Reform TIRZs, Don’t Repeal Property Tax Cap

My former colleagues at the Houston Chronicle editorial board opined this week that the City’s property tax cap should be repealed and that the tax increment reinvestment zones (TIRZs) need to be reformed.  [Click here to read.]  They are wrong on the first count but right on the second one.

To begin, let’s get some facts straight that were mangled in the editorial.

First, the City does not have a revenue cap; it has a property tax cap.  Property taxes make up about 25% of the City’s total revenue.  That is the only source of revenue that is limited under the City charter amendment that was approved by voters in 2004.  The other 75% of revenue is not restricted.   There is a cap on all revenues in the charter that was also approved by the voters in 2004, but because the property tax cap got more votes, the City only enforces the property tax cap.

Repeal advocates insist on mischaracterizing the limitation as a “revenue” cap to mislead the public into believing that the City’s ability to raise any form of revenue is impaired by the restriction.  But since the charter amendment was enacted, City revenues have increased by a whopping $2 billion (67%), including the enactment of the drainage fee, which was the largest single tax increase in the City’s history.

Second, the increase in taxes is not “constrained by an arbitrary algorithm.”  The limit is the lesser of population growth and inflation or 4.5%.  Limiting Council’s ability to increase property taxes to population growth and inflation is a reasonable limitation and should be a rough estimate of the need to increase taxes.  If the City’s population and inflation were growing by more than 4.5%, I would have to agree that the limitation is arbitrary.  But because the City’s population has been growing at a very slow pace and inflation has been low since 2004, the 4.5% limitation normally does not come into play.

Third, and most importantly, the property tax cap repeal advocates always omit that the charter amendment begins with this clause: “The City Council shall not, without voter approval . . .”  In other words, in any year that the Mayor and Council believe that the City needs more tax revenue than the limitation allows, all they need to do is ask for the voters’ approval.  If they feel handcuffed by the charter amendment it can only be because they believe they cannot make a credible case to the taxpayers to pay more.

My former colleagues are right about the detrimental effect the TIRZs are having on the City’s finances.  Last year, the TIRZs collected $132 million in property taxes, nearly 14% of the City’s total property taxes.  That is more money than the drainage fee brought in last year.

They are also correct that the taxes collected by the TIRZs are excluded from the property tax cap.  As a result, TIRZ tax receipts have soared.  Last year the property taxes collected by all TIRZs increased 13%.  The receipts for the six richest TIRZs went up by an astonishing 27%!

Of course, the City has devised a number of clever ways to claw back more and more of this revenue over time and subvert the voters’ intention as expressed in the cap.  Each TIRZ pays the City an administrative fee and most make other contributions toward “shared” expenses.  But there is no question that if the City had all of this revenue back, it would go a long way toward solving its long-term structural deficit.

One of the challenges in bringing any of this revenue back to the City is that the TIRZs have been on a debt binge in recent years.  They currently owe around half a billion dollars.  So, much of their revenue is committed to repaying that debt.  Of course, voters had no say in the creation of this debt, notwithstanding that property taxes will be used to repay it.

There are certainly some good projects that are undertaken by the TIRZs.  But increasingly they are grasping for projects on which to spend their largess; witness the idiotic $200 million bus lane project in Uptown.

Of course, our benevolent State Legislature has its finger in all of this.  All of the TIRZs were created by state statute.  So, the State will have to be involved in any restructuring.  Given numerous conflicts of interests between our local delegation and the TIRZs and their first cousins, the management districts, good luck with that.

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State of Texas Debt has nearly Doubled in Last Seven Years

Want a killer Trivial Pursuit question?  How about this?

While Barack Obama was President, did the debt of the Federal government or the State of Texas increase more on a percentage basis?

Republicans are quick to point out that while Obama was president the federal debt increased far more than under any other president.  But what they rarely share is that during that same period, the debt of the State of Texas rose even faster, at least, on a percentage basis.

At the end of 2009, the Federal government was just under $12 trillion in debt.  By the end of 2016, the number had grown to $19.5 trillion, a 64% increase.  For the same period, the State’s debt went from $62 billion to $121 billion, a 92% increase.*

 

You may be tempted to explain this unfavorable comparison away by noting that Texas is growing faster than the rest of the country and, therefore, a larger increase is to be expected.  There is some validity to this argument, but even if we look at the growth of the debt on a per capita basis, Texas still comes out ahead, 70% versus 54%.  And these numbers do not count the billions in debt incurred by local governments.  We’ll be looking at that in the coming weeks.

