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Renew Houston

Costello makes his official entry

That makes him number five of some as yet unknown number to make that announcement.

CM Stephen Costello

CM Stephen Costello

Houston City Councilman Stephen Costello pitched himself Monday as a no-frills, no-nonsense politician who would address the city’s problems like the engineer he is if voters elect him mayor this fall.

Costello, a wonky at-large councilman who chairs the body’s budget committee, told supporters packed into a downtown ballroom that he certainly was not the “flashiest” politician, but a practical problem-solver who would tackle the city’s looming pension liabilities by winning local control over the city’s fire pension system.

If nothing is done, Costello said, Houston could face a “catastrophic financial crisis.”

“Houstonians should have the authority to craft our own solution rather than continuing to leave our fate in the hands of politicians in Austin,” Costello said, drawing applause. “Instead of playing politics on this issue as so many have done, and continue to do today, I am going to lead on it.”

Costello said as mayor he would also launch a “Neighborhoods to Standards” effort to fill potholes and relax congestion, and increase funding for police. The name was reminiscent of former Mayor Bob Lanier, who launched a “Neighborhoods to Standard” program to target small sections of the city with massive infusions of street repairs, sidewalks, street lights and other basic amenities.

Let me say up front that I like CM Costello. I think he’s been a good Council member, I think Renew Houston was a big accomplishment that not many would have taken on, and I can think of a lot of people who would not be my pick for Mayor given the choice between Costello and them. Having said all that, I’ve got to repeat something I said in my public safety manifesto: What makes any candidate think they can succeed on this issue where Mayor Parker has not? How does CM Costello, or anyone who wants to campaign on this issue, plan to get traction in a Legislature that wants the city and the firefighters to work it out between themselves? I’m willing to accept the possibility that there’s something Mayor Parker could have done, or could have done differently, that Candidate X can and will do. But I’m going to need to hear specifics and some corroboration from at least one legislator before I take it as anything other than rhetoric along the same lines as “we need to cut waste and encourage growth”.

Anyway. At this point, I believe CM Oliver Pennington is the only major candidate that is already known to be running who hasn’t done the “official campaign announcement/kickoff” thing. Among the candidates not currently known to be running but widely believed to be in, well, there’s Adrian Garcia. He’ll say whatever it is he’s going to say when he’s ready to say it. Costello’s press release from the event is beneath the fold, and Texas Leftist has more.

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King makes his official entry

Add Bill King to the “made his official announcement” list.

Bill King

In the middle of a noisy, torn-up west Houston street that he said epitomized Houston’s crumbling roads, Bill King launched his campaign for mayor Monday morning, pledging to return the city “back to basics.”

King, a former Houston Chronicle columnist and a mayor of Kemah, pledged to tackle the issue on which he long sounded the alarm – pension reform.

“There is no pathway to financial stability for the City of Houston that does not lead through meaningful pension reform,” said King. “Anyone who tells you differently is either misinformed or is not telling you the truth.”

King recognized that trimming pension payouts is “an emotional and difficult” issue, but stressed that he does not support changes to current city employees’ benefits, just future employees.’

King also took a veiled shot at who is likely to be his main competitor for the votes of the center-right, business crowds: Councilman Stephen Costello, who is tied to a road improvement plan called “ReBuild Houston” that King derided as the “Rain Tax.”

“We cannot afford to wait another five or six years to rebuild our streets,” said King, standing in the median of S. Kirkwood Road. “It’s time that we rethink ReBuild Houston.”

As you know, King is not at the top of my candidate list. Nothing against the guy, as he is perfectly nice and adequately qualified, but we do not see eye to eye on enough issues that I can’t see him being my choice in November. A case in point here is his shot at ReBuild Houston. Putting aside my distaste for anyone that uses the term “rain tax”, if you don’t like it but you want to make fixing the streets a priority, what would you do instead? We all agree that fixing the streets will cost a lot of money. ReBuild Houston provides a funding mechanism for that. There are certainly issues with it, not the least of which is a lack of visibility, but what would you do instead? This was a question that the foes of the Renew Houston referendum never ever attempted to answer. They agreed with the problem, opposed the solution, and had no alternate plan of their own. So I’ll ask again: If this isn’t the answer, then what is? You have eight months to come up with something viable.

Now sure, I get that this was a campaign event, not a get-all-wonky-with-details event, but as I’ve said before, just about everyone running for Mayor this year has been running in one form or another for a long time. I’ve said what my priorities are. I don’t plan to be patient waiting for the Mayoral herd to start talking specifics. I’m not singling out King here – so far, no one has said anything that isn’t suitable for a bumper sticker. I’m saying I don’t plan to grade on a curve, or to cut any slack. Just tell me what you want to do, in enough detail that it makes sense, and we’ll go from there.

Anyway. King is in, and there are still more of these announcements to come. I’ve put the press release I received from the King campaign beneath the fold. On a tangential note, I see via Facebook that Chris Brown has announced his intent to run for Controller this year. Brown is Deputy Controller, and his name surfaced as a potential candidate a few weeks ago. He joins three other candidates so far – HCC Trustee Carroll Robinson, 2013 Controller candidate Bill Frazer, and former Council member Jew Don Boney. That Facebook photo is the only info I have on this, so it wasn’t worth a post on its own, thus the addendum here.

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Supreme Court hears Renew Houston appeal

Last stop of the litigation train for the plaintiffs that have sued to overturn the Renew Houston referendum, on the grounds that the voters were misinformed about what they were voting for.

Two lower courts have sided with the city, and the case has now landed in the state’s highest court, where attorneys for both sides made their arguments before the nine justices.

First was Andy Taylor for the plaintiffs.

“The problem here is you can’t tell when you go into the ballot box and say, I’m going to vote for this, that in fact you just opened up your pocket book and said, my property can be hit with this cost,” Taylor said.

On the ballot, the proposed charter amendment known as Proposition 1 made no mention of a fee, other than saying it’s a dedicated pay-as-you-go fund.

Robert Heath represented the City of Houston. He said newspaper postings and general media coverage on the proposition was sufficient to inform voters.

He acknowledged that probably not everyone paid attention.

“Just as when we assume or presume the people know the law, that people really don’t know all the law,” Heath said.

See here for the last update. I will make two points: One, the “ballot language was misleading” claim is the same losing argument that the litigants against the 2003 Metro referendum made about the Universities line and the so-called “Westpark corridor”. It was rejected then, and I see no reason why it would not be rejected now. Two, it’s pretty well established by now that many voters have no idea who they’re voting for in many elections. (Two words: Dave Wilson.) Why should referenda be held to a higher standard than that? We should know by summertime, when the Supreme Court is expected to make its ruling.

Supreme Court to hear Renew Houston lawsuit

Jeez, I’d forgotten this was still a thing.

In a lawsuit filed after the election, three Houston property owners allege the ballot language was misleading.

“You would have thought if you voted for this thing that it was a one-time, one-year tax,” said Andy Taylor, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, “when in fact it is a permanent tax forever in an amount that is literally hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars over time.”

A spokesperson for the city of Houston did not respond to requests for comment.

Both the trial court and the appeals court sided with the city, saying it wasn’t required to lay out specifics of the measure on the ballot.

The last update on this was in July of 2012, so you can see why it had slipped my mind. I don’t know why the Supremes would see this any differently than the district court or the 14th Court of Appeals, but you can never be too sure. Oral arguments are scheduled for February 24. Lord only knows how long it will take for a decision after that.

(And yes, that’s the same Andy Taylor that is litigating on behalf of the HERO haters. All lawyers wind up representing unsavory characters from time to time. Andy Taylor seeks them out.)

Diverting ReBuild Houston funds

I don’t know about this.


Expressing impatience with the pace of street repairs under the Rebuild Houston program, City Council on Wednesday voted to siphon off some of the drainage-fee supported funds to speed up projects and help resolve smaller neighborhood problems sought by their constituents.

In an amendment to the city’s five-year $7.8 billion capital improvements program, the council voted to draw down $31 million from ReBuild Houston, prompting a warning from Mayor Annise Parker and Department of Public Works and Engineering officials, who said the move could drive the program’s cash flow into the red within two years and force the delay of other projects.

“Council members today would get a lot of short-term relief, but council members in a couple years may see delays,” Parker said.

Councilman Jerry Davis and other council members pushed back, saying constituent concerns have forced them to look for new funds.

“I respect the voices of the engineers and I respect the voices of Public Works,” Davis said. “But again, this is why we’re voted in to be here to make these decisions based upon the wants and needs of the people.”

Davis said council members would revisit reserve spending if a cash flow problem proved imminent.

