New Harris County Clerk pitches countywide voting centers

By Zach Despart

New Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman on Tuesday will propose to Commissioners Court a non-precinct based countywide polling system, where voters can cast ballots at the locations most convenient to them.

“Life gets in the way; you’ve got to pick up the kids, or go to another job,” Trautman said at her office Monday. “But if people actually had a choice of when and where to vote, I think you would see a big difference in turnout.”

In last November’s mid-term election, Harris County residents could vote at any of 46 county locations during the two-week early voting period. They had to cast ballots at their assigned precincts on Election Day, when the county operates more than 700 polling sites.

It is unclear how many voting centers would be needed, which could vary depending on what is on the ballot and projected turnout. Trautman said she would begin by using the county’s 46 early voting locations as Election Day voting centers, in addition to its precinct polling sites. Her office, she said, would use the resulting turnout data to make future decisions about the number of centers needed.

During her campaign, Trautman pitched voting centers as a way to increase turnout by 2 to 5 percent. She said voters are more likely to participate when they can cast ballots on Election Day near their work or school, which may be outside their precincts.

Former county clerk Stan Stanart, whom Trautman defeated last November, was open to moving to countywide polling places. He said in October that the option is available only because the county moved to electronic poll books on his watch. Without the modified iPads, which can communicate with each other so voters cannot cast ballots at multiple locations, each polling place would need a paper record of the county’s 2.3 million voters.

Trautman declined to set a deadline to complete the switch to voting centers, so as not to rush the process. She said she plans to start with lower-turnout elections, such as May school board balloting or November’s Houston city races, and evaluate the results. She said to debut the program during a presidential election, when more than 1 million voters regularly turn out, would be irresponsible.

The new clerk said she has studied Travis County’s voting centers model, which debuted in 2011, and hired away Michael Winn, that county’s elections director. Winn said voters needed several cycles to get used to the new system, which he said eventually boosted turnout 10 to 12 percent.

“Voters really enjoyed the fact that during lunchtime or after work, in that crunch time before polls close … vote centers make it so they can go without worry to a place within their proximity,” Winn said.

Through studying turnout patterns and consulting with neighborhood leaders, Winn said Travis County was able to close about 20 percent of its traditional polling places without hampering turnout.

Trautman said she is open to consolidating Harris County polling sites, but only after consulting with communities. She acknowledged the role polling places play in the civic fabric of neighborhoods — especially where residents once had been denied suffrage — and said she would leave open sites that hold such significance.

The Harris County Democratic Party endorsed the proposal, and a spokeswoman said County Judge Lina Hidalgo supports the idea. A spokesman for the county Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.

More than a dozen community members have signed up to speak about the issue at Commissioners Court on Tuesday.

Among them is AJ Durrani of the Empowering Communities Initiative, which represents nine local Asian-American groups. He urged the clerk’s office to ensure there are enough voting centers in minority communities. A miscommunication between a Korean-American group and poll workers during early voting this past November in Spring Branch led to scores of voters being denied translation services.

“There are churches all over the place for voting on election day, why not some of the ethnic community centers?” Durrani said.

Another resident who signed up to speak encouraged the county to recruit mosques as polling sites.

Kyle Longhofer, a former Democratic Party official and election judge in Fort Bend County, said the switch to voting centers there in 2016 cut down on the number of provisional ballots cast by voters who arrived at the wrong polling places. Provisional ballots are segregated from regular votes, and often are challenged and thrown out.

“You hate to see people waste their vote,” Longhofer said.

Harris and other Texas counties in 2020 also must grapple with the consequences of the Legislature’s decision to eliminate straight-ticket voting, which increases the time needed to cast a ballot. Even though 76 percent of Harris County voters cast straight-ticket ballots in November, long lines dismayed voters during early voting and on Election Day.

Trautman said she expects the early voting centers to alleviate that problem. If a location is crowded, she reasoned, election workers can direct voters to a nearby polling place with a shorter wait.

