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Sylvester Turner

The latest report on city finances

A little light reading for you.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where are we on Harvey response?

Stuff is happening.

Local and state leaders are moving toward a major, lengthy and costly overhaul of the region’s flood defenses that includes regulating developmentmassive buyouts of flood-prone properties and flood-prevention projects that have been discussed for decades but never built.

Few of the initiatives will be complete before hurricane season starts in June, but nearly six months after Hurricane Harvey ripped through the Texas Gulf Coast and devastated the nation’s fourth-largest city, leaders are seeking to address long-ignored shortcomings laid bare by one of the most intense rainstorms in U.S. history.

Gov. Greg Abbott says he can write a check for a third reservoir to better protect areas west of Houston from inundation as well as attempt to avoid the types of releases from Addicks and Barker dams that swamped Houston downstream during Harvey.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wants to join Harris County in strengthening regulation on the region’s rapid development to protect the city’s population from floodwaters and alleviate the burden on taxpayers to repair and rebuild flood-prone properties.

Harris County leaders want a major bond issue – and a corresponding increase in property taxes – this year to pay for bayou drainage projects and, possibly, broad buyouts in flood-prone areas.

There’s also broad support for legislation that would require buyers of property in reservoir flood pools, which are dry much of the time, to be notified of flooding risks; 30,000 homes have been built in the flood pools of Addicks and Barker, and many owners say they had no idea they were living in an area designed to hold water during times of heavy rain. More than 9,000 of those homes flooded during Harvey.

Some of the local response has been slowed as officials waited to see what Congress will be willing to fund, a logjam that started to break late in the week with the approval of nearly $90 billion for victims of this year’s storms and natural disasters – much of it for recovery, not prevention. But state and local officials tell the Houston Chronicle they remain committed to broader improvements.

That was written before the Congressional budget deal was reached, so that obstacle should be removed, though it’s still not totally clear what that will mean. County Commissioners will need to figure that out for the bond referendum they’re planning. There are now more FEMA funds available for recovery, which is nice but makes you wonder why it took so long.

It’s a little hard for me as someone who wasn’t directly affected by Harvey to judge if “enough” progress has been made. My friends who were flooded out are still dealing with it; one family is about to move back into their repaired home, which was damaged by the dam releases, another has made the decision to sell and live elsewhere, others are in similar places. I can’t speak for them, but we will all have the opportunity to listen to them as the elections approach. I have to assume that every elected official is going to have to answer for his or her actions and decisions during and after Harvey. I feel like this could be a point of weakness for Greg Abbott, and I think that Andrew White’s campaign ad touting his actions during Harvey is a smart move. It’s too soon to say how much of an effect Harvey will have on November – I don’t get the sense that it’s a difference maker in the primaries, but at least on the Democratic side that may be because no one disagrees with the notion that more can and should have been done to aid the recovery and mitigate against future floods – but it will be there. The time to take action to shield oneself against charges that one’s response was inadequate is rapidly running out, if it hasn’t already.

SaberCats Stadium

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

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

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

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

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

SaberCats President Brian Colona echoed Turner’s enthusiasm.

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

[…]

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

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

Northwest Mall will be your Houston high speed rail terminal

No surprise.

Texas Central Partners and Houston-area elected officials on Monday announced that the company, which is seeking federal approval for a 240-mile high-speed train line, has chosen Northwest Mall near Loop 610 and U.S. 290 as their preferred site.

The company has an option to buy the land, said Jack Matthews, who is handling property acquisition for Texas Central.

The announcement was largely expected, as the mall site remained the most viable site to put a train station along Hempstead Road in the area around Loop 610. It also emerged from a federal environmental review as the most practical site in terms of displacing fewer homes and businesses. Still, the line will affect landowners along Hempstead as the tracks extend from the proposed station into northwest Harris and southern Waller counties.

[…]

Almost all of the stores within the mall itself are closed. Only a handful of stores and venues with exterior entrances remain open.

City leaders also joined with Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, noting they hoped the station could spur rail development from Metro’s nearby Northwest Transit Center to downtown Houston.

Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said the site was chosen because its location gives the company ready access to many Houston area travelers. The area around Loop 610 and U.S. 290 is essentially the population center of the region, as development has spread rapidly north and west of the urban core.

“This is the best site for Houston for many reasons,” Aguilar said.

That happened on the same day that the public hearing for the draft EIS was held in Cypress. The Dallas end of the line was chosen last week. The Trib adds a few details.

The chosen location is about 1.5 miles from Northwest Transit Center, a major bus hub and the closest public transportation connection. Despite that distance, the company said in a prepared statement Monday that the station will provide “convenient, efficient and direct” connections to the Houston METRO transit system.

METRO does not currently have any light-rail lines in that part of the city. The agency is working on a long-term plan for expanded transit service.

“So we’re in a broad range of conversation and thought as to how to provide that connection,” Texas Central President Tim Keith told The Texas Tribune on Monday.

There’s pictures at Swamplot, so go check it out. It’s true there’s not much there now, but as you can see there are big plans to change that. There aren’t any transit connections yet, but we’re talking about a 2024 debut for TCR, so there’s a lot of time for stuff to happen. I feel confident the forthcoming Metro referendum will include an item to deal with this in some fashion. I’m looking forward to it.

Looking to hire more cops for Houston

We’ll see about this.

The head of the Houston police union announced Wednesday that city leaders had pledged to grow the Houston Police Department ranks by 500 officers over the next five years, far fewer than the city’s police chief said he needs.