Councilman Stephen Costello, who proposed the amendment with Davis, said the $31 million still would be spent using ReBuild Houston’s “first-worst” prioritization model.

[…]

Under the amendment, the $6 million would be made up of any money left over from bond-funded library, parks and street projects. If there is no leftover money – which Parker said was likely – the $6 million would come from ReBuild Houston funds. Those funds, however, would come with charter-prescribed spending restrictions.

Parker warned council members that the $1 million-per-council-district funds would not solve larger neighborhood problems.

“One of the challenges for council members is going to be managing expectations,” Parker said, adding that the funds approved Wednesday are “not going to pave a lot of streets.”

I get why Council did this – ReBuild Houston hasn’t exactly moved at breakneck speed – but that’s not what this fund was for, and I worry that this will set a precedent. Maybe this will turn out to be a good idea, and maybe any future delays will be offset by the earlier completion of some other work. Maybe there won’t be complaints about what gets prioritized from these diverted funds. Maybe, I don’t know. We’ll see. A statement from CM Costello, who opposed this proposal, is beneath the fold.

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One point of perspective on the repeal petitions

Here’s the Chron story about the HERO-haters turning in their repeal petitions.

Opponents of Houston’s new non-discrimination ordinance Thursday turned in well more than the minimum number of signatures needed to trigger a November vote on whether to repeal the measure.

Staff in the City Secretary’s office will have 30 days to verify that the names – 50,000 of them, opponents said – cross the minimum threshold of 17,269 signatures from registered Houston voters that foes needed to gather in the month following the measure’s passage in an 11-6 vote of the City Council.

Most of the divisiveness around the ordinance stems from the protections it extends to gay and transgender residents, groups not already protected under federal laws barring discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.

Mayor Annise Parker pledged to fight the effort to overturn the ordinance should it make the November ballot, a task she acknowledged city rules make fairly easy.

“This was not a narrowly-focused, special-interest ordinance,” said Parker, the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city. “This is something that the business and civic community of Houston was firmly behind, and we fully expect if there is a campaign that it will be a spirited campaign, but we’ll have the same outcome in November as we had around the council table.

“Houston does not discriminate, Houston will not discriminate and Houston will not be fooled by misinformation, hyperbole – I would use the word ‘lies’ but I’m going to back off from that – and people who are just simply unwilling to read the ordinance for themselves.”

See my post from Thursday evening for the background. As we know, the haters were busy collecting petitions last weekend, and my presumption was that if they weren’t scrambling to clear the bar, they were aiming for a show of force. It would actually have been enough to force a recall election against Mayor Parker, if they largely prove to be valid. The haters claim to have verified 30,000 of the sigs themselves, but we’ll see about that. As I said on Thursday, the petitions will be very closely scrutinized, and I expect the final number to be a lot lower.

One thing to keep in mind when we talk about that number. Via Facebook, I understand that the haters are referring to it as “two-thirds of the total vote against Mayor Parker in 2013”. That’s true enough as it goes – remember, that 50,000 is likely to be an illusion – but we’re not in a low-turnout odd-numbered election year. We’re in an even-numbered partisan election year. We had a situation much like this in 2010, with the red light camera and Renew Houston items on the ballot. That year, there were 389,428 votes cast in the Houston part of Harris County – a smidge less than half the total county turnout – plus another 8,492 votes in Fort Bend County, with between 320,000 and 350,000 votes cast in each of the three propositions. Even if all 50,000 signatures represents a valid Houston voter that will show up in November, that’s still less than 1/3 of the total that will likely be needed for the haters to win.

Let me provide one more number, as long as I’m on the subject. Last year, the Early to Rise group submitted 150,000 signatures to put an item for raising HCDE’s tax assessment to fund pre-K in Harris County. Of those signatures, 80,505 were verified. If the haters have the same level of accuracy, their total number of valid sigs will be around 27,000. Still plenty to qualify for the ballot, but a lot less than 50,000. They may well be more accurate than that, but I do know they were using paid canvassers as the Early to Rise proponents were, so I expect they’ll have a fair amount of slop in their work. Again, we’ll see how much.

I don’t post any of this to encourage complacence in HERO supporters. We’ve definitely got our work cut out for us. But if we put our heads down and do the work, I feel confident we will win. As Greg highlights, the city of Houston is Democratic, and we’ve got more voters to reach out to than they do. Register voters, talk to voters, and make sure everyone who should be voting does so. That’s the winning formula. PDiddie, John Coby, Texas Leftist, Lone Star Q, and Hair Balls have more.

District A runoff overview

It’s the same old story, just a little louder this time.

CM Helena Brown

CM Helena Brown

Three years ago, when city voters narrowly approved what would become a controversial monthly drainage fee to fund $8 billion of street and flood projects in the next two decades, City Council District A stood out as an exception.

While the charter amendment that created the dedicated account to fund the Rebuild Houston program passed by a slim 2 percent, voters in the conservative-leaning swath on the northwest side rejected it 55 to 45 percent. That was despite the fact that residents name flooding as one of the district’s biggest problems.

Brenda Stardig

Brenda Stardig

“This is a district that doesn’t like any spending at all, even when they’re the beneficiaries of it,” said Rice University political scientist Bob Stein.

Stein discovered a negative correlation between votes for and against the drainage fee in 2010 and votes for or against Mayor Annise Parker and some incumbent City Council members in 2011, including District A’s then-council member Brenda Stardig.

Despite her district’s position, Stardig voted in favor of an ordinance implementing the drainage fee, saying she pressed the mayor to exempt schools and churches from having to pay it. Later that year, the real estate broker and long-time neighborhood activist was ousted after one term by tea party favorite Helena Brown.

Brown had seized on the drainage fee vote and other issues – including an admitted lack of constituent response – to force Stardig into a runoff, which Brown won by 12 points. Two years later, the 36-year-old former civic club president again finds herself in a runoff with Stardig, 51.

The story recaps the issues and themes of this extended campaign, with which we are all familiar. I really have no idea how this election will go. On the one hand, a 38% showing in November for an incumbent usually spells doom. On the other hand, CM Brown has done better than I thought she might in fundraising and endorsements, and like it or not her slash-and-burn philosophy isn’t particularly out of step with the district. She probably has less to fear from a low-turnout race than Stardig does, though for what it’s worth the early vote numbers are heavier in District A than just about anywhere else. I don’t know if the Chron reporter reached out to any of the other three District A candidates, but as far as I can tell none of them has made an endorsement in the runoff. One thing I noted while interviewing Mike Knox, Amy Peck, and Ron Hale is that all three seemed to be running not just against Brown, but also against Stardig. As such, I’m not surprised that they have all gone quiet since the November election, but it’s another suggestion that while many voters may have been willing to make another change in District A, Stardig wasn’t necessarily the change they were looking for. What’s your view on this runoff?

Complete Streets coming

This is good to see.

Houston, long ruled by the automobile, will give more consideration to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists in designing its streets and neighborhoods.

Mayor Annise Parker on Thursday said she is drafting, with public works and planning officials, an executive order stating that the city will adhere to “complete streets” standards. The change could enable some neighborhoods to press for wider sidewalks, shadier streets and bicycle lanes, for example.

“Houston streets can and should accommodate the needs of all users, not just those behind the wheel,” Parker told a crowd gathered for the announcement and the dedication of Bagby in the Midtown area as Texas’ first “green” street.

Parker said she would sign the order after fully briefing the City Council, as early as next week. While the order doesn’t directly affect the rules planners and engineers use, supporters say it changes Houston policies from a narrow focus on moving cars to a broader effort to provide mobility for cars and other means of getting around.

Giving thought to pedestrians can lead to subtle but meaningful changes in the standards the city uses to consider applications for new developments and how streets are redesigned or improved.

“This is a process the people are a part of,” said Jay Blazek Crossley, a member of the Houston Coalition for Complete Streets, one of the groups that pushed for the change.

The new standards will apply to projects and streets within city control. State-maintained freeways, for example, are meant to move vehicle traffic and would be unaffected.

As Stace notes, this has also been a priority for CM Ed Gonzalez, so if you like this announcement, thank him as well. Houston Tomorrow has a quote from the Mayor’s verbal remarks at the event on Thursday that I think captures what is actually being changed here:

Frankly, it’s always been possible to do a Complete Street in Houston, but the default has been let’s get those cars moving. Now we want the default to be a Complete Street and anything different than that to be something that has to be the exception.

That’s the key. The Bagby location in Midtown where the event was exemplifies this, because the developers of that area had to get a variance from the city in order to proceed. Under this change, they would not need a variance but someone who wanted to build something the old way would. That won’t have any immediate effect on existing streets, but as Rebuild Houston moves forward you should expect to see at least some of the affected streets get redesigned to incorporate this new vision. See here and here for a basic primer on what “complete streets” means.