The voting centers are Trautman’s first major proposal as county clerk since taking office Jan. 1. Rearranged furniture and half-hung portrait frames show her staff still has much moving in to do at its Caroline Street office, but Trautman said she was eager deliver on campaign pledges. She also plans eventually to replace the county’s aging voting machines.

 

What to watch in the Texas Legislature 

A new session of the Texas Legislature gets under way Tuesday and with it will come a new House Speaker, some new members, plenty of new committee heads and a brand-new opportunity for Texas to address some of its longest-standing and most urgent challenges.

Those challenges form a list much longer than there will be resources - from dollars to political capital - available to address them. 

Dennis Bonnen New Republican Speaker of the House

Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angelton, is expected to be elected Speaker of the House,He will be the new member of the triumvirate ( Govenor, Leiutenant Governor, and Speaker) that traditionally sets the tone for each session. Bonnen is a conservative but was a top lieutenant of outgoing Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate Republican. Their styles were different: Bonnen was known as the hammer to Straus’ scalpel. 

Bonnen, a banker and most recently chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, will be leading a strongly conservative House, but one that added new Democrats to the mix after the midterms in November.

Education funding and tax reform

Everybody seems to agree that Texas’ dilapidated school finance system should be fixed — they just can’t agree on how. Complicating the issue is that some Republicans want to provide property tax relief this session by capping the growth of local property taxes, the largest source of education funding. 

Texans want a break on property taxes. Texas has no income tax, so the burden falls disproportionately on property taxpayers, who pay more as their property values increase. 

Still, a few developments give confidence that the Legislature will address the education funding system this time around. Not only has Abbott pledged that Texas will spend more money on education, Bonnen, the incoming speaker, has vowed to make school finance his No. 1 priority this session. Business leaders across the state, whose success is tied to an educated workforce, are speaking out in support.

True reform of the Education Funding Syatem will accomplish the basics — such as updating old formulas to reflect the true cost of educating Texas’ diverse population — but it will also make the necessary investments for excellence.

Hurricane Harvey

This session marks the state’s first opportunity to help fund massive infrastructure projects and pass regulatory changes that could make our city and state safer during the next major hurricane.

Criminal justice reform

Congress recently passed its own prison- and sentencing-reform law, plenty of credit was paid to Texas as an exemplar of what could be done.

A slate of members, including two from Houston, filed legislation last time around to end civil asset forfeiture, similar legislation is expected this year. Law enforcement groups are likely to fight once again to keep the program in place, given that current law allows agencies to use proceeds from seized property to fund operations. The trouble is, sometimes the property owners lose what’s theirs even if they are never charged — much less convicted of a crime. 

Expect to see discussion, too, about whether bail reform ought to be addressed by a statewide set of rules, or perhaps ones that apply to our biggest cities.

Unincorporated Harris County

The challenges of unincorporated Harris County are nothing new. For decades neighborhoods have sprouted up in the vast prairie west of Houston without any formal municipal governmental structure. Special districts have provided basic needs, such as neighborhood streets and water. The county government picked up the rest -- notably law enforcement and roads. No mayors. No city halls. No local sales taxes.

Hurricane Harvey revealed the weaknesses of these special districts to meet residents’ needs and the ongoing fight over property taxes has the county looking for another way to pay for services.

 

Governor Abbott's property Tax Relief Plan 2019

 

https://www.gregabbott.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/PropertyTaxReform.pdf

 

 

City's Net Assets Plunge by over $1 Billion

 

A few days before Christmas, the City of Houston released its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) for FY2017-2018. In recent years, the City's standard operating procedure has been to release the CAFR over the holidays to minimize the attention it will receive because the news is generally not good.