“It’s no secret the Houston Police Department has been doing more with less, for far too long,” HPOU President Joseph Gamaldi said Wednesday afternoon at a crowded news conference at union headquarters.

The influx of officers would still be a fraction of the 2,000 new officers Chief Art Acevedo has said he believes the department needs to deal with the city’s growth, but comes as Houston has struggled for years to meaningfully increase the staffing in the department.

Gamaldi’s initiative, which the union is calling the “Drive for 500,” came after union officials visited all of the city’s council members, as well as Mayor Sylvester Turner, and asked them to pledge their support to increase the department that has nearly 5,200 officers on the job.

[…]

Currently, the HPD operates on a yearly budget of $827 million, and it costs the department around $3 million to run each class of recruits through its in-house academy.

The call for more officers comes as the city management last year had to close a $130 million budget shortfall.

The staffing proposal follows a concerted campaign last year to reform the city’s pension system, which officials warned was underfunded and threatened the city’s long-term financial health.

Meanwhile, Chief Acevedo and Gamaldi have stepped up calls for an large infusion of new officers into the department, saying it is dangerously understaffed, particularly compared to other large cities around the country.

Though Houston has fewer police officers per resident than other large cities, I remain unconvinced that we need to go on a hiring spree. At the very least, I’d like to understand what the plan is for a larger force. HPD’s solve rate isn’t so hot, so if the idea is to staff up on investigators with the goal of closing out more cases, then I can be on board with that. If it’s more like hire now and figure it out later, I’ll take a pass.

As the story suggests, hiring more cops would likely be part of the argument to alter or lift the revenue cap. Not my preferred approach, but I admit I’m not representative on this. I am ready for this argument to be fully rolled out, in anticipation of a vote this year.

Darian Ward resigns

Adios.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s press secretary resigned Friday afternoon, three weeks after news broke that she had been suspended for routinely conducting personal business on city time and failing to release public records.

Ward sent or received roughly 5,000 pages of emails about personal business from her government account over the last four years, many of which dealt with reality shows she was pitching to television networks or a charity for which she serves as an advisor.

Ward, who earned $93,712 annually, was suspended for 10 days without pay in late December.

Her resignation came hours before new emails showed Ward again had tried to block the release of a portion of the personal business documents she sent on city time. The Houston Chronicle and other news outlets sought the emails under the Texas Public Information Act.

“I believe many of the documents which include show concepts, treatments, etc. are protected through the Writers Guild Association’s registration. Legal needs to be advised,” Ward wrote to colleagues two weeks ago.

Assistant City Attorney Danielle Folsom replied last week, saying the city attorney’s office “does not believe that registration with the Writer’s Guild of America makes information confidential under the TPIA.”

Ward still wanted to seek an opinion from the Texas attorney general’s office, emails show. Pamela Ellis, founder of a charity Ward was promoting on city time, also asked the city to withhold documents.

As a result, the city released roughly 2,500 pages of Ward’s emails on Jan. 19.
With the release of that first batch, Ward expressed confusion that her attempt to intervene had not fully halted the city’s records release.

“How were emails released when I’m waiting to write the AG’s office?” she wrote to coworkers that evening.

The city distributed nearly 1,200 additional pages Thursday, accompanied by a letter to the attorney general’s office.

“The city takes no position with respect to the public availability of the requested information and will not raise any arguments on behalf of any third party,” Folsom wrote in requesting a ruling from the attorney general’s office.

See here for some background. As I said at the time, if that original story was all there was – if we knew all there was to know when that first story came out – then we’d all forget about it soon enough. That wasn’t the case, and so here we are. We’ve had email in the workplace for some 20 years now, and you’d think people would be clear on what “appropriate use” is by now. I honestly don’t know what Ward was thinking, but at least she’ll have more time to work on that show she’s trying to develop now. Her successor is Mary Benton, like Ward a former TV news reporter, who had worked for Gene Locke during his time as County Commissioner. I know Mary from the local politics scene, and I wish her well in the new gig.

Mayor proposes new floodplain development rules

Good idea.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Amazon HQ2 for Houston

Never really expected that we’d be a top contender, to be honest.

Amazon ruled out Houston as a candidate for its $5 billion second headquarters on Thursday, delivering a blow to local leaders who had hoped to lure the Seattle tech giant to a four-mile stretch between downtown and the Texas Medical Center.

The largest U.S. online retailer whittled down more than 200 proposals from North America cities to just 20, eliminating Houston but keeping the city’s longtime rivals Austin and Dallas on its short list.

Amazon’s decision marks a setback for local leaders including the Greater Houston Partnership, which led an effort last fall to pitch the city as an attractive market for the company to set down stakes.

“I believe this is a wake-up call for Houston,” GHP CEO Bob Harvey said in a statement. “While there has been growing momentum in the innovation space over the last couple of years, this is a clear indication that we have much more work to do as a region to grow our digital economy.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called Amazon’s decision ” disappointing and heartbreaking.:

But, he added, “It serves as a wake-up call that we must move at a much quicker pace. The city is well positioned, but it’s also is an indication that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done.”

[…]

In his statement Thursday, Harvey said Houston should focus on developing the Innovation Corridor and its technology sector further. He also said Houston should move forward with the proposed Houston Data Science Institute, a data center recently announced by the University of Houston.