The Mayor’s press release has more, as does the press release from CM Gonzalez. As noted in the story, the Bagby Midtown location also received certification as the first Greenroads Project in the State of Texas. See beneath the fold for that press release, The Highwayman and Texas Leftist for more on what this will mean in practice, here for more on what it was about Bagby Midtown that got it this certification, and here for more on Greenroads.

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Endorsement watch: Our first twofer

The Chron has two endorsements today, one that was easy and one that was likely more challenging. First, the easy one.

CM Stephen Costello

CM Stephen Costello

In four years as an at-large city councilman, Stephen Costello has gradually become a “go to” guy on two major issues facing the city of Houston: drainage; and finance and pensions.

Costello, a civil engineer, richly deserves a third term at the council table. We endorse his re-election to At-large Council Position 1.

[…]

Costello acknowledges that he prioritized [ReBuild Houston] projects based on engineering needs, overlooking the need to also address political priorities. That situation is being addressed, he said.

The councilman says he learned a lesson they don’t teach in engineering school. “You have to pay attention to political metrics, too,” he said.

To his credit, Costello has taken a leadership role on council working to solve the employee pension problem, which threatens the city with bankruptcy not too far down the road if left untended.

“We’re in the ‘numb stage'” on pensions, Costello says. To move beyond it, the councilman is working on a matrix showing the alternatives of increasing revenues, reducing benefits and reducing services that should offer a guide to council, taxpayers and the city’s workers to resolve the crisis.

Costello readily acknowledges he plans to run for mayor following his council service. We would recommend that the best way for someone in his position to reach the big office on the third floor at City Hall is to be the best at-large councilman he can be if elected to a third two-year term.

Costello’s Mayoral ambitions are an open secret – I myself noted them earlier this year – but this is the first public acknowledgement of them I’ve seen to date. In any event, Costello is an effective, productive, and well-regarded Council member, and he’s running against the perennialest of perennial candidates, Griff Griffin. It is for situations like this that the word “no-brainer” was coined.

The far more complicated decision was in District A, where the Chron wants to turn back the clock.

Brenda Stardig

Brenda Stardig

Brenda Stardig is the most qualified candidate for that job.

Stardig, a 55-year-old real estate broker, served one term as council member for District A but lost her first re-election race in 2011. Blame that result on extremely low turnout, poor campaigning or anti-government sentiment across the board, but we still believe that Stardig is the right representative for the district.

[…]

“Good schools, good churches, good housing inventory, good infrastructure, good grocery.”

That was Stardig’s mantra when she met with the Houston Chronicle editorial board. It is an agenda that voters should send back to City Hall.

Mike Knox, a former police officer, also stands out as an experienced candidate who would serve district A well. However, we question his disagreement with meet-and-confer for the firefighters pension and his opposition to extending council member terms.

After two years of Helena Brown, it is clear that District A needs a new representative on council. From day one, Brown has prioritized bizarre grandstanding over serving her constituents. She’s accused Republicans of supporting communism, altered staff time sheets, had a questionable relationship with her volunteer chief adviser William Park and requested city reimbursement for a private trip to Asia. And the list goes on. But Brown hit rock bottom when she supported selling a plot of land near an elementary school that the community had been trying for years to turn into a park. While on council, Stardig had successfully blocked the sale. Under Brown, it became a parking lot.

The choice is clear. Vote for Stardig.

“Mantra” is a good word for that quoted phrase. Stardig said it often in the interview I did with her. The way I see it, there are three types of voters in District A: Those who like Helena, those who liked and still like Brenda, and those who want someone else. You can’t say you don’t know what you’re getting with either of the first two. Personally, I thought Mike Knox and Amy Peck both made strong cases for themselves, if one is inclined for there to be a change in A. I also thought Knox had one of the more well-informed answers to my question about pensions and meet-and-confer for the firefighters’ pension fund. He was one of only a few candidates to note that part of the problem we face now is due to the city underpaying into the police and municipal employees’ pension funds in years past. I consider this to be a more nuanced issue than the Chron’s obsessive fixation on meet-and-confer makes it out to be, but hey, it’s their endorsement. In light of that, I’ll go out on a limb and predict that retired firefighter Roland Chavez, who also opposed meet-and-confer when I interviewed him, will not be the endorsed candidate in At Large #3. We’ll see how I do with that. What do you think about the Chron going with Stardig?

Mayor Parker kicks off her campaign

It’s the time of the season for Mayor Parker, who has a serious challenger this time, but also a stronger hand to play.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

In her tenure, Parker has given teeth to the city’s historic preservation rules, broken a deadlock with Harris County to help build the Dynamo stadium, gave scandal-ridden Metro new leaders and revised key city codes governing parking and development, the latter of which had languished for six years.

She gave priority in city contracting to local firms, moved to make the troubled city crime lab independent from Houston Police Department, opened a facility to divert drunks from city jails and saw passage of a plan to erase a decades-long backlog of untested rape kits.

Parker oversaw a successful $410 million bond election last fall, and in 2010 welcomed voters’ approval of Rebuild Houston, an ambitious infrastructure renewal program.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said all signs favor Parker, whose only fear should be a low turnout that could see a small group swing the results. Jones said Parker lately has been able to focus on her own plans instead of inherited ills, such as replacing the Metro regime, scrambling to defer pension costs and dealing with legal wrangling over an inflexible red-light camera contract after voters banned the cameras in 2010.

“Bill White left her with a lot of messes to clean up. That, combined with a very tight budget as a result of the recession, led to a difficult first two years,” Jones said. “The second term has been much smoother sailing. The voter mood is going to be much more positive as people go to the polls this fall, and there’s going to be less of a tendency to want to cast a protest vote against the mayor than there was in 2011.”

Perhaps easing the incumbent’s road is the mood of the 16-member City Council, which lately has been more amenable than in recent years. A new convention center hotel, in which the city will invest $138 million, a rewrite of the city’s affirmative action policy and a law allowing motorists to be cited for failing to give cyclists and joggers a wide enough berth all passed without even a “tag,” the one-week delay typical on complex, controversial or high-profile topics.

The difference between the Mayor’s first term and the second is night and day. The first term was all about defense, which is to say all about things she had to deal with rather than things she wanted to deal with. That’s what her second term has been all about, and while she got a lot done in each term it’s much easier to build a campaign around offense. I’ve thought all along that she’d be in better shape this time around, and I still think that. A stronger opponent in 2011 and she’d have been in a runoff. She could still have a tough race this year, but at least the wind isn’t in her face.

The bit about Council is worth noting as well. Part of this is good luck on her part. Two of her biggest antagonists, Jolanda Jones and Mike Sullivan, are no longer on Council. The third, CO Bradford, was appointed Vice Mayor Pro Tem and has largely been a team player ever since. Her main thorn in the side is Helena Brown, and it’s hard to say that’s been a bad development for her since it’s a lot easier to look reasonable and accomplished opposite the likes of CM Brown. Basically, not only has the Mayor had the money to restore or enhance city services, the ability to move her own agenda forward, and a Council that has worked with her a lot more than it has worked against her. If she doesn’t feel better about this campaign than the last one, she ought to.

She entered the 2011 election with an approval rating of 47 percent, the lowest of any mayor in decades, narrowly avoiding a runoff despite spending $2.3 million and facing five poorly-funded unknowns. Political observers had said Parker needed a decisive win to prevent a challenge this year, and 50.8 percent of the vote was not it.

Enter Ben Hall, a wealthy lawyer capable of financing his own campaign who served as City Attorney from 1992 to 1994. Hall says city taxes and fees are driving residents to the suburbs. He says Parker lacks vision and wastes time tinkering with smartphone apps and food trucks while Houston misses opportunities for international business growth.

“A mayor must do more than simply balance a budget,” Hall has said. “We need more than just a manager, we need a leader.”

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said there may be some truth in Hall’s statements, but he said these are not significant enough to ignite anti-incumbent passions, adding that Hall’s message has lacked the specificity voters need to choose him over Parker.

“Motivations for mayoral elections are more about tremendous things that have gone wrong as opposed to more or less a tweak to what’s going right,” Rottinghaus said. “He’s got to make a really compelling case as to why things need to be changed, and as of yet, I’m not sure we’ve seen that.”

