Local NewsTaxes & SpendingHarris County Mulls Shifting Voter Approved Flood Control Projects

A slew of flood mitigation projects promised when the county sought voter approval for a $2.5 billion bond package in 2018 may be defunded due to a request from Commissioner Garcia.
October 27, 2021
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After Hurricane Harvey devastated the region in 2017, Harris County voters overwhelmingly approved a $2.5 billion flood mitigation bond program that included a list of essential projects.

This week however, Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) requested authority to move $191 million slated for seven voter-approved projects in the Cedar Bayou watershed to other watersheds in his precinct.

Narrowly elected in 2018, Garcia suggested that the formula for selecting the original projects in the bond package had been flawed. 

Under the new evaluation criteria adopted by the county in 2019, projects in another part of Garcia’s precinct have higher average prioritization and Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) scores than those in the Cedar Bayou watershed.

“These projects rank higher…compared to the existing seven Cedar Bayou projects that rank almost a full point behind,” said Garcia. “These projects will have a focus on providing a greater number of beneficiaries than the seven projects and will be delivered faster.”

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Garcia said that while there had been no structural flooding around his preferred projects since 2017, if another weather event like Hurricane Harvey occurred, the change would protect 3,697 homes as opposed to approximately 400 in the Cedar Bayou watershed. 

Garcia added that funding priorities should also consider flooding in homes outside of the 100-year floodplain and homes in neighborhoods that have insufficient neighborhood drainage structures.

Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) said he agreed that there were areas in the initial bond package that did not receive enough funding and that he had advocated for a bond package of at least $10 billion, but he warned that abandoning projects promised to voters would erode public trust.

“In the bond, we told everybody how much each watershed was going to get,” said Cagle. “This watershed was approved and promised $255 million and what is before us today is taking $191 million out.”

Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) agreed, saying, “Bond covenants matter,” and noted that in his experience of working with multiple cities and counties on bond packages, it was legally appropriate to adhere to original bond terms.

Ramsey also noted that earlier this year the flood control district told his staff he could not move funds from unfeasible and unmerited projects to other projects within the same watershed. Instead, the flood control district said the funds would have to go into the county’s resiliency fund.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) said he supported Garcia’s proposal since it benefited more homes and on a shorter timeline and included projects scoring higher under the new prioritization framework.  

In answering a query from Cagle, interim flood control district director Alan Black explained that he was working on a framework that would allow additional bond project funding to be moved to other flood mitigation projects, even into other commissioner’s precincts.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said while she agreed with addressing the projects Garcia wanted, she expressed discomfort with “cracking open” the terms of the original bond partially since that would slow down the completion of slated flood mitigation projects. 

“I don’t think it’s the right answer. What we need is more money,” said Hidalgo.

Following the discussion, Garcia offered a substitute motion asking county administrator David Berry to return in 30 days with recommendations and means of funding projects with a higher county prioritization score and that lie outside the 100-year flood plain. 

The motion passed unanimously, but Cagle implored Berry to deliver a report at least one week prior to an official vote so that commissioners would have time to review.  

The initial 2018 bond package included $5 billion in projects assuming that additional funding would be coming from federal and state partners, but federally approved criteria used by the Texas General Land Office (GLO) sent expected federal dollars to other cities and counties. After bipartisan outcry, GLO Commissioner George P. Bush announced that he would seek direct allocation of federal funds for Harris County. 

Garcia’s proposed defunding of projects prompted additional concern from Cagle in considering redistricting maps. In some maps the county is considering, the Cedar Bayou watershed would no longer fall into Garcia’s precinct but become the responsibility of Precinct 4 under Cagle.

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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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