Harris County Judge Ed Emmett Harris County Judge Ed Emmett spoke to the Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday morning.[/caption]

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett spoke at the Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce’s monthly government affairs meeting on Wednesday morning, sharing an overview of the challenges faced by county government in 2017 and beyond.

With the population of the county’s unincorporated area approaching that of the City of Houston, Emmett said growth will present increasing challenges for the county as it struggles to provide for larger numbers of residents with limited funding options. The county’s main source of revenue is a property tax.

Emmett said the county’s expenses in criminal justice and the indigent health care rise along with the population growth are outside its control. As a result, the amount that the county can spend on other areas—such as transportation and flood control—are limited.

“Neither of those items, do we need to be cutting back on at this time,” Emmett said. “We’re a big county and we need to be able to address the concerns that we have."

Emmett said one way to reduce expenses in the criminal justice system is to improve mental health services, but funding for those programs would have to come through different avenues, such as from the state.

“We’re going to have to find a way for the county to have a different financial bucket to draw from other than the property tax,” he said.

The county’s transportation budget is largely directly toward major projects, leaving issues on smaller roads unresolved, he said.

“Transportation is something we will always be playing catch-up with,” Emmett said. “People can talk about METRO and rail projects, but as long as we’re growing as fast as we are, we’re going to have to keep building roads.”

Emmett also updated attendees on the status of the county's $105 million Astrodome renovation project. An architect was chosen for Astrodome restructuring in December, and the firm—Houston-based Kirksey Architecture—has one year to develop a final construction plan, he said. Renovations will include raising the floor 30 feet to ground level, and developing two levels of underground parking with 1,400 parking spaces. The facility will provide 9 acres of open space beneath a cover, for events such as a rodeo, boat and auto shows or holiday markets.

"By and large the public wants to keep the dome, they just don't want the taxpayers to pay much money to do it," Emmett said.

The project will be funded through general county revenue, the county hotel occupancy tax and parking enterprise fund, and it will recoup that revenue back once the facility is operational, he said.

"All the festivals and gatherings we have in our community will just beat the door down to be able to be in there," he said.