Hall has made criticism of Parker’s vision, or lack of it, a main point of his campaign. That’s certainly a valid line of attack, but as I’ve said before, Hall’s own vision isn’t apparent. Rottinghaus makes a good point as well, in that generally speaking when trying to knock off an incumbent, you have to give people a reason to fire that incumbent before you can convince them that you’re a viable alternative. The case to fire the Mayor is harder to make when times are good and things are getting done. Plus, I think people generally like the Mayor. She has her share of opponents to be sure, but it’s not like we’re inundated with anti-Parker chatter. Her biggest challenge is going to be making sure that the people who do like her get out to vote. If I were her, I’d want turnout to exceed 2011’s anemic levels. Complacency is her enemy. Work that ground game and don’t settle for a small voter universe. In the meantime, I’ll be very interested to see what the June campaign finance reports look like, not just for how much each candidate raises but also for who is giving to whom. Parker has always had a broad fundraising base, and she starts out with a fair amount of cash. Hall can write his own check, but having his own broad base and getting support from sources that have given to Parker before would be a strong statement on his part. We’ll see how that goes.

Revamped Chapter 42 ordinance finally passes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Developer impact fee approved by Council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The city’s bond package

And here’s Mayor Parker’s bond proposal for November.

Mayor Annise Parker is unveiling a $410 million package of proposed bond measures for the November ballot that will not require a tax increase.

She proposes five bond measures. The purposes and amounts:

  1. Public safety: $144 million
  2. Health, sanitation and general government: $63 million
  3. Affordable housing: $15 million
  4. Library: $28 million
  5. Parks: $160 million

“I realize many Houstonians are still recovering from the economic downturn,” Parker said in a press release. “That is why it was important to me to present a plan that does not require a tax increase. It is also the smallest bond proposal in more than 30 years. It is a fiscally responsible approach that will create jobs and improve public safety, infrastructure and quality of life.”

Council cannot vote on the measures today. Parker will bring the measures back on a future agenda for a formal vote by council to put them on the ballot.

You can see full details in the Mayor’s press release and the Chron story, which notes that each of these five items will be its own ballot proposition. Parks funding includes the Bayou Greenway project, which merits a couple of paragraphs in the release. Not all of the funds from this package has been designated to specific projects – some $116 million worth will be decided by Council, which ought to be interesting. Anyone want to guess how big District A’s piece of the pie will wind up?

The day before this came out, City Controller Ronald Green griped to the Chron that he had not been kept in the loop about the details of the bond package, and that the numbers he had been hearing sounded too low to him.

Green said he has heard that the package of bond measures will total approximately $400 million.

“I still believe we need to go out for more bond authorization. I think $400 million is not adequate to meet the needs of the city,” Green said. “If you’re going to ask somebody to vote for bond referendums, you need to be realistic about what it’s going to take to meet a major CIP (capital improvement project) initiative.”

The city should take advantage of low interest rates and ask for $600 million to $800 million, even if that requires a tax increase, Green said.

As we now know, Green’s information about the size of the bond package was accurate. Part of the reason for this is specified in the Mayor’s press release:

In addition to being the smallest bond referendum in 30 years, the mayor’s proposal is approximately $135 to $350 million less than the three previous bond referendums Houston voters have considered in the last 15 years. This is due to ReBuild Houston’s pay-as-you-go approach, which provides approximately $125 million of debt free street and drainage improvements annually. In the absence of ReBuild Houston, the bond request would be larger.

Controller Green’s point about taking advantage of historically low interest rates is certainly meritorious, but one can easily imagine the caterwauling that would result from a proposal that necessitated even a small tax increase. Given how contentious these things have become lately, I can certainly understand taking this approach. It’s also probably why I got a press release just a few hours after the original one announcing the bond package’s details that announced the formation of the campaign to support the package’s passage:

The Vote for Houston’s Future Committee is co-chaired by Philamena Baird, Pam Gardner, Melinda B. Hildebrand, City Councilmember Melissa Noriega and Barron and Lisa Wallace. Finance chairs are Robert Collie, Jr., Jason Few and Neil Thomas. Dean Corgey is the campaign treasurer and Billy Briscoe is the campaign manager.

“In these tough economic times, Houston is leading the way – creating more jobs, borrowing less, and improving the quality of life for all Houstonians for years to come,” said Campaign Co-Chair Pam Gardner, former President of Business Operations for the Houston Astros. “We urge Houstonians to vote for the City Bonds in November.”

The Committee has set up a website: www.JobsParksSafety.com. The site will allow visitors to get detailed information on the bond proposal, sign up for an e-mail newsletter or contact the campaign.

We’ll see what kind of opposition materializes. Campos and Stace have more.

City wins Renew/Rebuild Houston lawsuit appeal

Our story so far: After the Renew Houston proposition was passed in 2010, the usual suspects led by Paul Bettencourt filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the result on the grounds that they believed the voters were too stupid to know what they had just voted for. That lawsuit was dismissed on summary judgment in May. After Mayor Parker’s announcement last June that the city had underestimated what the fee would need to be for many households, the plaintiffs tried again, claiming that this admission vindicated their claims. The judge didn’t buy it, so the plaintiffs tried their luck with the 14th Court of Appeals, arguing that the trial court was wrong to grant summary judgment against them and wrong to deny their motion for a new trial. Once again they lost, as announced by the city on Tuesday. I quote from the conclusion of the court’s ruling:

The City has the duty and the discretion to select the proposition language used in the ballot to submit to the voters the question of whether they are for or against a particular measure. Here, that measure was the amendment of the City’s charter to add specific language addressing a single subject. The City had no duty to include in the proposition language that would quantify the measure’s impact on a typical homeowner or predict the way in which the measure would be interpreted or implemented if passed. Having notified voters of the measure’s complete text by publishing it, the City needed only to refer in the proposition to the measure’s character and purpose—its “chief features”—in a way that allowed voters to identify it and distinguish the proposition submitting it from the other propositions on the ballot. Because the City fulfilled that obligation by using plain language drawn from the measure itself, we affirm the trial court’s judgment.

I haven’t seen a story on this yet, so I don’t know if the plaintiffs will try their luck with the Supreme Court. Doesn’t seem like they’d be successful given their track record so far and the court’s opinion, but one never knows. For now at least, the election result has been preserved.

State of the City 2012

It’s getting better.

Saying Houston has “rounded the corner” on the recession, Mayor Annise Parker on Thursday credited City Hall with providing incentives that businesses used to create or retain 13,000 jobs and invest $1 billion locally during the tough economic times of her first term.

Parker also told the sold-out crowd for her third annual “State of the City” address to expect a bond election on the November ballot.

Afterward, the mayor would not say how much borrowing she will ask voters to approve or offer many specifics about what it would be spent on, other than to mention a plan to “string the beads” of the city’s park system by connecting them with bike paths and green corridors.

The last city bond election was in 2006, when voters authorized $625 million in borrowing to finance work on streets, drainage, parks, libraries and public safety. She said this year’s election will not require a tax increase.

Parker also announced that she expects this year’s budget to be flat, as opposed to the $100 million shortfall she and City Council had to close last year. She also said she will not have to lay off or furlough any workers this year. She issued pink slips to 764 employees last year.

The mayor contrasted this year’s optimism with her previous addresses in which she said she “tried to deliver bad news in the best way possible.”

The full text as prepared for the State of the City 2012 is here, and you can compare it to the addresses of 2010 and 2011. I did not see a specific mention of the budget being flat, but Mayor Parker did say that unlike last year, “the budget I will send to City Council next month will not include cuts in swimming pool and library hours, health care services, furloughs or layoffs”, so that’s good news. The main thing beside that from the speech that caught my eye was this:

Infrastructure
We are transforming the way we do long-term planning for infrastructure improvements – planning ten years down the road instead of just five. For the first time we have a comprehensive analysis of the condition of every mile of city streets and a watershed level drainage assessment. We have a plan to address them in a systematic, worst-comes-first, pay-as-you-go manner.

The work has already started. This year the City will start almost 30 new projects for street and drainage improvements with a value of approximately $250 million. A major storm sewer and road project on Aldine Westfield from Tidwell to West Little York and drainage improvements in the Brays Village area are examples of the projects already underway.

Voter approval of Rebuild Houston was a visionary step that will reap benefits for our neighborhoods for years to come. It was the right thing, the prudent thing, a faith-in-our-future thing to do, and I defy you to name another city in America that would have made this bold step in the midst of a recession.

After all the false starts and missteps with the determination of what the drainage fee would be, the best way to turn that around is to show results. This is the first public mention I can recall of active Rebuild Houston projects. I hope to hear more this year. People like seeing roads get fixed. It’s tangible, and it’s the sort of thing that just about everybody agrees should be done. Let’s not let this go under the radar. Stace and Nancy Sims have more.

Reliant drainage deal?

Will wonders never cease?

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

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

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

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

CM Costello on fixing water leaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inauguration Day 2012

Mayor Annise Parker

Tuesday was Inauguration Day for Mayor Annise Parker, City Controller Ronald Green, and all 16 members of Houston City Council.

