, a one-time payment instead of the monthly fee paid by water customers, will take effect April 3, 2014, city Public Works and Engineering Department spokesman Alvin Wright said.

Since July 2011, home and business owners have paid about $181 million in monthly drainage fees based on their properties’ impervious cover – surfaces that do not absorb water, such as driveways and patios – to improve the city’s streets and drainage infrastructure.

Mayor Annise Parker said the importance of the fee is not the revenue it will generate but that it links new development with stress on drainage infrastructure, and that it fulfills a request made by voters.

“It’s a relatively small amount of money … but it acknowledges that, as we build parts of the city that are currently undeveloped, we put burdens on our drainage system,” Parker said.

Like I said, it hadn’t occurred to me that this was still a pending item. It’s not a lot of money, but given the strong feelings some people have about ReBuild Houston, it’s nice to see that this got done with no apparent fuss.

Reliant drainage deal?

Will wonders never cease?

There may be a resolution to the spat over whether the county has to pay the city drainage fee imposed on Reliant Park – an annual bill of $353,000.

Tuesday’s Commissioners Court agenda includes an item that authorizes the Public Infrastructure Department to negotiate with the city on the Reliant Park drainage fee.

But Mayor Annise Parker hinted last week that a deal is already in the works that would have the Harris County Flood Control District provide services in lieu of cash from the Reliant Park property.

As the story notes, the Clear Lake City Water Authority has the same deal with the city – their customers don’t pay the drainage fee, but in return the Authority agrees to do an equivalent amount of drainage-related work inside the city. Seems eminently reasonable to me, much better than venting one’s spleen through the legislative process. If this actually goes through, I promise to refrain from insulting Steve Radack for an entire week. We all must make sacrifices for the greater good.

When the landed gentry squabble

Am I a bad person for thinking this is funny?

I say, old bean. Not cricket, you know.

Was it sewer sabotage or self-defense?

That was the question hanging in the genteel air of two of Houston’s toniest suburbs [last] Thursday after Hunters Creek Village city officials verbally opened fire on their Piney Point Village neighbors for bricking up a storm sewer, leading to 4-foot-deep flooding on Kemwood Drive during the region’s early-January deluge.

Still fuming days after his city filed a lawsuit to remove the blockage, which reduced the conduit’s diameter from 36 inches to eight, Hunters Creek Village Mayor Dave Wegner blasted Piney Point Village for having “a very antagonistic form of city government.”

Piney Point Mayor Peter Nemeth retorted that Hunters Creek Village simply was caught in the act of “trying to flood our city with extra water.”

The dispute is about a shared sewer system, and it’s the sort of thing that one would think could be resolved without claims of sabotage, lawsuits, and airing one’s fashionable yet dirty laundry in public. My advice to them is to do what civilized people do and let Judge Judy sort it all out. Next!

CM Costello on fixing water leaks

CM Stephen Costello writes a letter in response to the Chron story about leaks in the city’s water pipes.

The article “City lost millions to water leaks” (Page A1, Dec. 30) was a timely discussion of our aging water/sewer system. One question in the article jumped out: “We have to ask why we have so many leaks. Is it all drought-related, or did we let our infrastructure fall into such a state of disrepair that it is now coming back to haunt us?” The answer is “yes,” partially related to the drought, and “absolutely yes” to aging infrastructure.

Houston’s water/sewer system is composed of more than 14,000 miles of water and sewer lines. Included in the Public Works & Engineering Department’s performance goals for FY 2012 are plans to replace 600,000 feet of pipe, clean 2 million feet of pipe and repair 9,000 water line and 2,000 sewer line failures. Every year, the city is spending $52 million repairing an aging system.

The city is also spending $2 billion over the next five years on complete replacement of old water and sewer lines. By federally mandated accounting standards, our water and sewer system is approximately 75 percent beyond its useful life. Shifting soils related to the prolonged drought placed strains on the water lines and simply resulted in more water line breaks than usual; however, the age of the system will continue to be an issue.

Over the past two years, infrastructure challenges have clearly moved to the forefront and city government has taken important steps to deal with them. In 2010, to address rising operating and maintenance costs in the water/sewer system, water rates were brought up to a level matching the actual cost of service. Next, voters passed Proposition One, now known as Rebuild Houston, in order to provide dedicated funding for street and drainage infrastructure. Rebuild Houston’s “pay-as-you-go” feature will allow the city to replace approximately 70 to 75 percent of existing street and drainage infrastructure – without issuance of municipal debt.

Infrastructure is the very foundation of our communities and well-built and well-maintained infrastructure translates into improved quality of life, enhanced public safety and increased economic opportunity. If we don’t pay enough attention to our infrastructure problems now, a broken and outdated system will force us to pay a much bigger price in the future.