To be fair, the State was starting at a much lower base.  Its per capita debt as of 2016 was about $4,300 compared to over $39,000 for the Federal government.  And as a percentage of GDP, the State’s debt is also much lower, although I am not sure the comparison of that metric means much in this context.

The lion’s share of the increase in the State debt has come from an explosion of its unfunded pension liability.**  I will be writing more on this issue soon, but the State’s pension debt, based on its own accounting, has gone from zero in 2000, to over $60 billion at the end of 2016.  In other words, according to the State Comptroller’s numbers, the Legislature has “borrowed” over $60 billion from the State’s pension plans by not contributing enough to fund the benefits they have promised.

It is important to note that both the Federal government and the State dramatically understate their liabilities associated with future retirement payments.  A recent Moody’s report has calculated that the State’s true pension liability is over $100 billion and, of course, the Federal government has never included a realistic estimate of the future cost of Social Security or Medicare in its accounting.

Please do not misunderstand.  I am not a debt-phobe.  Every businessperson knows that there is a time and place to use debt.  Some of you will recall that during the 2015 mayoral campaign I was the only candidate who advocated using pension bonds as tool in solving the pension crisis.

But the reality is that government at every level and both of our political parties are drunk on debt.  The Democrats gorge on debt to increase expenses; the Republicans to cut taxes, or to keep from increasing them.  Neither want to have an adult conversation with their constituents about what services do we really want government to provide and what does it costs to provide those services.  Instead, one party demagogues social issues and the other engages in class warfare and identity politics to distract the public from the fact that both are bankrupting future generations.

*  This graph begins with the increase in debt from 2009 to 2010.  Those who argue the Federal debt doubled during the Obama administration begin from the time he was sworn into office.  However, since the federal budget fiscal year ends in September, the incoming administration has a limited impact on the financial results for its first year.  It would probably be fairer to included FY2017, but those numbers are not yet available.  It is interesting to note that the rate of increase did not slow down when the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010 or the Senate in 2014.

**   Much of the increase in the pension debt was realized when the accounting rules changed in 2015 forcing governmental entities to more realistically report their pension liabilities.

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City of Houston Sales Taxes Continue to Stagnate

The Texas Comptroller reported yesterday that the City’s sales tax receipts for November (which reflect September sales) were up by 2.3%.  This followed a decline of 3.9% in October.  The October decline was to be anticipated because of Harvey.  However, I had expected to see more of a rebound in November from storm repair purchases.  Perhaps delays from receiving insurance payments have pushed some of those sales out a bit further.

The City had a bump in sales tax receipts early this year from the Super Bowl, with month-over-month increases in March and April of 6.5% and 5.3%, respectively.  But longer term trend appears to be that precipitous decline when oil prices fell has leveled out.

The current City budget projects a 1% increase in sales taxes and it is running only slightly behind that through the first four months of the fiscal year.

Houston continues to  be significantly outperformed by its suburban neighbors.  I have been tracking six cities nearby cities.  Their sales tax receipts were up 9% this month.  I am working on a longer term comparison which I will be sharing with you soon.

If you are interested in looking at sales tax receipts for yourself, you can access that information for any entity in the State [here].

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Court Rules Montrose Management District Illegally Collected $6 Million in Assessments

The trail of TIRZ/Management District horrors continues.  This time it is the Montrose Management District (MMD).

The MMD was formed in 2011 from the merger of two earlier improvement districts which had been authorized by the Legislature.  Since the merger in 2011, MMD has collected over $12 million in assessments from businesses in the Montrose area.  Last week, a District Judge ruled that the petition used by MMD to assess a tax against Montrose businesses did not have the requisite 25 signatures.  Of course, the fact that the Legislature passed a law that would allow as few as 25 property owners to authorize a tax on hundreds of property owners is absurd on its face.  But MMD, according to the Court’s ruling, could not even meet this ridiculously low bar.

Most problematic for MMD is that the Court ruled that it must reimburse the $6.5 million in illegally collected assessments.

[Click [here] to see the Court’s ruling.]

Of course, the MMD does not have anywhere close to $6.5 million.  According to its most recent audit, it only had about $600,000 in cash at year-end and according to recent monthly reports, it appears to have even less now.

But MMD’s problems don’t end there.  After it levied the 2011 assessment, property owners in Montrose began collecting signatures to dissolve the MMD.  According to the statute, that requires property owners owning 75% of the land in the District.  Pretty fair don’t you think?  It only takes 25 property owners to authorize an assessment, but 75% of everyone in the district to undo it.  Just in case you had any doubt about our Legislature being in the bag for these special districts.

