HOUSTON – Harris County leaders took the first step to put a $1.2 billion bond referendum on the November 8 ballot. The proposal would devote $100 million to public safety facilities and technology, $900 million to roads, drainage, and transportation projects, and $200 million to parks.
Commissioners voted 3-2 along party lines to authorize multiple county departments to develop a capital improvement bond proposal. Judge Lina Hidalgo set conditions for casting her vote with her fellow Democrats, Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis.
“The guidelines should include a ‘worst-first’ approach to match funds to the greatest need, with at least $220 million to be spent in each precinct and $100 million to be set aside for public safety,” Hidalgo said.
The “worst-first” requirement addresses a concern that Commissioner Ellis raised, citing past bond initiatives where poorer neighborhoods like those in his Precinct 1 were shortchanged.
“There ought to be some money set aside, in my judgment, for those areas that have been historically neglected,” Ellis said. “And one would just have to feign a lack of intelligence, or just have a total inability to see, to say that this county has been equitable in how it has spent transportation money over the last 30 years.”
The language defining which specific projects the bond would fund remains uncertain.
“I do think we should have a list by the time the item goes to the voters,” Judge Hidalgo said. “We do know that the bond would build or repair roughly 300 miles of county roads, create or improve close to 80 parks, that it would reduce flooding potential for about 13,000 residents through drainage improvements, (and) that it would improve road safety for over 20 miles of high-injury intersections. So, that’s just what we got from the Budget Office.”
By state law, counties must call for bond elections no sooner than 90 days before the designated election day and no later than 78 days before it. Since that window falls between Harris County Commissioners Court meetings, commissioners will need to convene a special meeting between August 12 and August 22 to take the formal vote to schedule the bond referendum.
Daniel Ramos, executive director of the Office of Management and Budget, said that if passed, the bond would cost the owner of a $300,000 home an extra $32 per year in taxes over the life of the 25- year bond.
“This commissioners court can pass this bond initiative and still continue to cut tax rates for the foreseeable future,” said County Administrator David Berry. “If there is any added cost to a particular household, it will be because their appraisal went up.”
Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican, wasn’t convinced. “I always thought that debt costs something to somebody at some time,” Cagle said. “And so I don’t know that I quite buy the idea that this is free money. And I don’t think the public will either. They’ve had to tighten their belt coming out of the pandemic. They have had to tighten their belt coming after Harvey. And I think that we should do the same.”
Republican Commissioner Tom Ramsey repeated a point he had made in previous court sessions discussing the possibility of a bond referendum, arguing the process was being rushed and was less than transparent.
“I think a bond issue in November of 2023 makes some sense. It gives us time to communicate with the constituents. It gives the constituents time to communicate with us,” Ramsey said. “But I’ll not be supporting a 2022 (bond issue), because we honestly are not ready, in my opinion, to take that to the voters.”
Commissioner Garcia, who has been leading the effort to get the bond issue on the ballot this year, responded to concerns Ramsey raised about a lack of trust among voters by saying, “The folks that I speak to also don’t have a lot of trust in Harris County because of things that were done prior to 2019,” that is, when Republicans held the majority on the court. “Precinct 2 has been largely underfunded, underserved, and roads and parks were not well funded…So, there wasn’t trust. The trust is there today.”