Stephen C. Costello, Houston City Council member At-Large Position 1

He sent an email out with the letter as well. Just another reminder that the Renew/ReBuild Houston drainage fee and that water rate hike that the usual nihilistic suspects whined about were done for a very good reason.

New drainage fee structure announced

From the Mayor’s office.

Mayor Annise Parker today instructed the director of the Houston Department of Public Works and Engineering to adjust drainage fees for every property owner required to pay the fee. The adjustment will be accomplished by reducing the amount of impervious surface used to calculate the fee for each property by 1,000 square feet. This change will reduce the median residential drainage utility charge from approximately $8.25 per month to between $5 and $6 per month.

“This will address the concerns of homeowners who expected that the average monthly fee would be about $5,” said Mayor Parker. “I had previously indicated we would study the various alternatives for ensuring that voters could have the fee they thought they were voting for. Today’s announcement makes good on that promise in a fair and equitable way.”

The 1,000 square foot adjustment in impervious cover will be displayed on the bills Houston property owners will begin receiving in July. All residential, multi-family and commercial properties will see a reduction in their bills. However, citizens who live in smaller homes will see the greatest impact, with many finding that their fee is substantially reduced, or in some cases eliminated. The adjustment is legally permissible within the ordinance passed by City Council and will require no need for another vote by council.

“This change will have an impact on the amount of revenue we are able to collect, but it will still be a robust program of more than $100 million a year that will, for the first time in Houston’s history, provide for a dedicated pay-as-you-go source of funding to help address our flooding problems,” said Mayor Parker. “With this behind us we can now focus on moving the program forward.”

That would be nice, wouldn’t it? I twigged on that “program of more than $100 million a year” bit when I first read this, because I had thought that the referendum specified raising $125 million per year. I inquired and was told that was only the case for the first year. The $125 million for this year will be ensured through some prepayments on next year from city enterprise funds, which are separate from the city’s operational budget. Going forward, the city expects to raise about $110 million per year. Houston Politics has more.

Since we’ve been speaking of drainage

Meanwhile, over in Washington Heights, Ainbinder is doing a commissioning a study of streets and drainage. It’s their second study, as apparently they didn’t like what the first one told them. Go read They Are Building A Wal-Mart On My Street for the details.

Eight, not five

Mayor Parker says that initial estimates of how much the average homeowner would pay for the new drainage fee were understated.

Mayor Annise Parker acknowledged Tuesday that her administration erred in telling voters that the average homeowner’s monthly Proposition 1 drainage fee would be $5. It is actually closer to $8.25, she said.

Parker said that among the options she will send to the Houston City Council to make up for the error is to lower homeowners’ bills to the $5 average.

The disclosure comes weeks before the city sends out the first bills to help pay for the $8 billion, 20-year plan to shore up its drainage infrastructure that voters narrowly approved last November. And it follows weeks of complaints from home­owners who got sample bills for a monthly charge two, three or more times as high as the one frequently used in the Proposition 1 campaign.

“The typical example we used may have given the wrong impression to the voters and to Council,” Parker said. “I’m going to lay out to Council ways to bring (the rate) it down. I think we probably ought to do that, but Council will need to do this with me.”

[…]

The average fee was based on what was touted as a typical Houston residential property – a 5,000-square-foot lot with 1,875 square feet of impervious surface.

The city’s revised estimate – again using satellite imagery and appraisal district data – is that the typical Houston home sits on a 7,500-square-foot lot with 2,850 square feet of impervious surface. That yields a monthly bill of approximately $8.25, Parker said.

Ugh. This is just a screwup. I don’t know whose fault it is exactly, and to some extent I don’t care, but it is the Mayor’s responsibility. She owns this, and she deserves the criticism she’s going to get for it. This should not have happened.

Having said that, let me say this. Had the initial word been that the average bill would be about $8 instead of about $5, I don’t believe that would have altered the politics of any of this. Eight bucks is still a nominal amount, and I believe that people who want to do something about improving drainage would have found that to be a reasonable amount to pay for the purpose of improving it. And that’s what makes this screwup so annoying. Had the public pronouncements been that the average fee was $8, there would have been the usual whining from the same cast of characters that have opposed this from the beginning, and nobody would have cared. Now people who weren’t opponents are grumbling about it, and for good reason. Yes, as Campos says, the Mayor owned up to the error – she took some lumps in Wednesday’s Council meeting as well – but it was an unforced error. She needs to do better than that.

As for those ever-whining opponents of Renew/Rebuild Houston, it remains the case that they have never said what they would do instead. From Paul Bettencourt and his extreme aversion to paying for anything to CM Bradford and his “we need to start over” refrain, which should sound familiar to anyone who paid attention to the debate over health care reform in 2009, their goal is to stop Rebuild Houston and ensure that the city continues to do nothing to mitigate flooding and improve drainage. If they had an alternative plan and could provide any details about what it would entail and how much it might cost, that would be one thing. But they don’t, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. People voted for Prop 1 because they knew that flooding is a problem in Houston, and they were willing to pay a reasonable amount of money to do something about it. Both remain true today. Houston Politics has more.

