Harris County Judge

Coffee with Impact is a quarterly forum featuring leaders in various sectors who are making a difference in the Houston area and beyond.

As Harris County judge, Ed Emmett serves more than 4 million residents across 1,700 square miles. Unlike the title suggests, the Harris County Judge is an executive position, as opposed to a judicial one. The term "judge" is used because the position requires Emmett to preside over the Harris County Commissioners Court.

In addition to working with county commissioners to lead the county, the county judge is also the director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for the county. Other duties include handling administrative hearings, such as beer and wine license protests, and communicating county plans to the public through the media.

Through his career, Emmett has served in the Texas House of Representatives for East Harris County and as the Interstate Commerce commissioner under former President George H. W. Bush. He became the Harris County Judge in March 2007.

What do you believe to be the most pressing issues for Harris County over the next three to five years?

Transportation, without a doubt. When I say transportation, I don't mean just highways, although that is the biggest piece of it. The reason Texas is so strong right now is because we have had a transportation system. If you don't have the infrastructure to move freight, the economy is going to become stagnant. We are perfectly positioned to be the gateway of North America. Global commerce is going to continue to grow, but those ships aren't going to come here if we can't move the freight out of the port. If you look at the Port of Houston, it's in the wrong place, but we can't do anything about that.

Health care is the No. 2 issue. The Harris County Hospital District is responsible for providing indigent health care. People can argue all the want about the Affordable Care Act, but the truth is, the same poor people are going to get sick and they're going to require health care. Right now, their main option is to go to the emergency room. That's just not the right way to do it. We need to not be spending money on bricks and mortar. We need to be spending money on neighborhood clinics, maybe even rental space.

How often do you collaborate with commissioners in other counties and what is that relationship like?

In Montgomery County, Hwy. 249 is clearly being coordinated between Commissioner [Jack] Cagle and the folks with Montgomery County and TxDOT. It doesn't make any sense for us to just go to the county line and stop. With the ExxonMobil facility, [Holzwarth Road] was never anticipated as going straight through, but when you look at a map you can see we need to do something with Holzwarth, so that's in the works.

Do you think communities ever get to the point where unincorporated areas will need to think about incorporation?

It's a possibility. Years ago, the City of Houston did annexations down all of the major highways and that put all these areas in the extra-territorial jurisdiction of Houston. If you want to incorporate, Houston has the first right to annex you. That's what happened to Kingwood.

If some area wanted to incorporate, that would force Houston's hand. Many people in The Woodlands thought the deal that Sen. [Tommy] Williams and Mayor [Bill] White worked out would lead to incorporation and they would become a city. But what I'm hearing is that people are beginning to see that their taxes would be higher if they incorporated. It's my impression that that's not going to happen any time soon.

What are some of the factors contributing to what some are calling a new Energy Corridor developing in North Harris County/Southern Montgomery County?

The biggest factor is the Grand Parkway. Back in the mid-1980s, I was the state representative who offered the bill to create the Grand Parkway. The idea of the Grand Parkway was that it would be built on right-of-way land donated, which is why the Grand Parkway Association was created.

The State of Texas can't give any land back to a private citizen. If a developer donates land to TxDOT and TxDOT decides not to build a highway, they couldn't give the land back. The GPA became the holding entity.

In the legislative session in 2007 we negotiated the senate bill that allowed Harris County to take over responsibility for the Grand Parkway. ExxonMobil wanted assurance that the Grand Parkway was going to be built. We decided it would be better to give the project back to TxDOT. Even though I think the county judge is a powerful position, the chairman of Exxon is probably going to want to talk to the governor more than the county judge. Once TxDOT made the commitment to build it, that just opened up that whole area. I think you're going to see development all the way around. Whether it's called a new energy corridor or new biomedical corridor remains to be seen.

With limited funding from TxDOT and voters hesitant to approve road bonds, what other avenues do counties have to find funding for transportation projects?

In our case we've got the toll road authority. That's about our only option. We can always raise the property tax for transportation projects, but in our case, we'd be much more likely to use HCTRA. But we're limited even there.

We have over $3 billion in debt right now, but according to various reports that are being done nationally, HCTRA is the model when it comes to financial stability compared to, for example, the North Texas Toll Authority, which is in dire straits.