Over several years, the dissident owners collected nearly 900 signatures which they contend constitutes over 80% of the land in the MMD.  But when they submitted the petitions, MMD took a page out of the City of Houston’s playbook and invalidated about a third of the signatures.  One of the property owners I interviewed said the MMD invalidated his petition on the four properties he owned without anyone ever contacting him to verify whether he owned the properties or had actually signed the petitions.

When you look at how the MMD has been spending its money you can understand why the vast majority of business owners in Montrose want to dissolve the district.  The following is a table of the revenue and expenses taken from the MMD’s audits.

From 2011-2017, the MMD has collected over $12 million from Montrose businesses and has spent about $11.5 million.  Forty-three percent (43%) of its expenditures, right at $5 million, have been for administrative expenses, legal fees and business development expenses.  The management consultant for the MMD alone has been paid nearly $1.5 million and is currently being paid over $30,000 per month.  No wonder the property owners want to get this monkey off their backs.

Management districts and TIRZs were originally formed to assist neighborhoods with redevelopment.  If they are doing their jobs, they should be welcomed by the businesses and residents they serve.  Increasingly though we are seeing situations like the Uptown TIRZ and now the Montrose Management District where these entities are at war with the neighborhoods they are supposed to be serving.  And to make matters worse, the bureaucrats and lawyers running these districts are getting rich in the process.

Hopefully the next Legislature will take a hard look at these special districts.  But given some of the conflicts of interest that abound with respect to these districts in the Legislature, that may be wishful thinking on my part.  More on that topic soon.

The next meeting of the MMD Board is next Monday (November 13) at noon at University of Saint Thomas, Carol Tatkon Boardroom, 3807 Graustark, Houston, TX 77006.  Parking is available at the Moran Parking Garage.  The vast majority of Montrose business owners who are opposed to the continued existence of this district should show up at this meeting and make it plain to the board:  Go away!

HGAC Tables New Funds for Uptown Bus Project

On Friday, HGAC’s Transportation Policy Council (TPC) tabled a funding request from the Uptown TIRZ for an additional $16 million for its Post Oak bus project.

Several dozen Uptown residents attended the meeting, and several addressed the TPC, voicing their opposition to the project and the request for additional funds.  No one, other than Uptown’s executive director John Breeding, spoke in favor of the request.

 

County Judge Ed Emmett, who has opposed the project from the outset, grilled HGAC officials about the process.  Sugar Land mayor Joe Zimmerman also weighed in with a number of questions.  The principal point of concern was that Uptown had issued a press release claiming that the project was “on budget” and “fully funded”, begging the question of why it was asking for more money. HGAC officials struggled to answer Emmett’s and Zimmerman’s questions.  At one point, an HGAC official said that Uptown had told them in 2013 the project was only going to cost $130 million, compared to the current budget of $200 million.  This is, at least, the third explanation that has been offered in an attempt to justify the additional funding.  I have not found any documentation showing that the costs were ever estimated at $130 million.  But if so, it would be gross incompetence to underestimate the cost by over 50%.

It is hard to know what HGAC will do now, but Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack may have put the final nail in the coffin on the request by ominously calling for HGAC to have outside counsel conduct an investigation to make sure that there are no legal problems with the request or the project.  That legal review is likely to raise a number of questions.  For example, I found this statement in Uptown’s most recent audit:

“As of the June 30, 2016, reporting period, the Authority purchased a parcel of land from WMJK, Ltd. The Authority Director and District Chairman is an owner in this property. The Director filed an affidavit and recused himself from the Board vote. Subsequent to the June 30, 2016 reporting period, the Authority purchased an additional Post Oak Boulevard parcel from a District Director. The Authority has chosen to keep the purchase prices for property acquired along Post Oak Boulevard confidential until the Authority closes each parcel, this information is excepted from disclosure under 552.105 of the Texas Government Code. Total cost of acquisition is available upon request.”  Click [here] to see the complete report.  This related party note is highlighted on page 35.

Now, this all may be perfectly legal.  But the optics of a bunch of wealthy landowners coming to HGAC, begging for more state and federal highway funds, which are desperately needed throughout our region, when they are lining their own pockets and then don’t even want to disclose how much they were paid, is, to say the least, unseemly.

There is an old saying: “Pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered.”  Uptown’s overreach on this request may be leading it to the slaughterhouse.  TIRZs were originally created to redevelop “blighted” neighborhoods.  That laudable purpose has increasingly been subverted by special interests which have in many cases turned the TIRZs into opaque quasi-governments frequently benefiting a few at the expense of the public.  And, as is the case here, the TIRZs frequent cram projects down the throats of residents and businesses despite their vehement opposition.  As one of the speakers said on Friday, “This is Robin Hood in reverse.  We are stealing from the poor and giving to the rich.”