This year is no different. The City's net position, that is, the difference between all of its assets and all of its liabilities, fell by just over $1 billion. About $300 million of the reduction was an operating loss, i.e., current expenses exceeded current revenues. The balance was due to a change in the accounting rules for the expense of providing health benefits to the City's retirees (commonly referred to as "OPEB"). As of the end of FY2017-2018, the City's net assets stood at $762 million.[i] The City's unrestricted net position hit a negative $6.45 billion, the largest unrestricted deficit in the City's history.[ii]

The City's operating loss of $300 million came notwithstanding that the City's revenue rose by $209 million, a 4.3% increase over FY2016-2017. Sales tax revenues were up by 6.6%. Notwithstanding this robust increase in revenue, I am sure that Turner and others will renew their call to repeal the property tax cap and raise your property taxes even more.

 This year's CAFR once again confirms that the City is on an unsustainable fiscal trajectory. Chris Brown, in his introduction to the CAFR, bluntly states that the City's budget is not structurally balanced and relies on accounting gimmicks to "balance" the budget each year. He is right. If we don't get our arms around the City's financial problems, they will adversely affect our City's long-term growth and competitiveness.

[i] Some of you may recall that in 2016, the CAFR showed for the first time in its history that the City's net position was a deficit. In 2017, the City booked a $1.9 billion gain from the changes to its pension plans. I won't get into the bizarre world of pension accounting here, but simultaneously with booking this gain, the City also deferred $1.7 billion of pension expenses to be recognized over the next five years, which in my opinion makes the gain booked by the City in 2017 completely bogus. Click here to see the CAFR disclosure on the deferred pension expense.

[ii] A governmental entity's "unrestricted net position" is calculated by subtracting its capital assets and those funds that are legally restricted to a particular purpose. It is not unusual for a governmental entity to have a negative balance in its unrestricted net position; however the size of Houston's deficit at over $6 billion is alarming.

 

 

 


 

 

Blue Wave sinks Harris County

 

Tuesday November 6th a Blue Wave Hit Harris County. The County lost all it’s major positions to the Democrats. Our new County Judge is a 27-year-old with no true job experience. This is the person who will be handling Billions of Dollars in Harvey Relief Monies and making decisions as to how the money will be spent. Not only did we lose these seats we lost every single Judges position on the ballot except JP Place 2 Judge Korduba. We  even elected Socialist Democrat Franklin Bynum who ran as a Democrat to Harris County Criminal Court 8. He believes the bail system is unfair and people should be free to walk the streets till their trial date even if they beat someone up in commission of a robbery ( Hey they didn’t kill anyone right?)

So, what happened? Here’s what happened.

 1) We didn’t vote Straight Ticket 500K Democrats vs. 400K Republicans voted Straight Ticket, giving Democrats a 100,000-vote margin and the result was a down-ballot sweep

2) Not only did we not vote straight ticket we were too lazy to go through the whole Ballot and do our Civic Duty and vote for the Judges. This year we had the longest Ballot in the State and we didn’t go through the ballot and vote for the judges.

In 2020 there will be no straight ticket option we have to go through the ballot and vote or we will lose all the time.

4) We didn’t flood the Polls and the Democrats did. Why didn’t we flood the Polls the same old tired excuses we always hear come to mind, I don’t need to vote others will do it for me (and yes, they certainly did) I’m a Never Trumper and I will not help him ( How about helping yourself did you ever think about that), I’m just too tired after working all day ( You had two weeks of Early Voting plus Election Day surly you weren’t that tired every day. I bet you made time to go out to dinner,) and lastly my vote doesn’t matter ( Every Vote Matters just look at Broward County they are counting and Devining every vote. Even votes made by people inelgibile to vote. ).