Annise D. Parker began her second term as mayor of Houston on Monday with a commitment to bring more jobs to the city and to tackle an ambitious to-do list that includes progress on public employee pensions, an independent crime lab, getting out of the jail business and alleviating homelessness.

Immediately before her inaugural speech, she swore in the 16-member City Council, whose support she needs to implement her agenda. Seven of them are new. Afterward, several of the new members pledged to work with the Democratic mayor to solve problems.

“My philosophy is: potholes, not partisans, ” said Republican At-Large 5 Councilman Jack Christie.

Remember when the runoffs were a “strong repudiation” of the Parker administration? Yes, I know, new CM Helena Brown has sworn to be her arch-nemesis, but I daresay that from the Mayor’s perspective, getting Christie in return on the trade isn’t the worst deal ever.

The new council members, however, have yet to flesh out their positions on how to solve those problems, and Parker’s speech was a broad sketch of what needs to be done, not a policy address.

Parker relied instead on the optimism of Inauguration Day to put forward the idea that history is on the city’s side and that Houston residents will build what a recent magazine article called “one of the world’s next great cities” with audacity, a can-docharacter and a willingness to invest in their community even during tough economic times. She paid tribute to Houston as a city that got its unlikely start on a mosquito-ridden prairie, pioneered the artificial heart and played a central role in space exploration.

“Everything we have done as a city has been a matter of vision and will, of taking what we have and deciding what we want, setting an impossible goal, and then creating it,” Parker said.

The full text of the Mayor’s inaugural address is here. The policy-related stuff is as follows:

My number one job for the next two years is to continue to bring more jobs to Houston. We will expand the programs we have already started to stimulate small business with access to loans and training. We will continue the Hire Houston First policy. We will work tirelessly to increase our role as the energy capital of the world and a world leader in the next high tech industrial revolution.

Hard times prompt us to chart the latitude and longitude of who we are. Hard times test our character. The economy still dominates every conversation, and colors everything we do. Too many Houstonians are struggling to find jobs, to make ends meet. Our city workforce has also felt that pain. City employees have been furloughed, and more than 750 were laid off. We are doing more with less.

But …

We did not raise taxes. We did not mortgage our future with debt. We did not compromise public safety. We did not lay off a single firefighter or police officer. Many of our civilian employees stepped up and volunteered additional furlough days to help save the jobs of their colleagues.

We took bold steps to address our aging infrastructure – finally recovering the full cost of this precious asset, emphasizing conservation, and setting aside funds to complete long neglected maintenance. In doing the responsible thing, we unknowingly prepared ourselves to be able to respond to the worst drought in our history.

And I cannot envision voters in any other city in America, in the midst of a recession, doing the right thing, the prudent thing, and creating the funding to invest in critically needed flooding and drainage infrastructure. This is a visionary step akin to that in the 1950’s and 60s which created lakes Conroe and Houston and secured the water rights which sustain us today, or the commitment to set aside land and other incentives to encourage medical institutions to locate together and so lead to the largest medical complex in the world.

As we navigated this city through the toughest economy in generations, I built my administration on 5 pillars, and focused the work of the city around them:

Jobs and sustainable development,
Fiscal responsibility,
Infrastructure,
Public safety,
Quality of life.

Those will remain our strengths – there is progress yet to be made on pension security for both the city and our retirees, an independent regional crime lab, phasing out the city jail and progress against homelessness – these are challenges we are committed to address and have already begun.

Seems like a good idea to remind people that the city is actually going to do something with the money collected from the drainage fee. I’d recommend doing a lot more of that over the next two years. Still no more details about the crime lab. Calling it “an independent regional crime lab” sure sounds like the original city-county jointly funded proposal to me, which makes me wonder what the deal was in that KHOU story. The one item here that’s less familiar is “progress against homelessness”, which I presume refers to the announcement from late November about a partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). I presume we’ll hear more about this in the coming months.

I was not able to attend the inauguration, so I don’t have any personal impressions to share. If you were there, what did you think? Houston Politics has more.

Don’t draw broad conclusions from muddled evidence

I have a number of issues with the analysis presented in this Chron story about what happened in the runoffs and What It All Means.

The results illustrate a continuation of a national trend of anger and frustration toward government during the worst economic stretch since the Great Depression, political observers said.

In short: Voters want change.

“A lot of people are angry at virtually all institutions and the government is high on their list,” said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “And these are the people in a low-turnout election that are most likely to show up because they are angry. They’re agitated.”

[…]

The results show clear opposition to the status quo, particularly following a general election in which Mayor Annise Parker and several council members narrowly avoided runoff elections, said Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.

“It’s a strong repudiation of this administration – not just the mayor, but the council,” Stein said.

First of all, I believe that voters who are angry and agitated vote. I don’t see how that’s consistent with an election with six percent turnout. I refer you to the 2010 election, and the historically high Republican turnout, for a canonical example. Maybe it’s just me, but the words I use to describe an electorate that fails to show up like this are “disengaged” and “apathetic”. Your mileage may vary.

But maybe turnout was disproportionately high in District A, which is the one election out of the four where I will agree there were angry voters sending a message to someone. To see if that was the case, I checked the ratio of turnout in districts to the Harris County portion of the citywide turnout for runoffs in the past five elections. This is what I found:

Year Dist Turnout Overall Ratio =================================== 2011 A 8.28 6.08 1.36 2011 B 6.76 6.08 1.11 2009 A 18.82 16.48 1.14 2009 F 13.41 16.48 0.81 2007 D 6.29 2.70 2.33 2007 E 5.05 2.70 1.87 2005 B 4.92 4.02 1.22 2005 C 9.38 4.02 2.33 2003 F 18.98 22.71 0.84 2003 G 29.53 22.71 1.30 2003 H 20.57 22.71 0.91

I only went back as far as 2003 because that’s as far back as the County Clerk has runoff data. The ratio of District A turnout to overall is higher than average, but by no means historic. To be fair, the higher level of turnout overall compared to the 2007 and 2005 runoffs may be masking the effect. There’s just not enough data points for me to say, and we’re still talking about eight percent turnout in A. I have a hard time assigning any special meaning to that.

Further, I strongly disagree with taking the result in District A and extrapolating it to the rest of the city. With all due respect to Professor Stein, if the voters intended to repudiate the Mayor a month after re-electing her, Jolanda Jones is the last Council member they should be kicking to the curb. CM Jones was arguably the Mayor’s most vocal and visible critic on Council. I feel pretty confident that they’re not losing any sleep in the Mayor’s office over this result. We may not know exactly what we’ll get with CM-Elect Jack Christie, but we do know that he’s a supporter of Rebuild Houston and that he voted to keep the red light cameras.

Perhaps there was an anti-incumbent message in these results. For sure, CMs Jones and Stardig are the first sitting Council members to be unelected since Jean Kelly in 1999, and only the third and fourth incumbents of any kind to lose since term limits were established. I would argue that there are unique circumstances to each of their losses. To put it mildly, CM Jones had some baggage, and was very nearly ousted in 2009. I’ve been saying all along that a runoff would be a crapshoot for her, and indeed she rolled snake eyes. With the help of Gene Locke’s mayoral campaign she was able to win the turnout fight two years ago, but not this time. I suspect as well that her performance deteriorated in Anglo and Hispanic Democratic areas – I’m sure the Bill White endorsement of Christie had some effect on that – though that’s a question that will have to wait for the precinct data.

As for District A itself, those voters did mostly vote against incumbents last time around, so it’s probably not much of a surprise that they did it to their incumbent District member in the runoff. That said, CM Stardig clearly had her own set of baggage. If anyone can think of another situation offhand in which the three prior incumbents of a given Council district were supporting the opponent of the current incumbent, let me know about it, because I doubt it’s happened any time recently. Far as I can tell, she didn’t have much of a campaign going into the November election – her eight day report showed expenditures on signs, some ads in neighborhood newspapers, and a $6K ad in the Texas Conservative Review that I’m guessing wasn’t well-received; her 30 day report had practically nothing. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered, but let this be Exhibit A for future incumbents: Unless you’re unopposed, run hard. You never know. Hell, run hard even if you are unopposed. Never hurts to get people into the habit of voting for you – your name ID probably isn’t as good as you think it is.

Putting this another way, Stardig was primaried, and she was not prepared for it. Redistricting did her no favors on that score, either. It will be interesting to see how CM-Elect Helena Brown reconciles her professed political beliefs with the sort of things that constituents tend to expect to get done. Maybe there is such a thing as a Republican pothole.

