Harris County puts $2.5 billion referendum on Aug. 25 ballot, Tomball-area to see property tax rate increase if approved

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More than 10 months after Harvey dropped a trillion gallons of water across the Greater Houston area last August, Harris County is petitioning voters this August for a $2.5 billion bond referendum, which could fund more than 100 proposed flood control projects across the region.

After months of discussion, Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously voted June 12 to call an Aug. 25 election for a bond package providing funding to the Harris County Flood Control District for projects across the county.

“Harvey changed lives. There are homes still abandoned, people still cleaning up remnants of Harvey all these months later,” County Judge Ed Emmett said May 30 at a press conference. “But just as we endured and survived Harvey together, we must prepare for the future together. We can’t make sure it doesn’t happen again, but we can certainly do a lot of mitigation and make our community more resilient.”

If voters approve the referendum, the average Harris County property owner could see about a $5 annual increase to the property taxes they pay to HCFCD, beginning in 2020; that figure could grow to about $50 more a year by 2035, Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said.

In addition to several countywide initiatives, the Greater Tomball area could benefit from bond projects totaling more than $327.3 million across the Spring, Willow and Little Cypress creeks watersheds if the bond referendum is approved, according to a June 21 list of proposed projects from the HCFCD. A final project list is expected to be released Aug. 1 after a series of community engagement meetings concludes.

“This is part of recovery, but it’s more than that. It’s more looking forward and preparing the county and all of our various communities for the next flood event,” HCFCD Chief Operations Officer Matthew Zeve said. “This will involve a property tax increase—nothing’s for free—but it’s an investment for the future viability of our entire county … We can’t stop flooding, but we can reduce the risk of flooding for as many Harris County residents as possible.”

County projects

Many homeowners across the county, including in Tomball, have seen repeated flooding in the past few years, including in May 2015, April and May 2016, and last August, officials said.

In response, HCFCD officials have drafted a list of bond projects to assist in flood prevention. The bond funding would increase the HCFCD’s available capital project funding from $60 million annually to about $100 million annually from 2020-35, Jackson said.

The HCFCD is holding a community engagement meeting in each of its 23 watersheds this summer to garner public feedback about projects. Dates were not released for the Willow Creek meeting by press time, but Spring and Little Cypress creeks meetings were slated for June 27 and July 31, respectively.

Although the election will take place on the first anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, the proposed projects were deemed necessary based on the last several flooding events in Harris County, HCFCD Executive Director Russ Poppe said during a May 30 press conference.

“Harvey was certainly the catalyst that’s causing the conversations we’re having today, but that by no means is the benchmark that we use to develop these projects,” he said. “We have to look at the sum total of our previous flooding events, and that really gives us a better picture on what areas are prone to flooding.”

The proposed list of projects totals about $2.5 billion, Emmett said. However, to complete all the necessary projects, he said he estimates the county would need as much as $25 billion.

If voters approve the bond referendum, Harris County would have $5.5 billion to work with for flood mitigation projects over the next 15 years—constructing about half a billion dollars of projects each year, Jackson said.

The county’s $2.5 billion would include $1 billion of funding to match $3 billion from the U.S. government for flood prevention projects, Jackson said. The remaining $1.5 billion of the bond referendum would be reserved for an additional funding match or for HCFCD capital projects.

“We wouldn’t be issuing that $1.5 billion on Day 1. It would be over a period of time,” he said. “We may do it quicker than [15 years], just these projects take time, and the federal government just doesn’t give you $3 billion up front.”

In addition to watershed-specific projects, funds would be spent on countywide projects, including upgrades to the Harris County Flood Warning System, updates to Harris County flood plain maps, preliminary engineering services for constructing large diameter tunnels to convey stormwater and mitigation projects done in partnership with other entities, according to HCFCD.

“The reality is right now [flood plains are]a bit of a guess,” Emmett said. “So, some of this funding is going to go to figuring out [where the flood plains are]. So many people flooded this time that thought they were in no danger, and we just can’t let that happen again.”

Local effects

Although the Tomball area may have sustained less damage from Harvey than portions of the region, neighborhoods near Spring, Willow and Little Cypress creeks—such as Timarron and Northern Point—saw waters rise, officials said.

“We are an interconnected society, and so your self-interest for a thriving economy would be one where you support a bond that makes us more resilient as a region,” Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said.

More than 1,500 homes are estimated to have flooded across the three watersheds during Harvey alone, according to a June report from the HCFCD.

“We can’t just think about Harvey,” Emmett said. “We had the Memorial Day flood [and the]Tax Day flood. Nobody thinks this was going to be the last major rain or flood event that we’re going to have.”

As such, the HCFCD’s proposed list of projects includes a number of projects across Tomball-area watersheds.

The proposed list allots $56.9 million for construction of five stormwater detention basins along Little Cypress Creek, $30 million each to acquire right of way along Spring and Willow creeks, and $25 million for construction of a reservoir along Spring Creek. Additional funding is proposed for voluntary home buyouts along the creeks, infrastructure repairs and drainage improvements in the area as well.

“If we can purchase right of way that’s in the flood plain that can’t be developed, it can be used for other things such as a natural flood plain area, trails and parks or possible regional detention basin[s],” Zeve said.

Additionally, as Spring Creek borders Montgomery County, Zeve said HCFCD has reserved funds for partnership projects outside the county for projects that would also benefit Harris County.

“You could have the greatest drainage [north and south of us], but if they’re all not working together, you’re going to plug things up and create problems,” Tomball City Manager Rob Hauck said. “We certainly support the idea of any drainage enhancements that Harris County can do.”

Funding the bond

To fund the $2.5 billion in projects, Harris County property owners would see a property tax rate increase beginning in 2020 of $4.63 for a home valued at $166,000 after exemptions, said Frank Bruce, Harris County senior director of finance and budget.

Yet, a change in market conditions, interest rates or the HCFCD’s total tax levy could affect this increase, he said.

As the tax rate is expected to rise as bonds are sold, the average taxpayer would pay about $50 more in 2035 than in 2018, Jackson said. By 2035—as the bonds will be issued over a 15-year period—the HCFCD tax rate is anticipated to increase by 3 cents, roughly doubling the existing tax rate assuming no change in market conditions, interest rates or the tax levy, Bruce said. A homeowner with an over-65 or disabled exemption and a home worth $200,000 or less would not pay any additional tax.

Early voting begins Aug. 8.

“If flooding continues in this area, that’s going to hamper development—whether it’s homes or businesses—and everyone will pay a price in the end,” said Bruce Hillegeist, president of the Greater Tomball Area Chamber of Commerce. “This is vital to all of us. We’re all in this boat together.”

Additional reporting by Shawn Arrajj, Zac Ezzone, Vanessa Holt and Chevall Pryce

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Anna Dembowski
Anna joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in May 2016 after graduating with a degree in journalism from Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. In July 2017, she transitioned to editor. Anna covers education, local government, transportation, business, real estate development and nonprofits in the Tomball and Magnolia communities. Prior to CI, Anna served as editor-in-chief of Cedars, interned with the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C., and spent time writing for the Springfield News-Sun and Xenia Daily Gazette.
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