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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.

Mayor seeks one-year tax hike for Harvey cleanup

This stuff isn’t going to pay for itself, you know.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask City Council to approve an 8.9 percent hike in the city’s tax rate this fall to help Houston recover from Tropical Storm Harvey, in what would be the first tax rate hike from City Hall in more than two decades.

The average Houston homeowner would pay $118 more in property taxes next year under the proposal, which will begin a series of public hearings later this month and reach a formal vote in mid-October.

The tax rate would rise from 58.64 cents per $100 of appraised value – the lowest city tax rate since the late 1980s – to 63.87 cents. That was the rate from 2009 through 2013, when a 13-year-old voter-imposed limit on Houston’s property tax collections first began forcing City Council to cut the rate each year to avoid bringing in more revenue than was allowed.

Turner is able to propose an increase beyond the strictures of the revenue cap – allowing the city to collect an extra $113 million for one year – because Harvey placed Houston under a federal disaster declaration.

“If this is not an emergency, I don’t know what is. What we’re able to recoup from one year, the $113 million, will not even be enough to cover the expenses we will have incurred,” Turner said Monday. “What we don’t get from the feds we’ll have to come up with ourselves. I would be not doing my job if I did not advance it.”

Debris removal could cost more than $200 million and will require Houston to foot 10 percent of the bill without being reimbursed. The city also lost 334 vehicles to floodwaters and saw its municipal courts complex, city hall and its adjacent annex and two wastewater treatment plants knocked offline.

[…]

If adopted, the higher rate would take effect only for homeowners’ January 2018 tax bills. Come the following January, the emergency period would end and the city’s tax rate again would be dictated by the voter-imposed cap, which limits the annual growth of Houston’s property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston and key revenue cap proponent, said he wants to speak with the mayor to remind him that homeowners’ assessed values are rising, meaning a tax rate hike would amount to a double increase.

Bettencourt refrained from outright criticism of the proposal and praised much of the mayor’s response to the storm. He urged caution on the tax proposal, however.

“The rate is just one half of the equation. The other half is how much the value has gone up,” he said. “This is a delicate public policy issue because we’ve got Houstonians that are literally flooded out of their homes and many people have been affected so they’re not in a position to pay the bill easily, much less if it increases.”

The average Houstonian in a $225,000 home with a standard homestead exemption sends $1,321 to City Hall annually. Turner’s proposal would see that bill rise by $117.86 next year.

Let’s be clear about a couple of things. Thanks to the revenue cap charter amendment, this can only be a one-year increase. The rate will be what we had from 2008 to 2013, so it’s not like this is some unprecedented assessment. The city can’t run a deficit, and it can’t borrow money without getting authorization from the voters. The property tax rate is basically the only mechanism the city has to raise this kind of money. The city will get some federal funds, but it may not have control over their appropriation, and some of those funds as noted in the story are contingent on the city putting up money as well. Lord only knows what the state will pay for, and the county will do its own thing.

The point here is that the city has some big unexpected bills to pay. It has to pay for a lot of overtime for police officers and firefighters who were rescuing people during the floods and who are dealing with aftereffects like traffic control. It has to pay for a lot of overtime to Solid Waste employees who are working to pick up the enormous piles of trash around the city. Your taxes are going up by a couple hundred bucks to pay for this. If you have a problem with that, I don’t know what to tell you, other than I can’t abide that kind of thinking.

Some people will say that we should find costs to cut instead. I will remind you that the vast majority of the city’s expenses are for personnel, and in this particular case the extra unbudgeted expenses are largely for overtime pay. Unless you think all these people should have worked for free, this argument is nonsense. Every time a government entity faces a budget shortfall, I hear people justify cutting programs and services as “shared sacrifice”. In my experience, most of the people who say that aren’t themselves sacrificing much of anything. The difference between those cuts and this rate increase is that this time the bulk of the sacrifice is being felt by a different crowd. If you don’t like it, maybe keep that in mind for the next time.

To address Sen. Bettencourt’s concern, I’m fine with exempting the people who were flooded out from the rate increase. If you filed a FEMA claim, you get to be assessed at the current rate. As for the Council members quoted in the story who say they can’t go along with this, I say no trash gets collected in their neighborhoods until every last piece of Harvey debris has been carted off. There’s a little shared sacrifice for you. The Press has more.

Federal court bars enforcement if city’s ban on homeless encampments

Score one for the law’s opponents.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A federal court on Tuesday temporarily blocked Houston from enforcing its fledgling ban on public encampments, dealing a blow to city efforts to manage escalating tensions between homeless people and the neighborhoods their camps abut.

The city’s three-month-old law – passed under intense pressure from residents and council members – bars the unauthorized use of temporary structures for “human habitation” and empowers police officers to arrest violators if they refuse medical treatment or social services.

