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Interview with Aisha Savoy

Aisha Savoy

As you know, I have published a series of interviews with candidates in the special election for Houston City Council District K, to fill the vacancy left by the untimely death of CM Larry Green. As you also know, sometimes when I am done with these I hear from a candidate that I had not heard from earlier, and when that happens I do my best to accommodate them. Such is the case here with Aisha Savoy, who reached out to me later in the week. Savoy is a first-time candidate and graduate of Texas Southern. She is an employee of the city of Houston in the Public Works department, in Flood Plain Management. She told me she has a campaign Facebook page, but I have been unable to find it – if I get any further information about that, I’ll update this post. (UPDATE: Here’s the campaign Facebook page.) In the meantime, here’s the interview:

PREVIOUSLY:

Anthony Freddie
Lawrence McGaffie
Martha Castex-Tatum
Larry Blackmon
Elisabeth Johnson
Pat Frazier

I will have some interviews with primary runoff candidates next.

Interview with Pat Frazier

Pat Frazier

We wrap up our interview series in District K with Pat Frazier, who is the one person in this race that has run for this seat before, back in 2011. Frazier is an educator and community activist with a long history of participation in civics and politics. A member of the transition team for Mayor Turner, Frazier has served as Executive Secretary for the SDEC in Senate District 13, and she has been Secretary and Finance Committee Chair for the Boy Scouts district in which her son was an Eagle Scout. Here’s what we talked about:

PREVIOUSLY:

Anthony Freddie
Lawrence McGaffie
Martha Castex-Tatum
Larry Blackmon
Elisabeth Johnson

Interview with Elisabeth Johnson

Elisabeth Johnson

Elisabeth Johnson has a long background in politics and community activism, having worked on the Bill White for Governor campaign in 2010 as a field organizer in Dallas and with the Texas Organizing Project and Working America to help pass Houston’s Wage Theft Ordinance in 2013. She is currently a graduate student at Texas Southern University obtaining her Executive Master of Public Administration, and she is the author of “Wake Up: A Despairing Cry to the Black Community”. Here’s what we talked about:

PREVIOUSLY:

Anthony Freddie
Lawrence McGaffie
Martha Castex-Tatum
Larry Blackmon

Interview with Larry Blackmon

Larry Blackmon

We return now to the interviews for the special election in District K. Most of the nine candidates in this race are first-timers, but two are not. Larry Blackmon is one of those two, having run in the open At Large #4 race in 2015, finishing sixth in field of seven. (He also has this campaign Facebook page, which you find if you search his name in Facebook.) Blackmon is a retired educator, and he was making the issue of flooding his main priority during his 2015 campaign. There’s not a whole lot more you can find out about him via the Internet (this Defender story has a bit more), so you’ll need to listen to the interview:

PREVIOUSLY:

Anthony Freddie
Lawrence McGaffie
Martha Castex-Tatum

Interview with Martha Castex-Tatum

Martha Castex Tatum

We continue on with interviews in the District K special election, to succeed the late Council Member Larry Green. Today we have Martha Castex-Tatum, who has served in CM Green’s office as the Director of Constituent Services since 2015. She has previous experience as an elected official, having been a member of San Marcos’ City Council after her graduation from Texas State. She also served on the San Marcos Economic Development Council and the Convention and Visitor Bureau and has worked as a realtor. Here’s the interview:

PREVIOUSLY:

Anthony Freddie
Lawrence McGaffie

Interview with Lawrence McGaffie

Lawrence McGaffie

We continue with interviews in the special election for District K to succeed the late CM Larry Green. Today I am talking with Lawrence McGaffie, an ordained minister and Army veteran who is the founder of the Inspire the Lead, a non profit movement designed to inspire young people from low income communities to become leaders. A graduate of the Art Institute of Houston, McGaffie was medically discharged from the Army after being injured while training for the 101st Airborne division at Ft. Campbell. He volunteers at God’s Food Pantry and has also served as Director of Community Engagement for the MLK Association of Houston. Here’s the interview:

PREVIOUSLY: Anthony Freddie

Interview with Anthony Freddie

Anthony Freddie

As we know, the special election to succeed the late Council Member Larry Green in District K is on May 5. Early voting for this election begins April 23, which is to say two weeks from now. In those two weeks, I’ll be publishing interviews with candidates from this election. We begin with Anthony Freddie, who worked for the city for 29 years. Freddie worked in multiple departments within the city, including Building Services, Finance and Administration, and Aviation, and served as assistant to Mayor Lee Brown’s Chief of Staff. He has served on a number of non-profits and boards, as well as with the Greater Houston Partnership. Here’s what we talked about:

As I said, I’ll have more of these this week and next.

Council approves new floodplain regulations

We’ve been waiting for this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Starting this fall, all new homes built in Houston’s floodplains must be elevated higher off the ground after a contentious debate and narrow vote by City Council on Wednesday to adopt the Bayou City’s first major regulatory response to the widespread flooding Hurricane Harvey unleashed last August.

The vote marks a shift away from Houston’s longtime aversion to constraining development, and means all new construction in the city’s floodplains will have to be built two feet above the projected water level in a 500-year storm.

The unusually tight 9-7 vote, which fell largely along party lines, came at the end of more than three hours of sometimes combative debate.

“This is a defining moment,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in his final pitch to the council. “Can we undo what was done with Harvey? No. But can we build looking forward? Yes. Does it mean it may cost more financially? Yes. But if it has the probability of saving lives, and if it has the probability of letting people know in our city and those who are looking to come to our city that we are taking measures to be stronger, to be more resilient, then that’s positive for the city of Houston.”

Democratic council members Karla Cisneros, David Robinson, Dwight Boykins, Ellen Cohen, Jerry Davis, Robert Gallegos and Amanda Edwards — along with Republican Dave Martin — joined Turner in backing the changes. Republicans Mike Knox, Jack Christie, Brenda Stardig, Michael Kubosh, Steve Le and Greg Travis, and Democrat Mike Laster opposed the regulations.

The new rules take effect Sept. 1 and apply to all new buildings within the 500-year floodplain, which is deemed to have a 0.2 percent chance of being inundated in any given year. Additions larger than a third of the home’s original footprint also will need to be elevated.

Current regulations mandate that buildings be constructed one foot above the flood level in a less severe 100-year storm and apply only within the 100-year floodplain, where properties are considered to have a 1 percent chance of being inundated in a given year. Wednesday’s vote marks the first time Houston is imposing minimum elevation requirements within the 500-year floodplain.

The new rules are similar to, but more stringent than those Harris County put into effect Jan. 1. There, new homes built in neighborhoods developed before 2009 must be built one foot above either the ground or the crown of the adjacent street, whichever is higher. The county’s regulations change little for homes to be built in subdivisions developed more recently.

See here and here for more on the county’s new floodplain regulations, here for a bit of background on the proposal that was passed, and here for an earlier Chron story that gets into some of the No-voting members’ resistance. No regulation is ever perfect, and I’m sure there’s debate to be had about what approach would have been best, but it sure seems a bit odd to me that at this point in Houston’s history that this kind of regulation wouldn’t be more broadly supported by Council. For those members who will be on the ballot next year – Knox, Kubosh, Le, and Travis – I’ll be very interested to see how this vote is received on the campaign trail.

The field is set in District K

Here’s the District K special election webpage, and now that the filing deadline has passed and the list of candidates has been updated, here are your contenders for this seat:

CM Larry Green

Candidate Contact Information
in alphabetical order

Here’s what I know about the candidates:

Larry Blackmon was a candidate for At Large #4 in 2015. This Chron story from that race lists him as a retired educator and community activist.

Martha Castex Tatum has been the Director of Constituent Services under the late CM Larry Green since 2015. She lived in San Marcos early in her career and wound up being elected to serve on their City Council, the first African-American woman to do so.

Carl David Evans is a CPA and has served twice as President of the Fort Bend Houston Super Neighborhood Council 41.