“While we are the number one market in the country for STEM talent, we need to bolster our pipeline of digital tech talent that is relevant to tomorrow’s digital economy,” Harvey said. “This means working with our higher education partners across the region to develop and invest in programs that will produce the talent we need to succeed.”

But economists warned that Houston would rank low on Amazon’s wish list in the nationwide bidding war for a campus that could bring 50,000 jobs, saying the city lacked a robust public transportation system. Only 2 percent of the local population takes public transportation to work, according to Census data.

See here and here for some background. On the one hand, it’s always a bummer to miss out. On the other hand, I wasn’t excited at the thought of giving zillions of dollars in incentives and tax breaks to a behemoth like Amazon as deal-sweeteners. There’s too much of that going on already. Doing things like developing the Innovation Corridor and building a Data Science Institute, that’s fine and worthwhile as investments. And let’s be sure not to overlook the feedback about our public transportation infrastructure. Imagine where we could have been if we’d had a Congressional delegation that was unanimous in its support of of more robust transit system. We’ll have an opportunity to support that at the ballot box this November. If we’re serious about wanting to be more competitive with the cities we lost out to, we need to put our money where our mouths are. The Trib, Texas Monthly (which is very skeptical of the chase to lure in Amazon), Swamplot, and the Dallas Observer have more.

Council approves new recycling deal

Huzzah!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Darian Ward

I shake my head.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday staunchly defended his press secretary’s job performance following her recent two-week suspension for conducting personal business on city time and failing to turn over public records requested by a local journalist.

Turner also lectured reporters on the newsworthiness of the city’s disciplinary action against Darian Ward, saying other issues are more important than “whether or not somebody did something on an email.”

Ward, who was allowed to return to work Dec. 27, sent or received roughly 5,000 emails from her government account related to her company, Joy in Motion Enterprises, or other personal business matters over the last four years, according to a city memo. However, Ward, who at the time was among those responsible for fielding Texas Public Information Act requests for the mayor’s office, produced just 30 pages of emails in response to a journalist’s October records request.

“Ms. Ward, you misrepresented to the requestor the volume of documents regarding the TPIA request under state law, and you misinformed the chief of staff and me; you spent a significant amount of city time conducting your personal business rather than focusing on your work task,” mayoral Communications Director Alan Bernstein wrote Ward on Dec. 11, informing her that she had violated multiple city policies.

[…]

“It’s pretty flagrant,” said Daniel Bevarly, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, based in Missouri. “I’m surprised the mayor retained this individual.”

Turner said “no employee ought to be utilizing personal emails on city time,” but said he was not concerned about Ward’s performance.

“She’s done her job extremely well since I’ve been here, over and above,” he said. “I have no question with regard to her work performance.”

The mayor, who bristled at reporters’ questions about Ward, added that he imposed a stiffer punishment than the city’s legal and human resources departments had recommended.

Ted Oberg had the initial report about Ward’s suspension. For what it’s worth, I once had a coworker who was fired for doing something very similar to what Ward was suspended for. She was a lousy employee and was probably going to get herself fired for something eventually, but her email follies provided the fulcrum. If there are no further revelations to be made, and if Ward manages to adopt a more work-appropriate posture going forward, then we’ll all forget about this in a few weeks. If not, then I don’t think it’s possible for her to be a good enough employee in other respects to outweigh the negatives. Campos has more.

The elections we may get in 2018

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

1. Firefighters’ pay parity referendum

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

2. Revenue cap repeal/modification

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

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

3. Metro referendum

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

4. Harris County flood mitigation bonds

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

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

Pension bond sales proceed

But it was close, which both boggles my mind and annoys the ever-loving crap out of me.

The City of Houston can move forward with its plan to sell $1 billion in bonds on Friday as part of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark pension reform passed by the Texas Legislature earlier this year, a judge ruled.

State District Judge Mark Morefield on Thursday denied a request by former city housing department director James Noteware for a temporary restraining order to delay the issuance of the bonds.

The request for the restraining order was part of a lawsuit filed last Friday by Noteware, who alleges the city misled voters into approving the bonds so it could sidestep a voter-approved limit on how much property tax revenue Houston can collect. Noteware claims the ballot language was “materially misleading” and did not include wording to indicate the taxes levied to pay off the bonds would be exempted from the 13-year-old revenue cap.

City officials say the language cited by Noteware is boilerplate included to assure bondholders that the city would meet its obligations.

[…]

Morefield said there were “substantial” concerns regarding the legality of the ballot measure, but that he ultimately agreed with the city’s argument that delaying the issuance would significantly damage Houston’s standing among creditors and bondholders.

“I think we’re just too far down the road at this point in time to stop this train,” Morefield said. “The mayor and City Council are heavily invested in this. And this thing is going to go forward.

“They may have to pay a heavy consequence for it going forward,” he added.

See here for the background. The sale has been completed, so at least that’s one rabbit hole we won’t go down. Let me see if I can sum up all the reasons I am gobsmacked by this.

1. As a reminder, the city was only obligated to put the bond sale to a vote because that was a provision in the Senate bill that required it. Mayor Bill White sold pension obligation bonds for five years without anyone demanding a vote. The reason we voted is because Paul Bettencourt insisted on it. What does he have to say about this?

2. Proposition A passed with 77% of the vote. There was essentially no opposition to it – conservative groups like the C Club endorsed it, while the Harris County Republican Party declined to take a position. Nobody raised any objections to the ballot language, which was approved by Council in August, and nobody made this case about the stupid revenue cap before the election.

