Election priorities: public safety vs. public spaces
- Written by Bob Rehak
Until your house burns down or someone clubs you over the head, you could probably care less who your mayor or city council member is. This is why public safety always dominates debates in city elections. The threat of pistols incites more passion than parks or potholes. This is also why public safety consumes one-third of the city budget. And this is why District E sends $100 million downtown each year but only gets four street-sweepings. I’m not running for office and I don’t want your vote. But I would like to suggest that you consider issues other than public safety that may also be important to the future of Kingwood. Consider parks. Green space is a defining element of Kingwood. It’s a large part of why people move to “the livable forest.” Kingwood has five multi-use parks. But residents fund these privately, through their community association dues, not City taxes. Kingwood contributes roughly 5 percent of the City’s tax revenues, but receives far less than 5 percent of the Parks & Recreation budget. Our fair share of the $69.1 million budget requested by P&R for 2010 would be more than $3.4 million. What do we get for that? One small skate park on Rustic Woods! This year, the City spent $800,000 of your tax dollars to develop a master plan for Lake Houston Park. Few people know about this park. It borders Kingwood for 2.5 miles on the northeast across Caney Creek. The City reportedly plans to spend another $20 million improving the park. Yet, according to the current plans, the only entrance will be in New Caney. Any Kingwood resident without a car or driver’s license (i.e., kids) will be unable to use a magnificent park they could walk or ride their bikes to. Can you imagine New York building a wall around Central Park? That’s effectively what Houston is doing with Lake Houston Park. It’s really a shame. This recreation area is almost half the size of Kingwood itself. The City is calling it the largest urban wilderness park in North America. Yet to enjoy a place 180 feet from us, Kingwood residents will be forced to drive and hike 40 miles round trip. So much for improving air quality and reducing carbon footprints! We sure could use some of that $3.4 million to help fund the upgrade of sadly aging infrastructure at River Grove, North Park and Deer Ridge Parks. (See the master plan at KingwoodParks.com.) We also could use access to Lake Houston Park to take some of the pressure off East End Park. East End is 1/32nd the size of Lake Houston Park, but has approximately 10 times more visitors each year. Now let’s bring the discussion back around to public safety and the huge amount of money we spend on it, especially versus parks. We lock up so many people that Harris County spends 160 percent of the U.S. average on incarceration. In fact, Texas overall ranks #3 in the country for “incarceration costs.” But we rank #50 in per capita spending for parks. If you think your taxes are too high, one way to lower them is by spending more money on programs that keep kids out of out of trouble in the first place. Parks provide a positive way to do that. They certainly aren’t the only way or even the most important way, but they’re one way and they’re relatively inexpensive. For instance, it costs the Texas Youth Commission $67,890 per year to incarcerate just one juvenile. That’s twice what KSA paid to maintain East End Park last year. And East End Park accommodated an estimated 70,000 visitors. Parks bring families and communities together. Organized park activities teach the value of teamwork, persistence and practice. Games help young kids experience success. Coaches provide good role models. Park programs also provide alternatives to sedentary, virtual lifestyles that can reduce childhood obesity. Park programs like “No Child Left Inside” encourage environmental education in the field. A number of studies have shown this boosts academic achievement, especially in science. Parks inspire respect for nature. They keep kids off streets. They’re fun and they’re even legal! So why keep kids out of Lake Houston Park? And why can’t we get tax dollars to help improve our existing parks? Right now, we have just one candidate, Mike Sullivan, who represents us full time on City Council. Perhaps we need to look more closely at the priorities of the at-large council and mayoral candidates and make sure their priorities really represent ours. Regardless of whether you agree with my priorities, VOTE. Fewer than one in eight people are expected to vote in this election. So your vote will enjoy exceptional leverage. Use it to send a message. Bob Rehak is a 25-year Kingwood resident and business owner. Dixie Frantz will return on Nov. 11.