Local NewsControversial Vote on The Woodlands’ Future Slated for November

Proponents of transforming the township to a traditional city say property taxes will not increase, but opponents argue studies have grossly underestimated law enforcement and debt costs.
October 8, 2021
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Although off-year elections are often low-turnout affairs, controversy over a proposal to discard The Woodlands’ unique governance model in favor of becoming a traditional city is prompting heated debate.

The brainchild of Texas oilman George P. Mitchell, the state’s one and only township situated north of Houston in both Harris and Montgomery counties first began as a master-planned suburban community in 1974. The legislature designated the area as a special purpose district in the 1990s, and the various community associations united more formally as The Woodlands Township in 2010.

Not merely a residential community, Mitchell’s vision included creating employment and other services, and nearly four decades after inception, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimates that the township features 72,000 jobs and 117,000 residents. 

Featuring carefully cultivated green spaces, wooded areas, waterways, and parks, The Woodlands has continued to attract employers and residents, and in 2021 Niche.com named the township the “Best City to Live in America.”

Now, however, some leaders say it is time for The Woodlands to incorporate into a city. 

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Proponents of incorporation say that benefits of moving from the current model to a full city will allow The Woodlands to directly hire and control law enforcement instead of relying on contracts with the Montgomery County Sheriff and Harris County’s Precinct 4 Constable. 

Supporters also say incorporation would give a new city council and mayor authority over drainage and flood mitigation, transportation planning, street management, and utilities which would provide additional revenues. City leaders could also enact ordinances to regulate issues such as fireworks, noise, animal control, and tree preservation.

Proponents argue incorporation would fully protect the community from annexation by the cities of Conroe or Houston, although the township has entered a regional agreement prohibiting annexation through 2057 and a 2017 state law bans forced annexation in large populous counties such as Harris and Montgomery. 

Although previously the board of directors indicated that they would not place an incorporation measure on the ballot in an off-year election, the COVID-19 pandemic may have prompted moving up the timeline since as an incorporated city The Woodlands could tap into millions in federal COVID-19 recovery funds.  

In August, the township board of directors voted 5 to 2 to place the issue on the November 2 ballot with directors Ann Snyder and John Anthony Brown voting no. Voters will be asked to approve incorporation and an initial property tax rate of 22.31 cents per $100 of valuation.

“[This] is the same rate as residents paid in 2020 and 2021,” wrote board member Dr. Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, who is actively campaigning for incorporation. 

Opponents, however, say that incorporation studies conducted by the Novak Consulting Group have grossly underestimated costs. An independent study commissioned by the Howard Hughes Corporation points out millions in understated needs for both initial and ongoing costs.

An additional critique authored by former Houston Police Department (HPD) Chief Financial Officer Joe Fenninger and former HPD Executive Assistant Chief of Police Tim Oettmeier alleges that the pro-incorporation study has ignored costs of assuming accountability and liability associated with operating a police department, and failed to acknowledge the additional costs of employee benefits and pensions. 

The analysis estimates the shortfall for law enforcement could be as much as $14.5 million and would result in a higher tax rate for residents.

The township’s board has pushed back on the opposition’s analysis and released a video featuring board chairman Gordy Bunch to “clarify misinformation.” In the 2 minute video, Bunch says the board went through the countering reports at the September 16 public meeting and urges voters to watch.

Sekula-Gibbs has also touted the advantage of the new city taking over 11 municipal utility districts (MUD) and thereby “eliminating 55 compensated MUD director positions.” 

Six of the MUDs to be absorbed, however, carry outstanding debt of more than $285 million according to a recent Houston Chronicle report. The debt obligation would shift to the new city and could possibly be refinanced, but critics say the debt burden will require significant tax increases within a few years. 

The Woodlands Chamber of Commerce has approved a resolution opposing incorporation citing underestimated costs and the likelihood of higher taxes.  

Montgomery County Commissioner James Noack (R-Pct. 3), Sheriff Rand Henderson, and Precinct 5 County Constable Ryan Gable, all Republicans, have taken a public stance against incorporation. 

“I have examined The Township’s law enforcement incorporation plan and share the concerns of law enforcement experts who have identified critical deficiencies,” Sheriff Henderson said. “At a time when crime is rising across America, now is not the time to dismantle your law enforcement.

Division over incorporation does not fall along party lines however, and Republicans such as Sekula-Gibbs, former congresswoman for the 22nd Congressional District, have been at the forefront of the push for incorporation.

Sekula-Gibbs did not respond to request for comment by the time of publication.

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Holly Hansen

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.

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