A section of Cypress Creek experiences flooding during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. (Vanessa Holt/Community Impact Newspaper)
As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, in planning for its $2.5 billion flood-control bond referendum passed by voters in 2018, the Harris County Flood Control District anticipated that it and the city of Houston would receive about $1 billion each in federal funds that had been set aside for flood mitigation projects. However, instead of directly allocating the $1 billion in Hurricane Harvey relief funding to Harris County, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development decided last January to send the relief money to the Texas GLO to be made available in the form of competitive grants.
Although the decision was opposed by Houston and Harris County leaders at the time, the HCFCD submitted $915 million in grant applications last October. However, county and city officials learned May 21 that while four cities in Harris County including Baytown, Galena Park, Pasadena and Jacinto City received grants totaling about $90 million, Harris County and Houston received $0. According to county officials, 40% of the $125 billion in damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017 took place within Harris County.
“Obviously, it’s a bewildering decision to say the least and all of us are united in a bipartisan way against that outcome,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during the May 25 Harris County Commissioners Court meeting. “I’m grateful that four of our cities received about $90 million total, but it’s just not enough and we’re going to have to continue fighting united for these dollars.”
The announcement came just a couple of months after the HCFCD revealed a $1.4 billion shortfall in its 2018 bond program due to federal funding gaps, leaving the watersheds of Greens Bayou, Halls Bayou and the San Jacinto River less than 50% funded.
“Most of the GLO funds were HUD funding and most of those funds, under our application, were for the San Jacinto [River] watershed, the Halls Bayou [watershed] and the Greens Bayou [watershed],” Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said. “But all of these funds are interconnected because when we don’t have enough funding for one area, it can impact another area. … All of the creeks are interconnected so it’s important, no matter what watershed you’re in, that we’re keeping water flowing.”
A faulty formula
According to HCFCD Executive Director Russ Poppe, the formula Texas GLO officials used to determine which grant applications would be awarded funding was discriminatory against large, urban areas like Harris County and the city of Houston.
“We’ve had a chance to go back and look at some of the scoring criteria that was used, that, in our opinion, have no real bearing whatsoever on the value of the projects, and that’s everything from the per capita market value to how the GLO applied the social vulnerability indices—which they applied at a countywide level, not a project level—as well as the project impact, which is a function of the population within our jurisdiction—again, discriminatory against largely populated entities,” Poppe said. “If you take those three factors into consideration that’s almost 23 points now off the top that we could not attain in Harris County, Harris County Flood Control or city of Houston applications. That would mean that our perfect score would be 82 and the average score of all the projects awarded had an average score of 83. So we started off on low footing compared to everyone else.”
In response, more than 50 Harris County residents voiced their opposition to the Texas GLO’s decision during the Harris County Commissioners Court meeting on May 25.
“This egregious action on the part of the GLO against the people of Harris County is not fair,” said Sherwood Place resident Guadalupe Jiminez, whose East Aldine area-home flooded during Hurricane Harvey. “I share the trauma that many of my neighbors suffer—that every time it rains, our lives will be torn again due to flooding. GLO has the resources and we need it. … What makes me mad is that the state of Texas does not seem to care about the economic [burden] that places on Harris County. We deserve better; I deserve better representation by the state. … To the governor and the GLO, I vote and I will not forget your dreadful actions against me and my community.”
Following nearly six hours of public comment, the court briefly went into executive session and returned voting unanimously on a slate of items in opposition to the GLO’s decision.
The court unanimously approved a resolution proposed by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia condemning the GLO’s decision, calling for the GLO to change the allocation scoring criteria, and calling for HUD to reconstitute further allocations in Community Development Block Grant Mitigation funds approved in the 2018 Bipartisan Budget Act as direct allocations for Harris County and the city of Houston.
The court also unanimously agreed to be a signatory on a joint letter with Houston City Council in oppostion of the GLO’s decision and authorized the Harris County Attorney’s office to retain and engage outside council and pursue all administrative and litigation options related to issues around allocation of CDBG-MIT funds by the Texas GLO, as proposed by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis.
“Our strategy is to make the point that we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it,” Ellis said.
During the meeting Cagle also announced he had received information that 22 bipartisan state legislators representing the Greater Houston area had signed a letter, likewise opposing the GLO’s decision. Garcia also urged each speaker to voice their concerns to the Texas GLO by calling 512-463-5001.
“It is now incredibly clear that the state works to actively screw us and we can’t just sit by and take it anymore,” Garcia said. “It is imperative that Harris County be very loud and very clear that this is not right. [The GLO] had several opportunities to sit down with us and speak to this formula, but chose not to. … They stuck with a formula that they knew was going to screw Harris County. Commissioner Bush has failed the state of Texas and Harris County, in particular, with his leadership at the GLO.”
According to Dave Berry, executive director of the Harris County Budget Management Department, the GLO has about $1 billion left in Hurricane Harvey-specific funds for the next round of allocations.
“Folks at the state and federal level should be concerned that the results of this were inequitable and inefficient and not a responsible use of taxpayer dollars,” Berry said. “It’s not just that Harris County didn’t get what it wanted, but that we got an inequitable result from an inequitable process.”
Shawn Arrajj and Emma Whalen contributed to this report.