Well Folks Elections have Consequences just like President Obama stated and boy will we be facing severe Consequences in the city and the county. Our courts have now been completely changed. Many of these new judges don’t like the death penalty for murder, they don’t believe in bail or holding criminals, or prosecuting Illegal Immigrants. The grownups who ran the county finances are now gone. Our new County Judge never dealt with finances she was a language interpreter. She hadn’t even lived in the county or state prior to running, her parents lived here, she has been pursuing degrees in law and public policy at NYU and Harvard over the last few years. She came back from MA. to get on the Ballot to run and then went back to school and returned this summer from MA. after school to campaign. Now that she has won, she says she has decided to put her degrees on hold ( I guess we should be greatful for that.).  I have to wonder does she have any idea what the county is like or even how it runs she has never attended a Commissioners Court ( If I wanted to be a County Judge I would of made it a point to go to Commissioners Court several times to see what the job entails.).

Lastly if you liked the announced projects that our Harvey Bond Issue was going to cover hang on to your hats because our new County Judge has stated she has yet to determine whether to make changes to the projects list for the $2.5 billion flood protection bond voters approved in August ( I wonder if she has even read it or voted in the election.).

So, folks we will be riding the Blue Wave the next two years you better put on your water wings or jump in your boat as we are heading into rough water.

 

 

There will be layoffs: Houston mayor, City Council discuss passage of Prop B

A clearly frustrated Houston mayor warned Wednesday of pending layoffs after voters approved a measure aimed at pairing the pay of city firefighters with that of their police counterparts.

The measure, listed on the ballot as Proposition B, passed with a 19-point margin Tuesday.

Mayor Sylvester Turner began the discussion Wednesday by recognizing that the voters have spoken and that the city must now figure out how to pay for the annual $100 million being added to the budget.

“That is a huge mountain to climb,” Turner said. “I will be very, very honest and very candid with you, I don’t know how we’re going to pay for it.”

During Wednesday’s council meeting, Turner said the Fire Department will be the first place he will look for the money to cover the measure. He said he has already instructed Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena to move the department to a three-shift rotation instead of four and look at other ways to reduce costs. He also said there will not be any new personnel hired at the department any time soon.

“It doesn’t make sense to bring on anyone and then have to lay people off,” Turner said.

Turner said officials are looking at how to rework the classification of employees within the Fire Department to determine how layoffs will proceed, which will have to be approved by the City Council.
There is still much to be discussed and decided, Turner said, but he said one thing is for sure – major changes are required.

“We did not ask for this, but we are obligated to balance our books,” Turner said, looking around the room at the council members. “It will be a disruption of services. It will be. There will be layoffs.”

Council members agreed that they will wait to move forward on the issue for two weeks while all of the options are weighed.

Turner said his understanding is that the new ordinance takes effect Jan.

 

 

Turner's Former Law Partner to be Paid $6.7 Million

in Legal Fees from Harvey Disaster Funds

 

If you have not watched Ted Oberg's story on the $35 million contract for Harvey "outreach services" Sylvester Turner is asking Council to approve, please go right now and watch it (click on image below).  If you are like me, you will probably feel like you need to take a shower afterward.

The contract is for "outreach, intake and case management services" related to potential applicants for the federal housing disaster money that is supposed to start showing up in Houston in the near future.  $35 million is a lot of outreach, intake and case management.

The contract is with a company named ICF, which specializes in disaster recovery services but has a spotty reputation.  The company has been sued for over $200 million by the State of Louisiana for work it did after Hurricane Katrina and, according to the Times Picayune, was banned from doing business in Louisiana.

This proposed contract stinks in so many ways it is hard to know where to start.  But where the stink is the worst is in the involvement of Turner's former law partner, Barry Barnes. Amazingly, out of the roughly 60,000 lawyers in Harris County, ICF just happened to choose Turner's former lawyer to handle the legal work relating to the outreach program.  I am not exactly sure what legal work would be needed to do outreach to flood victims, but it is hard to imagine it would be very extensive.

The original materials submitted to the City Council's Housing Committee indicated that Barnes was to perform "limited legal services" for fees "to be determined."  On two occasions during the hearing, the Housing Department staff assured the Committee that Barnes was providing "limited legal services."

