Harris County Proposes New Billion Dollar Bond Referendum Despite Unspent Millions From Previous Bond

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In what has become a familiar 3-2 partisan vote, the Harris County Court of Commissioners approved the continuation of a series of bond referendums totaling $1.2 billion in the November 2022 ballot.

The court did not address the issue of the bond referendum until about nine hours after the start of the public meeting last Tuesday, and the commissioners argued over how the funds would be divided among the county’s four precincts.

In a public meeting on July 19, 2021, Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) threatened to withhold all funds from the precinct of commissioners Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) and Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) if the two Republicans voted against the bond referendum. During this week’s meeting, Garcia and Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) advocated for the allocation of funds to their own constituencies, which they say have been historically underserved.

“You can’t go in and reinforce the inequities that have been systematically put in place by the government for years,” said Ellis, who opposed the allocation of funds per county road mile.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo sought to defuse Garcia’s threat and allay concerns, explaining that she “wouldn’t support him without some clarification on attribution.”

As Hidalgo began suggesting a framework that would prioritize “worst-case first” but also commit to a minimum allocation of $220 million for each constituency, Garcia abruptly walked off the stage, forcing Hidalgo to call a suspension.

After the commissioners court resumed more than 15 minutes later, Hidalgo requested that $100 million of the bond be set aside for public safety, but to distribute the remaining funds – $900 million for roads, drainage and transportation, and $200 million for parks and trails — to give each riding at least $220 million.

Garcia hesitated, but reluctantly voted for Hidalgo’s plan. First Deputy County Attorney Jay Aiyer explained that the framework would not be part of the bond language presented to voters in November, but simply a public record of the commissioners’ intentions.

Prior to Hidalgo’s proposal for the minimums, Cagle pointed out that there were still $197,900,000 in unissued funds from the 2015 bond referendum, with Ellis Ward 1 holding the most unspent funds. Cagle added that although he requested disbursement of the remaining $60 million for his own constituency, the county budget department under Daniel Ramos only approved $18 million.

Cagle also objected to the proposal to spend $1 million on a community engagement effort when the last engagement effort for the 2018 flood bond referendum cost just $250,000.

“It just doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said.

Cagle also noted that the entire public safety portion would only go to the sheriff’s department, and that suggested uses for public safety projects were “buried” in another unrelated agenda item, but did not include any estimated cost. He also said the county’s eight constables were not interviewed about the needs of their operations.

Ramos contradicted Cagle and insisted that a “request for proposals was sent to all county departments,” but constables say they were not interviewed.

“I don’t think we have a good idea where the money is going or how it will be spent, even in the security component category,” Cagle said.

Both Republicans questioned the timing of the referendum, with Ramsey saying the county should spend more time communicating with residents about their needs and Cagle saying now is not the time to raise taxes for struggling residents with inflation and a struggling economy.

Ramos told the commissioners the additional cost to residents of the bond would be $32 a year for an average home valued at $300,000. Acknowledging that residents would see higher tax bills, Ramos pointed out that the increases would result from increases in appraised values, but the tax rate would actually decrease as the county pays off older bond debt. .

Hidalgo explained that while she shared concerns about residents’ economic hardship, she confirmed with Ramos that the tax increases due to the bond package would not take effect until 2024.

In his objections to putting the referendum in front of voters this year, Ramsey reiterated what he called “timing, trust and transparency” issues, arguing that the commissioners had lost the trust of the community by rushing to the last minute. clipping planeto create a county administrator’s officeand the appointment of an election administrator.

Ramsey and Cagle voted against the non-binding allocation framework proposed by Hidalgo and against further bond planning. Commissioners will need to approve the formal wording of the bonds by Aug. 22.

Ramsey warned that the lack of transparency and specificity could sink the link this year.

“When [voters] are confused, they will vote against it,” he remarked.

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