The court passed a measure by a 3-2 vote at its June 25 meeting to evenly split the sales tax revenue the county receives from the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, also known as METRO—a total projected at about $32 million this year, according to METRO's fiscal year 2019 budget book. Previously METRO funds were split so Precinct 1 got 20%, Precinct 2 got 15%, Precinct 3 got 32% and Precinct 4 got 33%. The shift would redirect about $4.8 million from precincts 3 and 4, based on METRO's $32 million projection.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who placed the item on the agenda, said the even split of funds would be temporary and would be re-evaluated after a more comprehensive study of mobility needs in the county.
“It’s a fair way to do this until we figure out some way of doing it that takes into account a review of where the money has gone in the past with an eye towards equity, fairness to people who normally get overlooked,” Ellis said at the June 25 meeting.
At the court’s upcoming July 9 meeting, Ellis said he plans to push for splitting the county’s toll road revenue—which comes in at roughly $120 million per year—in a similar way. The FY 2019-20 budget splits the revenue so that 18% goes to Precinct 1, 25% goes to Precinct 2, 27% goes to Precinct 3 and 30% goes to Precinct 4. Splitting the revenue evenly would provide $30 million to each precinct, decreasing funding for precincts 3 and 4 by roughly $2.4 million and $6 million, respectively. The revenue for Precinct 1 would increase by roughly $8.4 million.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who emphatically opposed and objected to the METRO reallocation, is preparing to contest the toll road reallocations as well.
Cagle’s office sent out a letter to stakeholders in Precinct 4 in early July calling the reallocation a “surprise partisan attack” and asking officials to speak against the toll revenue reallocation and in favor of restoring the METRO funds at the July 9 meeting.
“These mobility funds maintain and construct roads that keep traffic moving in your community and provide roadway access for a prompt response for law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services that will ensure the continued safety of all residents,” he said in the letter.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack joined Cagle in his opposition to the METRO funding measure, arguing that a completely even split of funds ignores the realities of where growth is occurring in the county.
“The reality is this, when you take a look at the growing areas of Harris County … that’s precincts 3 and 4,” Radack said at the meeting. “What you’re going to do is create a detrimental thing in Harris County because we’re not going to be able to build the infrastructure necessary to keep this county growing.”
Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia countered that part of the reason growth was slower in his precinct was because they do not have the infrastructure to support it, partially due to the lack of mobility funding.
Cagle also took issue with what he said was a lack of transparency over how the redistribution of funds was being handled. He called on the County Attorney’s office to review how the measure was carried out and said he would also make an inquiry to Attorney General Ken Paxton's office about whether there was adequate notice.
Hidalgo voiced support for the measure, saying the way funds are distributed should be more data-driven.
“Nobody can give anyone a written assessment of why any number makes sense because it hasn’t been studied,” she said. “You can’t have transparency without any information.”
After the measure passed, Hidalgo directed County Engineer John Blount to work with commissioners on exactly what the mobility assessment would entail and determine when it could be ready for the court to review. Any shift in toll road funds made at the July meeting would not go into effect until the end of the budgetary year.