Enforcing that prohibition may, U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt wrote, violate the homeless plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

“The plaintiffs have demonstrated that they are subject to a credible threat of being arrested, booked, prosecuted and jailed for violating the City of Houston’s ban on sheltering in public,” Hoyt said. “The evidence is conclusive that they are involuntarily in public, harmlessly attempting to shelter themselves – an act they cannot realistically forgo, and that is integral to their status as unsheltered homeless individuals.”

[…]

The city ordinance “was not designed to punish homeless people. Rather, it was passed to stop the accumulation of property in these encampments,” Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives, said in an affidavit filed last week.

Hoyt’s order, however, focuses on the law rather than the city’s approach to enforcing it.

“The fact that the governmental entity has not fully enforced the alleged unconstitutional conduct does not bar a suit for injunctive relief where the alleged unconstitutional conduct is imminent or is in process,” he wrote.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the restraining order. It should be noted that in the complaint filed by the plaintiffs, they also asked for an injunction prohibiting “Enforcement of Houston City Code Section 28-46 (Aggressive panhandling) and Section 40-27(b) (Impeding the use of a roadway)”, but that request was not granted. The city had been lightly enforcing the enjoined provision, which suggests there had been concerns about it from the beginning. I get where the Mayor and Council are coming from, but they need to take this as a sign that they chose an unwise path. I do not want to wake up one day and read that the city is shelling out $500 an hour to some fancypants law firm to defend this thing in court. Find a way to fix this in a way that everyone can live with and move on.

Bond issue set for November

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

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Mayor Turner requests study of Confederate statues

From the inbox.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has asked top staff members to study whether statues related to the Confederacy should be removed from city property.

The mayor commented about the statues Tuesday at a City Council meeting after members of the public urged the city to remove the statues from its public spaces because, they said, the statues honor slavery and racism.

Staff members will compile an inventory of the statues and “provide me with recommendations about what steps we need to take,” the mayor said.

“It is my hope that we can, in a very positive and constructive way, move forward,” Mayor Turner added.

No date has been set for action on the issue.

Public comments may be sent by e-mail to cultural.affairs@houstontx.gov

Here’s the Chron story related to this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston residents stirred by racial clashes in Virginia are demanding removal of a Confederate monument that has sat largely unnoticed more than 100 years in a quiet corner of Sam Houston Park.

The downtown monument – titled Spirit of the Confederacy – features a bronze statue of a defiant, winged angel holding a sword and palm leaf.

“To all the heroes of the South who fought for the Principles of States Rights,” reads the inscription.

For Timbergrove resident Christina Gorczynski, it’s time for the monument to go.

Gorczynski joined about a dozen residents at City Hall Tuesday in urging city leaders to take down a symbol they say celebrates slavery and racism.

“As a city, we must demonstrate our commitment to fulfilling the unfulfilled promise of equity for all,” Gorczynski said. “We must demolish the symbols that celebrate an evil institution of slavery – those that through their mere existence reinforce and maintain a culture of white supremacy.”

In response, Mayor Sylvester Turner ordered city staff to assess Houston’s public art collection and recommend future steps in light of the requests for the city to remove Confederate monuments.

“The important thing is that as we move forward, that we recognize history is also what it is,” he said during the City Council’s public session Tuesday. “History has its good. History has its bad. But I do think it’s important for us to review our inventory and then to make the most appropriate decision that’s in the best interest of our city and that does not glorify those things that we shouldn’t be glorifying.”

This is the statue in question. Which, like nearly all statues of its kind, was built decades after the end of the Civil War as a way of demonstrating the restoration of white dominance of political power. It’s the very history of these statues that tells us what they’re about. As a Yankee who has always understood the Confederacy to be a treasonous violent rebellion for the purposes of preserving slavery, I have no problem at all with ashcanning these anachronisms. Put them in a museum where their historic context can be properly documented, or put them in a basement somewhere, I don’t care. If Baltimore can do it, so can Houston. Gray Matters and the Press have more.

EcoHub sues over OneBin failure

All right.

Continuing the saga that has unfolded at City Hall — in which City Council members have said a deal with one company “smelled,” and in which another company, EcoHub, claims Mayor Sylvester Turner snubbed him out of the whole process — EcoHub is now suing the city to find out what happened.

EcoHub had worked for years with former mayor Annise Parker’s administration to set up the One Bin for All Recycling paradigm, and CEO George Gitschel had said he secured millions of dollars in bond funding to build an $800 million facility that would recycle up to 95 percent of all our waste and repurpose it as fuel or other traditional recycling products. But when Turner took over, the deal with Gitschel fell apart — for largely unknown reasons. Turner has refused to provide an explanation beyond the fact that he is “not obligated” to continue with Parker’s vision. The city instead opened up a bidding process for more traditional single-stream recyclers in 2016.

