Spurred by repeated widespread flooding events in recent years—culminating in Hurricane Harvey devastating southeast Texas last August—Harris County officials have decided to hold a $2.5 billion bond election Aug. 25 to fund flood mitigation projects throughout the county.
The final project list is still being developed, but there are numerous potential projects slated for the Lake Houston area, such as home buyouts and drainage improvements near the San Jacinto River and Lake Houston, according to Harris County Flood Control District documents.
If voters approve the referendum it could double how much residents pay in property taxes to HCFCD by 2035, officials said. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said this increase will be gradual because the county plans to sell the bonds over the next 10 to 15 years.
Emmett said projects that could potentially be funded by the bond referendum are vital to the county’s ability to cope with storms such as Harvey, which caused $125 billion in damages nationwide, making it the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history.
“On Aug. 25 the voters in Harris County will get to make one of the most important decisions in our history,” Emmett said. “Between now and then we must craft a plan to make our community more resilient.”
Bond referendum details
Harris County officials began discussing a bond election to fund flood mitigation projects late last year, but the referendum became official when on June 12 commissioners unanimously approved the election date and amount.
In the lead-up to the election HCFCD is hosting 23 community engagement meetings, with one taking place in each watershed—the San Jacinto River watershed meeting is scheduled for July 10 at 6 p.m. at Kingwood Park High School. At the meetings, residents can provide feedback on which projects they would like to see included in the bond package, Emmett said.
“We need to make sure the public feels like they are part of designing this process, just as the public was part of rescuing their neighbors and helping their neighbors recover,” Emmett said.
Some of the projects that could potentially be funded by the bond include the widening and deepening of channels, the construction of stormwater detention basins and home buyouts, HCFCD Executive Director Russ Poppe said. In addition to physical projects, the funding will be used to match funding the county will receive for flood prevention projects through federal sources, which often requires a local match.
For example, HCFCD received $25.67 million in grant funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in June to purchase 170 homes—some of which are located in the Lake Houston area—that have previously been flooded. This grant funding required a $10.25 million partial match from the county.
In a June 14 press release, FEMA announced its second allocation of funding to the county for home buyouts. HCFCD spokesperson Karen Hastings said the district is waiting to receive an official letter from the state regarding the $51 million allocation, which will be used to purchase another 294 homes in the county and will require a partial local match of about $17 million.
Poppe said future home acquisitions and other potential projects that will be included in the bond package are based on areas of the county that flooded during Harvey as well as in past storms.
“Harvey was certainly the catalyst … but that by no means is the benchmark that we used to develop these projects,” Poppe said. “We have to look at the sum total of our previous flooding events.”
Projects near Lake Houston
Although county officials are still crafting the final project list, the initial list allocates funding for projects throughout the Lake Houston area, including home buyouts, drainage improvements and repairs to HCFCD infrastructure.
According to the proposed list, $28.2 million of the bond funds could be used to match $84.6 million in federal grants to purchase about 470 buildings that have previously flooded in the Lake Houston area.
The home buyouts will address some of the 5,900 properties that flooded near the west and east forks of the San Jacinto River during Harvey, according to a HCFCD report. After homes are purchased, they are demolished and the land can be preserved as green space.
About $40 million in bond funds could also be used to improve drainage throughout the Lake Houston area. In addition, $18.75 million could be used to match $56.25 million in federal grants to design and construct flood mitigation projects in the San Jacinto River, such as dredging or detention basins.
Kingwood resident and activist Bob Rehak said he believes the bond package should include funding for consistent dredging and maintenance of the San Jacinto River as well as the construction of detention basins between Lake Conroe and Lake Houston. Rehak established a website—www.reduceflooding.com—after Harvey to inform residents of the impact of flooding in the area.
Additionally, Rehak said he would like to see funding for additional floodgates on the Lake Houston dam—which is owned and operated by the city of Houston—to release water from the lake faster. As of June 22, the design and construction of additional gates was included in the county’s proposed bond project list as a partnership project with the city of Houston. The cost of the project has not been determined.
Jessica Beemer, Houston City Council Member Dave Martin’s chief of staff, said the city of Houston has already submitted an application for federal funding to add 10 floodgates to the dam.
Humble City Manager Jason Stuebe said the city is supportive of the bond election and has maintained communication with the county to ensure some of the funding assists the city. During Harvey, about 300 homes and 70 businesses flooded in Humble, he said.
Financing the referendum
When trying to determine the total of the bond, county officials first took into consideration how much federal funding they hope to receive in response to Harvey. Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said county officials believe they will receive $3 billion in federal funding, which will require about a $1 billion partial match from the county.
Jackson said if $1 billion is used for matching, the remaining $1.5 billion of bond funds would provide HCFCD with an extra $100 million each year over the next 15 years, which could be used to complete flood prevention projects that are not eligible for federal funding, such as local drainage improvements.
If the bond passes and the county begins construction on projects next year, homeowners will experience their first property tax increase in 2020, Jackson said. The initial increase for a homeowner living in a $200,000 home will be about $5 annually, and after the bonds are all issued a homeowner living in a $200,000 home will pay about $50 more annually by 2035.
As the county issues the bonds, the tax rate residents pay to HCFCD could double from its current rate of 3 cents to 6 cents per $100 valuation by 2035, said Frank Bruce, senior director of finance and budget at the Harris County Budget Management Office.
“For some people $5 is a lot of money, or $50 is a lot of money, and I understand that, but we live in an area that is basically prone to flooding,” Jackson said. “It’s not a question of if it’s going to flood again; it’s just when.”
The tax rate increase will affect all county residents who pay property taxes, even if their homes did not flood during Harvey or other recent storms. However, Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said there are reasons for residents to vote in favor of the bond even if their homes did not flood.
“Even if it was not in your self interest … in terms of trying to grow and prosper our economy, [funding flood projects]is the right thing to do,” Cagle said.
Additional reporting by Anna Dembowski and Chevall Pryce