Pat Frazier is an educator and community activist who ran for District K in 2011. She also served on Mayor Turner’s transition team.

Anthony Freddie doesn’t appear to have a campaign Facebook page yet, and there’s no biographical information on his personal page that I can see. There is a post on his Facebook page that shows him attending the SD13 meeting from this past weekend.

Elisabeth E. Johnson – announcement here – owns an event planning business and was a field organizer for the Bill White gubernatorial campaign in 2010.

Lawrence McGaffie, Aisha Savoy, and Gerry Vander-Lyn have limited information that I can find. However, this Chron story tells us a few things.

Aisha Savoy, meanwhile, is a first-time candidate who works in the city’s flood plain management office. She touted her disaster recovery work and said she would focus on economic development, environmental protection and public safety.

“Everybody has a right to feel safe,” said Savoy, 40.

[…]

Former city employee Anthony Freddie, 55, spoke to youth empowerment, public safety and road upgrades.

“What I’d like to do is definitely focus on the infrastructure,” Freddie said.

[…]

Lawrence McGaffie, a 30-year-old disabled veteran, said he is running in part to encourage young people to take on leadership roles.

“My whole goal is to get the young people involved, to inspire them to make a change where they are, in their classrooms, in their homes, in their communities, wherever they are, to be that leader,” McGaffie said.

There’s more on the other contenders as well. I’m going to try to interview everyone, but this is going to be another insane rush towards election day. Early voting will begin on April 23, so it will be a challenge for all to get themselves out there in front of the voters. For sure there will be a runoff. If you know anything about one or more of these folks, please leave a comment. Thanks.

District K special election update

From Durrel Douglas:

In a late night Facebook Live video, prominent Houston activist Ashton P. Woods bowed out of the race to replace former City Councilman Larry Green who passed unexpectedly in early March. Woods says he will back a Black woman for the post since he believes there should be another Black woman on City Council.

Woods, founder of Black Lives Matter-Houston, says he still plans for an at-large seat in 2019.

Rumblings of candidates aiming to fill the southwest-Houston district filled rumor mills with long-time Democratic operative Pat Frazier and Larry Blackmon announcing runs so far.

Frazier has a campaign Facebook page; I heard about her candidacy via Erik Manning on Facebook on Monday. She had been a candidate for K in 2011, finishing with 24.88% of the vote against Green and a third person. Blackmon was a candidate for At Large #4 in 2015 – he still has a Facebook page from that campaign, which maybe he’ll repurpose. He also threw his hat in for the precinct chair-selected nomination in HD146 in 2016. Council has now officially set the election for May 5, with a filing deadline of Monday the 26th. I have to assume we will hear from more candidates by then.

UPDATE: Here’s a press release for Martha Castex-Tatum, who is also in for K.

January 2018 finance reports: City of Houston

We didn’t have any city of Houston elections in 2017, and while we ought to have some charter amendments on the ballot in 2018 we won’t be voting for people till next year. Still, everyone has to file campaign finance reports. Let’s see how everyone has been doing since last July.


Candidate       Office    Raised      Spent     Loan    On Hand
===============================================================
S Turner         Mayor   308,744    123,288        0  1,901,225

C Brown     Controller     1,400     19,559        0     62,811

M Knox      At Large 1    36,125      8,191        0     51,946
D Robinson  At Large 2    41,575     12,117        0    126,924
M Kubosh    At Large 3     8,575      7,364  276,000     32,267
A Edwards   At Large 4    16,900     24,311        0    140,866
J Christie  At Large 5     1,264      3,892        0     28,711

B Stardig       Dist A     3,750     18,173        0     89,964
J Davis         Dist B     5,934     15,988        0    137,038
E Cohen         Dist C    10,100     31,528        0     41,691
D Boykins       Dist D    27,950     66,249        0     18,492
D Martin        Dist E     2,510     26,887        0     92,371
S Le            Dist F    21,800     11,237   30,823     13,015
G Travis        Dist G    27,050      8,211   76,000     70,817
K Cisneros      Dist H    
R Gallegos      Dist I    32,850     12,963        0     69,181
M Laster        Dist J       300      8,510        0    161,402
L Green         Dist K    29,100     36,617        0     77,110

I started writing this post before the tragic death of CM Larry Green. CM Green was among the members who are term-limited; the others are Stardig, Davis, Cohen, Laster, and Christie. I did not find a finance report for Karla Cisneros; she had $25,336 on hand in the July ’17 report. No one raised a whole lot – not a big surprise, especially given how there was already a bunch of Congressional fundraising going on in the latter half of 2017 – and in fact many people spent more than they took in. If one of the potential negatives to the change to four-year terms was that it gave incumbents that much more time to accumulate cash, I’d say that effect has so far been muted. Among the first-termers, Amanda Edwards was a big money-raiser in 2015 and Greg Travis still has loan money. Mike Knox got a boost in this period, which he will need because he’s got a big target on his back for 2019. Steve Le doesn’t have much on hand, but he too can self-fund to an extent.

While those term-limited candidates continue to be among the top cash-holders, none of them increased their shares during this period. I continue to believe that at least some of them have another candidacy in their near-term future, but that’s just my impression. Some of the possibilities they may contemplate will depend on how the 2018 elections go. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. I’m just reporting what we know now. I’ll check back in July. Look for a post on the HISD and HCC reports as soon as I can get around to it.

What are the elections of interest this May?

That’s a question I’m asking as well as one I’m trying to answer. Normally, there are no elections in May of any kind of year for Houston folks, though there are some for parts of Harris County and surrounding areas. This year for the uniform election date of May 5 we do have the special election in City Council District K to succeed the late CM Larry Green. The filing deadline for this is March 26, so we should know in very short order who is in the running.

We should also know by March 26 whether that firefighters pay parity proposal will be on the ballot or not. The firefighters would like to know about that, too.

There is one legislative special election on tap for May 5. State Rep. Leighton Schubert in HD13 stepped down earlier this year, so this race is to fill out the remainder of his term. That doesn’t really mean much unless the winner of that race also wins in November, in which case he or she will have a seniority advantage over all the other members of the class of 2018. If I’m reading this list correctly, there are three candidates – Democrat Cecil Webster, Republican Ben Leman, and Republican Jill Wolfskill. Webster is on the November ballot – he also ran in 2016, getting 21.4% against Schubert in a district that voted 76.8% to 20.4% for Donald Trump. Leman and Wolfskill are in the runoff for the GOP nomination. If Webster can somehow make it to the runoff for this, even with the low stakes, it would be quite the achievement.

Closer to home, I know there are elections in Pearland for Pearland City Council – they have three-year terms, so they have elections every year – and Pearland ISD – I don’t know offhand what their terms are, but as you can see on the election results page, they have those races every year as well. Dalia Kasseb, who ran a strong race for Pearland City Council last year, is making another run this year. She is on the list of TDP-endorsed Project LIFT slate, as is Al Lloyd for Pearland ISD.

There are other races on that slate, though none in the Houston area. I’ve seen ads on Facebook for a candidate running for Deer Park ISD, but at this time I know nothing about her. Ballotpedia says these are three-year terms but there isn’t a page for 2018 yet. These elections are apparently not conducted by the Harris County Clerk, and I’m not seeing anything on the DPISD Board of Trustees webpage, so I’m throwing this out to y’all – if you know anything about this, please leave a comment and let me know.

So there you have what I know about elections for this May. What am I missing? Please fill me in.

Special election set for District K

Mark your calendars.

CM Larry Green

Voters in southwest Houston will select a replacement for the late City Councilman Larry Green in a May 5 special election, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday.

Green, who was found dead at his home Tuesday morning, remains the only councilman ever to lead District K, which was created after the 2010 Census prompted the council to expand from nine to 11 districts, plus five at-large seats.

No cause has been announced in the 52-year-old’s death, but police do not suspect foul play.