Patrick’s blackmail bill goes to the House

The assault on the will of the voters takes another step forward.

The Texas Senate voted 30-1 for Sen. Dan Patrick’s bill to broaden the exemption from Houston’s drainage fee to cover non-profit groups and expansion by churches and schools.

The City Council on Wednesday agreed to exempt existing church and school facilities, and most county government facilities.

“They didn’t exempt new churches and schools in the future, or if a school or church were to expand. They call it a fee. It’s a tax,” Patrick said. “Their bill didn’t include exempting non-profits. This is a time when we need our non-profits to be spending their money on services as government is cutting back.”

Patrick said the Texas Medical Center had testified that it believed a non-profit medical center should be exempt from the fee.

“The city has said this is a local control issue. Had they just gone the next step in their bill yesterday, there wouldn’t have been a need for this legislation,” Patrick said.

First of all, what do non-profits have to do with this? Far as I know, they weren’t even brought up during the election, certainly not to the extent that schools and churches and county-owned buildings were. You’d think that the Medical Center, which suffered terrible flooding losses, including a couple of deaths, during TS Allison back in 2001, would be eager to do what it can to help the city improve its drainage capabilities. And the richness of Dan Patrick, who is doing his level best to increase the burden on charities by cutting off all other forms of social support, piously telling the city to cut them some slack is enough to make my head explode. Does the man have any self-awareness at all?

So now it’s off to the House, where its prospects are unknown to me. If it does get passed, there will surely be expensive and time-consuming litigation to follow. And when Rick Perry signs it into law, I hope Annise Parker tells him to take that meaningless unfunded mandates commission of his and stick it where the sun don’t shine.

Drainage fee passes with exemptions

Council has passed the drainage fee ordinance required by Renew Rebuild Houston, with exemptions for existing church and school properties.

The fee will apply to all future “impervious cover” at church and school buildings, such as roofs and parking lots.

Council members C.O. Bradford, Mike Sullivan and Jarvis Johnson voted against the measure.

“As we launch these projects and complete them, not only will we be able to keep water out of people’s homes and business and improve transiting our streets, but we’ll be able to keep ahead of future growth in Houston,” Mayor Annise Parker said after the vote.

[…]

Though [Mayor Annise] Parker campaigned last fall for a fee without exemptions, she came forward with the limited-exemption proposal in recent weeks in the face of a divided council and community opposition to charging churches and schools at a time when the Legislature is contemplating severe cuts to education spending.

After the vote, Parker said she would have preferred to see the ordinance passed without exemptions, but said she and others were “touched by the plight of schools,” and heard the call for churches to be exempt at numerous town hall meetings.

It was, Parker said, “a compromise that gave exemptions, but also put them all on notice that we expect them to do better in the future as they build. We are going to build to the future in a greener fashion and we’re going to do whatever we can to prevent flooding in Houston. They’re all a part of that effort.”

It’s not what I would have preferred as you know, but I can live with it. I like the way the Mayor framed the point about future construction being subject to the fee. I still marvel at the arrogance of some of the churches, acting as if what they do makes no contribution to the problem. I suppose they’ll just redouble their efforts to get Dan Patrick’s blackmail bill passed. I just hope the city is right that this bill will fail Constitutional muster and that the litigation won’t be too expensive. How much better it would be if they’d put this behind them and move on, but that doesn’t appear to be in the cards.

Costello opposes exempting the churches

From the inbox:

Houston City Council Member Stephen Costello asks the Mayor and Council to exempt only state-mandated property from the drainage fee.

Costello, the At Large Position 1 Council Member, offered an amendment Wednesday to the Municipal Drainage Utility ordinance that would limit exemptions to those under the state’s Local Government Code Section 552.053.

“It’s a matter of fairness,” Costello said. “It is only fair that everyone who contributes water to the system should help maintain it. If we start exempting groups, then homeowners and businesses will have to pick up the slack.

“Throughout this process, I have consistently maintained that all users of the drainage system should pay the drainage utility fee,” Costello added. “The City has the responsibility to ensure that everyone is treated fairly.”

Council will vote on the ordinance next week.

The ordinance was brought up in Council yesterday but was tagged. I greatly prefer CM Costello’s compromise to Mayor Parker’s, and now that the churches have shown themselves to be such sore winners, I like his proposal even more. My concern is that it will be a futile gesture, given that Dan Patrick’s blackmail bill has passed the Senate. (And may I just say: What the hell are Whitmire, Ellis, and Gallegos doing supporting his meddling? Get the Senate out of Houston’s business already!) But it’ll be good to get everyone on the record anyway.