It is past time that we re-examine the whole TIRZ/Management District paradigm.  I am sure there is some good work that is carried out by some of these organizations.  But the case for their existence – as entities wholly unaccountable to taxpayers or the public – is becoming increasingly tenuous.

 The Texas Monitor has more at https://texasmonitor.org/uptowns-funding-bus-project-shelved-john-breeding/.

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City Bond Election: Pension Bonds – YES / Improvement Bonds – NO

As many of you are aware, the City will hold a bond election on November 7.  Early voting begins next Monday, October 23.  There will be five bond propositions (A-E).  The first (A) seeks approval to issue $1 billion in bonds to shore up the police and municipal pension plans.  The other four (B-E) are “improvement” bonds asking mostly for funding for the purchase of police and fire vehicles, and improvements to City parks, health clinics and libraries.  I intend to reluctantly vote for Proposition A and against Propositions B-E.

Proposition A – $1 Billion Pension Bond

Some of you will recall that during the campaign I advocated using pension bonds to refinance the City’s debt to the pension plans.  But I said bonds should only be used as part of a plan that would convert the City from defined benefit to defined contribution plans.  Notwithstanding that over 70% of Houstonians favored moving new employees to defined contribution plans, we did not get that in the bill that was passed in the Legislature.  As a result, we are destined to revisit this issue again one day.

Even though defined contribution plans are not part of the “reform,” I believe the better course is to approve these bonds.  They are part of a trade the City made with the police and municipal unions that both reduces their benefits and requires greater contributions from their members.  There is some disagreement over exactly how much the City will save, but it is substantial – roughly double the amount of the bonds.  That is a reasonable deal.  It is not a solution to our pension problems.  But when we are forced to deal with this issue again, these changes will make the problem less severe at that time.

There are many in the pension reform movement that intend to vote against the pension bonds as a matter of principle, preferring to precipitate a fiscal crisis that would result in real pension reform.  While I am sympathetic to that point of view, I have concluded that the damage that would be done to the City and to individual citizens is too great.  So, I am going to hold my nose and vote for the pension bonds.  But I certainly understand how others may have a different view.

Propositions B-E – $495 Million Improvement Bonds

Propositions B-E are a grab bag of various expenditures.  However, there is not one penny in the package for streets or flooding.  This will be the City’s second bond election (the first was in 2012) that does not include any money for streets or flooding because of the City’s misguided reliance on a “pay-as-you-go” model coming out of the 2011 drainage fee fiasco.  Since we adopted that model, our streets have continued to deteriorate.   And I don’t think I even need to say anything about the flooding since then.  Until the City gets its act together on fixing our streets and addressing our flooding problem, I am not voting to give them one more dime for anything else.

Instead the city is proposing to spend over $115 million for new vehicles and another roughly $200 million for repairs and renovations, which appear to mostly be deferred maintenance.  The itemized uses also include:

  • $7 million in “salary recovery” costs (Read: “We are going to use bond money to try and balance the general fund.”)
  • $2 million for bike plan implementation
  • $350,000 to replace TVs and lighting in City Hall
  • $1.2 million in facility assessments
  • $296,000 for park design services
  • $2 million for playground equipment and ball field lighting.

Regardless of the merits of these various expenditures, it is absurd to finance them over the 34 years that the City is proposing.  And I know you will be shocked to learn that the amortization schedule that the City plans to use back-end loads the payments, conveniently pushing off the peak of the payments until all the current elected officials will be safely out of office.  (By the way the same is true for the pension bonds.)

This is exactly the kind of financial can-kicking that has gotten the City into the fiscal mess it is in today.

Until the City puts its fiscal house in order by adopting zero-based budgeting, consolidating overlapping functions with the County, ending the diversion of drainage money to balance its budget, and reducing its per-employee compensation cost (currently $94,000 per employee), to mention but a few examples – and until the City gets it priorities in order, Houston taxpayers should go on strike.  No more bonds.  No property tax increase.

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James Baker:  The Need for Civility in an Uncivil World

The following is a speech that Secretary Baker recently gave to a group at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church.  I pass it along to you without commentary other than a hearty “Amen.”
 

I have been asked to speak tonight about the need for civility in an uncivil world.

