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Emmett: Harvey, rapid population growth places Harris County at ‘tipping point’

June 2, 2018 GMT

Population growth combined with flood mitigation projects in aftermath of Hurricane Harvey have become a stressor for the county, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

“We’re at a tipping point. … Harvey is the thing that pushed us right over that tipping point,” said Emmett during his State of the County speech at the Walden Country Club in Atascocita on Tuesday, May 29.

One issue, Emmett said, is that the county was put into extraterritorial jurisdiction when the city of Houston conducted annexations along the highways in the 1960s, which took away the ability of unincorporated county areas to incorporate.

Places like Kingwood and Clear Lake have been annexed by the city of Houston, but for various reasons, much of the unincorporated areas around Houston were never annexed.

“Places like Aldine got left behind,” Emmett said.

There are 2.2 million people living inside the city of Houston and about 1.8 million people living in unincorporated Harris County, “where we’re the government,” Emmett said.

The problem for Harris County officials, according to Emmett, is that the county government has relatively little control in respects to their revenue sources, the laws they must enforce and the county government even lacks the ability to create ordinances.

He explained that when businesses and people move into unincorporated Harris County, it’s up to county government to provide things like roads to accommodate the increase in population.

“We are completely beholden to the property tax and yet we’re growing,” Emmett said. … “We have no other source of revenue. We cannot cut indigent health care, we cannot cut criminal justice, what are we supposed to do?”

The county uses tax dollars for four overarching purposes, which Emmett outlined.

Harvey hit, bringing Harris County to the tipping point said Emmett, and now the question is — what can be done now to bolster flood control measures in the county?

“We either as a community capture the feelings that we had during and immediately after Harvey where everybody said, ‘We’re all in this together, we’re going to work, we’re going to improve, we’re going to make sure this doesn’t happen again,’ or we’re going to fall back into this: ‘Well, we don’t want property taxes to go up; now how can we keep property taxes from going up and do this at the same time?’”

Furthermore, Emmett said it is unknown how much of the $89 billion in federal disaster relief funds will go to Harris County.

“In order for us to be able to draw down that we have to provide the local match,” Emmett said. “Some of those matches are 25 percent, some are 10 percent, some are 20 percent, but I’m going to ask again: how do we get our local match? The property tax.”

Coming up on a year after Harvey, Emmett said very little has actually been accomplished in the realm of ensuring the community’s resilience during rain events. He believes the community will need to adopt an attitude geared toward fixing issues, although finding and implementing solutions will inevitably cost money.

Harris County officials calculated what they believe the total cost of projects to achieve resilience for the community would be approximately $30-$35 billion.

“That’s way too much money,” Emmett said. “But, for us to really make a dent, it’s going to take something in the neighborhood of $2.5 billion.”

He discussed possible solutions, one of which was to allow unincorporated Harris County to share sales tax revenue.

“When the Super Bowl was played here it was played in a county facility but yet the county didn’t get any revenue out of it because all that sales tax that was generated by people coming into our community and spending money that all went to the city and to the state,” he said.

Emmett suggested the state could use money from its Rainy Day Fund. He also suggested a response to state officials who may criticize the upcoming $2.5 billion Harris County bond election for being too high of an amount.

“I’ll make them a deal,” Emmett said. “Dollar for dollar, anything the state gives us out of the Rainy Day Fund, we’ll take out of our bond.”

The county has not determined which projects would be included in the bond yet and Emmett said that decision will need to be a collaborative effort.

“We’ve got to go back and capture that feeling we had during and immediately after Harvey and say, ‘We’re in this together and we’re going to solve it,’” Emmett said.

Emmett clarified that he is not saying taxes need to be raised; but rather that there needs to be found a new way to finance an urban government like Harris County.

Mark Mitchell, president of the Lake Houston Area Economic Development Partnership, commended the efforts put forth by the county in seeking ways to help fortify communities against future flooding.

“The county’s been absolutely fantastic,” Mitchell said. “If you listen to Judge Emmett speak, he knows this area intimately and so the overlap is to our benefit and we’re hopeful that he continues this line of thinking pushing forward and we’re there as far as a partner in this pushing forward.”

mfeuk@hcnonline.com