In August, the Houston City Council voted 16 to 1 to place a $478 million bond referendum on the November 2022 ballot, with only Councilmember Mary Nan Huffman dissenting.
The proposal includes seven broad categories: public safety, parks, animal care, public health, general improvement, libraries, and solid waste, but as with the Harris County bond referendum, city leaders have been reluctant to commit to specifics.
Mayor Sylvester Turner explained that about $194 million of the funds will go to capital improvement projects already approved but still unfunded. He did not clarify, however, which projects would be chosen. Houston’s list of “approved” capital improvement projects has been fluid and some have remained unfunded for years.
Additionally, Turner said $274 million will be set aside for yet-to-be-determined projects until after 2028.
As the city and region grapple with rising crime, the bond referendum requests $277 million for public safety but skirts commitment to particular proposals. Among the previously approved projects are nearly $90 million for police and fire department vehicles and equipment, but the mayor’s One Safe Houston plan for fighting crime has included a wide array of projects.
While the city has approved pay increases for police officers and held additional cadet classes, the mayor has not enlarged the police force of about 5,200 officers. Councilmember Amy Peck sought to include a new police station and a detention center expansion, but Turner suggested the city could find other ways to fund those projects. Peck withdrew those requests but succeeded in adding an amendment to include improvements to Agnes Moffit Park, one of the capital improvement projects that has been delayed for many years.
The city held three public hearings on the bond, but as few residents were aware of the hearings, not a single member of the public addressed the council.
During the third hearing, Councilmember Mike Knox asked why he could not get a list of the projects assigned to each bond, including the reported $10 million for Moffit Park. Turner told him no list would be made available.
“We don’t want to give the representation to the general public that that is the exact list,” said Turner. “They are subject to changes on that.”
Turner then told Knox they would work on providing him with an updated list, but that it would not be provided publicly.
The city has been the recipient of more than $600 million in federal aid and has increased property taxes, but earlier this year announced they would be using $160 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to plug 2023 budget holes.
Turner is also planning to ask voters next year to lift the city’s property tax cap, which limits its year-to-year revenue growth to the previous year’s cap plus population and inflation, or the prior year’s revenue plus 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.
Most Houston residents live within the boundaries of Harris County and will also be voting on a $1.2 billion county bond package. The county has also only provided general categories which include $100 million for public safety, $900 million for roads, drainage, and transportation, and $200 million for parks and trails. In addition, commissioners approved spending $1 million for voter outreach in relation to the bond referendum.
Commissioners have sparred over the use of the public safety funds after county Judge Lina Hidalgo included the construction of sidewalks, free Wi-Fi, and early childhood programs as “public safety” spending. Republican commissioners have insisted on using the funds to add more patrol officers to the sheriff’s office and the eight county constables’ departments.
While this year he pushed the bond referendum vote through, last year, Turner successfully delayed a vote on a charter amendment to 2023, saying it would be too expensive to hold an election on the issue until regular city elections.
There are more than 150 local government entities in Texas holding bond elections in 2022, totaling approximately $21 billion.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.