In a 3-2 party-line vote Tuesday, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved a new “prioritization framework” for flood risk reduction projects. Commissioners also voted 3-2 to accept a related resolution from County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D).
The prioritization framework incorporates eight metrics, including a controversial “Social Vulnerability Index” or SVI, that some elected officials say is overly subjective and political.
Houston city council member Greg Travis expressed concern that SVI is “vague and ambiguous” and “a very subjective standard.”
Buffalo Bayou, which runs through the middle of Travis’ district, experienced historic flooding three times between 2015 and 2017. After Hurricane Harvey, water releases from the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs kept areas around the Bayou flooded for several weeks, and those floodwaters were heavily contaminated due to area sewage plant failures.
Travis says the new framework bumps projects for Buffalo Bayou improvements in his district to the bottom of the list.
“My district is considered a wealthy district,” said Travis, but added that there were numbers of low to moderate-income households too.
He said there were implications for all residents, and that continued flood destruction of property would impact tax revenues the City of Houston receives from his district, which he says accounts for roughly 37 percent of city tax revenue.
The Centers for Disease Control developed SVI mapping based on research from University of South Carolina professor of geography, Susan Cutter. The index uses 2016 census data to evaluate communities using 15 metrics and assigns an SVI score ranging from 0 to 1.
The fifteen metrics used to determine an SVI score include evaluation of employment, income, and education levels, as well as ethnic minority status and whether residents “speak English ‘less than well.’”
Last year, Harris County voters overwhelmingly approved a $2.5 billion bond package funding more than 230 projects to mitigate flooding.
The bond order language, unanimously approved by the 2018 commissioners court, committed to “a process for the equitable expenditure of funds…since flooding issues do not respect jurisdictional or political boundaries.”
According to Harris County Flood Control District executive director Russell Poppe, 146 of the bond projects are already underway, and there are no plans to eliminate any of the original projects. But he also said that as projects move from survey and planning to procurement and construction phases, costs may rise beyond the bond’s $2.5 billion price tag.
“We say “justice delayed is justice denied,” and I’d suggest “priority delayed is priority denied,” said Councilmember Travis.
The county’s adopted prioritization framework includes eight weighted categories for ranking the 80 remaining projects, including SVI, flood risk reduction, project efficiency, partnership funding, and potential for multiple benefits.
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Precinct 4) said that while the new framework weighs “flood risk reduction” as 25 percent of the formula, much of the remainder “does not deal with the science of where the water is going.”
“The water didn’t care if you had a degree,” said Cagle, who repeatedly emphasized the need to assist “those who flood the most and who flood the most often.”
In addition to the prioritization framework document, Judge Hidalgo presented a resolution supporting an “Equitable Prioritization Framework” and representing a “geographically diverse range of community members.”
Calling the framework “smart and fair,” Judge Hidalgo expressed hope that the new method would become a model for other parts of the country.
Cagle emphasized that while he agreed “100 percent” with most of the Judge’s resolution, he could not support sections referring to the new framework.
“You’ve never heard me say anything different from placing people over politics,” said Cagle. “But I will respectfully disagree with regard to this SVI as not being politics.”
Numerous witnesses were on hand to testify in favor of the new framework and resolution, including Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston.)
Jackson Lee reminded the court that federal flood mitigation dollars would still include a cost-benefit analysis that favored areas with higher property values.
At times, members of the court openly clashed.
Commissioners Rodney Ellis (D-Precinct 1) and Adrian Garcia (D-Precinct 2) often offered commentary after each speaker, but Commissioners Cagle and Steve Radack (R-Precinct 3) did not appear to have as many speaking opportunities.
During comments frequently interrupted by Garcia, Radack expressed frustration with both Garcia and Hidalgo.
“You have neglected the people of Precinct 3 and 4 and I’m not going to much longer put up with it.”
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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.