One thing I hadn’t considered about Patrick’s petty little bill is that it might not pass Constitutional muster. Turns out that Sen. Ellis inquired about that with the City Attorney (would have been nice if he’d done that before teaming up with Danno, but whatever), and today he got this response, which says, in a word, No.

Article 3, § 56 of the Texas Constitution provides:

(a) The Legislature shall not, except as otherwise provided in this Constitution, pass any local or special law, authorizing:
* * *
(2) regulating the affairs of counties, cities, towns, wards or school districts;

To avoid the strictures of Article 3, § 56, a population distinction as is found in this Bill “must be based on a real distinction, and must not be arbitrary or a device to give what is in substance a local or special law the form of a general law.” Bexar Co. v. Tynan, 97 S.W.2d
467, 470 (Tex. 1936). The Texas Supreme Court has opined that, in statutes classified by population, the central question is whether the population classification bears a reasonable relationship to the object sought to be accomplished. See Maple Run Mun. Utility District v. Monaghan, 931 S.W.2d 941, 945 (Tex. 1996); see also, Smith v. Decker, 312 S.W.3d 632, 635-36 (Tex. 1958); Rodriguez v. Gonzales, 227 S.W.2d 791 at 794 (Tex. 1950)(condemning law as prohibited local and special law where court determined that “[n]o valid reason can be perceived for limiting the operation of the Act to border counties”); Smith v. State, 49 S.W.2d 739, 744 (Tex. Crim. App. 1932)(striking down law as an unconstitutional local or special law because the “classification does not rest in real and substantial distinction rendering the class involved distinct [and] the basis of the classification—the population involved—has no direction relation to the purpose of the law”). The proposed Bill satisfies none of these criteria.

The Texas constitutional framers believed that restrictions on the passage of local and special bills would prevent the granting of special privileges; secure uniformity of law throughout the state; decrease the passage of courtesy bills; and encourage the legislature to devote more of its time to interests of the state at large. (Interpretive Commentary, Art. 3. § 56 Tex. Const.).

Unfortunately, this Bill fails on all four counts. On its face, the Bill grants special privileges to an entire list of entities seeking exemption from payment of drainage charges, and only for such entities in the City of Houston. By imposing those exemptions only in the City of Houston, the provisions in TLGC Chapter 552 allowing the creation of a municipal drainage utility would, in substantial measure, be uniform state-wide, except in Houston. Clearly this Bill on its face affords special privileges for selected groups by exempting them from utility payments at a time when both the State Legislature and the Houston City Council are wrestling with declining revenues. The proposed Bill is a local Bill, aimed solely at the City of Houston in direct contravention of the Texas Constitution. Not only would the Bill expand the categories of property eligible for exemption from payment of a drainage fee in Houston only, but the number of entities that would qualify and the properties that would receive exemptions in comparison to other cities is incomprehensible.

I’m not a lawyer, and certainly David Feldman has an interest in advocating the city’s position, but it’s pretty persuasive. If nothing else, it sure sounds like there will be more litigation coming if SB714 becomes law. Campos has more.

“Nobody likes a sore winner”

Mayor Parker’s updated drainage fee proposal, which would allow for exemptions to schools and churches, was introduced to City Council amid a torrent of whining from the pro-exemption forces.

Church and school leaders testified at a special council meeting that it still was not good enough.

For one thing, critics said, the exemptions cover only existing buildings. Future schools and churches would have to pay the drainage fee on any increase in impervious cover — such as roofs, parking lots or playgrounds.

In addition, religious leaders criticized the proposal for not exempting church schools and other private campuses.

Councilman C.O. Bradford also said that public schools chartered by the state — independent but publicly funded campuses not affiliated with Houston Independent School District — also deserved exemptions.

For Councilwoman Melissa Noriega, who said she has not decided whether she will support any exemptions when the ordinance reaches the council agenda Wednesday, the criticism of the mayor’s compromise proposal was a little too much.

“Nobody likes a sore winner,” Noriega said, “If someone says, ‘Yes,’ take yes for an answer.”

CM Noriega speaks for me. You want to see what a sore winner looks like, read their statement. I’ll say again, I understand why the Mayor did what she did here, but from where I sit if you extend a hand and it gets slapped away, the logical thing to do is to un-extend it and go back to what you had originally wanted. If these guys want to fight, I say let’s fight. And while we’re at it, let’s clarify once and for all whether these guys agree that flooding and drainage is an issue in Houston, and if so just what exactly they think we should do about it. I hate to break it to them, but the Magic Drainage Fairy doesn’t actually exist. In the real world, solutions cost money.

More on the drainage fee exemptions

Here’s the Chron story about the Mayor’s change in direction to exempt churches and schools from the new drainage fee.

