Area county judges reflect on COVID-19 during BayTran State of the Counties

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo speaks during BayTran's 21st Annual State of the Counties. (Courtesy BayTran)
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo speaks during BayTran's 21st Annual State of the Counties. (Courtesy BayTran)

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo speaks during BayTran's 21st Annual State of the Counties. (Courtesy BayTran)

Though the event was held virtually this year, county leaders had a lot to say during the 21st Annual State of the Counties for the Bay Area Houston Transportation Partnership.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta showed up to talk about how their counties have fared during the pandemic. Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, who had a scheduling conflict, shared his thoughts via a prerecorded video.

Hidalgo said Harris County officials have already noticed changes made due to the COVID-19 pandemic that may become permanent.

For instance, Hidalgo said, many workers across the county and the nation enjoy working from home. It saves time and money by eliminating commutes and allows workers to spend more time with family, and many workers are as productive or even more productive at home than working in an office, Hidalgo said.

“People are liking this idea of working virtually,” she said. “It’s working for their health and mental health.”

Harris County has changed its parameters to allow county employees to work from home, and employees are already making good use of it. Such a practice may be able to change the nature of downtown Houston or office districts, but that is a problem officials are ready to address, Hidalgo said.

“I think it’s exciting to be able to create those new opportunities because it helps us recruit and it helps us retain the best people,” she said.

Harris County has committed $40 million toward laptops, Wi-Fi hot spots and other hardware students need to attend school virtually. County officials are also taking a closer look at areas of the county that lack proper infrastructure, such as cell phone towers, Hidalgo said.

“Once the pandemic is over, we’re going to continue needing that connectivity,” she said.

Sebesta said that while many counties are prepared for fires, floods and other disasters, preparing for a pandemic was not something they had done.

The health department in Brazoria County—which, unlike Harris and Galveston counties, does not have a countywide health district—is normally 22 people. Brazoria County has more than doubled it, as employees from other departments have stepped up, and volunteers started coming in on weekends, Sebesta said.

“Our health department hasn’t had a single day off [since this started], ... and their first day off will be Thanksgiving Day,” he said.

Sales tax revenue in Brazoria County peaked in 2018 at about $34 million due to people spending money to fix their homes after Harvey. So far, it seems 2020 could generate just as much sales tax revenue as 2018 despite the pandemic, Sebesta said.

“People are still spending money, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Brazoria County made it through Hurricane Harvey without any deaths, but so far, 148 residents have died of the coronavirus, out of the more than 11,000 who have been infected, Sebesta said.

“That has been the hardest part we’ve had to deal with,” he said.

In Galveston County, over 53% of residents have been tested for COVID-19 so far. The county was able to team with the University of Texas Medical Branch to deliver some of the most robust and aggressive testing in the nation, Henry said.

“Galveston County has resisted the urge for significant shutdowns and lockdowns, allowing people to make decisions for themselves as best we can,” Henry said.

With no playbook to go by, the county has done the best it can responding to a pandemic, keeping families safe and businesses open, he said.

“We’re glad to say that we think the worst is behind us,” he said.

Additionally, the pandemic is affecting transportation. After COVID-19, some experts believe main arterial roads in Harris County may peak at only 90% of the high-volume traffic they saw before the pandemic, Hidalgo said.

“This is the time to really look at transportation holistically,” she said.

The widening of I-45 will be under construction until at least 2026, “but we will get there,” Henry said. The county will use the widening interstate as an economic draw and will work on other projects, such as relieving congestion along FM 517, he said.

Less than a decade ago, Sebesta said, Brazoria County was happy if a developer came along and invested $10 million into the county. Now the county has seven projects with at least $1 billion invested in each.

“Those are always great projects to have,” he said.

Brazoria County is also becoming a popular spot for solar farms. Six deals have been made so far, and others are in the works. One is even under construction, which is helping to build the county’s taxable value, Sebesta said.

As for ongoing work, Brazoria County has run out of room at its courthouse. The building is two district courtrooms short, and it is due to the tremendous growth the county is seeing, in part, because of its attractive school districts, Sebesta said.

In Harris County, the county has partnered with the city of Houston to invest $65 million into the issue of homelessness. Individuals experiencing homelessness are often arrested for trespassing, put into jail for a few days and cycled into a mental health facility, after which they end up right back on the streets; this results in dollars being wasted just for the problem to continue, Hidalgo said.

Instead, the county and city will invest millions to come up with long-term solutions, such as long-term housing, to help fix the problem, she said.

Galveston County is in the middle of a countywide drainage study that will wrap up in 2021. The study will help the county identify the best projects to convey the most water in a Hurricane Harvey-level storm, Henry said.
By Jake Magee

Editor, Bay Area & Pearland/Friendswood

Jake has been a print journalist for several years, covering numerous beats including city government, education, business and more. Starting off at a daily newspaper in southern Wisconsin, Magee covered two small cities before being promoted to covering city government in the heart of newspaper's coverage area. He moved to Houston in mid-2018 to be the editor for and launch the Bay Area edition of Community Impact Newspaper. Today, he covers everything from aerospace to transportation to flood mitigation.