The lawsuit, filed this week, is seeking clarity about how Turner made this decision. Gitschel had hired former KTRK reporter Wayne Dolcefino’s consulting firm to investigate, but in the lawsuit, Gitschel’s attorney says the city has not turned over documents, emails and phone calls that Dolcefino requested under the Texas Public Information Act. The lawsuit asks the court to compel the city to release the documents, and make sure officials are not hiding anything. Gitschel speculates that “improper influence by those who stand to financially benefit the most from the status quo” may have played in a role in why Turner cancelled the One Bin proposal and opened it up instead to traditional single-stream recyclers.

“What we’re hoping to uncover is at least emails between either Turner or folks in his administration and those with whom the city has been corresponding about bids on this contract, just to find out who the mayor’s been supporting and what’s going on at the Solid Waste Department,” said Gitschel’s attorney, Stewart Hoffer. “It just doesn’t make any sense why he would turn down a costless solution in favor of one that will cost a lot of money and has a greater environmental impact than what EcoHub had.”

I guess this is about the recycling contract that’s being rebid, which is whatever. What I’m wondering is how it is that EcoHub thought it had a deal with the city in the first place. As of the end of the Parker administration, there was nothing more than a progress report to show for the project. There was never a contract for City Council to approve. One Bin never came up when the current scaled back deal with Waste Managemend was ratified. One Bin For All was an idea, one that some people thought was great and others thought was ridiculous, it was never anything more than that. Maybe there’s more information to be uncovered in the deal that Mayor Turner tried to get approved. If there is, great, let’s hear it. But even if there is, I’m not sure what EcoHub will do with it.

July 2017 campaign finance reports – City of Houston

Let’s continue our survey of campaign finance reports with reports from the city of Houston.


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Turner     520,430  138,068         0  1,643,519

Stardig     59,470   36,402         0    102,289
Davis        5,500   13,231         0    147,050
Cohen        5,000    8,382         0     63,120
Boykins     93,839   40,547         0     57,358
Martin      20,092    8,221         0    106,427
Le          12,250    1,788    31,823      1,951
Travis      51,751   25,051    76,000     51,109
Cisneros    24,043    5,203         0     25,336
Gallegos    30,600    7,048         0     50,366
Laster      31,650    8,104         0    170,714
Green       17,150   39,770         0     84,627

Knox        21,185   13,373         0     23,149
Robinson    63,850   14,932         0     92,520
Kubosh      26,725   17,388   276,000     30,557
Edwards     73,843   31,295         0    144,198
Christie    33,090   20,323         0     31,458

Brown       59,220   19,494         0     79,101


HHRC        55,000   47,500         0     23,250
HTPR         3,625    1,652         0      3,624

As we now know, there will be no city elections of the non-referendum kind on the ballot this November. That would be one reason why there are no reports from anyone who has not already been a candidate. Only a couple of the reports belong to people who are not current or term-limited officeholders. These are folks like Bill Frazer, and none of them have any cash on hand worth mentioning. Actually, there is one person who may be of interest here, and that’s Helena Brown, who could run again in District A to succeed Brenda Stardig. Brown has $18,911.19 on hand, which would not be a bad start if she were so inclined.

I don’t want to dwell too much on this, but had the State Supreme Court dropped an election on us out of the blue, there was basically nobody outside of the current incumbents who have any resources for it. Usually, at this time of an odd numbered year, there are a lot of non-incumbent candidates, mostly circling around the offices that will be vacant. Whether people didn’t think the Supreme Court would take action, or if we were all just in denial about it, there were no candidates out there raising money. In a world where the Supremes had intervened, incumbents and people who can provide at least startup capital for themselves would have had a sizable advantage.

Now for those incumbents. We all knew Mayor Turner could raise money, right? All Houston Mayors can, it kind of comes with the office. Don’t underestimate the resources he could bring to a campaign over the firefighters’ pay parity proposal.

Despite the advantages for incumbents I talked about, four of the seven biggest cash on hand balances belong to those who can’t run – term-limited CMs Starding, Davis, Laster, and Green. Starding in particular makes me wonder what she was up to, raising all that cash this year. Usually, that makes one think maybe she’s looking at her next opportunity to run for something. I have no idea what that might be, but feel free to speculate wildly in the comments. Mike Laster has been mentioned as a county candidate once his time on Council ends. Maybe County Commissioner in Precinct 3 in 2020? I can speculate wildly too, you know.

I have a couple of PAC reports in there. HHRC is the Houston Heights Restaurant Coalition, gearing up for the next Heights alcohol referendum. HTPR is the Houston Taxpayers for Pension Reform, with Bill King as its Treasurer. Maybe that was for a vote on forcing a switch to defined-contribution system that is not in the works? They didn’t have much activity, and most of their expenditures went to an outfit called PinkCilantro for advertising. Other PACs of note with reports are Campaign for Houston, which I believe was an anti-HERO group from 2015 and have a $50,000 outstanding loan, and Citizens to Keep Houston Strong, which belongs to Bill White and which has $56,734.11 on hand.