Under previous numbers published by the administration, exempting those institutions would raise the monthly fee on other property owners by about 7.6 percent. But on Friday, Parker said city officials had “refined our estimates” and found that they could include the exemptions without raising the rates on home and business owners.

“The average homeowner in the city of Houston will still pay that $5 on a curb-and-gutter street and $4.06 per month on an open-ditch street, and still accommodate what I heard over and over again — particularly for the school districts – that they needed relief considering what was going on in Austin,” Parker said.

[…]

Parker campaigned in the fall in favor of an ordinance with no exemptions and continued that stance in the months since city voters passed Proposition 1 last November, which calls for a monthly surcharge on property owners to raise $125 million a year for drainage and street improvements, starting in July.

Her rhetoric softened in recent weeks as she faced a divided council, a coalition of church and school leaders clamoring for relief from the fee and a push in Austin to impose exemptions through state legislation. Her council allies on the issue also are using the language of compromise.

“I will vote for exemptions if this is the kind of thing that’s necessary to move it forward. A principled no-exemptions position is not something I’m going to go to the mat on,” said Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, whose District C voted overwhelmingly in favor of Proposition 1.

We’ll get the specifics on Monday, and I’ll get to those revised estimates in a minute. It must be noted that while this is a big victory for the churches, they’re still not satisfied.

“We are thankful that due to massive public pressure and outcry the mayor has finally reversed her position and is supporting exemptions for churches and schools. If she is sincere, she will instruct the city’s lobbyists to support SB 714 in the state Senate,” the Houston Area Pastor Council said in a release. “Moreover, our basic position is that due to the election results being challenged in court and major ethical issues unresolved, the City Council should not act on any ordinance at this time with or without exemptions.”

Councilman C.O. Bradford said he agrees with the group, adding, “Today, I would be a no vote, pending discussion.”

You may recall that the Houston Area Pastor’s Council was the first group to bring the anti-gay hate during the 2009 election. I can’t tell you how sick it makes me to give these jerks anything. Shame on you for abetting them, CM Bradford.

As for the refined estimates, a few weeks ago Don Sumners, the county’s crazy uncle in the Tax Assessor’s office, alleged that the city’s planned fee structure would bring in more revenue than they claimed it would. He made his charges in this presentation, which was based on the city’s presentation of the way the fee was calculated. I sent an inquiry to the Mayor’s office about this, and they responded with this document. There were two critical adjustments the city made, which account for the lower revenue figure they project:

1. The estimate of total impervious acreage was based on aerial images. The city validated its estimates by taking actual measurements of a sample of properties. Based on that, they concluded that the real total acreage was somewhat less, so the amount billed would be less than what Sumners’ calculations showed. They also assumed that a few people would successfully protest their acreage assessment, and would thus reduce the total amount billed further.

2. Sumners’ revenue figure is based on everyone paying in full. In real life, that doesn’t happen. The city’s revenue figure takes into account the fact that some bills, for water service and for sewer service (most people get billed for both in Houston, but some only get billed for sewer) go uncollected. Guess this never occurred to Sumners.

Put the two together, and you get the lower revenue numbers the city cited. I’m not exactly sure how this relates to the revelation about not needing to charge more if churches and schools are exempted, and the matter of county buildings is still up in the air as far as I can tell, but I’d still prefer they got included. Not gonna happen, unfortunately. We’ll see how the rest goes on Monday.

City caves on drainage fee for churches

From the inbox:

Mayor Parker Announces New Rebuild Houston Funding Plan with Exemptions and Assistance for Low Income

Mayor Annise Parker today announced that she will ask City Council next week to approve a new Rebuild Houston funding plan that includes exemptions for churches and schools. In addition to the exemptions, the City will set aside half a million dollars that will be available to assist the disabled, senior citizens and low-income residents who cannot afford the drainage charge.

“I presented the draft Rebuild Houston Ordinance on February 6, 2011,” said Mayor Parker. “It was exactly as I promised voters, with no exemptions and everyone paying their fair share. After 10 town hall meetings, two public hearings, and discussions with council members, I believe this new plan properly balances community needs. I promised Houston homeowners this would cost them about $5 a month. The calculations indicate we can keep that promise while still helping our cash-strapped schools and our churches, and providing assistance to those who can’t afford the fee.”

Mayor Parker wanted to work this out here at home, not at the state capitol, and appreciates the patience of her colleagues in Austin, especially State Representative Harold Dutton. She calls this is an example of local control that accomplishes the goals she set at the beginning of this process.

The city charter amendment approved by Houston voters last fall mandates the imposition of a new drainage fee to raise a minimum of $125 million annually for a dedicated, pay-as-you-go, street and drainage improvement program. Monies raised from the fee must be placed in a lock box and cannot be used for other city needs.

