Harris County commissioners discuss possible $1B bond for November election

Harris County commissioners discuss possible $1B bond for November election

Harris County commissioners are considering a potential $1 billion bond issue for the November election to fund roads, parks and public safety.

County Engineer Milton Rahman presented a breakdown of the preliminary plan brought forward by the Office of the County Administrator at the June 28 commissioners court meeting. The plan proposes allocating a total of $700 million for roads and transit; $200 million for parks; and $100 million for public safety.

This bond would not include more funding for the Harris County Flood Control District, as around 74% of funds from the $2.5 billion bond program approved by voters in 2018 have not yet been spent or encumbered, according to Rahman’s presentation. The county last went to voters for a similar bond in 2015 that allocated $700 million for roads and $60 million for parks.

A billion-dollar bond would increase property taxes by $27 a year for residents with homes valued at around $314,000, said Daniel Ramos, executive director of the Office of Management and Budget. But rising property values coupled with the county paying its bonds at “a pretty prestigious rate,” means issuing a bond could maintain rather than increase the tax rate, Ramos said.

“Harris County has been very fortunate that [property value] assessments have grown as well as any place in the country,” he said. “What folks are going to see is their tax rate for Harris County continue to go down on the [maintenance and operation] rate. Because we have been so diligent about paying our bonds, as soon as 2028, the rate even for interest for debt is going to go below what it is today.”

Based on discussions with financial advisors, Ramos said the bond amount could be increased even further to $1.2 billion or even $1.5 billion.

Commissioners would have to vote on a bond order during a special meeting between Aug. 12-22 for the item to be placed on the Nov. 8 ballot, said David Berry, the county’s administrator and budget officer. That leaves commissioners with two regular court meetings on July 19 and Aug. 2 to continue discussions.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said he agreed with the idea of a bond, but he expressed concern over the time frame between adoption and the election, saying bond elections require ample time to listen and communicate with residents.

“You [also] need time to advocate … then go out there and sell it,” Ramsey said. “The worst thing we could ever do is have a bond issue and it fail.”

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis referenced the timeline for the 2018 bond to counter Ramsey, noting that voters would have more time to consider this bond than they did for the most recent bond election.

In 2018, the commissioners voted to formally adopt an order on June 12, and specific bond programs were listed on Aug. 14, 11 days before the election on Aug. 25, Berry said. This year, adoption at the beginning of the window on Aug. 12 would leave 88 days until the Nov. 8 election, compared to the 74 days allotted in 2018.

Rough roads

While there has not yet been discussion on specific programs, Rahman outlined where infrastructure spending could go.

Rahman said $300 million in flexible road funds would support road maintenance, rehabilitation and safety. He said 588 out of more than 6,600 miles of county roads are in “poor” to “failed” condition, and 260 miles have an E or F level of service, indicating congested conditions.

“We have 190 miles of road … that need reconstruction,” Rahman said. “If you add up $5 million per mile, that’s another billion dollars of needs.”

Another $100 million would rehabilitate older roads in “poor” to “fair” condition, acting as a preventative measure against road reconstruction, which can cost up to 10 times more per mile.

“If you invest a dollar, … you may save $6-$10 compared to if the road is already failed,” Rahman said.

Apart from addressing poor road conditions, bond funds would have a flood risk reduction component, with $200 million going toward improving street drainage in neighborhoods. This would help supplement the over $600 million worth of subdivision drainage projects, managed by the engineering department and part of the flood control district’s capital improvement program.

Quality of life

The $50 million for multimodal transportation would go toward offering residents alternatives to driving, with bike lanes, sidewalks and trails along county roadways.

According to Rahman, only about 39% of Harris County roadways have sidewalks, not taking into account the condition of those sidewalks.

Funding could also go toward bringing sidewalks and ramps into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. From the results of a county study last year, Rahman said almost $10 million worth of improvement is needed immediately to rehabilitate ADA ramps.

As for the $200 million budgeted for parks, Rahman highlighted the lack of park acreage and the low number of parks.

The National Recreation and Park Association recommends that on average, you need 10 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents,” he said. “We have half of it or less. We have 23,000 acres of parkland, compared to 47,000 acres … as a standard.”

Harris County has 181 parks, but the county would need more than 3,000 to follow NRPA recommendations, Rahman said. While his department had not conducted a study yet, a future study could look at park access.

“We haven’t done a study of the access of parks for the population, but a lot of folks may not have access to parks within 5 miles of where they live,” Rahman added.

To review Rahman’s presentation in detail, head to the 3:53:42 mark in the archived video of the June 28 court meeting.

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