But according to Oberg, there was a proposed contract with Barnes that would pay him a whopping $2.7 million.  That is shocking enough, but incredibly by the time the proposal got to City Council, Oberg says Barnes' proposed fees had grown to over $6.7 million.  Why on earth would you need $6.7 million of legal services for what is basically a program to identify and help people fill out grant application forms?

At the Housing Committee hearing, ICF's proposed price was $27 million.  But by the time the request got to City Council the cost had increased to nearly $35 million. Does anyone believe that the dramatic increase in Barnes' fees was unrelated to ICF jacking up its price to the City?

Turner claims that he had nothing to do with the procurement process and it was just happenstance that his former law partner was selected by ICF to be paid $6.7 million for providing "limited legal services."  Right.

A few other facts about the proposal you need to know: The Housing Department admitted ICF was not the low bidder.  There was no bid process to select the subcontractors.  And, of course, several of the subcontractors have dutifully made large campaign contributions to Turner and other members of City Council.

The City of Houston expects to receive over a billion dollars of federal aid for Harvey disaster recovery over the next several years.  This is hardly an auspicious start.  If the very first contract out of the blocks lines the pockets of Turner's former law partner with $6.7 million in legal fees, one can only assume that graft will be endemic in the administration of the balance of the billion dollars of flood relief.  No wonder state and federal authorities are questioning the City's ability to administer such a massive program competently and without wholesale corruption.  This has got to make them even more reluctant to turn over disaster money to the City.

  Folks, this out of control.  This is the worst corruption I have seen in over 40 years of watching City Hall.  But what makes this particularly disgusting is that it is being done at the expense of thousands who are still suffering from Harvey.  How many families' homes could be repaired for $6.7 million?

  How can anyone on City Council vote for this abomination and ever look at themselves in a mirror again . . .  or in the eyes of one of their Harvey-affected constituents still waiting on help?

I don't ask you to do this often, but please forward this email to everyone in your address book.  Oberg did a great job digging this out.  We need to make sure everyone in the City knows about this travesty.

 

Rebuild Houston Has Not Paid Down One Penny on the City's Debt

by Bill King

One of the greatest hoaxes ever foisted on the Houston public is the claim that the Rebuild Houston program has paid down $1 billion of the City's bond debt.  In reality it has not paid down one penny on the debt.  Here are the facts.

  According to the City's June 30, 2017 audit, the City's total bond debt as of June 30, 2011 (the last fiscal year before Rebuild went into effect) was $12.3 billion.  As of June 30, 2017, that bond debt had risen to $13.5 billion, a nearly $1.2 billion increase.  And since then, the voters have authorized another $1.4 billion dollars in bonds which have either been issued since then or will be in the near future.  

To be fair, the intent of Rebuild Houston was to reduce only one specific category of bond debt, an account referred to as "Public Improvement Bonds" (PIB).  These are the bonds that the City has issued to general improvements like streets, drainage, parks, city buildings, etc.  For decades the City issued bonds to build these various improvements and then reissued new bonds as the old ones paid off to start new projects.

  There was never any intention that any funds from Rebuild Houston would actually go to pay down the PIB bonds.  Rather, the City would stop issuing new bonds for streets and drainage and consequently the PIB debt would begin to go down as the City retired those bonds from the General Fund.  The theory was that as the balance was reduced, the City would save money from having lower bond payments and those savings would be transferred to Rebuild to fund streets and drainage on a pay-as-you-go basis.  

But what the Rebuild advocates did not count on was that the City would step up its issuance of PIBs for other purposes.  As result, there has been only a minuscule reduction of the PIB balance, and therefore no consequential savings from the hoped-for reduced debt payments.   Again, referring to the schedule of the City's debt in its latest audit, it shows that the PIB debt in 2011 was $2.468 billion.  By 2017 the PIB debt had only been reduced by $67 million to $2.401 billion, a 2.7% decrease.  But the average outstanding debt during the time Rebuild has been in effect has actually been $70 million higher than what was owed in 2011.