Finally, two reports from former officeholders. Anne Clutterbuck, who was last a candidate in 2009, filed a final report, to dispose of the remaining funds in her account. She donated the balance – $5,094.55 – to the Hermann Park Conservancy. Last but not least is former Mayor Annise Parker, whose account still has $126,013.31 on hand. She may or may not run for County Judge next year – she has talked about it but so far has taken no action – and if she does that’s her starter’s kit. I’ll have more reports in the coming days.

There will be no city elections this November

Here’s the early version of the story. I’ll add a link to the full story in the morning.

The Texas Supreme Court on Monday denied plantiffs’ attempts to expedite their case challenging the [2015 term limits referendum] ballot language that lengthened city officials’ terms two years ago, making it unlikely the matter will be resolved before the state’s August 21 deadline to order a fall election.

Instead, the case is positioned to return to trial court for a hearing on whether the wording of the city’s proposition authorizing two four-year terms, instead of three two-year terms, was too obscure.

“There’s no way,” Austin election lawyer Buck Wood said. “I don’t see any way that they’re going to get any final order in time for the filing deadline.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Eric Dick conceded the timing makes a November mayoral election “unlikely.”

“But I don’t think it’s impossible,” Dick added, saying he plans to ask the high court to reconsider its decision.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the court’s order, which actually came down on Monday. We were getting dangerously close to what I figured would be the functional deadline for a ruling on the mandamus, in order to ensure enough time for people to file for office if they needed to. This doesn’t mean that we won’t get another election until 2019 – I’ve heard many people speculate about a special election next May, which I suppose could happen – but barring anything unexpected at this point, the case will plod on through the appeals process, which suggests that the people who were elected in 2015 will get to serve out most if not all of that four-year term.

UPDATE: Interestingly, there doesn’t appear to be a fuller version of this story on the website, and there was nothing I could find in the print edition this morning. Maybe tomorrow.

Rebidding reycling

Do-over!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Pummeled by procurement concerns on a 20-year curbside recycling contract, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Friday he will seek a new round of proposals from the four final bidders.

Turner had met with small groups of City Council members Thursday to get a better sense of the concerns they repeatedly have raised since the proposal first was rolled out in late June, and announced his decision early Friday.

“This action is designed to put to rest the concerns raised by members of council, which must approve the contract before it takes effect,” Turner said. “Whatever the result, my only allegiance is to this city and I will always seek what is in its best interest.”

[…]

The four firms that will be invited to submit a new round of final bids are FCC Environmental, Republic Services, Waste Management and Independent Texas Recyclers.

The mayor did not specify how much time the firms would have to submit their proposals or how quickly they would be evaluated.

See here and here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. I don’t know what went wrong in this process, but clearly something had gone off the rails. I’m glad to see this happen, but let’s do review how we got here and figure out how to do it better next time, OK?

Meanwhile, Gray Matters returns to the One Bin For All question with a few words from Roseanne Barone, the Houston Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment.

The national Paper Recycling Coalition, Steel Recycling Institute, Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries and others knew that when used materials, food and pet waste are all combined together, it is also known as another name — “trash” — and so they wrote letters to then-Mayor Annise Parker advising her against this policy.

Thankfully, when Mayor Turner took office in 2016, he knew the best practice for Houston is to keep recyclable materials separate and clean so they can be sold to commodity markets and generate revenue for the City.

[…]

According to the Houston-Galveston Area Council, when we include composters, hard-plastics reclaimers, electronics processors, construction- and demolition-debris recyclers and manufacturers of goods made from recycled items, we have 21,550 recycling jobs in our region and an industrial output of $4.5 billion per year.

Who knew recycling was so vital for Houston’s economy? Additionally, throwing all discards into landfills supports a disposable, wasteful culture while doing real damage to our environment. There are 56 leaking landfills in the state of Texas, four in Harris County and one in Fort Bend County. Landfills are also more often than not located in low-income neighborhoods, so trashing valuable materials also perpetuates environmental injustice.

Barone, like her predecessor Melanie Scruggs, advocates for a zero waste policy. At the very least, bringing curbside recycling to apartments and businesses would make a difference. Let’s get the recycling deal done and go from there. The Press has more.

Recycling deal gets a rough reception at Council

Feisty.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council members blasted a proposed 20-year recycling deal Tuesday, questioning the $48 million price tag, the process by which the winning bidder was chosen and Turner administration officials’ reluctance to share information about the deal.

The proposal on the council’s Wednesday agenda would have Houston send all 65,000 tons of bottles, cans and boxes its citizens recycle annually to a new processing facility to be built in northeast Houston by Spanish firm FCC Environmental.

In the city’s request for recycling proposals, documents repeatedly envisioned the contract term as running 10 years, with up to two five-year extensions. FCC, however, was the sole vendor allowed to submit a proposal using a 15-year initial term, with one five-year option; competing vendors said they would have submitted 15-year bids if they had known their proposals would not be rejected.

