Early voting on the proposed $2.5 billion of new bonds for the Harris County Flood Control District begins on Wednesday (August 8). The regular election day is Saturday, August 25. You can find the schedule for early voting and early voting locations [here] and a list of election voting precinct locations [here]. Remember that you can early vote anywhere, but you must vote in your precinct on election day.
I am going to vote in favor of the flood bond proposal notwithstanding some reservations. Of course, everyone is going to have a somewhat different take on the particulars of the plan that has been outlined by County officials. I certainly do. But this is one of those situations where I do not think we can let perfect be the enemy of good.
To me the compelling case for the passage of the bonds is both the direct and indirect effect the outcome will have on additional funding help from the Federal and State governments. About a billion dollars of the $2.5 billion will be used on projects that qualify for matching funds. The ratio varies but can go as high as 3-to-1. But the local sponsor of the project has to have the money in the bank, so to speak, before it can draw down the federal dollars. So, the bonds will allow us to do about another billion dollars of projects using federal dollars.
But beyond this direct effect, I fear that a defeat of the bond proposal will send a message to Austin and Washington that Houston is not serious about fixing its flooding problems. We have already seen how hard it is to pry open the State’s Rainy Day Fund, even when it is raining cats and dogs. I can readily imagine state elected officials using a defeat of the bonds to argue that Houstonians do not view this moment as a crisis and even worse, will interpret the results so that they can continue to hoard the Rainy Day Fund without any political repercussions. If the bond proposal passes with overwhelming support, you can bet your bottom dollar the Rainy Day Fund will be tapped in the 2019 session to do some flood work in Houston.
I have received a number of emails and social media messages from those concerned that the bond funds will be siphoned off to other uses, like the City has done with the drainage fees. While I would never underestimate elected officials’ penchant for misleading the public, especially when it comes to how they intend to spend their tax dollars, I do not think this should be a major concern in this instance. The bonds are being issued by the Flood Control District and not the County. While each of these is governed by Commissioners’ Court, they are legally distinct entities with separate accounts and audits (unlike the City’s handling of the drainage fees). I suppose anything is possible, but I think it is highly unlikely the bond money will go for anything other than flood projects.
I would also caution everyone not to expect miracles from the work these bonds will finance. There are some estimates that we need as much as $40 billion of flood work done in Harris County. These bonds will not even cover a tenth of that. That is one reason why the bond money needs to be prioritized to do as much as possible to protect existing homes and neighborhoods. [Click [here] for some thoughts from Roger Gingell of Residents Against Flooding on prioritization.] But don’t think for a moment that the projects financed by the bonds will solve all of the region’s flooding problems.
Also, it is important to keep in mind that within the City much of the flooding has nothing to do with the bayou system for which the Flood Control District is responsible. For example, the 4800 homes that flooded in the Sims Bayou watershed during Harvey, even though Sims never came out of its banks. This is because the City’s storm sewer infrastructure was inadequate to get the flood waters to the bayou fast enough. So, additional work by the Flood Control District on the bayous themselves is not going to help that kind of flooding. Of course, if some of the $850 million the City has collected in drainage fees would have been used to address those issues instead of balancing the general fund and going for various pet projects, much of that flooding could have been avoided.
You are all familiar with the saying that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” While perhaps a cliche, I think this is the way we should think about this bond election. It is a first step, a down payment if you will, on what will be a decades-long effort to bring flooding in our region to heel.
If we give our elected officials this $2.5 billion of our tax mone, and they fail us on these imperatives, then we need to throw them all out on their ears at the next opportunity to do so.