Turner said state law dictates that City Council call a special election by March 20 and that candidates file for the office by March 26. The district stretches from the NRG Park area to Fort Bend Houston and Westbury.

See here for the background. I’m sorry to post about this business so soon after CM Green’s tragic death. I’ve been reading one remembrance of CM Green after another from mutual friends. Lots of people knew him, and everyone who knew him liked him. We’re going to feel this loss for awhile.

Nonetheless, here we are. I was confused by the wording in the Chron article, which led me to think there would be some process other than a special election to fill this vacancy. I should have known better. The special election will be in May, and yes it will be a different day than the primary runoff. This is all per state law, as I have learned on some Facebook discussions. Having two different elections in May will be confusing, but I don’t think it’s any more confusing than trying to have this at the same time as the primary runoffs would have been. I suspect if we did it that way some number of people would not vote on the belief that they couldn’t since they hadn’t voted in the primary. It will be up to the candidates to explain to the voters what they’re running for and when their election is. I figure we’ll begin to see people express their interest in this seat next week. Oh, and while the winner in this election will have to run again in 2019, he or she will still get to run for a second full term in 2023 if they win. We’ll keep an eye on this.

RIP, CM Larry Green

Very sad news.

CM Larry Green

Houston City Councilman Larry Green was found dead at his home late Tuesday morning, prompting an outpouring of sadness from City Hall to the southwest Houston district he represented for more than six years.

The cause of death was not immediately known, though Houston police said foul play was not suspected.

Green, 52, remains the only person elected to lead District K, one of two seats added after the 2010 Census led the council to grow from nine to 11 districts.

Green’s ubiquity at civic club meetings and dogged work ethic took a district created from the “stepchildren” neighborhoods of two former districts and made it “better than the sum of our parts,” as Westbury civic leader Becky Edmondson put it. Texting Green at midnight often would produce an answer, she said. Meyerland/Westbury civic leader Art Pronin agreed — but put the time at 1 a.m.

“He’s at my civic club meeting, he’s at the coalition meeting, he’s at the Super Neighborhood meeting,” Keswick Place civic leader Linda Scurlock said. “He’s there. He’s not on a pedestal. I’ve lived in this community for 41 years, and we’ve never had a council member like that. It was like your friend. I’d call him all the time.”

Even residents pleased with their representatives do not always view those politicians as “friends,” but Edmondson used the same word. When she informed her daughter of Green’s passing, her daughter wept. And when her 9-year-old grandson heard the news, he cried, too.

“He’s been planting trees with Larry since he was 2 years old. He considers Larry as his friend,” Edmondson said. “He was a leader for the city, he was our advocate in District K – and he was my friend. And he was a friend to hundreds of other people like me that met him during his tenure. I’ll really miss him.”

I interviewed CM Green in 2011, when he ran for the then-new District K, but I had met him a few years before that. He was thoughtful and passionate about his community. I liked him, both as a person and as a Council member. He won that race, for a new seat in a part of town that did not lack for political talent, with little opposition. Especially on a day where we’re all feeling positive about the political process, I’m stunned and saddened by the loss of CM Green. My sincere condolences to his family and many friends.

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner’s communications director, Alan Bernstein, said late Tuesday the city legal department still was reviewing the procedures for naming Green’s replacement. The city charter authorizes council to fill vacancies by majority vote, but does not specify a timeline for doing so.

To be honest, I had assumed there would be a special election, probably in November but possibly in May, to serve the remainder of CM Green’s term. That’s what happened with other vacancies in the past. I’m not sure if the process is different in the event of a member’s death, or if this was an effect of the term limits referendum. Whatever the case, that person will have to run again for a full term in 2019. There will be time later to think about that in more detail.

The latest report on city finances

A little light reading for you.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Even after Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark pension reforms, the city of Houston is on pace to spend $1 billion more than it will take in over the coming decade, and must cut spending and raise revenue bring its annual budget into balance, according to an exhaustive new report.

Failing to do so, the authors state, risks letting the city inch toward insolvency with all the symptoms that accompany such a fiscal crisis: Worker layoffs, an erosion in police staffing, fewer library hours, decaying parks facilities, a hollowing out of the city as the suburbs boom.

The analysts from Philadelphia-based consulting firm PFM did not shy away from controversial recommendations, including some that would dramatically restructure city government.

Among dozens of other reforms, the authors suggest Houston should:

  • break up its mammoth Houston Public Works department and consolidate its finance, procurement, human resources, and information technology staff;
  • cut the $9.5 million annual subsidy to the Houston Zoo roughly in half;
  • shrink the Houston Fire Department by up to 845 positions through attrition and lengthen firefighters’ work weeks; reduce the number of fire stations; hire civilians to do fire inspections and take 911 calls; and raise ambulance fees;
  • hire civilians for the Houston Police Department to enable cops now doing administrative tasks to get back on patrol; free up officers’ time by arresting fewer low-level offenders and writing more tickets; use civilians to conduct crash investigations and issue non-moving traffic tickets; consolidate with Metro’s police staff, and, perhaps, local school districts’ too;
  • cut health benefits for active and retired city workers; and
  • submit trash pickup, building maintenance and street repairs to “managed competition,” giving all or part of each task to city departments or to private companies, whichever submits the most efficient proposal.
  • City Council hired PFM for $565,000 in 2016, Turner’s first year in office, to craft a 10-year financial plan. Turner made clear in comments last week, however, that he views some of the recommendations as impractical.

“When you talk about structural changes, just because it’s identified doesn’t mean it’s easily done. It’s not about taking a report and just implementing it,” he said. “There are some things that, from my vantage point, yes, we will accept. There are some things that are going to require additional study. There are some things that will be more long term. And then there are some things that we’ll never get there.”

The report is here; it’s quite long, but the executive summary is only 16 pages, so read that if you want a feel for it. At first glance, a lot of it sounds reasonable and even doable. I appreciate the fact that they recognize that revenue is part of the equation and that removing the stupid revenue cap would go a long way towards alleviating the problem. Some actions could be done by Mayoral fiat, some by Council action, and some will require negotiations with third parties and/or legislative approval. It’s always possible that a report like this becomes little more than a doorstop, but I think we’ll see at least some of it happen.

SaberCats Stadium

Houston’s new pro rugby team will soon have a home.

The city’s burgeoning rugby community is poised to have a new home after City Council inked a $3.2 million deal Wednesday that paves the way for the Houston SaberCats to build a 3,500-seat stadium.

The SaberCats, one of seven new Major League Rugby franchises, plans to finish the new facility and two practice fields at Houston Amateur Sports Park, along Texas 288 in south Houston, in time for the beginning of its 2019 season.

The city, meanwhile, will retain ownership of the site, lease the property to the SaberCats for 43 years and use $3.2 million from its 2012 bond package to reimburse the team for the cost of installing a 760-space parking lot and adding public utilities.

“This is a major step forward,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said of the deal. “We say we’re an international city, and this helps to create those venues that can appeal to the interests of a very diverse population.”

SaberCats President Brian Colona echoed Turner’s enthusiasm.

“Obviously, we’re thrilled to have the city council back this thing with great support from Mayor Turner and his staff,” Colona said. “This is the quintessential example of good public-private partnership in order to advance the needs of the community, and we’re happy to be a part of that.”

[…]

As part of the deal OK’d Wednesday, the SaberCats have committed to providing at least 200 hours of free children’s rugby training annually, hosting high school rugby matches and running free rugby camps for children ages 6 through 14, among other types of community engagement.

See here for some background on the SaberCats, who as you can see were formerly known as the Strikers, and here for an earlier article on this deal, which again notes that funds from the 2012 bond referendum that were earmarked for this facility are what’s being used. The main reaction from the SaberCats’ Facebook page is “why only 3,500 seats?”, since a recent exhibition game had 5,000 in attendance. There will be some 4,000 standing room spots as well, so they ought to be covered for now. I’ve never actually seen a rugby game before, I may have to check this out when they have their grand opening. Any fans of the sport out there?