Some council members also questioned why FCC’s prices had been evaluated favorably when its per-ton fee for processing the city’s recyclables was the second-highest figure among the four responsive bidders. Those concerns were heightened when one of the losing bidders, Dean Gorby of Independent Texas Recyclers, said he had proposed a $63-per-ton fee and had no idea why the city had represented his bid as $76 per ton to the council.

“It just doesn’t smell right,” Councilman Dave Martin told administration officials at a Tuesday committee hearing. “If I were you, I’d go back to square one.”

See here for the background, and either this story or that post for more details about the deal. I’ll be honest, I can’t quite figure it out myself. I don’t understand the price structure or the reason why this one company is being offered something other than a ten-year deal, and I’d like to know more about the other companies’ complaints. I very much want to get a new deal done and it will be nice to be able to put glass out with the green bins again, but I want to be sure it’s a good deal.

Meanwhile, Gray Matters revisits the retreat into oblivion of the One Bin For All proposal, with a link to and commentary on this recent Press story on the matter. Mayor Turner basically had no interest in One Bin – indeed, none of the 2015 Mayoral candidates expressed any commitment to it, and I asked them all about it during interviews. You can read all I’ve had to say on One Bin here. After all this time, I still don’t know what to make of it. It sounded cool and it could have been cool, but the amount of contradictory information I got from its supporters and detractors made my head spin. At this point, I’d just like to see us take recycling more seriously.

UPDATE: The vote has been tagged for a week.

More on the firefighters’ pay parity proposal

Here’s that full Chron story I mentioned yesterday:

Houston firefighters delivered over 32,000 signatures to City Hall on Monday in support of asking voters in November to mandate parity in pay between firefighter and police officer ranks, a maneuver that could threaten the city’s plans to sell $1 billion in bonds as part of its pension reform plan.

While the two measures are unrelated, both are tied to firefighters’ displeasure with the Turner administration.

As such, a unified voting bloc of firefighters during what is expected to be a low-turnout election in November could spell trouble for Mayor Sylvester Turner’s signature pension reform plan, and potentially thrust the city back into the fiscal quagmire Turner spent his first year in office trying to escape.

“If one issue is a five-alarm fire, both together are a 10-alarm fire,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

[…]

The union originally sought a 21 percent pay raise over three years, according to Turner, but lowered that request to 17 percent. The city, meanwhile, offered 9.5 percent over three years, which Turner said would stretch the city’s financial capabilities.

Houston firefighters have been without a contract for three years. The “evergreen” terms that had governed their employment during that time lapsed last month, reverting to state law and local ordinance. City Council made the terms in that local ordinance less favorable in a unanimous vote on the same morning the union filed its lawsuit.

“This petition drive was necessary because Houston firefighters are at a breaking point,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association at a press conference Monday. “We now are asking the voters to help Houston firefighters because the city refuses to do so.”

The petition seeks to amend the city’s charter to mandate equal pay and benefits between firefighters and police-officers of similar status, but not necessarily title, accounting for varied rank structures between the two departments.

See here for the background. I have a basic question to ask here: Who is going to support the firefighters in this effort? Who will their allies be in this fight? Because I’m having a hard time seeing who is on their side right now.

As noted, Council voted unanimously to impose those less favorable “evergreen” terms under which they now grudgingly labor, and Council approved the pension reform plan on a 16-1 vote, with the only No coming from CM Knox, who wanted to see a bill get filed first. Who on Council is going to endorse the pay parity effort?

If the thinking is that the firefighters might try to tank the pension obligation bonds as payback or leverage as part of this, then please note that the House passed the pension reform bill 103-43, and the Senate passed it 25-5. Of the Harris County contingent, Sen. Sylvia Garcia was a “present, not voting”, while Reps. Jessican Farrar and Briscoe Cain (a pairing I’d never expected to see) were No votes. Everyone else voted Yes. I don’t see Sen. Garcia and Rep. Farrar crossing swords with Mayor Turner on this, and Rep. Cain represents Baytown. Who in the Lege will stand with the firefighters? Maybe Sen. Paul Bettencourt, because he’s a little weasel who likes to stick it to Houston, but he was the one who put the provision in to require a vote on the bonds.

Of the establishment groups that tend to get involved in city politics, the Greater Houston Partnership is all in on pension reform and spending restraint. I can’t see the Realtors opposing the Mayor on this, nor the GLBT Political Caucus, nor any Democratic-aligned groups. The one possible exception is labor, but this proposal would be bad for the police and the city workers. It’s not about a rising tide, it’s just shifting money to the firefighters from the rest of the city employees. Maybe labor backs this, maybe they don’t. The Chronicle will surely endorse a No vote. Who among the big endorsers will be with the firefighters?

