In 2018 voters overwhelmingly approved a $2.5 billion bond package to address needs in the county’s 22 watersheds, but officials had expected more in matching funds from state and federal partners according to Budget Director David Berry.
During Tuesday’s meeting of the Harris County Commissioners Court, Berry presented a map showing that three major watersheds on the eastern portion of the county have less than half of the funds needed to complete scheduled flood control projects: Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou, and the San Jacinto River.
Since the Halls and Greens Bayou watersheds, in particular, represent some of the poorest neighborhoods in the county, Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) queried Harris County Flood Control District Director Ross Poppe as to whether his team was utilizing a prioritization framework approved by commissioners in 2019.
“Absolutely we are,” said Poppe. “That prioritization framework established the sequencing in which the bond projects would be executed.”
Poppe explained that the bond measure approved by voters included 238 line items, not all of which could begin immediately. The framework, consisting of metrics that include a social vulnerability index, establishes order of project completion.
In crafting the 2018 bond proposal, the county had anticipated significant matching funds from the federal government, and Poppe explained that one assumption had been that community block grants from HUD for infrastructure in lower-income neighborhoods would help offset costs in the Halls and Greens Bayou watersheds.
Although the county has received $1 billion from Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for rebuilding, additional funds are being managed by the Texas General Land Office (GLO) and have not yet been awarded. Poppe said the county has applied for some $900 million, but the GLO says awards will not be announced until sometime this spring.
HUD funds administered through the GLO for mitigation and home rebuilding efforts for the entire state are intended to cover 140 impacted counties as well other entities within Harris County. After an audit revealed that the county had failed to assist a single homeowner by the fall of 2019, Governor Abbott announced that HUD funds for future flood mitigation projects would not be directly dispersed to either Houston or Harris County but instead be administered through the GLO.
Of the $900 million the county has applied for, Poppe said nearly $500 million would be for the Halls Bayou and Greens Bayou watersheds. Harris County, however, will be competing with multiple other impacted counties and municipalities for limited HUD funds awarded to Texas.
Berry suggested three possible remedies for the budget shortfall including tapping into some of $890 million in bonds authorized for “roads and bridges,” or using some of the funds shifted from the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) to apply to approved flood mitigation projects.
A third option Berry said would involve a tax increase for the Harris County Flood Control District, either via a maintenance and operations tax increase or through a new bond proposal. Either way, he said voter approval would be required in order to leverage enough funds to cover the anticipated shortfall.
Ellis also noted that “earmarks are back,” and suggested members of congress could help obtain additional funding. He added that earmarks, or project spending tucked by members of congress into other legislation, had helped fund the Sims Bayou project previously.
In response to questions from Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4), none of the projects are at this time behind schedule, but if additional funding is not secured by year’s end, there may be delays in completion. Initial projections indicate all projects will not be completed until 2028.
Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) insisted that the county must complete all promised projects in the 2018 bond package, and urged commitment to seeking partner funds and crafting a plan to ensure completion.
“If we don’t do what we said we were going to do in that 2018 bond issue, shame on all of us,” said Ramsey. “We will never be able to get another bond issue passed on anything.”
Cagle noted that in 2018 he had advocated for $10 billion in bonds spread out over 10 years for flood mitigation. At that time, the Cagle said the county had estimated total costs at around $30 billion, but Poppe agreed with the commissioner that costs were projected to be much higher now.
Cagle added that he did not want to give up on obtaining the half-billion that may come from GLO awards this spring, but Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county could not afford to wait and risk delaying projects.
Commissioners court unanimously approved a motion from Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) to task the flood control district with crafting a plan by June 30, 2021 for covering the shortfall, “while maintaining an equitable approach to the expenditure of funds,” and to include both county remedies and continued efforts to lobby partners for funds.
Later in Tuesday’s meeting, Garcia motioned that a remaining $200 million commissioners had shifted from the toll road authority be divided equally among the four precincts for use in road drainage projects that help mitigate flooding, but Hidalgo and Ellis objected saying they preferred to wait for equity studies to be completed later this year and for the anticipated report from the flood district.
Garcia agreed to withdraw the motion until a future meeting.
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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.