There’s still two other races to consider. The result in District B could be considered an anti-incumbent vote, but when you consider that the outgoing incumbent is CM Jarvis Johnson, is it really that surprising? As for Prof. Stein’s thesis, here’s what CM-Elect Jerry Davis had to say for himself:

Davis, 38, said he hoped to begin working with the administration as quickly as possible to cut down his learning curve as he gets set to start his first job as a public representative. He said his main goal as a council member would be to represent the priorities of District B constituents.

“My job is to represent the people and do what the people want me to do and that’s going to be the number one step,” Davis said.

I mentioned before that of the five candidates I interviewed, only Davis said he supported Renew Houston prior to the referendum passing. If you listen to the interview I did with him, you will also note that Davis supported the red light cameras, again being the only candidate in the district to do so. Way to repudiate the Parker Administration, District B voters!

As for Burks v Thibaut, good luck making sense out of that one. Again, I’ll wait till I see precinct data, but it seems to me that the vaunted “pincer strategy” of African-Americans plus Republicans finally worked. Why Republican voters fell into line behind an Obama delegate at the 2008 DNC convention who once ran for HCDP Chair is a bit puzzling to me, but I suppose stranger things have happened. It’s not like Burks is well-known for policy positions, so he’s a pretty blank slate onto which one can project whatever one wants, and then there is that Hotze embrace to whet the appetite. I don’t think this result would have happened in an election where the votes were distributed more proportionally. Perhaps someone will test that hypothesis in two years’ time. Like I said, we’ll see what the precinct data tells us. Oh, and for what it’s worth, the one elected official who endorsed CM-Elect Andrew Burks was CM Brad Bradford. If you want a guide for how Burks is likely to vote, I’d say to start there. Greg and Stace have more.

Runoff overview: District A

I don’t remember there being a Chron overview story for the District A regular election, but now that it’s in overtime we get an overview story about the race between CM Brenda Stardig and challenger Helen Brown. Better late than never, right?

Just a few thoughts about the article. First, it’s a little silly to call this runoff a “referendum” on Mayor Parker. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we just had a referendum on the Mayor, and she passed, if just barely. A 5000-vote (if that much) Council runoff in a single district four weeks later isn’t going to tell us anything we didn’t already know. I’ve no doubt the Mayor is an issue in this race, perhaps the key issue, but let’s keep some perspective here.

Some of the other issues in this race are a bit curious.

Brown supports the repeal of Proposition 1, the voter-approved initiative that called for the creation of a monthly drainage fee. Stardig voted in favor of the ordinance that Council passed to implement it. Brown calls for the removal of George Greanias as Metro CEO because of his viewing of pornography at work. Like Parker, Stardig favors leaving that decision to the Metro board “until it impacts the actual function of the business.” Stardig favored the city’s approximately $20 million investment in infrastructure and land to get the Dynamo to build a $60 million soccer stadium downtown that the city and county will own. Brown argues that is an improper public investment in a private business.

I’m pretty sure Council can’t pass an ordinance that overturns a charter amendment that has been adopted by referendum – we do have to respect the will of the voters, right? – but I suppose they could vote to put a repeal referendum on the ballot. That is, if the Mayor gives them a repeal referendum to put on the ballot, which needless to say isn’t going to happen. Or there will be another petiton drive, for which the vote to put it on the ballot is a formality. Greanias isn’t going anywhere unless the Mayor wants him to, and she has shown no inclination of that. As for Dynamo Stadium, last I checked it was about six months from being completed. This Council did vote twice on aspects of the deal – both unanimous, for what it’s worth – but the vote to make the land available for the stadium was taken in 2008, which is to say before Stardig’s time on Council. And ironically, it was Annise Parker who ran an ad that disparaged the deal during the 2009 election. Politics does make strange bedfellows.

Not that there’s anything wrong with examining past issues. I certainly asked plenty of questions about what had gone on before when doing my Council interviews, and knowing how someone would have acted tells you a lot about what they’re likely to do in the future. Long as everyone has a realistic expectation about what a single Council member can do about some of these past issues, I guess.

Finally, I’ll say again that if this election turns out to be little more than a Republican primary, I don’t see how Stardig wins. She’s clearly lost a lot of favor among the activists. She needs the electorate to be bigger than that, which means she needs to convince some Democrats and independents to come out and vote for her. How she does that I don’t know – maybe point out Brown’s history lessons and hope for the best – but with early voting for the runoff set to begin this Wednesday the 30th, she better figure it out quickly.

County will seek legislation to evade drainage fee payment for Reliant

As expected.

Harris County Commissioners Court today voted unanimously to instruct the County Attorney and the Legislative Relations office to work with the Texas Legislature to adjust current law to compel the City of Houston to collect and immediately remit to Harris County all city sales tax revenues collected at county venues like Reliant Park that are not currently committed to retiring stadium debt.

Commissioner Steve Radack, who had earlier complained that the city had imposed a drainage fee on Reliant and other county facilities that generate income, declined to comment on the issue when it came up for consideration at the commissioners court meeting.

“It’s pretty self-explanatory,” Radack said.

[…]

“Commissioner Radack I want to commend your innovative approach to try to bring this to the forefront,” Commissioner R. Jack Cagle, said adding his concern that the city is not working cooperatively with the county. “When we get into the mud to where one governmental entity decides that they want to start taxing, or laying fees, on another governmental body, the end of that game, I think is a very bad place to go, that I don’t think we need to be in….I would much rather, if the city is having financial difficulties that they ask for our help instead of laying a fee on us.”

Sure didn’t take Cagle long to pick up that Commissioner attitude, did it? The city isn’t looking for a handout, it’s seeking to collect a fee it’s rightly owed. Why should Reliant Stadium be different than other properties for which the government is acting as landlord for profitable private enterprises? I don’t understand why the concept of the county handing the bill to its very well-off tenant the Houston Texans, who would not be in that lovely facility if it weren’t for the generosity of the taxpayers, is so hard for Commissioners Court to grasp.

The city, for its part, says it will fight back by seeking legislation to exempt city residents from paying property taxes to Harris County. While I appreciate the feistiness, as well as hearing my own complaints about the city-county relationship echoed back, I don’t see this as a credible threat. The county, on the other hand, managed to get its legislation through one chamber this year, and unless someone takes a stand for the city I would not be surprised to see them succeed at getting their petty little wish fulfilled in 2013. I’m beginning to think litigation is the only viable option, if only I could think of a legal theory to pursue in court. Houston Tomorrow has more.

More on the county going after city sales tax revenue

And on we go.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday will decide whether to seek legislation to capture city of Houston sales taxes generated at county facilities, including Reliant Park.

Commissioner Steve Radack floated the idea at the court’s last meeting, spurred by the $353,000 annual bill the county will pay for Reliant under the city’s drainage fee.

The city collects about $950,000 in sales taxes each year from events at the Reliant complex, according to officials with the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. That money would be the easiest to target with the legislation. Millions more in sales taxes are generated inside Reliant Stadium, but those dollars go to pay construction debt on the building.

“I consider a million dollars a lot of money,” Radack said. “Obviously, the city thinks $353,000 is a lot of money. Absolutely we should pursue it.”

Honestly, the level of whining from Commissioners Court on this just amazes me. If the county had handed the deed for Reliant Stadium to Bob McNair instead of acting as his landlord, nobody would consider it remotely unusual for the city to hand McNair a bill for the acres of impermeable parking lots on that property. I don’t see why McNair’s landlord should be exempted from paying a drainage fee on this profit-generating piece of land. I understand that the County has its own reasons for counting every penny related to Reliant, but instead of getting their undies into a bunch and wasting the Legislature’s time, why not just pass the bill on to the Texans, since they’re the ones making the real money off of the stadium and its parking? Wouldn’t that make more sense?

The dispute has sparked a wider discussion of who pays for what.

Taxpayers give $500 million in property taxes each year to the Harris County Hospital District to provide health care for the poor, many of whom are Houstonians, and Harris County spends $200 million a year to run the county jail, temporary home to many city residents. The city should help pay both bills, Radack said.

Most of the county’s tax revenue, Parker responded, comes from city residents, and county residents use city roads, parks and libraries for which they are not taxed. Parker said she would love to know what share of her county taxes are spent in the city.

“I don’t think that we necessarily as Houston taxpayers get our fair share, but I’m out there beating on Harris County about that,” she said.

Emmett said he is not interested in a precise breakdown.

“The people in the city say, ‘We pay county property taxes, but we don’t get sheriff patrols and you don’t build any roads in our area,’ ” Emmett said. “People at the county say, ‘We provide health care for the indigent and we provide jail “services” for people in the city.’ Does that even out? I have no idea.”