Mayor proposes new floodplain development rules

Good idea.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday proposed tightening development rules to strengthen Houston’s defenses against flooding, the city’s first concrete step to change building practices since Hurricane Harvey inundated hundreds of thousands of homes last August.

Turner’s proposed changes would require all new buildings outside the floodplain to be elevated two feet above the ground, and all new construction within the 500-year floodplain to be lifted two feet above the projected flood level during a 500-year storm. Current rules stipulate that buildings be constructed one foot above the flood level in a 100-year storm.

The mayor also intends to make builders redeveloping large parcels of land provide more stormwater detention than city rules currently require.

“We have had floods in each of the last three years, with Harvey being the worst. There will be other epic rainstorms, and they probably will arrive a lot sooner than 100 years or 500 years from now,” Turner told City Council. “As we build back from the damage to existing homes, we have to build forward to prevent future homes from flooding.”

City officials expect to release proposed legal language in the coming weeks, then submit the new rules for City Council consideration by mid-February. If approved, there likely would be a months-long grace period before the laws take effect, Turner said.

Though not final, the city’s intended overhaul of development rules would be more extensive than those Harris County approved last month.

See here and here for the county’s development changes. As the owner of a pier-and-beam house, I have to say I don’t understand why more houses aren’t built that way, but maybe with this change more of them will be. This won’t be transformative – it only applies to new development – but you have to start somewhere, and given that we didn’t start this years ago, the next best time is now. I look forward to seeing the details.

Council approves new recycling deal

Huzzah!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston residents are set to have their used glass and plastic bags picked up for recycling at curbside, but not until next year.

The 20-year, $37 million agreement City Council approved Wednesday is the product of two years of wrangling over recycling and positions Houston to pay less per ton to recycle.

Houstonians still have to wait another 14 months before putting bottles or bags in their green curbside bins, however, while the city’s chosen contractor builds a new processing facility.

To bridge the gap, the city plans to renegotiate its existing, costlier recycling agreement, which expires in April.

“From a financial point of view, it is a much better deal for the city of Houston,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, praising the deal with the Spanish firm FCC. “In terms of technology, it meets what our needs are and what we have asked for.”

[…]

Rosanne Barone, Houston program director for the advocacy group Texas Campaign for the Environment, lauded the city for “heading in the right direction” on recycling.

“This shows the mayor is committed to continuing moving forward to make the city of Houston more sustainable. We’re so happy glass is going to be back, and so happy and surprised and excited that plastic bags are now going to be included,” Barone said. “The next step is just to keep moving forward: To keep including more materials, to expand curbside pickup to apartments and businesses.”

See here and here for the background. CMs Knox, Stardig, and Kubosh were No votes, but CM Dave Martin, who had previously been a critic of the deal, voted Yes. I know a lot of people will be happy to have curbside pickup of glass back, though that will likely mean the end of one new business that emerged to fill that gap. Getting curbside pickup for plastic bags, which San Antonio has been doing since 2014, is a nice bonus. As Rosanne Barone says, let this be another step in the journey forward. Houstonia has more.

And then there were nine

One Democratic gubernatorial hopeful is now off the ballot.

Demetria Smith, a Democrat who had hoped to challenge Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in the 2018 gubernatorial race, has been determined ineligible to run.

Smith, who attended a San Angelo forum for candidates in the Democratic primary Monday evening, was listed ineligible on the Texas Secretary of State’s website. The Texas Democratic Party said Tuesday that Smith’s check for a $3,750 candidate filing fee had bounced, said Glen Maxey, primary director of the party.

To run for governor in Texas, candidates must pay the filing fee or file a petition with 5,000 signatures.

Maxey said Smith filed Dec. 11, the last filing day, with a personal check that was deposited the following day, on Dec. 12; however, the party was not notified of the insufficient funds until Monday.

Because the deadline to pay the fee has passed, Smith cannot correct the error.

[…]

Smith, who called herself as the “constitutional candidate” at the forum, said in a phone interview after hearing the news: “I will be challenging the constitutionality of their decision,” referring to the Texas Democratic Party.

“If you accept the check on the last day, you should be able to clear it,” she said.

Smith is a perennial candidate who has run for Council (2.71% in District D, 2013) and Mayor (0.47% in 2015) and other things here in Houston. She was likely headed towards a 2-3% showing in the primary. As I’ve said before, the terms and conditions for getting on the ballot are pretty well known, and anyone who files on deadline day takes the risk that something will go wrong for which there is no time to make a correction. Smith could file a lawsuit to get back on the ballot, though it’s not clear to me what the basis of such a suit would be. My guess is that this is the end of the road for her, but I suppose anything can happen. The DMN and the Chron have more on this story and on that candidate forum.

Looking ahead to 2019

Yes, yes, I know. We’ve barely begun the 2018 cycle. Who in their right mind is thinking about 2019? I plead guilty to political insanity, but the beginning of the year is always the best time to look forward, and just as 2018 will be unlike any election year we’ve seen before, I think 2019 will be unusual, too. Let’s just take a moment to contemplate what lies ahead.

I’ve posted this list before, but just to review here are the Council members who are term-limited going into 2019:

Brenda Stardig – District A
Jerry Davis – District B
Ellen Cohen – District C
Mike Laster – District J
Larry Green – District K
Jack Christie – At Large #5

There is an opportunity for progressives to elect a candidate more favorable to them with CM Christie’s departure, and his At Large colleagues Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh will also draw attention. Against that, I would remind everyone that Bill King carried Districts C and J in 2015, so we’re going to have to play defense, too.

It is too early to start speculating about who might run where, but keep two things in mind. One is that there’s likely some pent-up demand for city offices, since there won’t have been an election since 2015, and two is that some number of people who are currently running for something in 2018 will find themselves on the sidelines by March or May, and some of them may decide to shift their focus to a more local race. The point I’m making here is expect there to be a lot of candidates, and not just for the term-limited offices. I don’t expect Mayor Turner to be seriously challenged, but I do expect the firefighters to find someone to support against him. Finally, I expect Pasadena to be a hotbed of action again for their May elections, as Democrats missed by seven votes in District B winning a majority on Pasadena City Council.

The following HISD Trustees are up for election in 2019:

Rhonda Skillern-Jones – District II
Sergio Lira – District III
Jolanda Jones – District IV
Diana Davila – District VIII

Skillern-Jones was forced into a runoff in 2015, but she then won that easily. Lira was elected this year to finish Manuel Rodriguez’s term. Jolanda is Jolanda, and no election that includes her will ever be boring. Davila sued to get on the Democratic primary ballot for Justice of the Peace, but was not successful. I have to assume whoever runs against her will make an issue of the fact that she was job-hopping in the interim.

The following HCC Trustees are up for election in 2019:

Zeph Capo – District 1
Dave Wilson – District 2
Neeta Sane – District 7

It is too early to think about who might be running for what in Houston and HISD. It is very much NOT too early to find and begin building support for a good candidate to run against Dave Wilson and kick his homophobic ass out of office. That is all.

The elections we may get in 2018

We know there are going to be a lot of contested elections up and down the ballot in 2018, both primaries and the November general, for state, county, and federal office. There are also at least four possible elections I can think of that we may get in addition to these. Let’s review.

1. Firefighters’ pay parity referendum

Remember that one? Petitions submitted, but it took a long time for them to get counted and certified, so the deadline to get on the ballot was missed? Yeah, that’s still out there, and barring a verdict that the petitions were insufficient, we’ll get to vote on it. Everyone I’ve talked to says that it would be in May, which would be the next uniform election date. After going a number of years without any May elections, we could have them two years in a row. This one would almost certainly be contentious.