It is a complicated question, one that robustly challenges Christians because it puts us directly in the crosshairs of a critical theological question: How do we reconcile our Christian desire to confront what we consider wrongdoing in the world with Our Lord’s endorsement of tolerance toward others?

Further, it is a complicated question at a time when many of our values are being challenged by today’s culture.  Basic Judeo-Christian values that were generally accepted during the first two hundred years in America are now being questioned.  How do we deal with this situation?

As I consider my response, I want to make it clear that I’m no theologian and this question is probably above my paygrade!  But I am a former public servant, an attorney, a father, a grandfather and a great grandfather who is now in my 88th year. And I suspect that the some of the same things that have become apparent to me are also apparent to many of you here tonight.

The world, it seems is going through a tectonic transformation — one that brings tremendous opportunities. And with them, great risks.

In many ways, the future looks brighter than ever.  Technology and science are marching at the fastest paces connect us with one another around the world. Mankind will be heading to Mars by 2030. And long before then, most of us will have self-driving cars.  Our health is better than ever before. Globally, we are living twice as long today as we did less than century ago. And the average life expectancy continues to rise.

Wealth, meanwhile, is spreading around the globe as more and more countries adopt America’s successful paradigms of democratic governance and free-market economics. Last year, the World Bank announced that a smaller percentage of the world’s population lived below the extreme poverty line than at any other time in recorded history.

And if you can pull your attention away from the constant deluge of negative news, you might be surprised to learn that we are living in one of the most peaceful times during the past century. The annual global death rate due to war is down from an average of 22 deaths per 100,000 people during the Cold War years to 1.4 deaths per 100,000 in 2014, the latest year with complete numbers.

Yes, there are risks in the world today. Global climate change, nuclear proliferation and radical Islamic terrorism are three, to name just a few. And violence and economic disparity remain difficult challenges around the world.  On balance, however, more people may be living in relative peace, better health and greater prosperity than during any other time in world history.

At the same time, sadly, our own country is going through a period of great civil unrest, perhaps the most toxic I have experienced in my life. The tenor of our national discourse is tinged with an aggressive anger and a virulent rhetoric that threatens our society. We seem to prefer arguing over statues and other symbols of the past rather than building projects for our future.

When you open the newspapers or watch television, it’s sometimes hard not to cringe at the bankruptcy of our public debate. We hear shrill cries for the removal of the Jefferson Monument because that Founding Father owned slaves. We are scolded that “safe places” are needed on college campuses to protect our students from discussions they don’t agree with.

America’s national ideal of e pluribus unum-“out of many, one”-threatens to become a hollow slogan as jaded Americans constantly are confronted by tidal waves of animus from their televisions and smartphones.

The practice of identity politics increasingly divided us along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual identity. Countless demagogues stand ready to exploit those differences. When a sports reporter of Asian heritage is removed from his assignment because his name — Robert Lee — resembles the name of Robert E. Lee,  it shows the insanity of the principal of “political correctness.”

The one thing that has united us in the past has been love of country, patriotism and respect for our flag and our national anthem. Now, it seems, some believe it is ok to disrespect those symbols in order to call attention to grievances they hold.  Obviously, they have a constitutional right to do that. But doing so risks unraveling what in the past has unified us.

Symbolic of our national anger is the partisan animosity between Republicans and Democrats that has brought Washington to a standstill. We can’t seem to get anything done because our government isn’t working for us.

These divisions are real. In our national politics, and particularly in Washington maintaining lines of civil and constructive communication seems increasingly more difficult.

There are, of course, several reasons for our hyper-partisan political environment:

First, there is a redistricting process that pushes congressional districts to the fringes of the political spectrum. As result, the reasonable center is being squeezed out of our politics. The art of compromise is now missing from our polity.

Second, there is the simple fact that we live in a fairly evenly divided red-state, blue-state country, with the two sides seeing the world through vastly different prisms. The problems confronting a Democrat on Chicago’s South Side are different than the ones facing a Texas Panhandle Republican.

Third, our rapidly developing social media lowers our national debate into an angry brawl. Through social media, people throw the wildest allegations against the wall to see which ones stick. Further, the spreading of fake news via social media undermines real news, and creates a jaundiced society that doesn’t know who or what to believe.

And fourth and finally, the press no longer objectively reports facts but rather acts as an advocate and player in our political debate. If you watch FOX, you think you’re watching the house organ of the Republican Party. And if you watch MSNBC, you know you’re watching the house organ of the Democratic Party.

So what can we do to revive the type of bipartisanship that is necessary for our  government to accomplish anything for the American people?