For efficiency and cost-savings, the city intends to bill property owners, when possible, by including the fee on city water bills. Billing is scheduled to begin in July.

Houston City Council will be briefed on details of the new fee, assistance plan and enforcement mechanism at a committee meeting at 2:30 p.m. Monday, March 28, 2011. City Council will be asked to vote on the plan Wednesday.

In other words, Dan Patrick’s legislative blackmail worked as intended. I can’t say I blame the city for wanting to avoid this kind of hassle, but I can’t say I’m happy about it, either. But what’s done is done. Let’s get this wrapped up and move on to the next item on the agenda.

The “Dan Patrick thinks you’re too stupid to know what you’re voting for” bill

Ugh.

A bill that would remove churches and schools from the drainage fee Houston voters narrowly approved last November as part of Proposition 1 is scheduled for a public hearing Wednesday before the Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee.

Dubbed Rebuild Houston, the measure amends the city charter to provide for the improvement and renewal of Houston’s drainage and streets by creating a dedicated $125 million-a-year pay-as-you-go fund.

“The language on the ballot was confusing, even to the most informed voter,” Patrick said. “What was not clear to the voters was that the new fee would be placed on churches and school districts, as well as businesses and homes.”

That’s Sen. Dan Patrick, who thinks the federal government should stay out of the state’s business and who isn’t a city of Houston voter, getting the state of Texas involved in the city’s business. Prop 1 opponents were talking about churches having to pay the fee well before the election, and I know there was organized opposition from some of the megachurches in town, so if people didn’t know about this, whose fault is it? Even though he’s not mentioned in this story, you can be sure that Paul Bettencourt, who is costing the city a bunch of money with his frivolous anti-Prop 1 and anti-water rate hike lawsuits, is behind this.

[Mayor Annise] Parker has noted in the past that eight of the state’s 10 largest cities have drainage fees, and that none of the eight exempt churches. For cities with a fee, only Austin and Lubbock exempt schools, while El Paso has a 10 percent discount for schools.

Patrick said he also objected to the drainage fee, because it puts the city in the position of taxing another government entity – school districts. “School districts can little afford to pay a tax to the city and should not even be asked,” he said.

The level of hypocrisy for Dan Patrick to object to this, given his willingness to cut nearly $10 billion from public education funding and his unwillingness to address the structural deficit that has hamstrung school districts since 2006, is beyond my ability to calculate.

Under Senate Bill 714, the city also would be restricted from transferring the reduction in drainage fees from churches and schools to homeowners and businesses. State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, is sponsoring a companion bill.

Why don’t you just revoke our charter while you’re at it, too? Shame on you, Rep. Dutton, for abetting Patrick’s screw-you to the voters.

More drainage fee details

Things are moving right along on the implementation of Renew Rebuild Houston.

Senior Parker administration officials Wednesday revealed the remaining elements of the plan, which would charge an owner of an average-sized Houston home between $5 and $5.31 monthly, depending on whether council decides to exempt churches, schools and other local governmental entities, such as Harris County.

The city is expected to begin the process of implementing the fee this Sunday, when it will publish a draft ordinance and proposed rates for the fee and hold public hearings on the measure in March. City Council is expected to pass the ordinance by March 31, although it could happen sooner, city officials said.

The fee will be calculated using data from the Harris County Appraisal District and computer software to estimate “impervious surface” on every property in the city. Impervious surface will be defined as driveways or other paved areas, decks, foundations, building roofs, swimming pools and other areas that increase water runoff and contribute to drainage needs, said Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer.

Agricultural property will be exempted, as will property in which owners implement their own drainage mitigation, such as with retention ponds, Icken said. According to state law, state buildings and higher education institutions also will be exempted.

Property owners may appeal the city’s estimate of impervious surface.

The story notes that Council seems to be coming in line with the view that everyone should pay the fee, which is fine by me. At this point, I’m just wondering when we’ll hear from the judge about that frivolous lawsuit that Prop 1 opponents filed in December. That and the remote likelihood of legislative interference would seem to be the biggest obstacles at this point.

Effect of exempting schools and churches on drainage fee would be small

As we know, the drainage fee that will be collected to fund street and sewage repairs through the project formerly known as Renew Houston is intended to apply to all property that isn’t specifically exempted by state law, such as state buildings and public universities. Various entities like churches and schools and Harris County have asked for the city to exclude it from the fee, which would mean passing their costs onto everybody else, since the Renew Houston referendum requires the city to collect $125 million per year. It turns out that the cost of granting those exceptions would be fairly minimal.

A new drainage fee under City Council consideration would cost the average Houston homeowner about $5.38 per month if the city decides to exempt local government entities and churches from having to pay, officials revealed on Wednesday.