I’m sure the firefighters will have some allies. My point is that as I see it, the Mayor already has a lot more. Which brings me to the next point, which is where will the firefighters get the money to run their pro-pay parity campaign? It helps to have allies, who can not only make donations themselves but also hold fundraisers, solicit contributions from their networks, and eventually participate in campaign activities. I think we all agree that Mayor Turner is a good fundraiser, and he can assemble a pretty good get out the vote campaign. While this is certainly likely to be a low turnout election, at least compared to a normal city election, turnout is in part determined by how many people are aware there is something or someone for them to vote on. Who do you think is going to have more resources and a bigger microphone for getting out a message about the need to vote? And bear in mind, even if the firefighters are good at raising money, that in itself can be used against them. I mean, here they are claiming poverty, holding up signs saying they can’t afford to live in the city, but they can spend a bunch of money on a campaign? Yes, I know, the one doesn’t really have anything to do with the other, but do you want to have to explain that to people?

What I think it comes down to is this: Sure, people like firefighters, and they think they should be adequately compensated. In the abstract, their proposal sounds reasonable, and there are probably a lot of people who would feel good about paying our firefighters more. But this isn’t an abstract choice, and there are lots of consequences to making it. The firefighters are asking for something for themselves, something that doesn’t benefit anyone else and which potentially has a large cost attached to it that everyone will pay. They’re doing all this while at the same time spitting on an offer from the city to give them a ten percent raise. Now how positively will people feel about their proposal? That’s what we’ll find out. Campos has more.

Firefighters turn in their petitions

Good for them, but boy is this thing a train wreck.

Houston firefighters delivered over 32,000 signatures to City Hall Monday in support of putting a ballot initiative on the November election mandating parity in pay between firefighter and police-officer ranks.

[…]

“This petition drive was necessary because Houston firefighters are at a breaking point,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association at a press conference Monday morning. “We now are asking the voters to help Houston fire fighters because the city refuses to do so.”

Former Houston City Attorney Dave Feldman, who is advising the petition effort, said a formal cost estimate of the initiative if approved in November has not been determined.

Using average figures for the cost of police and fire personnel without regard to rank, increasing fire base pay to match that of police would cost roughly $40 million in the current fiscal year. The city finance department projects annual budget deficits of more than $100 million for the next five years.

See here for the background, and a long comment thread. I mean look, this isn’t a proposal right now, it’s an idea. There are literally no details. If one were to run for office on this idea, one would expect to be questioned about basic things, like how much will this cost, and how will the city match job titles across two differently-structured departments. Anyone who provided the answers the firefighters are giving now would not be taken seriously, to put it mildly. In addition, while a candidate for office would have until November to come up with satisfying responses, the firefighters have until the end of August, at which time referendum language would have to be written and approved by City Council.

And what do you think that referendum language might say, based on what we know so far? Think of the recent history of ballot referenda and all the ensuing litigation over said language, and ask yourself if there is any possible wording that will satisfy both the proponents and opponents of this idea. The ballot language lawsuit practically writes itself – it will just be a matter of finding the right taxpayers to serve as plaintiffs. If it is written with sufficient detail to explain how it will be done it will be attacked as too complicated for anyone to understand, and if it is stated simply it will be derided as vague to the point of meaninglessness. This is a bad idea on so many levels, and you can take it to the bank that it will be tied up in court for years to come. The Press has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the full Chron story. I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

Here come the LGBT candidates

Keep your eyes on these folks.

Fran Watson

At least four Houstonians are among the numerous LGBTQ Texans eyeing campaigns in 2018 and 2019. One of the Houston candidates has formally announced, and three others are strongly considering runs.

“People are fed up, and they want a better Texas,” said Fran Watson, who’s considering running as a Democrat in Texas Senate District 17, which covers parts of Harris, Brazoria, and Fort Bend counties. That district is currently represented by Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston).

“Texans deserve leaders who have the everyday issues of Texans in mind, rather than focusing on who uses what bathroom,” said Watson, an attorney who serves as president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. Huffman voted in favor of Senate Bill 6, the anti-transgender “bathroom bill.”

“There are people in the district who are hurting, and I know how to identify with these people,” Watson said. “I also have the skill set to draft legislation to help them.”

[…]

Other potential LGBTQ candidates are eyeing Houston City Council races in 2019. Ashton Woods, the founder of Black Lives Matter: Houston, said he may run for either the District K or an at-large seat. District K is represented by Council Member Larry Green, who will be term-limited in 2019.

“We have to stand up and fight back,” Woods said. “People are being left behind and treated as nonexistent. People have basic human needs—if they are missing a meal, they can’t think about fighting back. We had Donald Trumps before there was a President Trump. They are in our backyards and in elected offices. We need to fight the Trumps in our backyards.”

Nelvin Adriatico, who owns a Sugar Land real-estate firm, is considering a run for the District J seat held by openly gay Council Member Mike Laster, who is also term-limited.

Adriatico has been involved with the highly successful back-to-school backpack program in District J. He said he wants to focus on education, small business, and combatting domestic violence.