3. Specifically, James Noteware appears to have taken no action regarding Prop A before the election. Go ahead and do a Google News search on him – there’s nothing relevant to this before he filed his lawsuit. He couldn’t be bothered to put out a press release, or throw up a webpage, to outline his objections before the vote. Yet here he comes afterwards to overturn a valid election that no one had any problems with because he didn’t like the pension deal?

4. I mean, there are issues with the whole referendum system, but look: Mayor Turner won an election in 2015 on a promise to get the Legislature to pass a bill to reform the city’s pension system. Our elected legislators passed such a bill. Our elected Council members ratified that agreement, then voted to put the required bond measure on the ballot, which the voters then overwhelmingly approved. What the actual hell are we doing here? Why does none of this matter?

deep breath Anyway. I hope we get a future story that includes some quotes from legal experts who can analyze the merits of the lawsuit and its likelihood of success going forward. I can rant all I want but it’s in the hands of the judges now. Lord help us all. The Mayor’s press release has more.

Inevitable lawsuit over pension bond ballot language filed

Like night follows day, like flies garbage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner misled voters into approving a $1 billion pension bond referendum last month, a new lawsuit alleges, claiming that city officials plan to use the bonds’ passage to sidestep a voter-approved limit on the property tax revenue Houston can collect.

A local businessman and former Houston housing department director, James Noteware, sued the city on Friday in state district court, contesting the Nov. 7 election on the grounds that the ballot language was “materially misleading.”

The full language, rather than the summary listed for voters on the ballot, stated that the taxes levied to repay the bonds would not be “limited by any provision of the city home rule charter limiting or otherwise restricting the city’s combined ad valorem tax rates or combined revenues from all city operations.”

The suit claims that phrasing means the taxes levied to pay for the bonds will be exempted from the 13-year-old revenue cap, which limits the annual growth of property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

“Omitting the fact that the proposition created a billion-dollar exception to default limits on the city’s taxing authority renders the proposition materially misleading and void,” the suit states.

More coverage from the Chron here. This is, in a word, nonsense. I mean look, Paul Bettencourt, who insisted on the pension bond referendum and who loves the revenue cap and the spotlight more than his own children, had nothing to say about this during the campaign. Nobody complained about the ballot language. At this point, this kind of lawsuit is basically pro forma, and serves as nothing more than an attempt by the losing side to get bailed out by the Supreme Court. If you have the resources to hire a lawyer to file this kind of crap, you have the resources to mount some kind of campaign against the referendum before the election, even if it’s nothing more than sending an incendiary press release to a gaggle of reporters. If James Noteware, who by the way was a Mayoral candidate for about 15 minutes in 2013, did anything like that, he failed spectacularly to get a news story out of it. If this thing goes anywhere, it can only mean that the Supreme Court is now an official part of the referendum process, and we may as well ask their opinion before we bother wasting our time voting on anything.

(Also, too: Yet another reason to kill the awful, terrible, no good, very bad revenue cap. I’m just saying.)

Recycling deal held up again

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

Chris Brown

Chris Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Houston’s health care costs

Because dealing with pensions wasn’t enough.

Taxpayers also face a $2.1 billion liability for retiree health care costs in the coming decades, and Houston – like many state and local governments – has not set aside a penny to pay for those promises.

This burden is the city’s “next major long-term fiscal challenge,” according to PFM, a financial analysis firm Houston has hired to recommend ways to shore up its long-shaky books.

Turner said any financial hurdle concerns him, but the far-larger pension problem took precedence, as the city’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey will do now.

“That’s one of many issues that we have to address, but I am very much aware of it,” Turner said. “Let’s just say we tackled the biggest item and then we’ll tackle the other ones as we go. One step at a time.”

These costs for what are known as “Other Post-Employment Benefits” – OPEB for short – have become a growing issue for local governments, thanks to rising health care expenses and an aging population and public workforce. In Houston, retirees comprised a third of all the city’s health care beneficiaries in 2012, up from 18 percent in 1994.

A shift in accounting rules also has played a key role. In 2008, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board began requiring governments to report their retiree health care costs, not as an annual operating expense, but in the same manner as pensions: Trust funds fed by payments from the city and workers on which investment earnings accumulate to pay for benefits over the next few decades.

Houston and many of its peers have never stopped treating the expense as simply an annual bill to be paid, however.

I know nothing about accounting, so I don’t understand the reasoning behind that 2008 change in standards. Be that as it may, the city has a lot more flexibility here in that the Mayor can order changes in the health insurance system. Mayor Parker did exactly that a few years ago, raising premiums and ordering retired employees to enroll in Medicare at age 65. That cut costs by quite a bit at the time, but they have since climbed back up, as health care costs are wont to do. Ultimately, of course, this is a problem that is too big for Houston to solve. Any solution to control health care costs necessarily involves controlling how much doctors and hospitals get paid. In the meantime, entities like Houston will do what they can to manage their own costs, but they’re going to need help in the long run.

Texas v the feds, disaster recovery funding edition

This would be quite entertaining to watch, if the stakes weren’t so high.

Texas Republicans on Friday panned the White House’s latest disaster aid request, with Gov. Greg Abbott calling it “completely inadequate” for the state’s needs in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

President Donald Trump’s administration was quick to respond, calling on the state to pony up its own dollars to help with the recovery.

