Friendswood residents will soon vote on whether to add revenue streams to help the city combat deteriorating roads and attract businesses to the downtown district.
The city will have two sales tax measures on the May 7 ballot. One would add 3/8 of a percent to the sales tax rate for street repair and maintenance, and the other would dedicate an additional 1/8 of a percent to downtown economic development.
If voters approve both measures, the sales tax rate would increase from 7.75 percent to the state-maximum 8.25 percent.
City Council called for the elections Feb. 1 after more than a year of discussions. While all council members agreed additional funding is needed for street maintenance, the 1/8 of a percent for downtown became a point of contention.
Council members Jim Hill, Patrick McGinnis and John Scott voted to call an election for a half-percent sales tax increase entirely for road repairs. That motion failed 4-3 before the two measures passed.
“You want 25 percent of the [available sales tax increase] for 1 percent of the city,” Hill said. “I just don’t think that’s right. We have to look at the entire city.”
‘Mismanaged’ road budget
Although the Texas Department of Transportation maintains the major thoroughfares in Friendswood, such as FM 518, additional revenue from a potential sales tax increase would go toward repairing city roads.
“I think roads are a basic infrastructure requirement that city government should provide for,” Scott said.
Today, the city has identified almost $6 million in unfunded street improvement projects, Council Member Billy Enochs said. Some of the larger unfunded projects include work on Quaker and Crofter Glen drives, according to the city’s pavement management master plan.
Scott, a council member since 2011, said the road budget had been mismanaged from the mid-1990s until he was elected. While Friendswood nearly doubled in population during that time, street maintenance funding dwindled down to next to nothing, he said.
A possible sales tax election had been discussed for more than a year, officials said. Morad Kabiri, Friendswood assistant city manager, said during a December work session the council decided against calling for an election last November because of pending legislation. House Bill 157, which became law June 20, removed the quarter-percent ceiling for street maintenance, allowing Friendswood to pursue the entire available half-percent of sales tax.
Carl Gustafson was the lone council member to suggest a portion of sales tax go to economic development in the downtown district at the Dec. 7 meeting.
Stimulating downtown Friendswood
Gustafson advocated for the 1/8 of a percent for downtown economic development to provide funding to revitalize an area of Friendswood he said many residents want to see improved.
The Friends of Downtown Friendswood Association, a citizen group that had more than 10 members speak in favor of the ballot measure in February, incorporated in August. The organization hopes to work with the city to help spur commercial activity downtown.
Revenue from an approved sales tax increase could be used for any project that would promote economic development in the downtown district, FDFA President Brett Banfield said. Examples include beautification, infrastructure and road projects.
“We want to use these funds to get the curb appeal looking a lot better,” Banfield said. “Hopefully that will promote private money to come in.”
While Enochs said he hoped to dedicate the available half-percent of sales tax to road maintenance, he did not think residents would support it. Voters would only approve additional funding for streets if the 1/8 of a percent for downtown economic development was also on the ballot, he said.
“Sometimes you’ve got to lose some battles to win the war,” Enochs said.
He cited past sales tax elections that failed due to lack of organized support as reason to compromise. A citizen group backed the 2013 city bond measures, which each received nearly 70 percent approval, he said.
“If we want to be successful, we’ve got to look at what has worked in the past,” Enochs said. “[The 2013 bond elections] show how powerful it is when you have an advocacy group out there informing the electorate [on] what’s going on.”
After the city invested in drainage improvements and business-friendly ordinances downtown, calling for the sales tax election was a sensible course of action to follow, Gustafson said.
“This is just the next logical step in the process,” he said. “It’s building upon everything that’s been done up to this point over the years.”
Gustafson said the city’s lack of restaurants and retail stores forces residents to spend money elsewhere. According to an Esri study that measured an industry’s demand versus sales in downtown Friendswood, food service, general merchandise and miscellaneous stores lost about $130 million in potential sales last year.
Friendswood would form a committee to oversee funding if the 1/8 of a percent increase is approved. City Council would appoint all seven members of the board, with the ability to include up to four council members. Banfield said he hopes an FDFA representative would be included on the committee, but there have been no discussions with the council.
It is unclear whether the board would require City Council approval to distribute funds and if it would need to adhere to public meeting rules, according to some council members. Enochs said people are leery of government today, and the need to add another entity will discourage voters from approving the economic development measure.
“There’s a lot more hurdles to convince the population why this is needed and how it will be utilized,” he said. “They’re just already very skeptical [of government].”
No sunset downtown
City Council held a special meeting Feb. 16 to discuss adding a sunset provision to the 1/8 of a percent increase. A sunset provision provides a date when the measure must reappear on the ballot for voter approval. Under Texas law, sales tax revenue for street maintenance includes a four-year sunset clause.
McGinnis proposed a four-year sunset provision on the economic development tax. The clause would encourage quicker progress, he said, and allow residents to re-evaluate the tax at the same time as a potential street maintenance measure.
“I think that [a sunset provision] adds a structural measure of fiscal responsibility and accountability into this idea,” McGinnis said. “I see that as valuable.”
Hill, McGinnis and Scott voted in favor of a sunset clause, but the motion failed 4-3.
Enochs said he would have been open to a longer sunset for the economic development tax, but four years was not enough time to gauge success without a clear vision of the desired projects downtown.
Scott said not including the sunset clause will deter some voters from approving the measure.
“I think [the elections] will be close,” he said. “There’s passion on both sides. It will just come down to which side gets their people excited the most to go out and vote. I think a lot of times it’s more difficult to get people who are for something out to vote than it is to get people who are adamantly opposed to it.”