On Tuesday, county Administrator David Berry provided the commissioners court with a breakdown of a bond package that would include $900 million for roads, drainage, and transportation, $200 million for parks and trails, and $100 million for public safety “facilities and technology.”
While offering these amounts for broad categories, Berry and Budget Director Daniel Ramos balked at offering more details, noting that previous bond measures did not commit to specific projects, thus allowing for flexibility in project selection.
The lack of specificity and concerns about timing, however, drew objections from Commissioners Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) and Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4).
Ramsey said he would prefer waiting until 2023 to place a bond referendum on the ballot citing issues with “trust, transparency and timing,” noting that county events over the past year had eroded trust in county government. He also emphasized the need for transparent community engagement first.
“I think we need more time to communicate with the electorate what projects we’re going to do and what specific things they can expect in their precincts,” said Ramsey. “What is the allocation per precinct?”
County Judge Lina Hidalgo cited references in the proposal to 400 miles of roads in poor condition, drainage projects on hold, multimodal transportation, and that 61 percent of the county roads lacked sidewalks.
“So I see Vision Zero…I see specificity,” said Hidalgo. “I don’t want people to think that this is going to achieve Vision Zero entirely, or that this is going to achieve the park ratio that is ideal, or that this is going to get us sidewalks to every road-I do think we should aspire to that.”
Hidalgo also noted she supported a 25 percent allocation of funds, meaning an equal distribution among precincts, but Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) said there should be “equity guidelines” applied and consideration of underserved communities. Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) also referenced the use of the Social Vulnerability Index the county has implemented for prioritizing flood projects.
Commissioners have not yet spent bond funds approved in a 2015 $850 million bond referendum. Cagle and Ramsey noted each of their precincts still has about $60 million each, while Commissioners Ellis and Garcia did not divulge how much they still have to spend.
Previously, Harris County allocated road funds to the four precincts formulated on the number of county road miles in each, but in 2019 the commissioners court voted 3 to 2 on party lines to instead divide the funds evenly between them. Unlike Ellis’ precinct 1, which shares most road miles with the City of Houston, precincts 3 and 4 manage more roads in unincorporated areas without city partners.
In addition to bond funds, each precinct also receives about $40 million a year for road-related expenditures from the Harris County Toll Road Authority.
In addition to concerns over specificity and how bond funds might be distributed among the precincts, Cagle joined Ramsey in questioning the timing.
“Is this the time we can tax the public? Is this the time that we can say that ‘it’s not really a tax, that we’re just borrowing it?’” asked Cagle. “The general right now, I think, is very concerned with the appraisal district issues and the other things that are occurring to them, of what their tax bill is going to be coming out of Harvey, coming out of the pandemic, and going into inflation.”
Ramos told commissioners that the average property owner in the county would see an additional $32 per year for the cost of the bond, but that the tax rate probably would not increase due to the retirement of previous bond debt. In response to a question from Garcia, Ramos confirmed that residents would likely pay more in taxes due to rising appraisals, which Garcia blamed on the Harris County Appraisal District board.
Cagle and Garcia sparred at several points during the discussion, with Garcia implying the county would penalize residents of precincts 3 and 4 if commissioners did not vote to place the referendum on this year’s ballot.
After Cagle suggested deferring a vote to the next meeting in two weeks to provide greater specificity on projects and allocation, Garcia warned, “If there is a 3 to 2 vote in two weeks it’s not going to be a 25 percent split.”
Hidalgo urged moving forward on a $1 million community outreach effort, although Cagle noted community engagement for the $2.5 billion flood mitigation bond had only cost $250,000. Cagle asked which vendors would receive the $1 million, with Berry replying that the county already had a few firms under contract that might be used, but did not provide names or details for vendor selection.
Vendor selection by the county has been much in the news this year due to the indictment of three Hidalgo staffers regarding a COVID-19 vaccine outreach effort. Also this week, local tow truck companies attended the commissioners court to lodge complaints about a new towing management system application they say went to a vendor in California that had not provided the lowest bid.
In a 3 to 2 partisan vote, the court approved moving forward with the community engagement planning but not the official bond proposal, which they agreed to bring back in two weeks.
If approved, the bond package will be separated into three referendum measures on the ballot, allowing voters to separately voice approval for each general category.
Commissioners also unanimously approved a plan to spend $25.7 million to transfer inmates from the Harris County Jail system to a facility in Post, Texas. The county has resisted expanding jail facilities and only partially granted a sheriff’s office request for 300 more detention officers this year. The proposed bond will not provide additional staff, but commissioners asked Berry to provide suggestions for using remaining American Rescue Plan Act funds to address the county’s backlog of more than 138,000 criminal cases.
A copy of the bond proposal can be found below.
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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.