So, how in the world do City officials stand up with a straight face and claim Rebuild has paid down a billion dollars of debt when the debt is just as high as it was before the Rebuild program was implemented?  You might want to take a couple of aspirin before reading the explanation, because their contorted justification of this claim is likely to give you a headache.  

When Rebuild was adopted, there was an accounting problem.  No one knew how much of the $2.4 billion of outstanding PIB debt related to streets and drainage.  So, they had to make an estimate.  They settled on assigning 70% of the then-outstanding PIB debt to streets and drainage.  

Each year thereafter, the outstanding debt "attributed" to streets and drainage was reduced by 70% of principal payments made on all PIB bonds.  So, by the end of FY2018, the theoretical amount of the PIBs attributed under this estimate to streets and drainage had been reduced from about $1.8 billion to just over a $1 billion.  Of course, that still does not get you to a billion dollars.  So, to further exaggerate their claim, they also added the interest payments made over that time.

  So, in the City's financial alchemy, a billion dollars of principal and interest payments made from the General Fund, and which the City would have had to make whether Rebuild was ever enacted or not, has been magically transformed into Rebuild paying down a billion dollars of City debt.  What utter horse hockey. 

  The financial antics of the City would be comical if this were not so serious.  In 2017 and 2018, the City cut infrastructure spending over $180 million from the 2016 level, a reduction of over 20%.  And this reduction was made notwithstanding that the City's revenue increased in both years.  The failure of the City to invest in its infrastructure has a direct impact on the daily lives of Houstonians, particularly when it comes to protecting us from flooding.

  Our City officials should spend their time trying to actually fix our streets and drainage instead cooking the books in a vain attempt to justify a program that is clearly an abject failure. 

 

 

Harris County Republican Party Chair Urges Democrat Voter Registrar to

Stop Confusing Voters and Follow the Law

Laments Democrat Voter Registrar Incompetence and Asks if Democrats Actually Live in UPS Stores

HOUSTON - Paul Simpson, Harris County Republican Party Chair, today responded to false attacks by the Harris County Democrat Party and others trying to pin the blame on Republicans for mistakes by Democrat Harris County Voter Registrar Ann Harris Bennett who wrongfully suspended thousands of voter registrations, and trying to intimidate citizen volunteers from following Texas law:

“Democrat Voter Registrar Ann Harris Bennett’s records lists thousands of voters registered at locations that do not seem to be residences, including UPS stores, churches without residences, industrial facilities, and the Harris County Jail. Volunteer Harris County Republican Ballot Security Chairman Alan Vera exercised his right as a registered voter to ask Ms. Bennett to verify these addresses - a request that Texas law allows only a registered voter to make. The list of addresses included voters of all stripes - even a Republican precinct chair.

“In response, the Democrat Voter Registrar mistakenly suspended the registration of thousands of voters.

“The Harris County Democrat Party then claimed Mr. Vera’s request had ‘changed the registration status’ of thousands of Democrat voters, when the list was party-neutral and it was the Democrat Voter Registrar who had suspended those registrations. More disturbingly, a Democrat partisan then published online the personal information of party volunteers who work with Mr. Vera, in a vain attempt to intimidate them.

“We will not be intimidated. It is inexcusable that Democrat Ann Harris Bennett failed to follow the law. She should not have suspended voters’ registrations. And the outrageous doxing and threats against Republican volunteers by leftists only hardens our resolve to fight their dirty tricks.

“This also shows that the Harris County Democrat Party doesn’t understand the law, and traffics in ‘fake news’ in a futile effort to gin up support for dismal Democrat candidates dedicated to failed left wing policies that Texans reject. Or do Democrat voters actually live in UPS stores, industrial facilities, and the Harris County jail?

“Democrat Voter Registrar Ann Harris Bennett should NOT have jumped the gun by suspending those voters’ registrations. Instead, the law requires her to give them 30 days to respond to a written inquiry about their residence, to ensure they vote in the right jurisdictions. We urge Democrat Ann Harris Bennett to follow the law and quit violating voters’ rights.”