2. Revenue cap repeal/modification

Another one that we thought would be on the November ballot was a revenue cap referendum. In the end, the plan was shelved so as not to endanger the pension obligation bonds. The strategy worked – the bonds passed – so now it’s time to finish off this piece of business. The main question is one of timing. If the firefighters’ pay parity proposal passes, then no further charter amendments can be voted on for two years. That presents Mayor Turner with a choice: Work to defeat the pay proposal, and thus vote on revenue cap reform in November, or put the rev cap issue on the ballot in May alongside this issue? I can make a case for either, but I’m sure the Mayor would prefer to have this up in November. We’ll see how that plays out.

Also, too, there’s the question of what exactly this referendum will do. Initially, Mayor Turner spoke about modifying it, to allow more revenue growth that would apply to public safety. More recently, he seemed to be talking full repeal, which is of course my preference. Again, we’ll see what happens.

3. Metro referendum

Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman has been talking about a new comprehensive Metro referendum, to fund further rail expansion and bus system upgrades. That was put off from last year, and appears to be on track for this year. Details and scope are yet to be determined.

4. Harris County flood mitigation bonds

In the immediate aftermath of Harvey, Commissioners Court discussed the possibility of a bond issue for flood mitigation projects. I presume this is still on the table, but as yet it isn’t more fully formed than that. If I had to bet, I’d say this happens, but it’s by far the least developed. Look to see what the Court does and we’ll know from there.

Finally, I should note that there is ongoing litigation related to the 2010 Renew Houston referendum and the 2015 term limits referendum. The former has been sent by the Supreme Court back to the lower courts, and I suppose it’s possible that there could be an order for a do-over election this year. It’s not clear to me what we might vote on if that happens, as it was City Council action that actually authorized and set the fee, but that would be among the things argued about in court, so we’ll see. For the latter there has not been a trial on the merits of the lawsuit as yet, so we are a long way from a resolution. I just wanted to touch on these since I’m sure someone was wondering about them.

Recycling deal held up again

I’ll take Unexpected Effects of Hurricane Harvey for $200, Alex.

Chris Brown

Chris Brown

A 20-year, $37 million recycling deal for Houston is in limbo after City Controller Chris Brown said his office was not prepared to sign off on the proposal, citing concerns with the procurement process and the winning bidder’s proposed subcontractor.

The controller, the city’s elected financial watchdog, chiefly is responsible for certifying that sufficient funds are on hand to make the payments associated with items City Council is asked to approve each week.

Brown’s Monday afternoon memo to Mayor Sylvester Turner, however, noted “concerns pertaining to the transparency of the procurement process and the MWBE sub-contractor’s status as the defendant in several federal lawsuits.”

Specifically, he said several sets of documents from the initial procurement stages were kept only on paper and were destroyed when Hurricane Harvey flooded City Hall, leaving his office unable to compare documents from the two final rounds of bid evaluations.

Turner threw out the first round of final bids last summer amid questions from council about the process used to select Spanish firm FCC as the winning firm; FCC again was announced late last month as the winner of the second round of final bidding, prompting more questions from council.

Brown said his staff was able to review documents from the two final bidding rounds only after signing “unusual” non-disclosure agreements for which he said “no legal reasoning has been provided.”

FCC’s proposed subcontractor, Taylor Smith Consulting, he added, has been named as a defendant in four recent lawsuits, three under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“In the interest of full transparency, I thought it important to bring these concerns forward,” Brown wrote.

See here and here for the background. Who knew people still used paper documents? The Council vote had been scheduled for this week but will be pushed back after the holidays now. From the story it doesn’t sound like there were any actual problems with the bid, though the losing firms were griping about it, just that it was delayed. We’ll see if it gets any better a reception from Council this time around.

RIP, Peter Brown

A dedicated public servant and a heck of a nice guy.

Peter Brown

Former Houston city councilman, mayoral candidate and civic leader Peter Brown has died, his family said Tuesday.

Brown, an architect and urban planner, was 81.

“A loving father, committed public servant, and fearless advocate, former Council Member Brown passed on to the next life the same way he lived in this one – surrounded by his family in the city he loved most,” his son, the elected City Controller Chris Brown, said in a statement.

“The Brown family would like to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers, and asks for privacy during this very difficult time.”

You can see Chris Brown’s statement here. After the 2009 Mayoral election, Peter Brown went back to his roots, talking about urban design and making city streets safer and more user-friendly for people on his Pedestrian Pete website. He was a visionary and an advocate for building a better city to the end. Rest in peace, Pedestrian Pete.

Is this development really necessary?

Boy, the optics of this sure are lousy.

CM Brenda Stardig

The Houston City Council has indefinitely postponed a proposal to build hundreds of homes in a west Houston floodplain amid questions about whether city leaders’ actions would match their rhetoric about mitigating the risk of flooding after Hurricane Harvey.

Mayor Sylvester Turner supported the move to refer the item back to his administration, a procedure that can be used to further study a controversial item or kill it.

Arizona-based Meritage Homes announced last May that it planned to build the single-family homes on the site of the recently closed Pine Crest Golf Club at Clay and Gessner in a master-planned community to be called Spring Brook Village. The finished project would include homes for up to 800 people, with properties priced between the high $200,000s and the mid-$500,000s.

The entire 151-acre site sits in a flood plain, Harris County Flood Control District maps show. Officials said the developers’ drainage plan, once built, will place most of the tract in the 500-year floodplain rather than in the riskier 100-year floodplain.

The builders have said they plan to build the homes at a higher elevation to remove the structures from the 500-year floodplain, and have noted their plan exceeds the city’s minimum requirements for detaining storm water.

Still, Turner acknowledged the optics of approving hundreds of new homes in a floodplain two months after a historic hurricane flooded thousands of homes across the Houston area.

“We are living in the post-Harvey world, and I want people to have the confidence that we’re thoroughly vetting these projects and that we’re asking the questions,” Turner said. “When I have said previously that we can’t do things the same way and expect a different result, I want to make sure this project has been thoroughly vetted, and all the council members agreed to that.”

[…]

City Council took up the item because the developers needed its consent to create a municipal utility district to pay for roads, water, sewer and drainage infrastructure on the site.

Council members Brenda Stardig and Mike Knox said the developers told them the inability to form a MUD could result in more homes and less storm water detention being built on the site, because the builders might then be required to finance part of the infrastructure costs themselves rather than repaying those costs through future homeowners’ property taxes.

The MUD is the crux of the issue and the reason why Council is involved – as the story notes, if it were simply a matter of permitting, it would not require a vote. The reason why a MUD is needed at all is not fully explained, though this Press story does add a few details.

According to correspondence between MetroNational and Council Member Brenda Stardig, who represents the district where the golf course is located, approval of the MUD would also allow for a detention pond 16 acre feet more than what the city requires and a linear detention pond with trails for walking around — but MetroNational seemed to indicate that if the MUD isn’t approved, these bonus items won’t be possible.

Still, Matt Zeve, director of operations at the Harris County Flood Control District, said that even with the building elevations and drainage plans, there’s still a risk of “overland sheetflow flooding during extreme rain events,” which is when drainage gets overwhelmed and street flooding gets serious.

“The off-site sheetflow could still cause flooding problems, but it isn’t considered in the analyses that have been completed,” Zeve said in an email.

Maybe building the retention pond and requiring the higher elevation for the houses will be enough to mitigate the risk, I don’t know. As the Chron editorial board notes, leaving a former golf course undeveloped is itself a pretty good flood mitigation strategy. What does seem clear is that this was a business-as-usual idea – the land was bought by the developer a year ago, and the project was announced in May – but we are not and cannot be in business-as-usual mode any more. Projects like this require a much higher level of scrutiny and skepticism now. Otherwise, we really haven’t learned anything from Harvey.

City buys out some flooded homes

Expect to see more of this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council on Wednesday approved funding nearly 60 home buyouts across three flood-prone neighborhoods, the first such step from City Hall in recent memory.