“If you have a voice, it can be magnified by serving in an elected office,” Adriatico said, adding that he watches the news every day and is troubled by what Trump is doing.

“I have friends who are minorities and immigrants,” said Adriatico, who would be among the first openly LGBT Asian-Americans elected to public office in Texas. “We’ve got to raise our voices and make a change.”

Watson is no longer the President of the Houston LGBT Political Caucus; she stepped down a few days ago, presumably in advance of announcing her candidacy. I could try to summarize the things she has done in recent years, but better for you to read this OutSmart profile and this Girls Like You And Me interview with her to see just how impressive she is. I know of at least one other person looking at this race, but Watson would be a formidable candidate if she does run.

As for Woods and Adriatico, I hope they have to wait till 2019 to actually run for Council, but I’m glad they’re thinking about it now, just in case. Let’s just say there’s more than a bit of anxiety about the possibility of a mad sprint for candidates this November. The other person mentioned in the story, the one who is already a candidate, is Jerry Simoneaux, who is among the Democratic judicial hopefuls. He’s running for Harris County Probate Court #1, and has a primary opponent. He also happens to be Watson’s law partner. There are a few non-Houston LGBT candidates in there as well. We’ll need to revisit the topic after the filing deadline.

Firefighters petition for a raise

Whatever.

Houston firefighters are launching a campaign to place on item on the November ballot asking voters to mandate parity in pay between corresponding firefighter and police-officer ranks.

The petition drive to amend the city charter, slated to launch Saturday morning, follows the fire union’s decision last month to sue the city over stalled contract talks, alleging Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration failed to negotiate in good faith.

“I don’t know what else to do. We’re trying to find a fair and reasonable solution that affects 4,100 members and their families,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. “Let’s let the voters decide what’s fair and we’ll see.”

[…]

A 1975 City Council motion did set the goal of achieving parity in the base pay of equivalent ranks in the public safety departments, and the topic spurred regular fights throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Typically, firefighters and their supporters on council were in the position of working to ensure their salaries kept pace with police pay, though they were not always successful.

Parity was regularly mentioned into the mid-2000s, but the late 1998 contract negotiated by the newly recognized police union began to dismantle that system, recalled Mark Clark, executive director of the Houston Police Officers Union.

That police contract, Clark said, began adjusting HPD’s personnel structure so that the city could grant raises to, for example, 38 police captains without having to also boost the salaries of more than 120 fire personnel of corresponding rank.

“I know they’re desperate and they’re my friends, but this is a non-starter,” Clark said of the firefighters’ petition drive. “They’ve got an important job, but police and firefighters do not have the same job, and their rank structures are completely different. Just to come in and say, ‘We want what they’ve got’ – certainly I understand asking, but where in the world would the city of Houston come up with the kind of money that it would take?”

Apparently, something like $40 million per year, according to the story. This is an easy No vote for me, if it comes to one. We elect representatives to make these decisions, and it is generally my preference for that system to be allowed to do its thing. There’s a place for letting the voters decide on things, but this is not one of them. The cost, the difficulty in setting up a system to match job ranks, the fact that this is an obvious retaliatory move for the recent political setbacks the firefighters have experienced, those are also factors. I have no idea what happens from here, but if this does get on the ballot it will be interesting to see how a campaign plays out. The potential for it to get ugly is very high.

Mayor will take revenue cap referendum off the 2017 ballot

Not gonna lie, I’m disappointed by this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner abruptly reversed course Wednesday on his plan to ask voters to repeal Houston’s revenue cap this fall, saying it now is “unlikely” he will ask for its removal.

The politically cautious move would leave the city fiscally shackled in the hope that a lighter November ballot improves the chances voters sign off on hundreds of millions in general improvement bonds and $1 billion in pension obligation bonds, a crucial piece of the mayor’s landmark pension reform package.

“Do I believe that the needs are as much there to remove it as they were when I came into office? Absolutely,” Turner said. “Do I want to run the risk of losing the reforms that we’ve made to our pension system…? No.”

Lifting Houston’s voter-imposed cap on property tax collections had been a pillar of the mayor’s agenda, and he regularly discusses how the restriction constrains Houston’s budget, preventing the city from hiring more police officers, replacing its aging fleet and maintaining other city services, such as street repair.

Turner’s about-face came during a City Council discussion of how the cap, which has cost the city an estimated $220 million in revenue since 2014, likely will force the city to scale back the street and drainage projects budgeted in its five-year Capital Improvement Plan, or CIP.

The CIP slated for council approval later this month accounts for the revenue cap this fiscal year but was written assuming voters would remove the restriction by the start of fiscal 2019.

The finance department estimated the cap will reduce revenue for ReBuild Houston, the city’s street and drainage repair fund, by roughly $201 million in fiscal years 2019-2022, delaying roughly 16 of 90 ReBuild projects planned for the next five years.