Unveiled earlier Friday, the request seeks $44 billion from Congress to assist with the Harvey aftermath, as well as the recoveries from other recent hurricanes in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. While not final, the number is far less than the $61 billion proposal that Abbott had submitted for Texas alone to Congress last month.

“What was offered up by Mick Mulvaney and [his Office of Management and Budget] is completely inadequate for the needs of the state of Texas and I believe does not live up to what the president wants to achieve,” Abbott said at a Texas Capitol news conference called to unveil a $5 billion grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“The president has told me privately what he’s said publicly, and that is that he wants to be the builder president,” Abbott added. “The president has said that he wants this to be the best recovery from a disaster ever.”

In Washington, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the amount in the request — and put the onus on Texas to tap its funds for Harvey recovery.

“Up until this point, Texas has not put any state dollars into this process,” Sanders told reporters. “We feel strongly that they should step up and play a role and work with the federal government in this process. We did a thorough assessment and that was completed and this was the number that we put forward to Congress today.”

See here for the background. I would just note that the Republicans have been working hard at passing a huge tax cut for billionaires, so there hasn’t been much time for small stuff like this. Priorities, you know.

There’s one other thing to consider here, which I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere yet, and that’s that this could turn into a big political liability for the Republicans, from Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz to the various members of Congress. The campaign ads write themselves: “Your party controls the government, and you couldn’t get anything done to help with the recovery. What good are you?” Maybe Abbott can survive that, against a low-profile opponent, but I sure wouldn’t want to be John Culberson or Ted Cruz and have that hanging around my neck. Maybe Trump and Congress get their act together on this and turn this into a positive for their team. They certainly have the incentive for it. They just don’t have the track record, or the ideological impulses. Keep an eye on it, that’s all I’m saying. A statement from Mayor Turner is here, and the Chron has more.

Harvey-related good news and bad news

Good news.

An additional $90 million was approved Thursday to help expedite debris removal from Hurricane Harvey along Texas’ devastated Gulf Coast regions, including Houston.

Gov. Greg Abbott and House and Senate leaders announced that the additional “emergency funding” from the state’s General Revenue Account would go to counties to help pay for the removal of storm debris and help speed up the removal process.

They said the additional funding will lessen the burden for debris cleanup on local taxpayers , who now must pay for 10 percent of the total cost. The rest is paid for by the federal government.

“In most cases, even with federal assistance, cities and counties in the impacted areas are responsible for ten percent of costs associated with debris removal,” Abbott’s office said in a statement. “Today’s funding allocation will help alleviate that burden for communities as they continue to rebuild.”

Abbott called the additional funding ” just one more step in a long process to help our cities and counties recover.”

No detail on where the $90 million will be directed was immediately available.

I approve of debris removal, and Lord knows there’s still a lot of it to be removed. Kudos all around.

Bad news.

Houston could be ineligible for future federal housing grants, including disaster recovery funds for Hurricane Harvey, because it has not resolved a federal finding that its housing practices violate civil rights law.

The city has yet to come into compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act nearly a year after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found it in violation, making it automatically ineligible for certain federal housing programs and potentially imperiling its ability to qualify for others, an Austin housing advocacy group said in a demand letter sent to HUD last week.

The Oct. 31 letter alleges Houston’s recent certifications of compliance with civil rights laws – prerequisites for receiving federal funding – are “inaccurate and unsatisfactory,” adding that HUD must withhold funding until the city cooperates.

Such an agreement should include commitments to build more affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods, and train elected and appointed officials on handling community opposition, among other steps, attorney Michael Allen wrote on behalf of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.

“Unless and until voluntary compliance has been reached, HUD must reject any submission or certification by the city regarding compliance with Title VI because, by HUD’s own determination, the city fails to comply with Title VI,” Allen wrote. “HUD is therefore not authorized to continue funding or grant new funding to the city or mayor until the existing findings are resolved and the city is able to make accurate certifications.”

[…]

HUD faulted Mayor Sylvester Turner in January for rejecting a proposed subsidized housing complex near the Galleria, saying his decision “was motivated either in whole or in part by the race, color or national origin of the likely tenants.” HUD also criticized city procedures more broadly for perpetuating segregation, in part by giving to much weight to racially motivated opposition aimed at keeping affordable housing projects out of wealthier neighborhoods.

Turner has sharply criticized the finding, and his legal department in February went as far as asking HUD to withdraw its letter. That has not happened.

“We’re still discussing and going back and forth, but there’s been no final conclusion on it,” the mayor said Wednesday.

Turner, through a spokesman, also doubted HUD actually would pull the plug on funding.

“The mayor is confident HUD realizes the importance of supporting the housing of people displaced by the disaster,” communications director Alan Bernstein wrote in an email.

I hope that’s right, but I’d rather the matter get settled so that it’s not a question. Seems like resolving this ought to be a pretty high priority.

2017 results: City bonds

Pension obligation bonds pass easily.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this development really necessary?

Boy, the optics of this sure are lousy.

CM Brenda Stardig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City buys out some flooded homes

Expect to see more of this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Council passes dumb forced tax cut

This is where we are.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

Another property tax rate dustup

I have four things to say about this:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon and Houston

Does our city have a shot at landing Amazon’s HQ2? Eh, maybe.

Bringing Amazon to Houston almost certainly will be a heavy lift. The pursuit of the company that revolutionized the retail industry has highlighted both the potential and shortcomings of the local technology sector, made up of scattered groups of engineers in the energy, medical and space industries, which account for many of the city’s major innovations, but have yet to break out of their silos to create the kind of culture and buzz that animate tech centers such as Silicon Valley, Austin or Amazon’s hometown of Seattle.

