The report, presented at a public meeting in late January, is the result of an analysis conducted by PFM Group Consulting, with which the county contracted beginning in 2019.
David Eichenthal, managing director for PFM, explained to the court that there were four main areas of concern identified by his group: problems with structural issues, a lack of reliance on data, issues of transparency and accountability, and missed opportunities for coordination and collaboration.
Among issues identified by PFM is the problem of overlap between county agencies and other municipal governments, and missed opportunities to increase efficiency and effectiveness through coordination, collaboration, and centralization.
The group also advocates moving beyond a focus on infrastructure to embrace greater responsibility for ensuring certain outcomes and equity in the county’s highly diverse population.
Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) said that he especially appreciated PFM’s critique of the county’s understood role in the community.
“County government’s historic focus on roads and bridges and drainage has left other departments under-resourced and unfocused,” said Ellis. “That in part, judge, is why I think we have such deeply ingrained inequities in so many areas that has just left so many behind.”
PFM works with local, state, and federal government to analyze and recommend changes, and emphasizes a need to address “systemic racism and systemic bias” through governing principles and structures that will promote equity in communities. They also lament what they refer to as “over-investment” in law enforcement and response to crime, and advocate for new strategies to “build communities and tackle inequality.”
In analysis of Harris County, the group notes that while state law stipulates that all counties have four precinct-based commissioners and one county judge regardless of population, as the largest county in Texas and third-largest in the nation, they suggest remedies that would mimic structures implemented in Chicago’s Cook County, Los Angeles County, New York, and Dade County, Florida.
Among those recommendations, PFM says the county should create a new office of “County Administrator” along with four deputy county administrators who would oversee the following areas: operations, community and economic development, environment and health, and justice and safety.
Under the current system, PFM notes that each of the four elected county commissioners enjoys “extraordinary autonomy and authority,” which allows them to act independently of the overall county government. They also point out that appointed department heads also hold significant power and may not necessarily agree on definitions for county-wide goals such as achieving equity.
Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) said he saw many wonderful ideas in the PFM report, and while he did agree that the county could do better in some areas, especially in addressing rising crime rates that seem to be worse in lower-income neighborhoods, he cautioned against creating new layers of bureaucracy.
“The biggest example of a bad bureaucracy that I can think of is trying to get something done in the City of Houston Public Works,” said Ramsey. “It’s hard to pave a road, it’s hard to fill a pothole, so please let’s not go down that road of creating a bureaucracy where we can’t get anything done in our precincts because we’ve got to go through…a county administrator before that.”
The City of Houston has also worked with PFM, and received a report from Eichenthal with recommendations for policies and procedures in 2017.
The group also laments that the power of the Harris County government is limited by checks implemented via state and federal law, especially the idea that “large parts of the Harris County government serve in a primary role as a mere “agent” of state government.”
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) expressed the most concern over PFM’s recommendations.
Cagle objected to holding up areas in California, Illinois, and New York as examples of the “best practices,” when people were moving to Texas in droves for the strong economy. He also defended the county government’s role in addressing infrastructure while not treading too heavily on areas that were in the purview of other municipalities such as school districts or organizations.
”It’s not bad that we are good at the basics,” argued Cagle. “You have to excel at the basics.”
“A good road that does not damage your car, that allows you to get back and forth to work, is a great economic equalizer. If you are poor, a blown-out tire is a significant financial expenditure; to the wealthy, it’s a blip on the radar.”
He added that focus on the basics allowed the county to have the high bond rating it has and echoed Ramsey’s concerns over creating additional layers of bureaucracy that would not yield the best outcome for taxpayers.
“Bureaucracy does not add to efficiency. It adds to power, but it doesn’t add to efficiency,” warned Cagle. “The fact that we are lean and mean at the county, that when we want to build a road, we can normally do it in 27 months to 36 months, whereas the City of Houston when they want to build a road, they can’t even pick who their consultants are until they’ve gone through at least two years of processing.”
“Those benefits that we have of direct accountability to the members of commissioners court where issues that are small and large come to us, I think the lack…of the big bureaucracy is a good thing, not a bad thing.”
He also noted that if he did not do a good job as commissioner he could be voted out of office, while a bureaucracy would be unaccountable to the voters.
PFM says it has identified “220 action steps designed to put the county on a path to reform,” but highlighted certain actions such as:
- Establishing a separate Human Resources Department and an Office of Workforce Equity
- Shift fleet, facilities, and information technology to a General Services Department
- Appoint an independent inspector general
- Designate the county administrator as Chief Equity Officer
- Create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund
PFM also urged the county to address the 1.2 million county residents who were too young to vote by using funds to create a County Youth Caucus to participate in the budgeting process.
Since initially contracting with PFM in 2019, Harris County taxpayers have already paid more than $2.72 million to the group for the analysis and recommendations. A second report on the criminal justice system, approved last November at a cost of $2.8 million, will be ready in May according to Eichenthal.
Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) said while he had a few questions, he was sold on most of the recommendations.
“[If] we get a lot of this done it’ll be truly transformative for how county government can serve the citizens of Harris County.”
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer 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.