Friday, October 14, 2011

Rebuild Houston (drainage fee) funds to pay for hike/bike trails

Texas Watchdog:

It was passed by Houston voters as a tax to address the city’s decrepit drainage system and Third World streets. But $857,000 of the new Proposition 1 fund --- which Mayor Annise Parker pitched as a "lock box that can only be spent for street and drainage improvements" --- is slated for hike and bike trails.

The money will pay for "design, acquisition and construction" of trails as part of an overall plan to provide "an alternate route of travel for bicyclists and/or hikers away from street traffic," according to the city's latest capital improvement plan.

Shown the budget item, a chief proponent of Proposition 1 was baffled.
“The money was not supposed to go for hike and bike trails,” said Bob Jones, part of the successful Renew Houston effort. “This is not the intention for the money that we voted on.”

Wait a second; it's all a mistake. Specifically a too-vaguely-named accounting journal entry.

The fund, also known as Rebuild Houston, draws from four sources: drainage fees on property owners, developer impact fees, property taxes, and government grants.


The city's Public Works department acknowledged the hike-and-bike program is to receive Rebuild Houston money -- but not via the drainage tax component. The entire Rebuild Houston program is pegged by city charter for "Houston's drainage and streets."

The trails program "will not receive any funding from the drainage fee component," Roberto Medina, senior staff analyst at the department, said via e-mail, adding assurances from a planning person who heads hike and bike trail plans.

"Yes, it is listed as (Dedicated Drainage and Street Renewal) funding, but there are four components to that fund," Medina said. "We are well aware that it is not a clear way of identifying how a project is going to get funded, and it would have been nice for it to be more specific."

Yes, that would have been nice. Meanwhile ...

(Mayor Annise) Parker declined through a spokeswoman to comment.

Uh-oh. What about other supporters of Proposition 1/Renew Houston/Rebuild Houston?

Texas Watchdog contacted several supporters of Prop 1 to weigh in on this story. Jack P. Miller, president of RG Miller Engineers, and Christina Lindsay, executive director of the Houston Council of Engineering Companies, did not return calls. A person answering the phone at the home of Jeff Ross, of Pate Engineers, hung up on this reporter.
The Rebuild Houston Oversight Committee, which includes Ross, meets at 10 a.m. every fourth Tuesday in the Mayor’s Conference Room at City Hall.

Now I mostly take everything Texas Watchdog says with a shaker-full of salt, because they lean too far to the right for my taste. Just take a look at their headlines today, or any other day for that matter. But that doesn't mean a blind hog can't occasionally find a truffle.

What this looks like at first blush is -- at the very least -- yet another black eye for the mayor. But does Councilman Steven Costello earn any blame for the wording of the charter amendment establishing the fund with an exploitable loophole in it? (And if you do think he's at fault, keep in mind he has two three challengers in his re-election bid, and one of them is a real progressive.)

What about the rest of council? And the city's legal team -- led by City Attorney David Feldman -- who are supposed to do the due diligence on matters like these? Feldman certainly has been no stranger to controversy of late.

Or is it we the voters, who believed what they told us -- well, some of us believed; some did not -- who are at fault? Can you accept Medina's contention that it's all just an accounting mashup?

Who do you believe? Or more to the point: who do you want to believe?

1 comment:

Matt Bramanti said...

Spot on.

Dedicated funds (and dedicated revenue streams) like this carry double risks -- first, they have unique potential abuses. Money is fungible, so the city can reduce its general-fund contributions into the special fund, so that the new revenue stream effectively becomes general-fund money.

Second, such systems get less public oversight and attention than they should, because the idea of a dedicated revenue stream and dedicated fund is an intuitively good idea. It seems more likely to work, so the public can say "hey, it's a drainage fee, and it all goes to drainage, problem solved."

Do it in a strong-mayor town with historically weak financial controls, and the problems are just exacerbated.

Municipal functions are pretty screwed up in this town, and I don't think it's a left/right, Dem/GOP thing. It's an inevitable consequence of the public's failure to supervise its servants.