But economic development officials say that regardless of outcome, the bid may well become the catalyst for the kind of innovation ecosystem that pushes the region and its economy into new directions to underpin its long-term prosperity.

“Amazon is a foil for thinking about where you’re trying to take a city,” said Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, which is leading a team of developers, academics, Texas Medical Center executives and real estate brokers juggling a high-stakes bidding war and Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts.

[…]

Houston likely has a tough sell ahead of it. The local startup scene has grown in recent years, but has so far failed to attract the sort of venture capital activity concentrated in Austin and other tech-focused cities. Skeptics point to the city’s consistent failure to develop projects that would substantially expand its technological base and attract major firms such as Microsoft, Google or Dell, all of which have operations in Austin.

Most recently, the University of Texas system’s ambitious plan to transform roughly 300 acres of land near the Medical Center into a cutting-edge data science center failed in the face of intense opposition from University of Houston leaders and state lawmakers. Proponents of the deal blamed political sparring for scuttling a deal that could elevated the city’s chance of developing a more robust technology sector.

“That type of nonsense has to stop,” said Houston developer David Wolff, chairman and president of Wolff Companies. “You have to have the institutions working together.”

But local leaders argue that the city’s growing number of software engineers and computer programmers could complement Amazon’s ambitions as it expands its data science capabilities outside of retail and entertainment. In addition, city officials in recent years have made a push to elevate local startups and draw venture capital investors. Station Houston, a downtown startup incubator and co-working space, has attracted more than 260 member companies since it opened this spring.

The city’s most prominent universities have bolstered their technology programs in recent years to include data science and analytics. The University of Houston-Downtown offers a master’s degree in data analytics, and Rice University has partnered with IBM to develop robotics.

“We are still evolving, and we can grow and design a city with the help of an Amazon to help customize our city to their particular needs, which many other cities cannot do,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in an interview. “We are just now beginning to focus on startups, technology, innovation in a very integrated sense.”

Just between you and me, I don’t think Houston’s odds are very good here, and I won’t be terribly grieved if we are not the chosen city. I think we’d have to give them a pretty substantive bribe incentive package to come here, and I have a hard time with that. (Turns out I’m not the only one who isn’t bullish on our fair city’s chances.) If we’re going to have a broader discussion about making the city more amenable to startups, or to address the infrastructure and transit demands Amazon is making, I’m all in. But let’s leave it at that. Swamplot has more.

Still some fretting about the bonds

Generalized anxiety, nothing specific.

Pro-bond mailer

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Curbside recycling is coming back

Because most of the Harvey debris has been picked up. Win all around.

Houstonians who have been dragging their overflowing recycling bins to the curb every other week only to roll them back again untouched finally should have their cartons and cans hauled off early next month, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday.

City crews and scores of private contractors have trucked more than 1 million cubic yards of Hurricane Harvey debris to area landfills, the mayor said, and are nearing completion on the first of three planned passes to pick up storm waste from thousands of flood victims’ lawns.

That soon should free up city recycling trucks to resume normal collection schedules after suspending the curbside service in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and the widespread flooding it caused, Turner said.

“We’re hoping that we can start picking up the green bins in the month of November, hopefully the first week,” Turner said after the City Council meeting. “We’ll see how things are going, but based on the pace that things are proceeding, we’re thinking we can speed that process up. That’s the plan.”

Here’s the press release announcing this, which has details about the “second pass” of Harvey debris removal. Getting to this point represents a small amount of normalcy being restored. It’s not a big deal, but every little bit helps.

The fire department’s needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endorsement watch: The bonds

Endorsement season has officially begun.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Lift Up Houston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

What the Harvey needs are from the state

It’s not just about recovery. The long term needs, including mitigation against future events like Harvey, is where the real money will need to be spent.

More than one month after Harvey’s deluge hit, local officials, including Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, testified at a state House of Representatives Appropriations Committee hearing that more than $370 million worth of debris removal and repair work on more than 50 government buildings has strained local coffers, necessitating quick aid and reimbursement from the federal or state government.

They also emphasized what likely will greatly exceed the costs of immediate recovery: how to prepare for the next storm. That could include billions of dollars for large-scale buyouts, a third reservoir on Houston’s west side, a reservoir on the Brazos River in Fort Bend County and hundreds of millions of dollars to jump start bayou improvement projects that have slowed in recent years without federal funding.

“There’s going to come a time where we have taken all the money from the feds, we have gotten all the money we’re going to get from the state, and we’re going to have to decide: What kind of community do we want to be?” Emmett said at the hearing.

Harvey’s record-smashing rainfall and floods damaged more than 136,000 homes and other buildings in Harris County and killed nearly 80 people across the state.

The Texas House Appropriations Committee and Urban Affairs Committee met at the University of Houston on Monday to understand public costs and where reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other U.S. Congressional appropriations were being directed in the storm’s wake.

Emmett, Turner and Fort Bend County officials testified, as did Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp, who is coordinating the state’s recovery efforts. The heads of several other state agencies also testified.

The hearing came just three days after Gov. Greg Abbott visited Houston and presented Turner with a check for $50 million. The check almost immediately was spoken for, Turner said, mostly for debris removal and insurance costs.

Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Houston, said Harvey, in theory, qualified as the “perfect reason” to use the state’s so-called “Rainy Day Fund,” a savings account comprised of billions in excess oil and gas taxes.