The city typically leaves buyouts to the Harris County Flood Control District and, in fact, the measure approved by the council would send $10.7 million to the district to pay for the purchases, estimated at about $175,000 per property.

Houston has not had any in-house staff devoted to the issue in recent memory, but Hurricane Harvey has spurred city officials to acknowledge the need to remove more flood-prone residences from harm’s way, leading to Wednesday’s vote to fund voluntary buyouts in three working-class neighborhoods. Harris County Commissioners Court approved the deal earlier this month.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he “absolutely” expects the city to fund additional buyouts in the months to come but that the strategy must be paired with channel improvements, new reservoirs or detention basins and other flood mitigation efforts.

“There are thousands more homes that are subject to buyouts,” he said. “We need to handle it in a very strategic fashion. We need to factor in all of the strategies that will be required to make the city more resilient.”

In fact, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Wednesday unveiled 15 recommendations to combat flooding on a regional basis, calling for, among other things, more buyouts, cooperation across city and county lines, an expansion of county floodplains, and the immediate funding needed to complete several flood control projects along area waterways.

The dollars approved by the council Wednesday are federal funds the city received after two floods in 2015, and are earmarked for areas that suffered in those storms, Turner said. City data show each area also suffered significant damage during Harvey.

As Mayor Turner says, this is one piece of a very large puzzle. Among other things, you want to avoid creating a smattering of abandoned properties in the middle of neighborhoods. Locations for buyouts are going to have to be chosen very carefully.

As for those recommendations from Judge Emmett, here’s a summary:

  • Creating a regional flood control organization that can coordinate water management across county lines. Releases from Lake Conroe in Montgomery County have been fiercely criticized by Harris County residents.
  • Increasing regulations on development in flood prone areas, including rethinking floodplains. The county is currently conducting a reevaluation.
  • Developing an improved flood control system and localized evacuation plan that could utilize volunteer organizations to help first responders, as well as how to coordinate high-water vehicles and private boats. Residents in the areas around Addicks and Barker dams have called for a better warning system, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, considered such a system before dropping the idea two decades ago.
  • Installing automatic barriers at flood-prone underpasses and developing a plan for closing such underpasses. After the Tax Day floods, Emmett said he would lead such an effort.
  • Buying out all homes located in the 100-year floodplain or that have flooded repeatedly. The County has several disparate buyout efforts ongoing, but a larger scale program will probably cost billions of dollars.

The Press has the full list. I basically agree with most of it, but there are a couple of items I want to comment on:

9. Expanding the role of municipal utility districts. If your local MUD isn’t doing much about preventing flooding, Emmett thinks that needs to change, that their responsibilities should include both storm water management and flood control in cooperation with the flood control district.

15. Giving Harris County ordinance-making power. Even though if unincorporated Harris County were a city it would be the fifth-largest in the country, Harris County doesn’t have ordinance-making power. Also, Emmett said county government should receive some of the collected sales tax rather than just relying on property tax. “To continue to exclusively rely on the property tax is fundamentally unfair and unsustainable,” he said. This is much more of a long-term shift, however, Emmett said.

The governance of MUDs is definitely an issue, but I think this is the wrong approach. Especially since we need to get a handle on the kind of build-everywhere growth that MUDs promote, I say we should at the least encourage, if not outright coerce, existing and proposed MUDs to incorporate or be annexed. MUDs may have served a purpose in the past, but it’s a model we should not seek to perpetuate. It’s time for a different approach. Space City Weather has more.

Chron overview of the HISD races

It’s not much, but it is what it is.

As Houston ISD faces a possible state takeover, a $106 million budget shortfall and millions of dollars in needed repairs from Hurricane Harvey, six of its board’s nine seats are up for election on Nov. 7.

Fifteen candidates are vying for school board seats in regular elections, and four are competing in a special election for the District III seat held for 14 years by Trustee Manuel Rodriguez, who died in July.

The election comes at a turbulent time for Texas’ largest school district, which educates about 212,000 students.

If 10 of the district’s longest-struggling schools don’t show academic improvement through student test scores this spring, the Texas Education Agency could either take over the district or close those campuses. The district wrote a $77.5 million check to the state earlier this year to pay its recapture fee, which the TEA uses to buoy school districts with lower property values. Those recapture payments are forecast to increase to about $200 million by next year, even as the district struggles to provide extra services, such as counseling to students in high-poverty schools.

It’s also Superintendent Richard Carranza’s second year at the helm, and although he has not yet made any seismic changes, he has signaled his administration will look into altering magnet programs and funding, overhauling the budget, centralizing some school operations and providing more equitable resources to historically underserved schools and communities.

There’s a brief bit on each candidate, with something from their webpage and a short quote from those who responded to the reporters’ requests. If this is all you know about the contestants in your race, it’s precious little to go on. At least there are my interviews, the various endorsements, and things like the LWV guide to help you. If you’re already familiar with the candidates this won’t tell you anything you don’t already know, but if not at least it’s something.

Now to be fair, while the Chron didn’t give us much on the races as a whole, they did provide this big story about the peccadilloes of one HISD candidate.

Daniel Albert

Daniel Albert’s unorthodox approach to his job as City Council’s highest-paid staffer has assumed added importance this fall with his pursuit of the District VI seat on the Houston ISD board of trustees.

Albert asks voters to weigh his qualifications and let him help lead the nation’s eighth-largest public school system: His bachelor’s in biomedical engineering from Tulane University, his law degree from North Carolina Central School of Law, his three master’s degrees.

He highlights his public service as chief of stafff for freshman City Councilman Steve Le, citing his work with city departments to clean up illegal dump sites, install speed bumps and replace street lights in District F.

Many civic leaders in southwest Houston view Albert’s work differently, however, saying they rarely see him in the district and struggle to get answers when they contact Le’s office.

This may be due partly to Albert’s infrequent presence at City Hall. City records show Albert uses his employee badge to swipe into city buildings less than three days a week, on average – a clear outlier among the 16 chiefs of staff for Houston’s council members.

Read the whole thing. Albert’s obviously a busy guy – in addition to his job and his candidacy, he’s got a wife and two little kids – and his boss says he’s doing a fine job, even if his boss’ constituents think they’re being shortchanged. I would just note that as busy as Albert is, it’s a little hard to say how much time he’s spending on his HISD race. He hasn’t raised any money, preferring to self-fund instead. He didn’t respond to the Chron for their race overview story, he didn’t respond to the League of Women Voters for their candidate survey, and he never replied to my inquiry about doing an interview. No one says he has to do any of these things, but if we’re wondering how a guy who is at the office a lot less than other people in the same job spends his time, there are clearly a few pieces of the puzzle missing.

Council passes dumb forced tax cut

This is where we are.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

City Council rejected Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposal to leave Houston’s tax rate unchanged from last year Wednesday, instead approving a tiny rate cut to comply with the voter-imposed cap on property tax revenues.

Turner had proposed using Hurricane Harvey to invoke a disaster exception clause in the 13-year-old revenue cap and leave the rate at 58.642 cents per $100 in assessed value. That plan would have let the city collect $7.8 million next year for storm recovery costs in addition to what the cap otherwise would allow, or about $7 next year for the typical homeowner.

It was the same process, Turner stressed, that his administration and former mayor Annise Parker’s administration had followed to collect funding above the revenue cap after floods in each of the last two years – actions that went unnoticed by council members and news media at the time.

The council nonetheless voted 15-2 to approve an amendment from Councilman Mike Knox to lower the rate by 0.221 cents – the rate City Controller Chris Brown had said the revenue cap dictated independent of Harvey-related expenses.

You can read the rest if you want to. I’ve said my piece, and I don’t have anything to add to that. If you need a little more, go read Mayor Turner’s response to Paul Bettencourt, which is exactly what needs to be said to that little toady.

Another property tax rate dustup

I have four things to say about this:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to ask city council on Wednesday to sidestep the voter-imposed revenue cap by approving the same property tax rate as last year.