Each property owner’s fee will be determined by computer, using data from the Harris County Appraisal District and other sources, to estimate the amount of impervious surface of each residential or commercial tract. “Impervious surface” — meaning it does not readily absorb water – will include such things as driveways, decks, foundations, roofs and swimming pools.

[…]

Mayor Annise Parker on Wednesday defended her stance that everyone should pay.

“It is a relatively small amount of money in the grand scheme of things,” Parker said of the $9 million that would be paid by counties, school districts and religious organizations if they are not exempted. “If we are doing this in a fair and consistent manner, everyone should pay their fair share. People who contribute to drainage problems should pay for that drainage.”

Council members have shown little willingness to levy the fees across the board as they continue to hear objections from leaders of local governments and major churches in the city, such as Galveston-Houston Archbishop Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who publicly has expressed concerns about the impact of the fee on small parishes.

As the story notes in the last paragraph, the fee would be $5 a month under “everyone pays” rules. You know that I agree with the Mayor’s stance on this, but I’m glad to see that if Council succeeds in pushing back on her that it wouldn’t make that much difference. If it comes to that, I’d prefer to see schools and the county be given preference for avoiding the fee, since they are going to get kicked pretty hard by the Lege. As for churches, let’s just say that some are more capable of paying the drainage fee than others. You could maybe talk me into giving some consideration to the smaller ones that Cardinal DiNardo is concerned about, but I don’t know how easily one could come up with an acceptable formula to differentiate between the two. I’d rather see none of them exempted than all of them.

County asks about exemption from drainage fee

Interesting.

County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez has asked County Attorney Vince Ryan for an opinion on whether the county has to pay the city of Houston’s new drainage fee.

Sanchez already has his own opinion.

“You’re getting a government, the city of Houston, starting to dip into multiple jurisdictions’ pots,” Sanchez said. “At some point, you just have to say you have to be responsible for your own operations and not look to other taxing entities.”

Sanchez is not an attorney, so he’s asking one. But his request for a legal opinion is premised on Mayor Annise Parker‘s statement of principles in October 2010 that the only properties exempt from the fee will be those required to be exempted by state law.

Among those properties exempted are state facilities.

So Sanchez asks Ryan in a memo:

Are Harris County improvements such as Reliant Center, the County Administration building, the Jury Assembly Room and other such facilities political subdivisions of the State of Texas; and therefore exempt from the drainage fee?

Nice to see ol’ Orlando in the news for something other than his reading habits. As for his query, if County Attorney Ryan gives him the ruling he’s seeking, then so be it. If not, then as far as I’m concerned the county should get no more consideration from City Council than school districts will. Everyone is affected by flooding, and everyone can pay their fair share to mitigate it.

Preparing to implement Prop 1

Proposition 1, originally known as Renew Houston but now apparently dubbed “Rebuilding Houston”, was passed by voters last month, which means that the Mayor and City Council must come up with a way to raise the $125 million per year for the dedicated fund. Mayor Parker has laid out the basic steps for making this happen.

The 20-year, $8 billion infrastructure program will be paid for with property taxes, developer impact fees and drainage fees ranging from $5 to $10 a month for an average Houston homeowner.

Only properties receiving drainage services will pay drainage fees, and only those properties that state law exempts from a such fees will escape the Houston charge. State law exempts state government facilities, as well as institutions of higher education, including Rice University and the city’s other private institutions.

“We are following the state statute,” Parker said. “Somebody got a legislator’s ear, and they exempted institutions of higher learning. I don’t know who it was and which legislator did it, but that’s just a factor we have to put in.”

Churches will not be exempt. The mayor noted that eight of the state’s 10 largest cities have drainage fees; none of the eight exempt churches. For cities with a fee, only Austin and Lubbock exempt schools, while El Paso has a 10 percent discount for schools.

“I have yet to talk to any entity where there is any evidence that (the ordinance) will financially cripple that institution,” Parker said in response to a question about opposition to Proposition 1 from churches and other nonprofit institutions.

According to the mayor’s timeline, City Council will vote on a fee rate for the city’s 575,000 property owners by March or April. The city also has to develop a drainage billing process, most likely piggy-backing on water bills. Engineering studies will identify the greatest needs and a schedule for meeting them.

The information about what other cities with drainage fees do about churches and schools is news to me. Would have been nice to know before the election, when HISD was pitching a fit about it, but better late than never. I’ll say again, to me the drainage fee is basically no different than your water bill, and no one claims that schools and churches should be exempt from that. Won’t stop them from trying, of course, and there’s a non-trivial chance they’ll prevail, so we’ll see what happens.

Who cares about the will of the voters?

Prop 1 opponents don’t.

Opponents of Proposition 1 are planning to lobby the state legislature to strike down the controversial drainage fee, even after voters narrowly approved it earlier this month.