Abbott had indicated as much last week but said he would tap existing state emergency funds and reimburse them from the Rainy Day Fund when the Legislature next meets in 2019.

“Before the Legislature acts, we need to ensure what the expenses are that the state is responsible for,” Zerwas said.

Yes, that would be nice to know. There were other hearings this week as well.

The first order of business, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told the House Natural Resources Committee, needs to be a flood control plan for the entire state — and the Gulf Coast in particular.

The Texas Water Development Board is already in the process of crafting a statewide flood plan, with the help of $600,000 state lawmakers gave them earlier this year. Lawmakers haven’t yet promised to back any of the projects that end up in the plan.

Emmett, a Republican and former state lawmaker, said Harris County intends to put together its own flood control plan in the meantime, add up the costs of its recommended projects, then see how much the federal and state government want to contribute. He said he’ll be the first to push for a local bond package to make up the difference.

Property taxes are “the most miserable tax created,” Emmett said. “But it’s what we’ve been given to work with so we don’t have a choice.”

Emmett said Harris County’s plan likely will include another major dam to catch runoff during storms and relieve pressure on two existing reservoirs, Addicks and Barker. Those reservoirs, which filled to historic levels during Harvey, flooded thousands of homes that may not have been inundated with additional protections.

Emmett and the city of Houston’s “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, suggested the state tap its savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, to pay for such a project, estimated to cost at least $300 million. (Gov. Greg Abbott has said lawmakers can tap that fund in 2019 or sooner if they need it for Harvey relief; so far, he has written Houston a $50 million out of a state disaster relief fund.)

Costello said Texas should also consider creating a multi-billion dollar fund to support flood control projects similar to one the state’s voters approved in 2013 for water supply projects.

So far all of the talk is constructive, and even Dan Patrick is doing his part. The real test will be whether we follow up on any of this when the Lege reconvenes. Also, while this doesn’t directly answer my question about the SWIFT fund, but it does clearly suggest that it’s not intended for this kind of infrastructure. Which makes sense, given when it was created, but I had wondered if there was some flexibility built in. I would hope there would be plenty of support for a similar fund for flood mitigation.

HFD and disaster preparedness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’re not a thing any more.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Houston gets state recovery funds, property tax rate hike shelved

Was that so hard? I ask you.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

The exchange came as the mayor and governor held a joint City Hall news conference, a sharp departure from the last several days when the pair had traded letters and criticism over each other’s Harvey response.

Turner had tried to pin his proposed tax hike on the state’s unwillingness to tap its $10 billion savings account, while state officials viewed the city as seeking a blank check rather than targeting specific emergency funds in the state budget.

Ultimately, Abbott said he would draw upon a disaster fund within the discretion of his office, producing the $50 million amount Turner had intended to collect from residents’ property taxes.

See here and here for the background. The Trib adds some details.

The money, which comes from the $100 million disaster relief fund appropriated to Abbott’s office during the last legislative session, will go toward immediate relief needs such as reconstruction, Abbott and Turner said at a joint news conference in Houston. Abbott said long-term recovery and preventive measures would be funded by the federal government and the state’s $10 billion savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, but not until exact costs for recovery are known.

“The time to use the thrust of the Rainy Day Fund is when the expenses are known,” Abbott said. “So the members of the Legislature know how best to use the Rainy Day Fund.”

[…]

During the Friday news conference, Abbott said there “is a possibility for a special session” to allocate funds for recovery and prevention once those costs are better known.

“Now that the hurricane winds are calm … it’s time that we begin the process of rebuilding Texas, and that’s a tall task,” Abbott said. “This is what the state of Texas is for … We’re proud to be here wearing the same jersey working for the same team.”

Still, Abbott said the $10 billion Rainy Day Fund would only be able to cover a “fraction of the costs” of longer term recovery and prevention. Turner added that he and Abbott have discussed future preventative measures such as a third reservoir for flood waters, which could cost up to $400 million, and expanding bayous, which could cost $311 million. The two said they have also discussed a “coastal spine” — a protective seawall and floodgate system — along the coast, which Turner estimated to be a roughly $12 billion project.

So the money ultimately came from a funding source Abbott controlled, not the Rainy Day Fund, though as noted there may be some use of that later on. I don’t care what the provenance of the money is, but I do wonder why this was handled so clumsily by Abbott. Was this always what he intended to do but just never could explain it lucidly, or was this where he ended up after realizing how ridiculous he looked? I have no idea. That said, one must give credit where it is due, so kudos to Abbott for eventually figuring this out and doing the right thing. Even bigger kudos to Mayor Turner for getting the job done. This is what we elected him for.

Abbott says he wants a list from Turner

A list of funding priorities, he says. Because he’s passive like that.

Answering Houston’s latest complaints over funding for Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts, Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday told Mayor Sylvester Turner the state can step up with more money as soon as the city gets a list of its top needs to the state.

Let’s meet quickly, Abbott said, as the deadline for an initial wave of federal funding is Friday.

After some verbal back-and-forth between the two leaders in recent days over funding for debris removal among other costs, Abbott wrote a four-page letter to Turner late Tuesday outlining seven different federal programs under which Houston will qualify for additional hurricane relief — from small-business disaster loans to special unemployment assistance to funding to help with food and housing needs.