In Washington, it will take leadership in both parties!  Republicans and Democrats will have to, once again, work together and compromise if they want to get things done.  But all Americans must also shoulder some of the responsibility. Each of us needs to look inside our own heart.

The harshness of our political debate has been matched  It is becoming uglier and more crass.  The norms dictating decent behavior are eroding; and it seems that we’ve lost sight of the basic regard we owe our fellow men and women.  Rather than blame others for our myriad of problems, we should recognize that in a democracy, no one side gets to make all of the rules.

Our country has survived and thrived for so long, in large part, because we have learned how to work together on important issues. Compromise in a democracy is essential.  Our Founding Fathers differed on many issues, but they worked out compromises to define our core principles that still hold today.

As followers of Jesus Christ, when thinking about our role in society today, it’s important to ask ourselves, “What Would Jesus Do?” How did Jesus respond to the chaos of the day and the lifestyles that were antithetical to his morals?  He looked at people with hope, whoever they were. And all were invited to follow him — the good Jew AND the hated Samaritan.  He says in the book of John, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Jesus didn’t focus on the political upheaval of the day, but on each individual’s heart. He calls us to love God with all of our heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan makes it clear that our neighbor is not just someone we agree with. Our neighbor is everyone with whom we have contact. He teaches us NOT to judge others, but to examine our own hearts and repent of our wrongdoing.

Jesus challenges us to love our enemies, to do good for them, and to forgive those who have wronged us. He cautions that if we aren’t willing to forgive others, God can’t forgive us.

In politics, compromise is essential. But being a practicing Christian requires us to be respectful of our neighbor even when compromise is not possible.  Working hard for our political beliefs and values is very important, but it is more important to never lose sight of walking in the light of Jesus.

Thankfully, we have been given the Good News that Jesus will never leave us or forsake us, and we have also been given prayer as the way to live. We are continually told to pray in both the Old and the New Testaments.  In II Chronicles it says, “If my people who are called by name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

We have work to do in the civic arena, but we also have much work to do in our hearts if our land is to be healed.  When we look at our world in the context of our faith, we could despair if we didn’t know about God’s grace and mercy. The bottom line for us Christians, however, is that we are called to show grace and mercy–even to our philosophical opponents–just as we ourselves are shown mercy.

And so, when someone makes a point, listen to it, regardless of how incorrect it may seem to you. Don’t discount people just because you don’t agree with what they say. Or the way they look. Or where they live.  Listening is an important part of learning about one another.  And in this country, we need to do more of that, and do less of the screeching that too many people today think passes as discourse.

During the six weeks since Hurricane Harvey hammered the area, Houston has demonstrated many of the attributes I’ve been talking about. In the midst of the biggest crisis our community has ever experienced, we stopped being Democrat or Republican . . . rich or poor  . . . black, white, or brown . . .  Christian, Muslim, or Jew.

Instead, we’ve all been Houstonians — first, and foremost. With the single focus of restoring and healing our community, we’ve prayed for one another, we’ve helped one another and we’ve looked out for one another.  This dynamic and broad-gauged response by Houstonians has been simply remarkable. And it is precisely what we need nationally.

Yes, we have many differences among us here in Houston — just as we do in Texas and across the nation.  But in the end, we are all Americans living in the very finest country in the world — the country everyone wants to come to, and no one wants to leave.  Realizing and respecting that phenomenon is what unifies us when times get tough.

It SHOULD unify us ALL the time.

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Are Tropical Cyclones Getting Worse?

     Harvey has rekindled the debate between climate change advocates and deniers over whether tropical cyclones are becoming more frequent and intense.  Both sides tend to overstate their respective cases.
     Trying to get a handle on whether these storms are getting worse is not as easy as it might seem.  First, exactly how you measure the intensity of a storm is somewhat problematic.  Hurricane Sandy, which caused extensive damage to the East Coast and was frequently referred to in the media as a “superstorm,” was only a Category 1 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale.
     The Saffir-Simpson scale is exclusively determined by wind speed.  [Click here for discussion of the scale.]  But we have learned that wind speed is just one factor in determining the severity of a storm and the resulting damage.  For example, the physical size of the storm is another important indicator of its tidal surge.  And, of course, the resulting damage from any storm is largely determined by where it makes landfall and the population and property in its path.  Had Sandy made landfall along a coastline with far less population, no one would have referred to it as a “superstorm.”
     Another problem is that the farther we go back into historical records, the less accurate the information is about the incidence and the severity of the storms.  Since the 1960s we have had reliable data from satellites.  But that is the blink of the eye on the scale of climate history.  Before that, the data is much less accurate, relying frequently on incomplete narrative accounts and spotty meteorological observations.
     Nonetheless, the National Weather Service has compiled a list of tropical cyclones that have occurred in the Atlantic basin since 1850, based on the best information they have.  They have categorized the storms into three categories: tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes.  Click here to see the table.
When you graph this table, it looks like this:
    The upward trend is pretty clear, at least, on this most global level of the data.  And the 2017 data will tilt the trend lines a bit higher since this has been such an active season.