Background:

Texas Election Code does not permit local registrars to question the eligibility of registered voters based on residency, but registrars are required to act on challenges to the registration of other voters in their county initiated by local citizens. Texas Election Code Section 16.033 states a county registrar “may use any lawful means to investigate whether a registered voter is currently eligible for registration in the county,” but it“does not authorize an investigation of eligibility that is based solely on residence.” If the challenge is based on residence, Section 16.0921 says “the registrar shall promptly deliver to the voter whose registration is challenged a confirmation notice.” Section 16.0921 says that if the voter fails to respond to the registrar’s notice within 30 days from the date the notice was mailed, “the registrar shall enter the voter’s name on the suspense list.” Bennett appears to not have followed the statute to provide voters 30 days to respond, but instead suspended registrations immediately. 

 

 

 

 

 

Harris County releases $2.5B flood bond project list, two days before voting begins

The Harris County Flood Control District on Monday released its complete list of projects that would be funded by the county's $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond proposal, two days before early voting on the measure begins.

The 237 projects include $1.2 billion for channel improvements, $401 million for detention basins, $242 million for floodplain land acquisition, $12.5 million for new floodplain mapping and $1.25 million for an improved early flood warning system.

Matt Zeve, the flood control district's operations director, said the vast majority of projects will address problems engineers identified years or decades ago but lacked the funding to tackle. The flood control district's budget totals just $120 million annually.

"It's always been OK, how do we afford to solve these problems?" Zeve said. "With the bond, we'll have funds to solve some of these drainage and flooding issues.

If approved, the bond would be the largest local investment in flood infrastructure since Hurricane Harvey flooded more than 154,000 Harris County homes a year ago. Voting begins Wednesday and concludes on Saturday, Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of the storm's landfall.

The bond also would put $184 million, coupled with more than $500 million in outside funding, to purchase around 3,600 buildings in the floodplain. It would not pay for a third reservoir to complement the Addicks and Barker reservoirs in west Houston, but would chip in $750,000 to help the Army Corps of Engineers study the idea.

Thirty-eight projects were added based on ideas from residents at more than two-dozen public meetings this summer. These include $6 million to improve flow in Horsepen Bayou, $15 million to do the same in Brays Bayou and $30 million to design and build new bridges over Buffalo Bayou.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the additions to the projects list proved that the flood control district was serious about incorporating ideas from residents.

"We said from the start that we recognized that this effort was going to have to be as transparent as anything the county has ever done," Emmett said in a statement.

More than 4,500 residents attended the meetings, according to the flood control district's head count. They submitted around 2,400 comments and made 682 requests for flood infrastructure maintenance.

The flood control district left $500 million un-allocated on the projects list. Zeve said while engineers initially planned to draw down that sum as more projects were added, the flood control district decided to leave room for new projects over the 10- to 15-year lifespan of the bond.

"We want to give ourselves some wiggle room," Zeve said.

The proposal is a gamble by Harris County Commissioners Court, whose members are betting residents see the value in a significant investment in the area's flood management system. There is no option for skeptical voters to approve a smaller sum.

If different funding sources become available, such as through the state or federal government, the county may not need to borrow the full $2.5 billion. Emmett said last month that $700 to $900 million of the bond would be used to secure federal matching funds, potentially netting the county an additional $2 billion to spend on flood infrastructure.

The bond will increase property taxes for homeowner 2 to 3 cents per $100 of assessed home value, according to county budget analysts. Those who are disabled or above the age of 65, and whose home is worth less than $200,000, would pay no additional taxes.

For a full list of the 237 Projects approved by Harris County Flood Control

https://www.hcfcd.org/media/2907/2018bondprojectlist2018-08-06-1130.pdf

 

"Let's Raise Taxes for More Police":  We Saw this Movie in 2006

Last week it was suggested that Houston voters should agree to pay more in property taxes in order to hire more police. We have already done that once, in 2006.  Perhaps before we rush to allow the City to increase property taxes by more than the 4.5% annual amount the City charter now allows we should take a look at how that 2006 increase worked out.