According to City Controller Chris Brown, the city would need to cut the property tax rate by about one fifth of one cent to comply with the revenue cap. The difference would mean about $7 next year to the average Houston homeowner, but the potential political damage to Turner could be much more.

Council must set the tax rate at its Wednesday meeting, but no specific rate was listed on the council agenda and no explanatory backup material was provided to council members until Monday night. Several council members, informed of Brown’s Monday afternoon memo outlining the mayor’s plan, responded with an incredulous, “What?”

The information angered the mayor’s critics and confused his allies on the council a week before voters begin heading to the polls to consider a crucial $1 billion bond that would cement Turner’s landmark pension reforms and another $495 million in city improvement bonds.

To comply with the revenue cap, Brown said, the council would need to set the tax rate at 58.421 cents per $100 of assessed value, not leave it at last year’s 58.642 cents. The difference to the city general fund, he estimated, is $7.9 million.

“I’d love to think of it as a misunderstanding,” Councilman David Robinson said. “Conspicuously on the agenda today it was not disclosed, so it certainly raised a lot of questions. Call it, what – $8 million? It sounds like a very small amount to have a standoff about.”

[…]

Turner’s spokesman Alan Bernstein said Monday afternoon that the mayor’s proposal to leave the rate flat did not rely on invoking the disaster declaration language, but hours later acknowledged that clause is the basis for keeping the same rate.

“The mayor clearly said at this meeting, the press conference with the governor and everybody, ‘We are not going to be invoking the disaster clause,'” Brown said late Monday. “So, now they’re saying they’re going to do it. OK, they can do that. My opposition is not if they do it or don’t, my opposition is that they do it and nobody knows about it.”

A Monday evening memo from interim finance director Tantri Emo said the charter not only allows the mayor to invoke the disaster clause to collect an extra $7.9 million for Harvey expenses, but also provides no process by which Brown is required to verify the tax rate. Therefore, Bernstein added, it is not relevant that Brown cannot verify the city’s estimated $1.1 billion in general fund damages from Harvey before federal and insurance reimbursements.

“Since he can’t independently validate them, he’s not counting them,” Bernstein said. “Well, we’re counting them, and we feel like he’s not interpreting this all correctly. We’re certainly not busting the tax cap. The mayor disagrees with the controller’s conclusion.”

1. Let’s get one thing straight up front: This is not in any way an “increase”. This is because leaving something the same as it was before is not an increase, in the same way that my remaining the same height does not mean that I have gotten taller even if for some reason I was supposed to shrink. One of the Council members quoted in the story referred to this as an “increase”, and you can be sure others will echo him. Don’t fall for it.

2. I don’t know what was going on in the Mayor’s office with this, in particular with the peculiar lack of communication followed by the about-face on their rationale, but this was handled badly. They should have been up front about the fact that all their calculations were based on leaving the tax rate the same. Which, let’s be clear, in a sane non-revenue-cap world is exactly what would have happened without anyone even noticing that it was a thing that was happening. Bring it up early on, during the (successful) standoff with Greg Abbott, and there would be nothing more to it by now. Like I said, I don’t know what they were thinking, but this is a mess of their own making, and they need to clean it up.

3. More to the point, this was a missed opportunity to drive home the message that the revenue cap is stupid, harmful policy. If we didn’t have a revenue cap forcing this on us, would anyone have proposed a tax rate cut right now? Can you imagine it: “Hey, let’s make a tiny little cut to the tax rate that will have no effect at all on anyone but will cost the city eight million dollars at a time when we’re up to our necks in hurricane recovery expenses”? It’s stupid policy that forces us to make stupid choices. The revenue cap needs to go.

4. All that said, I think CM Robinson has the right answer. If this were the Lege, as Mayor Turner surely knows, they’d have solved this by delaying payment of an invoice or two from this accounting cycle to the next one, thus making the “deficit” disappear in a puff of magic pixie dust. I have to believe that the city can do something similar if it comes down to it.

An unsatisfying attempt at projecting turnout

So as we all know, this in an unprecedented election, as there are no city races on the ballot. This has everyone wondering about turnout, because the usual drivers of turnout are a Mayor’s race and/or a big referendum, and we have neither of those. What can we guess from past turnout?

There are two components of interest here, overall turnout in the city and in the districts that have contested races. Those races of interest are in HISD, so my first thought was to look at some past elections to see what we could learn from the ratio of voters in each district to total voters in Houston. If that’s reasonably consistent, then we can make a projection for the districts on the ballot based on what we think the top level is.

HISD Trustee terms are four years, so our points of comparison are the years in which the same districts are up. Here are the citywide numbers from the Harris County Clerk:


Year      Turnout
=================
2001      284,748
2005      189,046
2009      178,777
2013      174,620

Yes, there are city voters outside Harris County, but none of them intersect with HISD, so we can safely ignore them. Now here are the totals for the five HISD districts that are normally on the ballot in these cycles:


Dist   2001 Share    2005 Share    2009 Share    2013 Share
===========================================================
I    12,515  4.40  10,159  5.37   9,823  5.49  10,521  6.03
V    21,761  7.64                14,550  8.14
VI
VII                                            12,394  7.10
IX   17,524  6.15  12,372  6.54  12,299  6.88  11,245  6.44

And right here you can see why I called this an “unsatisfying” attempt at this projection. The County Clerk only shows the results for contested school board races, and Districts V, VI, and VII haven’t had a lot of those in recent years. We do have good data in I and IX, and those numbers are interesting. District IX is very consistent. If you know what overall city turnout was, you can make a pretty good guess as to turnout in IX. District I, on the other hand, shows a steady upward trend. I’d say that’s the result of changes in the district, which encompasses a good chunk of the Heights and surrounding areas that have been gentrifying. As such, I’d consider the 2013 numbers to be a floor for this year.

That leaves us with the question of what citywide turnout might be. We do have a model for guessing turnout in elections with no Mayor’s race. Since 2005, there have been six At Large City Council runoffs with no corresponding Mayor’s runoff, and in 2007 there was a special May election with June runoff for At Large #3. Here are the vote totals in those races:


2005 At Large #2 runoff = 35,922
2007 At Large #3 May    = 33,853
2007 At Large #3 June   = 24,746
2007 At Large #5 runoff = 23,548
2011 At Large #2 runoff = 51,239
2011 At Large #5 runoff = 55,511
2013 At Large #2 runoff = 32,930
2013 At Large #3 runoff = 33,824

Those numbers are pretty consistent with my earlier finding that there are about 36,000 people who voted in every city election from 2003 to 2013. There won’t be a Mayor’s race this year, but the school board candidates are out there campaigning, and I expect they’ll draw a few people to the polls who aren’t in that group. Similarly, there will be a campaign for the bond issues on the ballot, and that should nudge things up a bit as well. I think a reasonable, perhaps slightly optimistic but not outrageous, estimate is about 50,000 votes total. If that’s the case, then my projections for the school board races are as follows:


District I   = 3,000 (6% of the total)
District V   = 4,000 (8%)
District VII = 3,500 (7%)
District IX  = 3,250 (6.5%)

You can adjust up or down based on your opinion of the 50K overall estimate. If these numbers represent the over/under line, I’d be inclined to put a few bucks on the over in each, just because there will be actual campaign activity in them and there won’t be elsewhere. I don’t think that will be a big difference-maker, but it ought to mean a little something. All of this is about as scientific as a SurveyMonkey poll, but it’s a starting point. I’ll be sure to follow up after the election, because we may want to do this again in four years’ time, when the next Mayor-free election could be.

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.

HFD and disaster preparedness

There’s a lot here to think about, and to do something about.

The Houston Fire Department’s limitations quickly became clear as Harvey’s floodwaters rose.