If we look only at all the storms that reached tropical storm status since 1970, the trend line flattens out significantly, supporting the notion that there is an observational bias before 1970 that under counted storms.  The trend is still up but it is considerably less dramatic than the hyperbole we frequently hear from climate change advocates.

     Of course, history is not necessarily a predictor of the future.  But these trend lines significantly undermine those who argue that the current spike in storms is nothing more than a naturally recurring weather cycle.

Weather events, by their nature, are episodic and tend to be cyclical.  There are lots of highs and lows.  Climate change advocates cherry pick the highs to bolster their case and climate change deniers do the same with the lows.

I think there are two conclusions we can draw from the data.

First, tropical cyclones do appear to be getting somewhat worse.  You can attribute that to climate change or not, but the best bet going forward is that we need to prepare for more frequent and intense storms.  However, there is little in the historical record to support a prediction that the increase will be dramatic.[1]

     Second, storms of relatively similar strengths are causing much more damage now than in the past because there are so many more people and so much more property in their paths.
Both of these conclusions support policies that would better prepare our coastlines to withstand storms and to mitigate their impact.  That means building structural protections, improving flood control, adopting better building codes, being more careful where we build things and restoring natural features that dampen the impact of the storms, e.g., wetlands and oyster reefs.
     While pursuing policies which will reduce carbon emissions is a laudable goal, there is no evidence that policies to that end will have any short or medium term effect on reducing the frequency or severity of tropical cyclones.
     Of course, it is not an “either-or” choice.  We can work to make our coast lines more resilient and to reduce carbon emissions at the same time.  But if the goal is to reduce the impact of tropical storms in the short or medium term, we need policies primarily aimed at strengthening our coastal defenses.

[1] The issue of whether tropical cyclones are getting worse and the effect of climate change on tropical storms is a topic that is hotly debated within the meteorological community.  Ryan Maue, a well-known climate change denier, has made the case that frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones has actually declined in recent years. [Click   here to see his data and argument.]  However, the conclusion that storms are gradually getting more frequent and intense represents the consensus opinion of the meteorological community.  [Click here.]
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Uptown Bus Lanes Already $30 Million Over Budget