As most of you know, in 2004, Houston voters amended the City charter to keep the City from raising property taxes by more than the sum of inflation and population increase. In 2006, the City came back to voters and asked for an additional $90 million above that cap, in perpetuity. That is to say, $90 million would be added to the calculation of the 2004 cap each year in the future. That extension of the cap has now been in place for 11 years, so Houston taxpayers have forked over nearly a billion additional dollars over the original cap for "public safety."

How much additional public safety has our nearly one billion dollars bought us? Turns out, not so much.

FY2006-2007 was the last year before the City began collecting the extra $90 million each year. According to the City's annual reports, since 2007 the City added a whopping 20 employees to the police department's payroll, a three-tenths of one percent increase (0.3%). [ii] Seventy police officers and forty-five cadets have been added, but the number of civilian employees and cadets have fallen by ninety-five, meaning that more officers have been transferred from patrol and investigation to administrative jobs.

Of course, the HPD budget has risen significantly, going from $576 million in 2007 to $827 million this year, a 44% increase. The budget for personnel has grown from $535 million to $782 million, a 46% increase. The average per-employee personnel cost (salary plus all benefits) has grown from $85,283 to $123,553.  

Based on any objective measure I can find, there is no evidence that these added expenses have made the police department more efficient. The number of arrests made by HPD fell from 122,000 in 2007 to just under 52,000 last year, a 57% decrease. It issued 544,000 fewer tickets last year than in 2007, a 58% decline. The City only started reporting clearance rates in the budgets in 2012. That year, HPD cleared 18.6% of "Part I" offenses (all violent crime plus burglary and auto theft). In its budget request this year, HPD estimated it had cleared 13.4% in FY2016-2017. HPD estimates of its response times have not changed significantly.

Nor is it true that HPD is significantly understaffed compared to other cities. According to a 2016 Governing Magazine study, the ten largest cities in the US have an average of 25 officers per 10,000 residents. Houston has 22 and is, therefore, 12% below the average. However, there are three cities, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia which are significantly above the average at 42, 43 and 41, respectively. If you drop those three out, the average of the remaining cities is 21, slightly below Houston.  

Of course, it is patently absurd to compare Houston to New York in terms of police staffing because of all of the special risks New York faces, e.g., the United Nations. Chicago and Philadelphia have violent crime rates that are roughly equivalent to Houston's, indicating that their larger forces have not accomplished much. It is also worth noting that these three cities have the largest negative net deficits of all U.S. cities. So, they should hardly be examples by which we should manage our city.

The next five largest cities in Texas have an average of 15 officers per 10,000, well below Houston. Among the five, only Dallas is higher at 25.

  So, does Houston need more police officers?  Probably.  But personally I am fed up with throwing more money at the police department with no accountability.  I mean, have you ever heard anyone at the City ask why arrests are down by 57% in the last ten years, including a 16% drop last year?  Have you heard anyone ask HPD why the violent crime clearance rate is down by nearly 5% in the last six years?  I certainly have not.

  Communities all over this city are already coming out of pocket to hire constables and private security companies to patrol their neighborhoods because they cannot get HPD to do so.  Does anyone really believe that if we allow the City to raise property taxes, patrols will suddenly appear in their neighborhoods.  After the City used the drainage fees to pay for employees and pet projects, does anyone believe this money will really be used to hire police officers?  Until we have some demonstration that the City can more efficiently manage HPD and that it can keep its promises on how it will spend our money, I am not voting to give it another dime.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DISCLAIMER: Political advertising paid for by Kingwood Area Republican women PAC, Regina Thompson, Treasurer, P.O. Box 5906, Kingwood, TX 77325-5906. Political contributions are not tax deductible for Federal Income Tax.
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