Is newly elected Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo reprioritizing how the $2.5 billion in voter-approved bond money will be spent on post-Harvey flood control projects? It certainly appears that way, although the judge says not to worry.
The issue emerged a week ago, when Hidalgo made comments about including neighborhood and income equity (described by her staff as “social equity”) as one criterion in flood project prioritization. During two Fox26 News televised appearances, Hidalgo stated that property values in neglected lower-income neighborhoods were not high enough, therefore the areas had never qualified for federally funded projects, thus resulting in a historical shortchanging in favor of high property-value neighborhoods. Hidalgo explained that local bond money is the only way to deliver overdue relief to these underserved neighborhoods.
“There are some areas that haven't seen a project in a very long time, that would never see a project were it not for these equity guidelines. Equity is a factor. Equity is “The” factor,” Hidalgo said. She continued, saying that disregard of equity “ultimately hurts all of us. It's the right thing to do to look at things more broadly and it's the common-sense thing to do."
What did voters actually approve?
Although countywide voter turnout was low for the August 2018 bond election, voters from the most affected areas showed up in force to drive passage of the bond. Five of the precincts with the highest voter turnout were in Kingwood, resulting in a voter turnout 10 percent higher than in the county at large.
Kingwood voted in favor of the bond mainly due to the intent to prioritize bond money based on a “worst first” criterion, a fact that is reiterated on Hidalgo’s own Harris County Flood Control District website, which states that high priority will be given to projects with “the most bang for flood control buck.”
Kingwood had 16,000 homes and 3,300 business damaged by Harvey. In total, 237 countywide projects are on the bond list, but the total cost far exceeds the $2.5 billion 10-year bond, the largest in Harris County history. A more realistic cost has been touted at $30 billion to truly fix Harris County’s immense flood issues. Prioritization is definitely required, but many in the Lake Houston area are upset that the criteria seem to be changing.
State Rep. Dan Huberty, City Councilmember Dave Martin, County Commissioner R. Jack Cagle, and the Lake Houston Area Chamber of Commerce have all issued official letters of concern to Hidalgo. Huberty was particularly alarmed at the equity provision, given that he actually met with Hidalgo in Austin the day before her announcement, yet she never mentioned the new proposal.
How did the equity provision develop?
As in all things government, there is wiggle room, or as Hidalgo’s office calls it, “flexibility.” The flood control website also states that the project list could be altered based on community input or design constraints. New projects could be added or deleted, for example, if another funding source were to be identified.
It seems that Hidalgo keyed in on a particular passage in the original bond wording: “Since flooding issues do not respect jurisdictional or political boundaries, the Commissioners Court shall provide a process for the equitable expenditure of funds.” Hidalgo said she is just following the edict outlined by the bond, however, the issue that has caused so much contention of late is how Hidalgo, who mainly ran a campaign based on social issues, defines “equitable.”
Hidalgo tasked the flood control district with developing a process to give higher project priority to neighborhoods considered as Low-Moderate Income (LMI) by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
To begin the ranking, 174 of the 237 projects were included; buyouts and ongoing projects were excluded. Based on the LMI criterion, Kingwood projects ranked as follows: tainter gates (119/174), future watershed project (134/174), internal canal drainage (135/174), and dredging in addition to what has already been done under FEMA (172/174).
In a statement to The Tribune, Hidalgo’s office stated, “There is no ‘reprioritization.' As required by the bond language passed by the voters, Commissioners Court directed the flood control district to establish the process for the expenditure of bond funds, since not all projects can be funded and executed simultaneously.” Hidalgo went on to state that “all projects included in the Bond Program proposal will be funded and completed. The expenditure process will not affect the proposed project list.”
After much pushback, the flood control district formulated a second draft, expected on March 4 but not made public as of March 5 press time. The district’s website states that the second draft removes the LMI criteria based on “stakeholder input and expert feedback.” The new criterion will consider only the last time a project was done in that area. The flood control district also finds that lack of service more accurately identifies hardest-hit areas within that criterion.
The district states, "There is no set order for projects that have not yet begun. We are developing a process to order projects by ‘worst first.’ Projects already on the bond project list will not be removed or replaced, will not impact projects that have already started, and will not result in the movement of money from one project to another.”
How is Kingwood responding?
Involvement in county planning meetings is nothing new for Kingwood residents, particularly volunteers like Bill Fowler, Dianne Lansden and Bob Rehak of the Lake Houston Area Grassroots Flood Prevention Initiative, who have been consistently involved since August 2017. Of the 23 flood control district community engagement meetings held to gather public input on bond projects, the Kingwood meeting by far garnered the largest attendance of over 700 people, a level of participation that was instrumental in presenting a well-researched, comprehensive list of Lake Houston area projects for consideration.
Fowler commented that the high degree of transparency and community involvement demonstrated in the bond development phase has waned under Hidalgo’s leadership.
The 27-year-old Hidalgo defeated incumbent judge Ed Emmett, a former Texas state legislator seeking his third term in the county judgeship. The race was close, with Hidalgo edging out a 49-48 percent victory. In her acceptance speech, Hidalgo said she never thought she would run for political office, but dropped out of graduate school to run the third largest county in the nation.
Fowler initially requested a meeting with Hidalgo on Nov. 11 shortly after her election, but has still not been granted a meeting with the elusive judge. Fowler did meet with a Hidalgo underling, apparently because the judge could not spare her time. Kim Brode, governmental affairs manager for Cagle, said that to her knowledge, Hidalgo has never even been to Kingwood.
Emmett ran biweekly commissioners court meetings that efficiently ran about an hour. Hidalgo’s team assumed responsibility for the meetings in January. Fowler stated that the court does not stick to the published agenda and that the meetings sometimes run all day, making them very difficult to attend.
Brode echoed Fowler, stating that despite Hidalgo’s initial January promise of transparency and respect for constituents’ time, the meetings have been running up to nine hours long. Brode reiterated that agendas are not followed and that the order of speakers is at the judge’s discretion.
“We’ve been telling our constituents to bring their laptops if they have work to do, and we let them use the internet in our office. We even started having sandwiches for them because the meetings are running so long,” Brode said.
Kingwood eagerly awaits the release of the second draft of bond projects to see if anything moved up from position 119. Several members of the Grass Roots Initiative are planning to attend a March 7 stakeholder meeting organized by Hidalgo’s office and are also currently slated to speak at the regularly scheduled March 12 Commissioners Court meeting.