Harris County seeks input for $2.5B bond referendum on Aug. 25 ballot

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Harris County will ask voters to approve a $2.5 billion bond referendum on Aug. 25 to fund Harris County Flood Control District projects designed for flood prevention in the region, which has seen three damaging storms since 2015.

According to HCFCD, 154,170 county homes flooded during Hurricane Harvey last August, or about
9 to 12 percent of all buildings in the county. That figure includes houses near Spring, Willow and Cypress creeks in Spring and Klein, some of which also saw flooding during the Tax Day Flood in April 2016 and Memorial Day Flood in 2015.

“On Aug. 25, the voters in Harris County will get to [make]one of the most important decisions in our history,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said. “Between now and then we must craft a plan to make our community more resilient, and we must craft that plan together.”

A series of 23 community meetings—one in each of the county’s watersheds, including Cypress Creek, Willow Creek and Spring Creek watersheds—was planned this summer to solicit resident feedback and present elements of the plan for discussion.

Russ Poppe, executive director of Harris County Flood Control District, said flood control projects will include home buyouts, infrastructure repairs, storm water detention basins and projects to deepen and widen some channels.

In Spring and Klein, those projects could take the form of right of way acquisitions along Cypress Creek, buyouts, stormwater detention basin construction and projects to improve water conveyance along gullies.

“Nothing is off the table,” HCFCD Chief Operations Officer Matthew Zeve said.

A 15-year plan

If the bond referendum is successful, homeowners will see an increase in the HCFCD tax rate over the next
15 years. Currently set at about 3 cents per $100 valuation, the tax rate would double, increasing by a total of 3 to 3.5 cents by 2035 if the referendum passes, Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said.

If voters approve the referendum, Harris County will have a total of
$5.5 billion to work with to pursue flood mitigation projects from
2020-35, Jackson said.

The first $1 billion in bonds is needed to provide a local match to obtain $3 billion pledged by the federal government for flood prevention projects, Jackson said. The additional $1.5 billion in bonds will provide money for other projects—an additional $100 million each year—and it could match funds for future federal partnerships, Jackson said.

“Some of these projects will be eligible for federal funding, and it’s going to be a priority of ours to push as many of these forward as we can to capture federal funding, which in many cases do require a local match,” Poppe said.  “Part of this bond proposal makes sure we have funding available to make sure we don’t miss out on federal funding opportunities because we didn’t have the local match.”

Jackson said the owner of a home valued at the county average, which is about $200,000, would pay about
$5 in additional taxes in 2020 if the referendum is successful. That amount will increase over time to a maximum of an additional $50 in 2035, he said.

“If we started doing these projects next year, the first bond payments wouldn’t be due until the following year,” Jackson said. “There would be no effect on your taxes in 2019.”

Homeowners will see up to a 1.4 percent increase in their overall property tax bills if the proposal passes, and residents age 65 or older are exempt from taxes on the first $200,000 of home value, Jackson said.

Cypress Creek needs

Many of the proposed projects in the county’s 23 watersheds will focus on right of way acquisition and buyouts, particularly in areas like Cypress Creek, where other types of improvements are not feasible, Zeve said.

“One of our strategies is to purchase properties inside the 100-year flood plain,” Zeve said. “If [HCFCD] purchases the right of way, it can’t be developed, and we can either leave it as natural flood plain … or we can make it part of a park system, or we can potentially design and construct a regional detention basin.”

Projects proposed for the Cypress Creek watershed include $100 million for right of way acquisitions,
$6 million to restore channel conveyance in several areas and $25 million for construction of stormwater detention basins. Projects along Willow Creek, located just north of the Grand Parkway, include $30 million for right of way acquisition near Hwy. 249.

Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said acquiring undeveloped land along Cypress Creek is a major goal for the region.

Buyouts are another component of HCFCD’s proposed plans. Areas identified include 450 potential buyouts along Cypress Creek as well as several locations east of I-45 and west of Hwy. 249. Buyouts are also slated for Spring Creek near Kuyendahl Road.

Richard Smith, president of the Cypress Creek Flood Control Coalition, said the organization—a nonprofit state corporation—supports the referendum and has identified buyouts and additional regional detention capacity as two major flood mitigation goals, both of which are slated as prospective Cypress Creek projects.

Another goal is creation of a new reservoir in the upper portion of the Cypress Creek watershed, he said. Although a third reservoir is not included as a bond project, the bond would provide $375,000 to partner with the Army Corps of Engineers on a study to evaluate the effectiveness of the Addicks and Barker reservoir system, Zeve said.

The study could be the starting point for a plan for a third reservoir, but the reservoir system cannot be included in the referendum because it is a Corps project, he said.

“We have funding in this proposed bond election to continue our partnership with the Corps,” Poppe said. “We would be a nonfederal sponsor that would participate in a study to look at all these different alternatives and ultimately come up with a recommendation as to what is the solution to implement to address the Addicks and Barker situation.”

HCFCD has also slated $12.5 million for the local share of a study with a partner not yet determined on the feasibility of a reservoir in the Spring Creek watershed.

Cagle said mitigation for Cypress Creek—one of 11 watersheds that is adjacent to Precinct 4—is also tied into flood control projects both upstream and downstream.

“Up in Little Cypress Creek, you are helping Cypress Creek,” Cagle said. “And likewise … you need a place to flow to on the bottom so it doesn’t back up. Many of our watersheds, they are integrated and connected with other watersheds.”

Community feedback

Zeve said the county is considering resident input as it moves toward finalizing its list of prospective bond projects by Aug. 1.

“These numbers in the bond program are kind of our best guess at the time, and they are all subject to change,” Zeve said.

Zeve said he has received dozens of emails from residents in the Cypress Creek watershed stating the
$100 million slated for rights of way is not enough.

One item added to the project list in June based on community input was $50 million for a maintenance project to desilt tributaries to Cypress Creek, he said.

Zeve said some suggestions, such as recommendations to widen or deepen the creek, will not be feasible because the project would cost as much as the total bond amount.

Locally, the citizens group  Cypress Creek Association-Stop the Flooding was created to advocate for resident concerns. Neighborhoods along Cypress Creek in Spring and Klein flooded during Hurricane Harvey and other storm events in recent years, including many along Cypresswood Drive.

Paul Eschenfelder, a spokesperson for the group, said residents feel plans to buy out homes and acquire land are not sufficient in light of flooding that has occurred. The group wants to explore solutions that will result in more immediate and tangible benefits for residents along Cypress Creek watershed, he said.

“That’s not going to keep the water out of their subdivision,” Eschenfelder said of the proposed projects being considered for the HCFCD bond.

The Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce formed a 10-member Flood Mitigation Task Force in late June to look at the watersheds in the Northwest Houston area—Little Cypress, Cypress and Spring creeks.

Chairman Al Haines, who previously served as chief administrative officer for the city of Houston, said funds from a successful bond are one part of the solution, but other revenue sources will also be needed to complete all of the identified work.

“[There’s] going to have to be some leveraging between what comes through this initiative and other funding agencies, including not just the federal government but the [state’s] Rainy Day Fund and, importantly, partnering with the private sector,” Haines said. “I think there’s a broad spectrum of opportunity.”

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Vanessa Holt
A resident of the Houston area since 2011, Vanessa began working in community journalism in her home state of New Jersey in 1996. She joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2016 as a reporter for the Spring/Klein edition and became editor of the paper in March 2017.
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