Harris County upholds measure to evenly distribute mobility funds in another split vote

In another partisan split vote, Harris County commissioners amended and reaffirmed their previous motion to evenly distribute the sales tax revenue the county receives from the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County across all four precincts until a mobility assessment is completed.

In another partisan split vote, Harris County commissioners amended and reaffirmed their previous motion to evenly distribute the sales tax revenue the county receives from the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County across all four precincts until a mobility assessment is completed.

In another partisan split vote, Harris County commissioners during a July 9 meeting amended and reaffirmed their previous motion to evenly distribute the sales tax revenue the county receives from the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County across all four precincts until a mobility assessment is completed.

The measure—which was hotly debated by county commissioners, local leaders and residents alike—means 25% of the $32 million in sales tax revenue the county is projected to receive this year will be distributed to each of the county’s four precincts. 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.

The vote comes just two weeks after the item was first brought to the Commissioners Court at the June 25 meeting by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who argued the formula behind the current distribution is not data driven.

“It’s pretty hard in 2019 for any of us intellectually to justify the way the system operates now,” Ellis said. “That disparity for precincts 1 and 2 has been in place for years. With elections comes change, comes transparency.”

The item returned to the court for discussion during its most recent meeting by request of both Ellis and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who was hoping for a restoration of the funds.

Cagle argued Precinct 4 is home to the largest portion of the county’s unincorporated population, at 44%, and has the most county-maintained lane miles of any other precinct at 5,366. While Cagle said he was not opposed to studying the methodology behind the funding allocation, he said the appropriate time to discuss the distribution of funds would have been during the budgeting process in February.

“It’s not a future allocation; it’s a retroactive allocation that has been redistributed,” Cagle said. “This is money that basically we have put into our budget process. We have built these roads with the expectation that we would [get a] reimbursement, and then you say, ‘But no, you don’t get your reimbursement.’”

While Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia agreed the percentage of unincorporated area and the number of county-maintained lane miles were important factors to consider, they are only part of the formula.

Garcia said while other areas of the county enjoy residential growth—such as precincts 3 and 4—much of Precinct 2’s growth has been industrial, which is not taken into account in the current formula.

Additionally, Garcia said while his precinct has a smaller unincorporated population than the other three counties, incorporated areas like Pasadena do not have the economy to maintain and improve its own roads and therefore look to the county for assistance.

“I think when you start to understand those factors, things become more equal, the formula becomes more clear,” he said.

In response, Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack argued that because so little of Precinct 2 voted to be within the METRO service area in 1978 when the transit authority was established—and therefore does not pay a 1 cent sales tax—it should not be receiving the funds.

“How do you rationalize giving their money to an area that didn’t want METRO to be there?” Radack asked. “If they’re not in a [METRO] service area, they’re not entitled to the money.”

Garcia said the item is something he is considering bringing back to Precinct 2 voters in the near future as much has changed in the area over the past four decades.

Ellis made a motion to change the allocation to 25% per precinct until the completion of a mobility assessment by the county engineering department to identify current needs and future plans—which take all modes of transportation and future mobility needs into account—as well as a review of where that money has gone previously.

Before calling for a vote, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said as the formula stands today, it is based on “extremely arbitrary” criteria and is in need of supporting data.

“Obviously the sound planning need is clear, and we need to be examining this as a whole instead of what every individual precinct is getting—we’re not four islands, we’re connected,” Hidalgo said. “And we agree that we ought not have this political tug of war, but instead that we should have numbers and science. The part I’m struggling with is the fairness aspect in the meantime. It seems to me my hands are tied, and all we can do is split it evenly while we figure out what the better formula is.”

In another 3-2 vote, the county Democrats—Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia—voted for the measure, while the Republicans—Radack and Cagle—voted against it.

Ellis added he plans to bring the “larger pot” of mobility funding—the county’s toll road revenue, which is roughly $120 million per year—back for a similar re-evaluation at a future Commissioners Court meeting.

To view the full July 9 meeting video, click here.
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