Editor's note: Coffee with Impact is a quarterly forum 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 4 million residents across 1,700 square miles. Unlike the title suggests, the Harris County judge is an executive position, as opposed to a judicial one. The term "judge" is used because the position requires Emmett to preside over the Harris County Commissioners Court.
In addition to working with county commissioners to lead the county, the county judge is also the director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for the county. Other duties include handling administrative hearings, such as beer and wine license protests, and communicating county plans to the public through the media.
Through his career, Emmett has 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 to be the most pressing issues for Harris County over the next three to five years?
Transportation, without a doubt. When I say transportation, I don't mean just highways, although that is the biggest piece of it. The reason Texas is so strong right now is because we have had a transportation system. 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. If you look at the Port of Houston, it's in the wrong place, but we can't do anything about that.
Health care is the No. 2 issue. The Harris County Hospital District is responsible for providing indigent health care. People can argue all the 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 not be spending money on bricks and mortar. We need to be spending money on neighborhood clinics, maybe even rental space.
What are the biggest challenges of maintaining and planning for growth in unincorporated areas?
Harris County has about 4.2 million people in it and 1.6 million live 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.
If that unincorporated area was a city, it would be the fifth largest in the U.S. It's managed by county government under the Texas Constitution of 1876, and we can only do what the Legislature tells us to do.
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.
We have to find out how we can cooperate with MUDs to use their resources or give them the power to take care of residential streets and things like that themselves.
Do you think communities ever get to the point where unincorporated areas will need to think about incorporation?
It's a possibility. Years ago, the City of Houston did annexations down all of the major highways and that put all these areas in the extraterritorial 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. Many people in The Woodlands thought the deal that Sen. [Tommy] Williams and Mayor [Bill] White worked out would lead to incorporation and they would become a city. But what I'm hearing is that people are beginning to see that their taxes would be higher if they incorporated. It's my impression that's not going to happen soon.
With limited funding from TxDOT and voters hesitant to approve road bonds, what other avenues do counties have to find funding for transportation projects?
In our case we've got the toll road authority. That's about our only option. We can always raise the property tax for transportation projects, but in our case, we'd be much more likely to use HCTRA. But we're limited even there.
We have more than $3 billion in debt right now, but according to various reports that are being done nationally, HCTRA is the model when it comes to financial stability compared to, for example, the North Texas Toll Authority, which is in dire straits.
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 FM road system was a decision made years ago that completely changed the shape of Texas for the better. 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. I guarantee expenditure exceeded population plus inflation. You hold on to what you have, but you're not reaching out to build things to 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 that and say, "We want to be the gateway of North America." The only way we can do this is if we invest and make improvements.