As election season nears (early voting begins Oct. 22), there will be several highly-contested city propositions on the ballot, such as the much ballyhooed Proposition A that has undergone a winding road to reach the ballots once again.
Proposition A concerns ReBuild Houston, the program officials say has provided more than $800 million in city drainage improvements throughout the city and paid off $1.1 billion in debt. Essentially, voters will be asked whether to keep in place what officials call a “lock box” that allows revenue from a city drainage fee to be spent for the sole purpose of drainage and street improvements, which help control flooding. It’s been a long and winding road for the proposition, but a resolution should come in the next few weeks.
In 2010, Houston voters approved a plan to impose fees on property owners to pay for street and drainage repairs. However, opponents sued, claiming the fees constituted a “rain tax.” The Texas Supreme Court later ruled in 2015 that the ballot language was misleading due to it not specifically mentioning a drainage fee on homeowners’ water bills that would fund the program, so the language was tweaked before being placed on this November’s ballot.
According to the City of Houston, the collection of the drainage fee provides approximately $100 million per year. City officials have insisted that the only purpose of the election is reinsert the lockbox in place, so future adminstrations cannot “raid” the funds for any and all purposes. Proponents such as Jeff Ross – a retired civil engineer and planning commissioner during the administrations of Mayors Bill White and Annise Parker – have previously pointed to the fact that Rebuild Houston has rebuilt or improved more than 1,000 lane miles of city streets and nearly 500 miles of storm drains as positives of continuing the program. District C councilmember and Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Cohen pointed to local projects such as a reconstruction in Garden Oaks as well as Shepherd Forest water line replacements.
“It ensures other mayors and other administrations can’t simply pass a new ordinance to remove it and use those fees as general fund dollars. We don’t want that,” Cohen said.
However, some opponents, such as former mayoral candidate Bill King – who ran against Sylvester Turner in the 2015 mayoral election – have insisted that only a fraction of fees collected have been spent on what the city calls drainage projects. He has also previously mentioned a loophole that he alleges allows a portion of the money to be spent on “maintenance and operations” without defining what that was, and the city would start paying for some full-time employees out of the Rebuild fund.
In short, as he has previously stated on billkingblog.com, he believes there really is not a true “lock box” to keep, and that how the money is being spent is nothing like what voters were led to believe in 2011 when they voted for the largest tax increase in Houston’s history.
Cohen, however, took umbrage with any such notion.
“We have spent so much on projects and eliminated over the $1 billion in debt – the goal is to end up, within the next couple of years, to not fund any of these reconstruction and drainage projects with debt. And we are well on our way to doing that,” she said. “The money is being used for what it’s meant to be used for. The proposition is designed to reinforce the fact that this money is staying in a lockbox, and will remain there to do what it’s meant to do.”
Early voting begins Oct. 22. For information on early voting locations, visit harrisvotes.com