     One of the worst public works boondoggles in our region is about to get worse unless our elected officials step in.  In 2014, the Uptown TIRZ proposed to build dedicated bus lanes down the middle of Post Oak Boulevard.   The cost of the project at that time was estimated to be $196 million, with over half that amount coming from local property taxes and the balance coming from State and federal transportation funds.  Last week, the Uptown TIRZ went to the Transportation Policy Council asking for an additional $30 million for the project.  And trust me, this will not be the last time Uptown comes back with its hand out.
     Most of you have probably never heard of the Transportation Policy Council (TPC), but it wields enormous influence over regional mobility projects.  It is a committee of the Houston Galveston Area Council (HGAC), which is one of twenty-four regional councils of local governments that were established by the Texas Legislature.  Transportation policy councils in each of these regional organizations are made up of local officials who allocate State and federal transportation funds to various road and transit projects within their regions.
     There are 27 members on our TPC.  Most are elected officials but there are also some appointed positions (such as the Metro chair and TXDOT’s district engineer).   You can see a complete list of the members [here].
     The TPC was notified of Uptown’s request for additional State funds on September 22.  Because of the size of the request, it could not be approved until the following meeting.  Fortunately, both County Judge Ed Emmett and Commissioner Steve Radack expressed concerns about the budget overrun in the meeting.  From their comments, it appears they will likely vote against bailing out Uptown, especially since Emmett voted against the project originally.  You can watch the video of the meeting [here].  Uptown’s request is discussed in agenda item number 5.
     Personally, I am very skeptical that the proposed bus lanes will ever achieve the projected ridership or congestion mitigation Uptown claims.  We have seen time and again that ridership projections are almost always overly optimistic.  Of particular concern is that the project is based on the assumption that commuters will either drive their car or take a park-and-ride to one of the ends of the bus lanes, then switch to the buses for the final leg of their trip.  In the transit world this is known as “two-seat trip”, meaning that the commuter must change modes during trip.  Historically, commuters have been reluctant to take two-seat trips except in the most congested areas, such as Manhattan.
     And the project will undoubtedly impede the flow of vehicular traffic in the Galleria.  There is a particularly problematic proposed interchange at Post Oak and the Loop where the bus lanes will transition onto the Loop.  I cannot imagine that traffic will not be permanently snarled at that intersection.
     But regardless of the future effectiveness of the project, it is simply an idiotic use of $200 million of taxpayer money.  I could come up with a list of at least 100 other transportation projects that would represent a better value.
     This project was pushed through by TIRZ bureaucrats trying to justify their existence and special interests along Post Oak, some of whom have received multi-million dollar right-of-way payouts.  It is wildly unpopular with most of the businesses along Post Oak and residents in the Galleria.  Post Oak went from being one of our signature boulevards to a war zone.  I cannot even imagine what a nightmare the traffic is going to be during the holiday season.
     Much of the work that has been done so far is utility work and right-of-way expansion.  Almost nothing has been done to actually begin construction of the bus lanes, which means that it is not too late to scrap this project.  A good step in that direction would be for the TPC to turn down Uptown’s request for additional funding.
     So, I am encouraging everyone to first call Judge Emmett and Commissioner Radack to congratulate them on questioning the request and to encourage them to vote against it when it comes back to the TPC for final approval.  You might also consider calling Houston City Council Members David Robinson and Larry Green, who also serve on the TPC, and ask them to vote against the increase.
     Finally, it is also time for residents in the Galleria to make it clear to the Uptown board that they are opposed to this project.  You can reach the Uptown office at 713-621-2011 or you can email it [here].   You can see a list of their directors at http://www.uptown-houston.com/about/page/tirz-uda-board.  If you know any of these members, call them and let them know you are opposed to the project.
     This project is crony capitalism at its worst.  TIRZs were originally established to help “blighted” neighborhoods.  This project is using $200 million of taxpayer money to subsidize a project intended to benefit the most expensive real estate in the City.  In the meantime, there are many neighborhoods in our City going begging for basic services, like flood control projects!
It is time to put an end to this boondoggle.
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Two Flood Bills Died in Legislature

Two bills were introduced in the last Legislative session to study flooding in the Houston region.  Both died in committee.

SB1269 was authored by State Senator Boris Miles and co-sponsored by Senators John Whitmire and Sylvia Garcia.  The bill would have authorized $1.5 million to establish and fund a task force to complete a “comprehensive flood control infrastructure study.”  Not exactly bold leadership, but to the Senate’s credit SB1269 was approved unanimously.

But it never saw the light of day in the House.  When it was received by the House from the Senate it was referred to the Natural Resources Committee.  There is no one from the Houston region on that committee.  No member of the Houston delegation picked up the bill.  The committee held about a five-minute perfunctory hearing.  Representative Armando Walle appears to have been the only Houston area representative to speak in favor of the bill.  The bill was “left pending” in the committee at the end of the session.

Senator Larry Taylor introduced SB2265, which would have restructured an existing entity to give it the power to begin constructing a coastal spine system to protect the region from storm surges.  But the bill did not authorize any funds and was contingent on the federal government funding the entire project.  It, too, was approved by the Senate unanimously.

In the House, SB2265 was referred to the Special Purpose Districts Committee, which is chaired by Representative Jim Murphy.  Representative Wayne Faircloth, from Galveston, filed a companion bill, HB4308.  There are notations that these bills were heard briefly in committee, but both were also left pending at the end of the session.

These bills were utterly inadequate compared to the challenges that our region faces from flooding.  They really called for nothing more than additional studies.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, there has been so much research on this subject “it is probable that if they continue we shall soon know nothing at all about it.”

But the fact that our Legislature could not even pass these watered-down (excuse the pun) measures is pathetic.  Of course, the Legislature had time to argue about all manner of nonsense in this session, but when it came to actually doing something about one of the most persistent threats to our region, they took a powder.

The threat of large scale flooding from either a storm surge or massive rain events, such as what we just experienced, cannot be effectively addressed solely at the local level.  The scope of these events exceeds the jurisdictional limits of any single municipality or county.  While there is certainly a role for local entities, we also need a regional approach.

Ideally, Governor Abbott should call a special session to deal with this problem.  At a minimum, we need a robust interim study so the Legislature is prepared to immediately take action on flooding in our region when the Legislature meets again in 2019.

The time for shuffling our feet and thinking about maybe studying this problem is over.  Now is the time for action.
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