[…]

“The Economic Stabilization Fund (the official name of the Rainy Day Fund) is a limited resource, and so it is imperative we understand the statewide financial situation before draining the fund only to learn of more financial obligations,” Abbott said in his letter.

“As of now it would be impossible to determine the highest and best use of ESF, because we do not yet know the extent of the losses . . . Texas should first use the full array of state financial resources and federal resources already available already available to us to respond to our current needs.

“Those tools should sufficient to respond to our needs, and Texans’ needs, until the next (legislative) session at which time a supplemental budget can be passed to pay for the expenses Texas has incurred. That supplemental budget will almost assuredly require using money from the Rainy Day Fund.”

See here for the background. I have no idea if Abbott felt a sensation akin to “shame” or “political pressure”, or if this story follows on the heels of the other one simply because there was information made available subsequently that added to the original picture. Be that as may, to address the substance of Abbott’s letter, let me first point you to this story in the Press:

Turner did give Abbott at least three specific examples of how Houston could use the Rainy Day Fund money in his letter Monday. For one, debris removal is projected to cost Houston $25 million, since FEMA is picking up 90 percent of the projected $250 debris removal tab. Turner has said structural damage to city buildings is now in the ballpark of $175 million — but meanwhile, the city’s flood insurance plan capped out at $100 million. In order to extend the plan through April 2018, so that the city still has flood insurance should another tropical storm make landfall this year, that’ll cost $10 million. The city must also pay a $15 million insurance deductible to recover on damages.

The mayor’s spokesman, Alan Bernstein, said that if the state were to hand over the $50 million to cover these insurance and debris removal costs, that is all the city is asking for and there will be no need to raise taxes.

$50 million is less than half of a percent of the total fund.

Is that list-y enough for you, Greg? Author Megan Flynn did a nice job of talking to some fiscal conservative types, none of whom could think of a good reason not to tap into the Rainy Day Fund for this. Note also that allocating $50 million from the $10 billion fund would “drain” it in the same way that spending a nickel on a piece of gum would “drain” a $10 bill.

The Chron editorial board, which reaches back to the 70s for a good analogy, also has a few minor corrections for our only Governor.

The governor rejected Turner’s request. He and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, another Houstonian, have said the mayor can use funds held by Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones for Harvey cleanup and recovery efforts. They’re mistaken. TIRZ bond funds are legally restricted to the use for which they were issued.

The governor has said the mayor’s request is unprecedented. Again, he’s mistaken. In 2013, the Legislature tapped into the Rainy Day Fund to help the Bastrop area recover from devastating wildfires. Bastrop County residents will tell you those fires were bad, but they didn’t cause damage expected to top $150 billion. That’s the toll Harvey wrought.

The governor has said the state has given Houston money. Again, he’s mistaken. The money that’s come our way is FEMA money destined for Houston and passed through the state, which keeps more than 3 percent for administrative costs. No state money has been allocated to the city for Harvey recovery.

Other than the folly of calling either Abbott of Patrick a “Houstonian” – Abbott has lived in Austin for all 20+ years of his political career, while Patrick is a “Houstonian” in the way all rich old white guys in the far flung master-planned communities and who think all cities are cesspools of crime and corruption because they don’t have enough rich old white guys like them living in them – I agree. What Abbott wants more than anything is a pretext to not do anything. If these falsehoods don’t work, I’m sure he’ll have others at the ready. The Observer has more.

Abbott has no interest in helping Houston

So much for that.

If the state taps into the Rainy Day Fund to help with recovery following Hurricane Harvey, it won’t be until the next legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott said during a news conference Tuesday.

Abbott’s announcement comes after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wrote to the governor asking the state to use the $10 billion fund. Turner said without significant state help, Houston will be forced to raise property taxes for one year to bring in $50 million for recovery efforts, which would cost the owner of an average Houston house $48.

Turner said he would not have proposed the tax hike had the governor called a special session to tap into the fund.

Abbott, who has said the state has enough resources to address Harvey-related needs between now and the next legislative session, added Tuesday that the state has already granted Houston almost $100 million for debris removal and established an “accelerated reimbursement program” for recovery efforts.

Abbott said he would pay any invoice the city submits to the state within 10 days.

Turner “has all the money that he needs,” Abbott said. “He just needs to tap into it,” referring to money in Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones.

In an emailed statement Tuesday, Turner spokesman Alan Bernstein said Houston “cannot raid funds that the state has indicated cannot be raided – and which are largely for drainage projects to prevent future flooding anyway.”

Remember when we were talking about how Harvey has changed things in the state? Boy, those were the days. I believe this should settle once and for all what the Rainy Day Fund is for: Absolutely nothing. It’s an illusion. We should take all the money in this fund, convert it to gold bullion, and bury it in Greg Abbott’s backyard, perhaps next to one of the wells he had drilled to water his lawn during droughts. That would do us as much good as the fund actually does now. Maybe this might inspire someone to run against Abbott. It’s as easy an issue as you’ll get to run on. In any event, we’re on our own, because special sessions are for potties but not hurricane recovery. Thanks, Abbott!

UPDATE: Also, too, other parts of the state are in really bad shape. Sure, there’s insurance and FEMA and charity and volunteers, and all of those things should be utilized to the maximum. But does that mean the state gets off the hook, or that it just gets to sit back and wait to see what’s left over, which it then may get around to helping out with if it feels like it and if it doesn’t feel “blackmailed” by local officials who are trying to do their jobs? The lack of leadership here is as deep and pervasive as the rainfall was a month ago.