Well, one person has been saying it, anyway. With all due respect to Judge Emmett, I am interested in a precise breakdown of Harris County’s revenues and expenditures. It should be easy to determine what share of the county’s property tax monies come from inside Houston city limits. Figuring out how much gets spent where will be trickier, but I’m sure the city and the county have accountants who are smart enough to handle it. I for one promise to quit whining about this if it turns out that in fact Houston is getting a fair shake. Anyone from the county willing to make the same commitment if it turns out Houston really is getting the shaft? You know how to reach me if you do.

Drainage madness

I have three things to say about this.

A year ago, Taxpayers for Financial Accountability campaigned against Houston’s Proposition 1, which called for a pay-as-you-go fund to shore up the city’s drainage infrastructure in part through a monthly fee on homes and businesses.

They lost. The measure narrowly passed and the first bills went out in July.

This year the committee is still campaigning against the measure, this time by endorsing a slate of city candidates who opposed Proposition 1.

The problem is, according to a complaint filed with the Texas Ethics Commission, you can’t do both. Taxpayers for Financial Accountability was formed as a specific purpose committee, which means it can spend money on a cause or on candidates it names at the time of its formation. General purpose committees can change their focus each election, but there’s more paperwork and rules and donors required to form them.

A campaign manager for a candidate who didn’t get the endorsement of Taxpayers for Financial Accountability says the group is violating the law by acting outside its specific purpose in promoting eight candidates in a mailer being distributed this weekend.

“I believe we’re staying in our purpose by promoting the idea that the rain tax is regressive and a huge tax increase,” said Robert Glaser, the committee’s treasurer. “We’re recognizing folks who have the same point of view that we do.”

[…]

But even Paul Bettencourt, a leading figure of a separate committee that opposed Prop. 1, has distanced himself from the mailer and called it “stupid” because of the apparent violation of the election code.

1. When even a shameless opportunist like Paul Bettencourt says you’ve crossed a line, you’ve probably crossed a line. I can’t find the exact statute that’s relevant here, but it seems to that this isn’t isn’t a particularly subtle distinction. If this is allowable, then I don’t see what the point of being a special purpose committee is. Hope you guys have some money put aside for the fine you’re going to be levied, fellas.

2. I continue to be mystified by the level of animosity some people have towards the drainage fee, and I continue to wait for these opponents to tell me what their alternate solution for Houston’s drainage and flooding problems would be. If you don’t think we have a problem that needs to be solved, be honest enough to say so. If you believe you have a better solution than the one we voted on last year, tell me what it is. Prop 1 opponents did neither last year, and they’re still doing neither now.

3. Speaking of voting, I’m quite sure that every candidate on this slate has said something about the need to “respect the will of the voters” in regard to the red light camera referendum. Why isn’t there the same need to respect the will of the voters on Prop 1?

On cities and counties

I’m really getting tired of all this BS.

Smarting from a $353,000 bill for the Reliant complex under the city of Houston’s new drainage fee, Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday discussed seeking legislation to let it keep city sales taxes generated at county facilities.

[…]

The idea of capturing city sales tax was floated by Commissioner Steve Radack, a reliable critic of city policies. The suggestion, however, was welcomed by the rest of the court, some members of which expressed dismay at the city’s actions.

The city collects an estimated $950,000 in sales taxes from annual events at the Reliant complex, including the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo and conventions. More sales taxes are generated inside Reliant Stadium, but those go to pay debt on the building, said Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. Executive Director Willie Loston.

The eligible sales taxes, beverage taxes and taxes generated by visitors’ meals and shopping trips around town all could be targeted in the legislation, Loston said.

“Since they want to nickel and dime us, we might as well go for the big bucks,” Radack said. “We could keep that money at (Reliant), which would help continue to improve it.”

The city drainage fee is intended to penalize structures that contribute to water runoff. Reliant generates revenue, city officials reasoned, and should pay. Other county properties are exempt.

“Like many of Commissioner Radack’s rants, this one is ill-informed and ill-advised,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker. “He is asking Houston businesses and homeowners to pay more so that Reliant Stadium can get a free pass on the drainage fee.”

A few months ago, I was invited to speak at a Rotary breakfast. I talked about the importance of paying attention to local government, which I said has a much greater impact on your daily life than what goes on in DC but which tends to get less scrutiny. Someone asked me a question about waste, and I told him that if you had to design a government structure for the Houston region from scratch, you’d never come up with what we actually have. You’d want something more broadly focused, with less duplication and not as hindered by arbitrary boundaries. Something like that would surely be better able to solve regional issues, and be much less prone to the kind of penny ante pissing matches that we’re so used to around here.

We’re not going to get the chance to reinvent our government structure, of course. But that doesn’t mean I can’t think about doing things differently. And the question I find myself asking is why should Houston be a part of Harris County? As a taxpayer in the city of Houston, it’s hard for me to see what benefit I get from that arrangement. They don’t build roads that I drive on, Sheriff’s deputies don’t patrol my neighborhood, and so on. More to the point, there’s no one on Commissioners Court that gives a damn about the city of Houston, and three fourths of their combined budget is controlled by people who are unaccountable to me or anyone else electorally. So why should we put up with this? Why not get out?

The idea of having the city of Houston secede from Harris County is, I fully admit, crazy. The fact that the city’s boundaries resemble a Mandelbrot set, and that some portions of the city are connected by nothing more than a road is an issue. The fact that other cities like Bellaire, West U, and the Villages off I-10 are wholly contained within the city’s boundaries is another. I figure if the County Clerk can tell who’s in the city and who’s not at election time we can deal with the former, and for the latter those other cities can either join us in forming our own county, or they can have their own. Lord knows, there are plenty of counties out in West Texas with fewer people than what they’d have. Think about the benefits of shedding all that unincorporated and non-Houston territory that the Harris County Commissioners love so much:

– Our county property taxes would actually be used to benefit roads, parks, bridges, and whatever else in the city of Houston instead of subsidizing their construction and maintenance elsewhere. Without that extra burden, I wouldn’t be surprised if we could lower our property taxes as a result.

– Our County Commissioners – I wish I could call my proposed new county Houston County, but we already have one of those – would actually be accountable to the people who live in Houston.

– Our Commissioners Court might actually be a reflection of the population that it serves.

You might say that if the smaller cities went their own way and the only entity within my proposed City Of Houston County, that there would be no real need for a separate county government. I would not disagree with that, and it goes back to the point I made originally, which is that if we were doing this over from scratch we wouldn’t do it the way we are doing it today. I understand the role of county government where there are no cities, and where there are mostly smaller cities that benefit from consolidating certain functions like criminal justice and road maintenance. I can see the sense of it in fast growing suburban areas where some central entity is needed for planning and managing that growth. At least, I see the sense of it in places where county government works well with the various municipalities it contains, as I understand is the case in Fort Bend. But more and more I don’t see the purpose of having a county government where there’s a big city. Maybe this view is overly colored by the longstanding dysfunction in the Houston/Harris relationship. Maybe we’re the only ones that have this problem, though I suspect there are people in Dallas who are now shaking their heads. The City of Houston, which still represents a majority of the population in Harris County, is getting a raw deal, and there’s damn little it can do about it under the current structure. We can continue to take it, or we can say “Enough!” and demand something that works to our benefit and not to our detriment. I know what my preference is.

UPDATE: In response to some feedback that I’ve received, I want to clarify that my beef here is primarily with the Commissioners, who have the power and the money and the lack of electoral accountability. I have no complaint about County Judge Ed Emmett, who does make an honest effort to work with the city and not get involved in the pettiness that so frustrates me. There’s no reason why the way he operates couldn’t be the norm, and that makes it even more frustrating.

City wins again on Rebuild Houston lawsuit

As you know, shortly after the Renew Houston proposition passed last fall, the usual suspects led by Paul Bettencourt filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the result on the grounds that they believed the voters were too stupid to know what they had just voted for. That lawsuit was dismissed on summary judgment in May. After Mayor Parker’s announcement in June that the city had underestimated what the fee would need to be for many households, the plaintiffs tried again, claiming that this admission vindicated their claims. The judge didn’t buy it.

Plaintiffs attorney Andy Taylor and City Attorney David Feldman squared off in front of [District Judge Buddie] Hahn this morning, and the judge immediately ruled in favor of the city.

Taylor said afterward he would consult with his clients to see if they want to appeal Hahn’s decision.

Feldman said that if they do, “They’re beating a dead horse. This is just wasting the taxpayers’ time and money.”

Cue the sad trombone. I hope this is the end of it, but with these guys I sure wouldn’t count on it.

Those darned propositions

I have three things to say about this.

Houston voters can be forgiven if they feel a bit confused.