Just one high-water rescue vehicle. Decades-old evacuation boats. Sparse training for swift-water rescues. And limited staffing after an 11th-hour decision not to call in major reinforcements to face the catastrophic storm.

The department had been warned. Lethal flooding two years ago exposed shortcomings and prompted sweeping recommendations to improve future responses.

And yet, when firefighters rushed fearlessly into Harvey’s currents in late August, they were again hobbled by a lack of resources, old equipment and a shortage of manpower ready to go when the storm hit, according to a Chronicle review of internal reports and emails, and dozens of interviews with firefighters and other officials.

The review found a department – and a city – that failed to follow the hard-earned lessons of previous storms, even as one of the worst in U.S. history descended on the region.

“Civilians had to step up – which was a great thing – but that’s not their job,” one high-ranking fire official said. “It’s our job to protect and serve the public. We couldn’t do that because we didn’t have what we needed.”

Fire Chief Samuel Peña, who stepped in to lead the department in December, defended the response and commended his firefighters, who performed 7,000 rescues and answered more than 15,000 calls for help during the first five days of the storm.

But he acknowledged that Harvey exposed shortcomings in the department’s fleet and training.

“Harvey punched us in the mouth,” Peña said. “No municipality is ever going to have the number of resources to be able to respond to a catastrophic incident the size of Harvey. But we know the anticipated risk in this community. We know that the 500-year flood is going to come again next year … We don’t have the adequate resources to address even the expected risk in this community.”

Critics, however, say the department’s response suffered from more than neglect.

“Anyone with common sense could see with relative certainty there was going to be an enormous rescue effort that was going to be required following the impact of Hurricane Harvey,” said Jim Brinkley, director of occupational health and safety for the International Association of Fire Fighters. “It’s expected a department would allocate enough resources – in terms of staffing alone – to make sure they’re capable of responding.”

There are a lot of reasons why HFD’s ability to deal with mass flooding events isn’t any more advanced now than it was a few years ago, before such things had become annual occurrences. You can come to your own conclusions about who shoulders how much of the responsibility for that. I would just point out that any effective solution to this is going to cost money. Equipment costs money. Training costs money. Firefighters who have better training can earn more money, if not here then elsewhere. We can and should review how HFD uses the resources it has now – as we know, most of the demands on the department are for emergency medical services and not for fire, and HFD has a track record of being profligate with overtime – but there’s only so far you can squeeze before you start displacing things you’d rather keep. If we want HFD to be better at responding to these events, we’re going to have to make an investment in them, and not just a one-time investment. That means we the voters are going to have to come to grips with the need to spend more money, or with the reality that we’re going to keep getting what we’re already paying for. If there are hard choices to be made by our leaders, we have to be prepared for what that means to us.

You don’t have to attend those tax rate hearings now

They’re not a thing any more.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday said he would withdraw a proposed property tax rate hike after Gov. Greg Abbott handed him a check for $50 million to help fund the city’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey.

That also likely means few public hearings on the proposed rate hike, which would have been the first from City Hall in two decades.

  • The first was held last Monday, and featured a few fireworks.
  • The second hearing remains scheduled for tonight at 6 p.m., since the governor’s check (which matched the $50 million Turner had intended to collect from raising taxes) was delivered too late to change the meeting time.
  • Council on Wednesday will consider cancelling the third hearing, which had been set for Oct. 11 at 9 a.m.

Turner initially had announced plans to enact an 8.9 percent tax rate hike, noting that a voter-imposed cap on property tax collections allowed him to propose a one-year exemption in the event of a federally declared disaster. Such a hike would produce about $113 million in additional revenue.

[…]

Some council members opposed to the increase said they believed the mayor lacked the votes to pass it. And if it had passed — days before the start of early voting — many at City Hall believe the rate hike could have angered voters enough to threaten the city’s plans to issue $495 million in general obligation bonds in November, in addition to $1 billion in bonds tied to Turner’s landmark pension reform plan.

See here for the background. I wouldn’t get too wrapped up in the claims that the proposed tax rate hike didn’t have the votes to pass. None of that would have mattered until the day Council actually voted on it. Besides, the goal wasn’t raising the rate, that was just a means to an end. The goal was paying the bills that were coming due – trash removal, insurance deductible, and the next insurance premium. Council members would have been welcome to argue against those things, or to propose alternate ways of paying for them, at the meeting when a vote was scheduled, or any time before then. Now they don’t have to. If Mayor Turner is relieved to not have to push this through now, I daresay the Council members who didn’t want to oppose him on it are relieved, too.

Mayor Turner lowers tax rate hike amount

I’m sure we’re all glad to see this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said the temporary property tax rate hike he has proposed would be cut in half after federal officials approved his request to increase reimbursement for the city’s Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts.

Turner earlier this month had pitched an 8.9 percent increase for one year, but said it would not be enough to cover all of the city’s cost of recovering from the unprecedented storm and flooding. It would be the first rate hike in two decades.

On Wednesday, he said that increase could be halved – to an extra $50 next yearfor the owner of a $225,000 home with a standard homestead exemption – thanks to a White House decision to boost reimbursement of many of the city’s recovery costs from 75 to 90 percent.

“We’re going to do everything we can to hold our line. We’re trying to minimize our request,” Turner said. “I understand what people’s concerns are with what they’re going through in their homes, and we don’t want to add to the burden.”

[…]

No tax hike would be necessary, Turner said, if state leaders agree to tap their roughly $10 billion rainy day fund. That suggestion drew support from council members.

“We need it now. It’s raining,” said Councilman Jack Christie, who has spoken against a tax rate hike. “We’re behind you to do that to where we don’t have to raise taxes.”

Several times in recent days, Gov. Greg Abbott has said he expects funds will be tapped to pay for Harvey costs, but said damage estimates must be completed before dollars are withdrawn. The latest tally Wednesday projected $574 million in damage to public infrastructure, including $177 million in Harris County.

“I think most people understand that Texas will be tapping into the rainy day fund,” he said in San Antonio last week. “The important thing, though, is that we address the economic issues appropriately. We need to first understand what obligations we’re going to have, how much they will amount to, and decide upon the best strategies to pay for that.”

See here and here for the background. You know what could eliminate the need for any tax hike whatsoever? If the state of Texas, which has some $10 billion sitting around doing nothing, were to cover the remaining costs that insurance and the feds won’t. I wonder if anyone has briefed Paul Bettencourt about this possibility, since he seems to be so entirely bereft of constructive ideas. To be sure, even Dan Patrick has been talking about using the Rainy Day Fund to help Houston and everywhere else recover from Harvey. That’s both good and necessary. But the city of Houston has to pay for things now, and it has to make sure it has the financial wherewithal to pay for those things now since it is not allowed to carry expenses over from one accounting year to another (this is another way of saying the city must “balance” its budget), so unless there’s a firm commitment in place from the state that the city can rely on, it’s got to make its own plans to pay for any uncovered expenses. If Paul Bettencourt and the usual suspects on City Council don’t like that, they are welcome to direct their concerns to Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick. The Press has more.

Council to hold hearings on proposed tax rate increase

Here’s your chance to be heard.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council set the ball rolling Wednesday on Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed 8.9 percent tax rate hike to help fund Houston’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey, in what would be the first hike from City Hall in more than two decades.

The council voted to schedule three public hearings on the issue, which is expected to reach a formal vote on Oct. 18.

Those hearings will be held at City Hall on:

Sept. 25 at 6 p.m.
Oct. 2 at 6 p.m.
Oct. 11 at 9 a.m.

[…]

The mayor said his staff will work over the next two to three weeks to better estimate what the insurance policies will cover, what the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse, and what the city will be left to pay itself.

After that review, Turner said, the proposed 8.9 percent increase could be reduced.

See here for the background. Campos says he wants specifics. Sounds like we ought to have them by the end of this process. I note in passing that the Harris County GOP has put out a statement opposing this proposal. I say no trash collection for them until all the Harvey debris has been carted off, too.