Local NewsTaxes & SpendingHarris County Proposes New Billion-Dollar Bond Referendum Despite Millions Unspent from Previous Bond

Despite $197 million in unspent funds from the 2015 bond package, the commissioners court voted to proceed with a new bond election in November.
August 5, 2022
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In what has become a familiar 3 to 2 partisan vote, Harris County Commissioners Court approved moving forward with a series of bond referendums totaling $1.2 billion on the November 2022 ballot.

The court did not take up discussion of the bond referendum until approximately nine hours into the public meeting last Tuesday, and commissioners sparred over how funds would be allocated among the county’s four precincts.

During a public meeting on July 19, 2021, Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) threatened to withhold any funds from the precincts of Commissioners Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) and Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) if the two Republicans voted against the bond referendum. During this week’s meeting, Garcia and Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) argued for directing funds to their own precincts, which they said were historically underserved.

“You can’t go in and reinforce inequities that were put in place systemically by the government for years,” said Ellis, who objected to allocating funds by county road miles.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo sought to defuse Garcia’s threat and alleviate concerns, explaining she “would not support it without some specificity on the allocation.

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As Hidalgo began to suggest a framework that would prioritize “worst first” but also commit to a minimum allocation of $220 million for each precinct, Garcia abruptly left the dais, forcing Hidalgo to call a recess.

After the commissioners court resumed more than 15 minutes later, Hidalgo motioned for $100 million of the bond to be set aside for public safety, but to distribute the remaining funds — $900 million for roads, drainage, and transportation, and $200 million for parks and trails — to give each precinct at least $220 million.

Garcia hesitated, but reluctantly voted for Hidalgo’s plan. First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer explained that the framework would not be a part of the bond language presented to voters in November, but merely a public record of commissioners’ intentions.

Prior to Hidalgo’s proposal for minimums, Cagle pointed out that there were still $197,900,000 in unissued monies from the 2015 bond referendum, with Ellis’ precinct 1 holding the most unspent funds. Cagle added that although he’d requested disbursement of the $60 million remaining for his own precinct, the county budget department under Daniel Ramos had only approved $18 million.

Cagle also objected to the proposal to spend $1 million on a community engagement effort when the most recent engagement effort for the 2018 flood bond referendum had only cost $250,000.

“This just doesn’t pass the smell test,” he stated.

Cagle noted too that the entirety of the public safety portion would go only to the sheriff’s department, and that suggested uses for public safety projects were “buried” in another unrelated agenda item but included no estimated costs. He also said the county’s eight constables had not been asked about needs for their operations.

Ramos contradicted Cagle and insisted that a “request for proposals went out to all county departments,” but constables say they were not surveyed.

“I don’t think we have a good idea of where the money is going to go or how it’s going to be spent even in the category of the safety component,” said Cagle.

Both Republicans questioned the timing of the referendum, with Ramsey claiming the county should spend more time communicating with residents about their needs and Cagle arguing it was not the time to raise taxes on residents struggling with inflation and a floundering economy.

Ramos told commissioners the additional cost to residents for the bond would amount to $32 per year on the average home valued at $300,000.  Acknowledging that residents would see higher tax bills, Ramos emphasized the increases would result from increases in appraised values but that the tax rate would actually decrease as the county paid off older bond debt.

Hidalgo explained that while she shared concerns over residents’ economic struggles, she confirmed with Ramos that tax increases due to the bond package would not take effect until 2024.

In his objections to placing the referendum before voters this year, Ramsey reiterated what he called problems with “timing, trust, and transparency,” arguing that commissioners had lost community trust when rushing through a last-minute redistricting plan, creating a county administrator’s office, and appointing an elections administrator.

Ramsey and Cagle voted against the non-binding allocation framework proposed by Hidalgo and against proceeding with bond planning. Commissioners will need to approve formal bond language by August 22.

Ramsey warned that the lack of transparency and specificity may sink the bond this year.

“When [voters] are confused, they are going to vote against it,” he remarked.

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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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