They voted down red-light cameras, but the cameras are on. They may have heard the mayor say that voting for a drainage fee would result in a typical $5 monthly bill that everyone should pay, but sample bills were much higher, and churches and schools got a pass.

Mayor Annise Parker’s critics lay the blame at her feet. It’s her mishandling of the twin propositions on last November’s ballot, they say, that has people doubting what they hear out of City Hall these days.

The mayor and her supporters counter that the mayor has spent much of this year trying to walk a fine line between honoring popular will and the rule of law.

Asked whether she still has voters’ trust through all of the fallout from the propositions, Parker said, “I hope so. That will, I guess, be demonstrated this November,” when she is up for re-election.

1. I continue to find it remarkable that the two biggest problem children for the Mayor were the two things that weren’t of her initiation. There are some things you just can’t control. For what it’s worth, I think Rebuild Houston will quiet down as an issue over time. The main points of contention, namely who pays and how much, are largely settled. All that’s left is to start collecting the fees and planning for the street and drainage repair. The red light camera issue won’t go away until the cameras themselves go away, either as the result of a settlement or the end of the contract in 2014.

2. The reason the Mayor is running hard for re-election is not because she’s worried about her 2011 opposition but about her potential 2013 opposition. She needs to clear the Lee Brown Line, wherever that may be.

3. It sure is easier to be a non-candidate for something than to be a candidate, isn’t it? Nobody’s ever going to ask Paul Bettencourt what his plan to mitigate flooding in Houston is, or why he doesn’t think we need one. He gets to sit on the sidelines and chat with reporters about how much more awesome he is than the Mayor because…well, I’m not exactly sure why reporters bother to call him, since he’s just some dude these days. If being a former county official who has an interest in city politics is the criteria, I’m sure Bob Eckels or Sylvia Garcia would be happy to discuss these matters, too. But they’re not unannounced, unofficial uncandidates for anything.

Interview with CM Stephen Costello

CM Stephen Costello

We begin the 2011 election interview season with first term Council Member Stephen Costello, elected in 2009 in At Large #1. He had a mission in mind when he ran for office, and that was a plan to fund street and drainage improvements in Houston. That plan became Renew Houston, now known as Rebuild Houston, for which a charter amendment was passed last year. He has also served as the Chair of the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee. We chatted about these things and about what he’s working on now, which may surprise you, all of which you can listen to here:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2011 Elections page. My schedule for this will probably be two interviews a week to start, then ramping up to three later and possibly more towards the end. As always, your feedback is appreciated.

New drainage fee structure announced

From the Mayor’s office.

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

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

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

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

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

Eight, not five

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

More on that Rebuild Houston push poll

Remember that push poll on Rebuild Houston? The results are out and they’re pretty much what you’d expect.

A state district judge could decide this week whether to hold a trial on the validity of November’s election in which voters approved a new pay-as-you-go program for improving Houston’s drainage.

Opponents say voters were misled about Proposition 1, that they did not know how it would hit them in the wallet. The city attorney said that information was available in newspaper advertisements, media coverage, campaign mailers and on the city’s website.

The opponents also released a poll they say shows Houstonians would have rejected the drainage fee proposition had they known more about it.

[…]

“What has now been implemented by the city is not what the voters voted on,” former county tax assessor and drainage fee opponent Paul Bettencourt said. “If the public had known any word about a dollar sign in the referendum, it wouldn’t have passed.”

Opponents of the fee financed the poll of 502 people who voted in the November election.

Asked if they would have voted for Proposition 1 had they known the City Council would grant exemptions to certain institutions, leaving others to pay the entire assessment, 65 percent of respondents said no, according to the poll results.

“If the ballot language had some real meat in it like (top) rate and everything else, this issue would have gone down long before we had to split hairs on exemptions,” Bettencourt said.

The irony of this, of course, is that Bettencourt has been at the forefront of arguing that the churches should be made exempt from the drainage fee, but even after getting what they wanted he and his fellow sore winners are still working to undermine a valid election result by any means possible. Hey, if you want to make this an argument that Council should reconsider exempting the churches, which is something I never wanted them to do in the first place, go for it. As someone who was a respondent to this push poll and who seriously thought about answering No to that question even though I knew what the pollsters were doing with it, I don’t see how this advances their argument. It’s just more disinformation from people who just aren’t interested in dealing with Houston’s flooding issues. Hair Balls has more.

Oh, and by the way, Bettencourt’s lawsuit against the city was dismissed on a motion for summary judgment, meaning that it was such a meritless suit it wasn’t worth wasting anyone’s time on it. Good thing for Bettencourt this happened before the new loser pays law kicks in. Here’s a statement from Mayor Parker about the ruling:

“This is yet another frivolous lawsuit that has cost taxpayers money at a time when the City can least afford it.

Last fall’s ballot language clearly indicated that Prop 1 was an initiative aimed at fixing Houston’s drainage problem. I hope this ruling answers any lingering questions raised about the voters’ decision to implement this solution.”

Sensible people, yes. Losers like Paul Bettencourt, no.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story about the suit being dismissed. Expect an appeal to be filed shortly.

Push poll on Rebuild Houston

I got a phone call Wednesday night from Baselice and Associates, doing a robopoll about Rebuild (formerly Renew) Houston. They asked the following:

1. If I voted last year, and if I voted for or against Prop 1, which they read in full.

2. They then asked if I would have voted for Prop 1 if I knew that it would authorize collecting up to $125 million a year. Of course, I did know this – it was a prominent part of the Renew Houston campaign.

3. They then asked if I would have voted for Prop 1 if I knew that City Council would determine how to collect the revenue for it. Again, of course, I did know this.

4. They then asked if I would have voted for Prop 1 if I knew that there might be some exemptions made for schools and churches, leaving everyone else to pay for it. I think you know how I feel about that. And for the record, this was known during the campaign when the churches started whining piteously about it.

5. Having done their best to try to make me regret my vote for Prop 1, they asked me if I still would vote for it if it came up today and I knew all this stuff. I’ll give you three guesses how I answered.

I figure this little exercise in freelance political retconning is being paid for by Paul Bettencourt or one of his acolytes. I’ll be interested to see if they get the results they’re clearly hoping for, or if this just goes down the memory hole. Did anyone else get one of these calls? Leave a comment and let me know.

The State of the City 2011

It’s getting a little better, but we’re still not close to being in good times.

The city of Houston’s budget deficit for the coming fiscal year has been whittled to roughly $80 million from $130 million, Mayor Annise Parker said after her annual State of the City address on Friday.

Parker, speaking at a Greater Houston Partnership luncheon at the Hilton Americas Hotel downtown, warned of looming budget cuts while also touting efficiencies found and tasks completed in her 15 months in office.

The city still will face widespread layoffs, Parker said, but some programs that had been at risk will be kept, such as the Houston Police Department’s mounted patrol and K-9 divisions.

“A tight budget is a little like a corset — it holds some things in and it emphasizes other things,” Parker said, drawing chuckles. “This tight budget is going to have a good long-term impact on the city. … We’re down 500 employees since I took office, not because we couldn’t afford to pay them but because we found a better way of doing business.”

She cited the consolidations of the city’s human resources, payroll, fleet management and information technology departments and the use of Metro police rather than HPD officers to dispatch tow trucks to clear accidents.

“These are permanent changes that make sense,” she said.

You can read the full speech here. It touches on many subjects – Demolition Day (there’s one coming up in May), Rebuild Houston, Dynamo Stadium, sustainability, Hire Houston First, and on and on – but one that that wasn’t mentioned was the pension issue, other than to note that we won’t be doing more pension bonds. I guess since there are negotiations going on with the police and fire departments, this might have been too sensitive a topic. One thing that made me smile was this, from her look ahead at Houston five years from now:

We see advances in our use of technology. Just imagine taking a photo with your PDA, sending it to our public works department and receiving automatic acknowledgment and a work order number.

Indeed I can imagine that. I hope Mayor Parker will already be talking about how successful it is in her next State of the City address.

One more thing, from the story:

The $50 million decrease in the budget gap for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is due primarily to $16 million more in projected tax revenues, $13 million in savings from a new employee health care contract, $7 million in property sales and the movement of $7.6 million in utility debt service that will now be paid from utility revenues instead of the general fund, Finance Director Kelly Dowe said.

I don’t know what the formula is that’s being used to project future revenues, but it’s certainly possible that the economy will exceed expectations, with revenues doing better as well. Lord knows there’s plenty of people in Austin hoping for higher sales tax receipts than what they’re currently using for their budget. I also don’t know if the property sales include things like this or not. Point being, with a bit of luck the situation could be less dire by the time the city actually needs to finalize its budget. Here’s hoping for that.

Patrick’s blackmail bill goes to the House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drainage fee passes with exemptions

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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