Don Hooper, who organized a political action committee blasting Prop 1, said the effort is underway. Last week, a group that included real estate executives, church leaders and car dealers met to discuss its options.

Proposition 1’s opponents argue the ballot didn’t mention a “fee” – just a “pay-as-you-go-fund” – and plan to ask lawmakers to consider restricting any drainage fee accordingly.

“The petition language is very different from the ballot language,” Hooper said.

[…]

“Prop 1 is effectively duping the public in Houston into paying an incredibly large property tax,” said Paul Bettencourt, a Prop 1 opponent and former Harris County tax assessor.

In other words, Bettencourt and Hooper think that the voters were too stupid to know what they were approving, so they want the Lege to step in and save them from themselves. Can you imagine the reaction if red light camera proponents tried something like this? I have news for you guys: You lost. Deal with it. Thanks to Coby for the tip.

What now for Renew Houston?

In addition to the disposal of the red light cameras and the associated costs of their removal, Mayor Parker and City Council now need to work out the details for Prop 1, which created the dedicated fund for streets and drainage and will impose a fee on property owners to pay for it. How much, and who doesn’t have to pay, is still up in the air.

City Council members, who are listening to a chorus of local school officials, church leaders and nonprofit groups, appear to have no appetite to impose the fee on those institutions, many of which are traditionally exempt from taxes.

Yet if that view prevails, it would set up a situation in which property owners will likely be forced to pay more than they were assured by proponents of the campaign. Voters passed Proposition 1, a 20-year, $8 billion spending plan to shore up Houston’s infrastructure and reduce flooding problems, with 51 percent of the vote. Supporters said frequently on the campaign trail that the average drainage fee for a Houston homeowner would be about $5 a month. That figure was based on the assumption that no one would be exempt from paying.

“The citizens will say, “They lied to us,’ ” said City Councilman C.O. Bradford, who opposed Proposition 1 because the city failed to adopt an ordinance before the vote detailing how the proposal would be implemented.

As Parker spends the coming months preparing that “implementation” ordinance, council members and some community leaders indicated a willingness to keep an open mind, although many seemed unlikely to support applying the fee to those key groups.

I have sympathy for HISD and the churches, but I don’t recall anyone arguing that they deserved to be exempted from the water rate hike that Council passed earlier this year. I understand their position, but I see this as being analogous to that. They’ll get the same benefit that the rest of us will from the street and drainage improvements that this fee will fund, so I believe it is appropriate for them to contribute to that fund.

Now that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to work with them on this. One possibility I’ve heard is for the fees that HISD pays to be applied directly to projects around HISD schools. Another possibility that occurs to me, which I think would be a win all around, is to create a fund that would offer rebates to properties with large impermeable parking lots, such as churches, for taking steps to make those large parking lots less impermeable. See the Low Impact Development document that the RUDH people put out for some suggestions. This mirrors the approach that Council took for apartment owners to help them mitigate the cost of the water rate hike for themselves and their tenants, in that it encouraged them to minimize their impact and will reimburse them for doing so. I would strongly support such a step by Council.

The Mayor’s email to Council regarding drainage and street repair

This email from Mayor Parker to City Council members about the estimated costs of street and drainage repairs found its way into my Inbox, and I’m sharing it with you because it’s something you should know about, too.

Any long-term street and drainage plan for Houston must include: bringing substandard storm drains and streets up to standard, replacing infrastructure that is to-standard today but will eventually deteriorate and maintaining normal operations and maintenance.

The $2 billion figure cited by some is a 1999 figure and is specific to just one component of these requirements, the upgrade of our existing substandard systems identified in the City’s Comprehensive Drainage Plan. When considered in terms of 2010 numbers, and reflecting both inflation and projects that we have been able to implement, we estimate the current correction of substandard systems today will cost $3.0 billion. This $3.0 billion is the cost to fix what’s broken right now, and what is not yet constructed in the City.

The $3.0 billion figure does not include:

  • The cost of eventual replacement of currently adequate drainage systems that will eventually age and need replacement or major rehabilitation;
  • The cost of full-width street replacement that will invariably be needed to accomplish many of those drainage upgrades;
  • The cost to reconstruct the current backlog of City thoroughfare and collector streets that have pavement condition ratings of less than 50 out of 100;
  • The cost of future replacement of streets that will continue to deteriorate to poor condition over the next two decades;
  • The cost for reconstruction of local streets that serve our neighborhoods, or local streets on which businesses and industries are located,

When all of the needs outlined above are considered, Houston’s total funding requirements amount to approximately $10 Billion over the next 20 years. Anything less would leave the City unable to adequately address our infrastructure needs.

There’s more, so go read it. You want to argue with these figures, take it up with the Mayor’s office. And don’t miss this op-ed by Bayou Preservation Association Chair Kevin Shanley, too.