The Army Corps of Engineers has identified a major problem at the confluence of the San Jacinto River with Lake Houston which needs to be addressed, namely sandbars, often referred to as “mouth bars.”
More than 400 area residents who attended Houston City Councilman Dave Martin’s Town Hall Meeting Oct. 9 heard this from the councilmember.
Their presence will seriously impede the increased flow of water through the lake, Martin said, due to the dredging now taking place. That water will back up and continue to cause serious problems if not addressed. The estimated cost to mediate this issue will be more than $100 million. Federal assistance funding is available from FEMA under a current interpretation of its guidelines but requires some level of matching funds and processing through the state and federal system for approvals.
Martin announced he and a delegation from Houston were scheduled to meet with Gov. Greg Abbott Oct. 11 to present a letter from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner pointing out the “mouth bar” problem and committing the City of Houston to provide $15-$20 million toward required matching funds. Martin read excerpts of the letter and it was displayed to the crowd on a video screen. Its closing words were: “This debris must be collected and disposed of as soon as possible in the interest of the health, safety and welfare of City of Houston residents.”
Martin expressed optimism based on negotiations here, in Austin and in Washington, D.C. that the funding would be approved but the process would take time. He made a comparison with progress of this area’s remediation efforts by other areas badly affected by the storm.
“How much is being spent on Barker and Addicks right now? None. How much is being spent on areas like Bellaire and areas like Meyerland on remediation? None. So we have a $70-million project presently going on in our river and we have another $100-million project that is going to take place because of this man sitting here today, Mayor Sylvester Turner,” Martin said.
Martin addressed the progress of cleanup since Hurricane Harvey.
“A lot of things happened. Thirty-two days: that’s how long it took the San Antonio folks to pick up the debris; not one pass, not two passes, not three passes, but four passes. The dredging project that is happening today in the San Jacinto River is a $70-million project. The interesting thing about that is it took $18 million just to get the equipment down here and staged, and 5-and-a-half miles of pipes,” he said.
Martin said the city has lowered the level of Lake Houston in times of predicted heavy rains four times since Harvey. He explained that the dam was built as a holding reservoir and not a flood-control reservoir, and the long-term issue of installing adequate flood gates was being addressed now.
Martin introduced Houston Mayor SylvesterTurner and noted both Turner and he needed to address the upcoming vote on two City of Houston propositions on the Nov. 6 ballot. Proposition A is called ReBuild Houston and Proposition B is The Fire Union Petition. Martin said that Turner would talk about the details of both but said, “Do me a favor; vote for Proposition A. I don’t give a darn what anybody’s telling you, you’re going to hear the facts tonight and a lot of other information is not accurate. And then I want you to vote against Proposition B … so that we can make sure we can get this stuff done right.”
Turner began by agreeing with Martin’s recommendation to vote for Proposition A and against B and explained why. Regarding the reasons behind Proposition A to specifically dedicate Houston drainage fees for drainage and flood- related issues, he explained that it was the result of disputes over the use of funds in a long-running battle about how the city pays to reduce flood risks through the ReBuild Houston program. In 2010, Houston voters approved a plan to impose fees on property owners to pay for street and drainage repairs. Opponents sued, claiming the fees constituted a “rain tax.” The Texas Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the 2010 ballot language was misleading. The court said the funding language was not clear enough to voters. The result was previous city administrations and his administration had treated the fee money collected as part of the general fund at the expense of maintaining the drainage funds adequately. The proposition is intended to clarify the Supreme Court’s concerns and ensure fees are dedicated to be used going forward for the purposes for which they were originally intended.
“It doesn’t increase anybody’s taxes,” said Turner. “It doesn’t increase anybody’s fees. It doesn’t eliminate any fees. It is the same amount currently coming into the system. We are just putting it back on the ballot and identifying all of the funding sources that are already being used, but we go one step further in the language. We say that the dollars coming in will be dedicated for drainage, flooding and streets. It cannot be used for any other purposes.”
Turner said the fee collection system for maintenance is a pay-as-you-go system. Bonds and loans are not made for maintenance functions. The objective of the new language is to create a “lock box” around the money to prevent it from being used for any other reasons.
Regarding Proposition B, Turner explained that it was not put forward with the support of the city. It is on the ballot because the Houston City Firefighters Union was not able to achieve an agreement at the bargaining table with the city in spite of an offer still on the table of a 9.5-percent pay increase. He said the union and the city have failed to reach agreement in the past, which has contributed to the inability of the firefighters to keep up with wage increases of the other city work groups. Proposition B is the result of a firefighters’ petition drive and is a city charter amendment.
“I love my firefighters. There are 4,000 of them. They do an outstanding job. They’re out there, before Harvey, during Harvey and after Harvey. If this were a question of do we love our firefighters, I and everybody else would raise their hands and say I do,” said Turner.
However, Turner explained that he is the CEO of this city and is responsible for it, including its financial well-being. He pointed out that this year the city has negotiated agreements with the other work groups successfully. The municipal workers now have a three-year contract totaling a six-percent pay increase. The police officers have a two-year contract that totals seven percent and the offer, still on the table, for the firefighters is a raise of 9.5-percent over three years.
“If you vote for B you are mandating the city to make a pay raise of 29 percent,” Turner said. He explained that the proposition states 25 percent and any increase that the police get which is now four percent, making the total 29 percent the first year and 32 percent the second year.
Turner said Houston has hit a revenue cap imposed by the voters in 2004. Passage of Proposition B would trigger a firefighter pay hike costing the city more than $100 million each year, according to Turner. Because of the revenue cap, the city would have to cut other spending to pay for the salary increase, said Turner. That would likely mean cuts to already lean workforces including not only firefighters, but also police and municipal workers, he said. The cuts would likely mean layoffs of nearly 1,000 city employees and cutbacks in vital city services, according to Turner. It would be bad for the city and unfair to everyone, he said. Turner also indicated it would set a precedent for other work groups and things would only get worse in the future. He explained that it would make employee/city ongoing contract negotiations no longer a management function, but a negotiation by referendum function which is not good public policy.
The remainder of the meeting consisted of updates and presentations regarding the recovery flood process already underway by those responsible for them. State Rep. Dan Huberty expressed support for where and how both Martin and Turner were playing key roles in achieving progress in both Austin and Washington, D.C. Because of limited time, the speakers mainly introduced themselves, spoke very briefly and indicated that they would be available after the meeting if there were any specific questions in their areas of responsibility.
Stan Sarman, chairman of Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone 10, which includes the Kingwood area, reported the Northpark Mobility Project’s funding was about to be formally approved by all parties pending a couple of remaining issues with the City of Houston. He provided a video animation of how the Northpark Drive “flyover” intersection with Interstate 69 and at Loop 494 at the railroad crossing would work. He explained that once funding was confirmed, it would take a year to finish the detailed specifications and planning. He said he was hopeful construction would begin in early 2020.