Harris County Judge
Editor's note: Coffee with Impact is a quarterly forum in our Houston office featuring leaders in various sectors who are making a difference in the Houston area and beyond.
As Harris County Judge, Ed Emmett serves more than four million residents. Unlike the title suggests, the Harris County Judge is an executive position, as opposed to a judicial one. On top of working with county commissioners to lead the county, the county judge is also the director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Other duties include handling administrative hearings, such as beer and wine license protests, and communicating county plans to the public through the media.
Emmett has also served in the Texas House of Representatives for east Harris County and as the Interstate Commerce Commissioner under former President George H. W. Bush. He became the Harris County Judge in March 2007.
What do you believe are the most pressing issues for Harris county over the next 3–5 years to keep up with the population growth?
Transportation, without a doubt. I don't mean just highways, although that is the biggest piece. If you don't have the infrastructure to move freight, the economy is going to become stagnant. We are perfectly positioned to be the gateway of North America. Global commerce is going to continue to grow, but those ships aren't going to come here if we can't move the freight out of the port. We have to improve freight rail tremendously.
Our major projects are Hwy. 290, Hwy. 249 and Beltway 8. A lot of people don't like toll roads, but there never was such a thing as a free road. It was always paid for by the gasoline tax. If the legislature doesn't do something about transportation funding, in two years, TxDOT will not have enough money to build a single [mile of new lane] anywhere in the state.
Health care is the No. 2 issue. People can argue all they want about the Affordable Care Act, but the truth is, the same poor people are going to get sick and they're going to require health care. Right now, their main option is to go to the emergency room. That's just not the right way to do it. We need to be spending money on neighborhood clinics. We need to focus on preventative care and establishing medical homes.
Fort Bend County commissioners court unanimously passed resolutions calling for Medicaid expansion. This really shouldn't be a partisan thing. Should Medicaid be reformed? Absolutely, but that's not a county judge thing.
Mental health has been sort of my primary focus. The largest mental health facility in the State of Texas is the Harris County Jail. That is fundamentally wrong. We've got to divert people with mental illness from the criminal justice system. You can't divert people if you don't have some place to put them, so we've got to create that. Sen. [Joan] Huffman has a bill—which has already passed the Senate unanimously—to set up a pilot project for Harris County to make it happen. From a conservative taxpayer point of view, the worst thing you can do for someone with a mental problem is put them in jail because it's going to cost you $300–$500 each night to take care of them. If you can get them under the care of MHMRA, it's $16-$20 per night.
What are the biggest challenges of maintaining and planning for growth in unincorporated areas?
Harris County has about 4.2 million people in it with 1.6 million in unincorporated Harris County. The only level of government is county, municipal utility district or emergency district. County government wasn't set up to run urban counties, but here we are.
Our biggest challenge is figuring out how to deal with the areas that were always anticipated to become a part of the City of Houston, or another city, but never did. All these subdivisions along FM 1960 were built assuming they would eventually be in the City of Houston. Now they're about 50 years old, the streets are starting to wear out, and they're still unincorporated. Those residential streets are going on the road log of Commissioner Jack Cagle. There's no way he's going to have the money to go in and repair residential streets, not if you want him to continue building the major thoroughfares. We have to find out how we can cooperate with MUDs to use their resources to take care of residential streets and things like that.
Do you think we'll ever get to the point where unincorporated areas will need to think about incorporation?
It's a possibility. Years and years ago, the City of Houston did annexations down all of the major highways and that put all these areas in the extra-territorial jurisdiction of Houston. If you want to incorporate, Houston has the first right to annex you. That's what happened to Kingwood. If some area wanted to incorporate, that would force Houston's hand, but what I'm hearing [in The Woodlands] is that people are beginning to see that their taxes would be higher if they incorporated. It's my impression that that's not going to happen any time soon.
Where would you like to see the county in the next five to 10 years and what is it going to take to get there?
It's going to take some vision at the state level. The [Farm Market] road system was a decision made years ago that completely changed the shape of Texas for the better. It costs money. When I hear legislators talk about limiting growth of government at all levels to population plus inflation, that's really a bad idea. It sounds good, but it doesn't work. You hold on to what you have but you're not going to reach out, to build things that make people come here. You wouldn't operate that way with your business. You'd always be investing in new equipment and your people. I hope that Harris County can lead the way in becoming the gateway of North America. The only way we can do this is if we invest and make improvements.