In the 2015 mayoral election, all of the candidates except Steve Costello agreed that the drainage fee adopted by voters in 2010 had serious problems. Each of the candidates had various prescriptions. Turner agreed, expressing his concerns about how the money was being spent and promised a complete review of the program. Two years later we are still waiting.
In response to some questions from Council, Controller Chris Brown has been promising an “audit” of the Dedicated Drainage and Street Renewal Fund (DDSRF), which was finally released last week. It is a farce.
The audit examined three projects which totaled about $44 million. Through the end of this fiscal year, about $1.4 billion will have been deposited into the DDSRF. So, this audit covers a whopping 3% of the total. [Click here to read the audit.]
The report includes an appendix which lists 35 projects that it indicates are completed “using the drainage utility fee component” from 2014-2016 at a cost of $246 million. There is no explanation of that phrase nor are there any supporting schedules. Presumably, the report is suggesting that these are the projects that were paid for by the drainage fee. Beyond that, there is no detail other than a general description of the location of these projects and no indication that the audits did any review of them.
Even if we accept that $246 million was spent from the dedicated fund on these projects, that would only be about 76% of the drainage fee collected for those years and only 39% of the total amount deposited into the dedicated fund. Where was the rest spent? That was the question we were all hoping an audit would answer.
We used to have a better idea of how the money was spent. During the Parker Administration, the budget document available to the public had 13 pages of information that included a reasonably detailed description of the expenditures and a list of personnel paid from the fund by position type. [Click here to read 2015 budget.] It was from that detail that we were able to determine that most of the positions paid by the fund were office personnel. But since Turner took office, the budget document has only seven pages and omits most of that detailed information. [Click here to see 2018 budget.]
Since the drainage fund was set up in 2011, Houston taxpayers have paid over $750 million in drainage fees and an additional $650 million has gone into the fund from other taxpayer sources. Does anyone think we have gotten $1.4 billion worth of value in flood control or street improvement projects?