[…]

The mayor’s new plan was met with understanding around the council table.

“It’s a strategic decision,” Councilman Larry Green said. “It probably doesn’t make sense to put (the revenue cap) on the ballot, especially when we’re trying to get pension bonds passed and we’re also putting out general revenue bonds.”

I’m not disappointed because I think Mayor Turner did anything wrong, I’m disappointed because I was chomping at the bit to get rid of the stupid and harmful revenue cap, and now I have to wait again. I understand the logic, even if the unmentioned implication of all this is that pro-revenue cap forces would be willing to sabotage both the pension reform plan and the city’s capitol improvement plan in order to keep their travesty in place, I just don’t like it. But it is what it is, and if the revenue cap has to take a back seat to these other needs, that’s politics. Nobody said I had to like it.

So, again modulo any Supreme Court interference, adjust your turnout expectations for this November downward. There will be people who will vote against the various bonds, but I doubt there will be much if any of a campaign to turn out anyone who wasn’t already going to vote. There will be a pro-bond campaign, but again I doubt it will push the numbers up by much. I’m putting the over/under for November in Houston right now at about 75,000, and I could be persuaded to go lower. What I hope is that Mayor Turner has November of 2018 in mind for the revenue cap referendum, as there will be no worries at all about turnout in that environment. Remember, over 330,000 votes were cast in the Renew Houston referendum of 2010, with over 340,000 votes for the red light camera question. He’ll need to sell the idea, which is far from a given, but at least the voters he’d like to see will be there for him in that scenario.

Mayor introduces new recycling deal

There’s some stuff to like in this, and there are also questions to be answered.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The city would send all 65,000 tons of bottles, cans and boxes its citizens recycle each year to a new processing facility to be built in northeast Houston under a 20-year deal Mayor Sylvester Turner will present to City Council next month.

The contract with Spanish firm FCC Environmental, worth up to $57 million, would allow citizens to again put glass in their 96-gallon green bins, along with cardboard, newspaper, steel cans, aluminum and plastic.

Turner, faced with a poor commodities market and rising recycling costs upon entering office last year, negotiated away hard-to-process glass in hammering out a two-year stopgap deal with the city’s current contractor, Waste Management.

Council members raised enough concerns about the new contract’s length and cost and the speed at which it was being considered that Turner canceled a Tuesday committee hearing on the topic minutes before it was to begin and pulled it from Wednesday’s council agenda.

Turner stood firmly behind the deal at a Wednesday news conference, however, saying the proposal would not only return glass to the city’s recycling program but also would require FCC to share in the risk of a crash in the commodities market, ensuring the city never pays more to recycle than it would pay to throw the same materials in a landfill.

“When you take a look at what this offers, let me simply say: state-of-the-art technology, a brand-new facility, including glass, capping the floor of what the city would have to pay should the market turn down,” Turner said. “This is an excellent deal.”

Under the proposed deal, if the revenue generated by selling recycled materials is less than $87.05 per ton, the city would pay FCC the difference, up to a maximum of $25 per ton. If the materials sell for more than $87.05, the city would get a quarter of that excess revenue.

Under the current Waste Management contract, the city’s per-ton processing fee is $92, and there is no cap on the city’s costs. Houston’s per-ton costs have ranged between $20 and $53 per ton under that deal.

Prior to the commodities market crash, the city paid a $65-per-ton processing fee.

The FCC contract also would have the city borrow $2.4 million to add eight new trucks to its aging fleet and repay the loan at a 10 percent interest rate. That is significantly higher than what the city would pay if it borrowed the money itself.

[…]

Councilman Mike Laster, who was to chair the canceled committee hearing on the topic Tuesday, echoed his colleague [CM Jerry Davis].

“There’s still a lot of a lot of questions to be answered,” he said. “That gives me concern, and I look forward to doing all I can to get the best information.”

Texas Campaign for Environment’s Rosanne Barone said the contract’s processing fee and the interest rate on the $2.4 million loan are concerning. A broader worry, she said, is whether the contract leaves the city enough flexibility to capitalize on any improvements in its recycling policies in the future. Her group long has pushed the city to adopt a plan that would help it divert more waste from landfills.

“Using taxpayer money to take out a loan for $2.4 million on eight trucks is not a good use of taxpayers’ money at all,” she said. “But the more important message here is, is this a contract that is going to be functional in the long term?”

That processing fee, which was mentioned several paragraphs after the first section I quoted above and not in any of those paragraphs that discuss current and past processing fees, is $87 per ton. Which is a lot more than the previous deal we had with Waste Management, when they took glass and commodities prices were good, but a bit less than what we’re paying now. Like CM Laster, I’d like to know more before I make any evaluations of this. Having glass included in curbside pickup again is good, and having a price guarantee is good. I don’t quite understand the loan arrangement for buying more trucks, and the length of the contract could be a concern as well. Let’s learn more and see what if any options exist to make changes. The Press has more.