Voters to decide on $848M in Harris County propositions

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Harris County plans to accommodate growth, alleviate congestion and fund amenities through four bond proposals in the upcoming Nov. 3 election. The bonds total $848 million with the largest proposition providing $700 million for road projects.

“It won’t be that many years until there’ll be more people living in the unincorporated area of Harris County than in Houston,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said. “In the mid-[19]60s, 77 percent of people who lived in Harris County lived in Houston. Now that number is rapidly approaching
50 percent.”

Harris County bonds

Radack said he believes not passing the bond could have significant consequences, including strained access for emergency vehicles and increased congestion.

“There’s going to be phenomenal growth and there will be—without more bonds—unbelievable traffic congestion,” Radack said.

Other bond referendums proposed by the county include $60 million for parks projects, $64 million for Harris County Flood Control District projects and $24 million to build a new Harris County animal shelter.

“The [animal shelter]facility we have now is old. We need something much better than what we have now. I believe that bond issue will overwhelmingly pass,” Radack said. “It will pass with a margin far greater than roads.”

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Mobility money

The vast majority of the $700 million proposed by the road bond referendum, or $640 million, will be allocated to major road and bridge projects and expansions, county officials said.

Radack said there are a few projects in Precinct 3 that could be funded through Proposition 1 money. There are plans to expand Clay Road west of the Grand Parkway into a four-lane roadway in two mile-long segments from Peek to Katy-Hockley Cutoff roads. A third segment of the project expands Porter Road from Morton Ranch to Clay roads.

Each of those projects is estimated to be $7 million with a $21 million total budget.

“If the bond election is successful, we could initiate the engineering, and generally we try to have projects out for bids and under construction within a two-year window,” Precinct 3 Engineering Manager Randy Shilhab said.

He said construction takes about six months. Each segment would be done separately from east to west to align with how the area drains.

Conservative approach

The county’s property tax rate will not increase if voters approve the bond proposals, Harris County officials said. Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said the $848 million in bonds would be issued over the next seven to 10 years beginning in fiscal year 2016-17. The county plans to pay off  $1.248 billion in debt by FY 2022-23.

Even if property tax revenue—which has risen about 6.1 percent per year from 2005-14—does not rise, county officials said the additional debt would not require a tax rate increase.[polldaddy poll=9138117]

“If something dramatic happens over the next 10 years with the Houston economy, we wouldn’t have to build those roads,” Jackson said. “We’re in really good shape [financially right now].”

Radack said historically Harris County’s methods of paying for projects have been prudent.

“If you spread it out over all the years, then that’s the way you avoid a tax increase,” he said.

State law requires language on the ballot that, if passed, the measures could necessitate a tax increase, but Radack said he did not anticipate a tax increase.

“We haven’t had a tax increase in Harris County in over 19 years. So people have to decide whether they think the county government is prudent when it comes to spending their money or not.”

Jon Lindsay, president of the North Houston Association and former Harris County judge from 1975-95, said Harris County is one of the few counties in the country that does not have an ad valorem property tax to fund road and bridge maintenance.

Instead of a tax, the county transfers  $120 million from toll revenue every year to the mobility fund to pay for road projects, county officials said.

“That’s not fair to the toll road users,” Lindsay said. “I think if people would go ahead and vote for the bond proposal, you’d have to pay those bonds back with ad valorem tax. Therefore, all the $700 million spent on new roads would be a fair tax.”

However, county officials said the county does pay back debt on road bonds with the debt service portion of the property tax rate.

The Harris County Democratic and Republican parties said they do not plan to take stances on the bond proposals.

Harris County bonds

Parks, flood control funding

Proposition 2 would issue $60 million for park projects and $64 million to fund Harris County Flood Control District projects.

The district has not identified any future projects at this point, HCFCD’s Operations Director Russ Poppe said.

Radack said the Katy area will continue to be a huge challenge when it comes to flood control.

“There are huge issues with flooding in the Katy area, particularly when it comes to building roads,” Radack said.

He said the Katy area’s drainage problems make road construction more expensive.

Funding for the flood control projects would not be split between precincts, Jackson said. However, park funding will be split evenly with each precinct receiving $15 million to fund parks and trail projects, if approved.

A park project that could receive bond money in Precinct 3 is a 400-acre lake in a 900-acre park in progress called John Paul’s Landing, which is kitty-corner from Paul D. Rushing Park.

The lake has been in progress for about a decade, Radack said. Entities that need dirt have been excavating in the area, which has created the start of the lake. It is now about 40 acres.

“It’s a great opportunity to actually build something that’s not going to be a massive cost for the county,”
Radack said.

Shilhab said the lake could take five or 10 years, depending on development, but the park surrounding it would be open to the public much sooner.

“It will be open to the public hopefully in the next year or two or so,” Shilhab said. “It’s probably about a $5 million effort on the parks side. That would be for the parking lot, playgrounds, fishing piers, boat ramps, jogging trails, [and]landscaping.”

The lake’s intended purpose is fishing, he said.

“It is going to be an oasis in the middle of suburbia in the not too distant future,” Schilhab said.

Taking control of animal control

Harris County is seeking voter approval for $24 million in bonds for a new animal shelter located at the same site as the shelter at 612 Canino Road, Houston in Precinct 4.

The shelter was designed to hold 12,000 animals a year when it was built in 1986, Harris County Public Health & Environmental Services officials said. However, it took in more than 25,000 unwanted cats and dogs last year and receives about 80 animals per day.

“As all of these people move into our county, most families come with their pets,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said. “If we do not have a place to keep our pets, the only option that we have is to euthanize them.”

Cagle said the animal shelter is euthanizing 70 percent of the animals picked up off the street.

If approved by voters, HCPHES officials said the bond proposal would fund a new animal shelter, which would include three new buildings. The bond would also fund a renovation of the existing building. The new facility would provide a new adoption center, a shelter holding area and an isolation and quarantine building for sick animals.

The new animal shelter would provide five times as much kennel space for animals, HCPHES officials said, which would allow pets to stay in the shelter longer, increasing the likelihood of adoption.

“If people care about these animals, let’s give them a fighting chance instead of them having to be euthanized because there’s no place for them,” Cagle said.

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