ABBOTT SIGNS OFF ON HARRIS COUNTY’S HARVEY ANNIVERSARY FLOOD BOND VOTE
In a letter to the Commissioners Court yesterday, Gov. Abbott approved Harris County’s request to hold an August 25 bond election that would pay for a long, not-yet-finalized lineup of flood control projects. On the short list so far: “the buy-out of all of the county’s high-priority areas at highest-risk of flooding, approximately 5,500 properties,” Judge Emmett tells the Chronicle’s Mihir Zaveri — as well as the financing of “some portions a much-discussed third reservoir northwest of the city,” and “numerous bayou and creek widening projects.” Also included: a handful of detention basins and drainage improvements to waterways in both Houston and the MUDs of unincorporated Harris County, according to the flood control district. The district now has about 4 months to compile the list, during which time Harris County “plans to launch a public outreach campaign to seek input on what to include in the bond package, as well as drum up support for the measure.” [Houston Chronicle ($), previously on Swamplot] Photo of Sesquicentennial Park and Franklin St. during Harvey: Kelsie H. Dos Santos
HARRIS COUNTY OPTS TO SCHEDULE FLOOD BOND VOTE FOR HARVEY’S ANNIVERSARY
The Harris County Commissioners Court voted this morning to move forward with scheduling a multi-billion-dollar flood control bond referendum — to fund property buyouts, bayou widening, and other mitigation efforts — for August 25. “Why August 25?” Judge Ed Emmett asked the room — which included the Chronicle’s Mihir Zaveri — “It’s the 1-year anniversary of Harvey. It’s got a certain sex appeal to it.” Commissioner Rodney Ellis at first opposed the commemorative date, fearing voter turnout could be weak during the summer. “If it is one shot that we have, I just want to make sure we get it right,” he said. (If the referendum fails, the earliest the court could hold another one would be in May 2019.) He argued instead for a date during November’s mid-term elections but changed his mind “for the sake of unity” after an appeal from fellow Commissioner Steve Radack — putting a unanimous finishing touch on the back-and-forth. What’s now needed in order to get it on the calendar? Governor Greg Abbott’s sign-off, followed by a vote from Harris County making the date official. [Houston Chronicle; more] Photo of Buffalo Bayou flooded by Hurricane Harvey: Adam Brackman
THE MIND-BOGGLING UNDERGROUND MULTI-BAYOU TUNNEL DRAINAGE SYSTEM NOW PROPOSED FOR HARRIS COUNTY
The Harris County Flood Control District is considering digging the nation’s largest network of high-volume tunnels 100 to 200 ft. underground to drain stormwater from several waterways, including — write the Chronicle‘s Mike Morris and Mihir Zaveri — Buffalo Bayou, White Oak Bayou, Hunting Bayou, Greens Bayou, Halls Bayou, Clear Creek, and Cypress Creek. “The goal under the plan,” they report, “would be for those waterways to be able to keep a 100-year storm event within their banks.” Flood czar Steve Costello argues that despite the project’s enormity, the tunnels might actually be the cheapest way to bring the all the county’s major waterways up to 100-year capacity. Even if such a one-shot solution does cost less than a series of smaller mitigation efforts, the pricetag for the tunnels would still be in the billions, or “perhaps $100 million per mile,” Costello says. On Tuesday, the Commissioners Court is set to vote on whether to pursue a contract with Fugro USA Land — a global engineering firm — for a feasibility study of the proposed project that would cost around $400,000. [Houston Chronicle ($)] Photo of Harvey flooding near UHD: Kelsie H. Dos Santos
TICKETS FOR FLOODPLAIN VIOLATIONS COULD BE IN HARRIS COUNTY’S FUTURE
Harris County is looking for the state’s permission to make floodplain violations a criminal offense — reports the Chronicle’s Mihir Zaveri — arguing that “issuing a Class C misdemeanor to violators would increase the county’s ability to enforce its rules because it is quicker, less costly for the violator and the county and has the potential to increase compliance.” Right now, the worst the county can do to developers who break the rules and don’t respond to citations or other violation notices is to take them to civil court, which it has been reluctant to do. Case in point: 2 years ago, Zaveri and Mike Morris reported that despite issuing 324 floodplain regulation violations to developers in 2015, the county only had 25 civil lawsuits pending against builders who broke the rules. Gov. Abbott vetoed a bill similar to what’s on the table now last year, saying criminalizing violations would stretch the definition of criminal offense too thin. But according to Harris County’s chief administrative officer for public infrastructure coordination Josh Stuckey, there’s already a precedent for this type of hardline drainage enforcement: “The county uses a similar method for violations of regulations for private septic tanks, which has worked ‘very well,'” he tells Zaveri. [Houston Chronicle] Photo of red tag at Bourbon on Bagby, 2708 Bagby St.: Swamplot inbox
COMMENT OF THE DAY: UNINCORPORATED HARRIS COUNTY OUGHT TO START INCORPORATING
“Since the population is booming in unincorporated Harris County, it may approach a tipping point where the representation may need to be increased on the Commissioners Court. As it stands now, there are 4 Commissioners plus the County Judge, a total of 5 elected officials for this burgeoning population. Conceivably, we could have 8 Commissioners plus the judge so that each ‘slice’ of the county could be fewer people and theoretically, there would be more responsiveness from the county office to a given resident. That being said, I don’t mind more townships or small cities being created to mop up the unincorporated areas so that each burg could work to benefit its taxpayers. Basically, a divide and conquer approach (or ‘zone defense’ if you want another metaphor), but to provide responsive, efficient service to its own residents. There is only so much that the county can do when it has to cover the whole of Harris County.” [Wolf Brand Chili, commenting on The Astonishing Rise of Unincorporated Harris County] Illustration: Lulu
CURIOUS POLL PUSHERS WANT TO KNOW: SHOULD THE COUNTY SPEND ANY AMOUNT IT WANTS ON AN ASTRODOME REDO? The last time a concrete proposal to spend public money to repurpose the Astrodome was on the ballot, Harris County taxpayers voted it down. So how hard could it be to come up with a new poll showing potential voters aren’t especially eager to shell out for the latest floated idea, to turn the public facility into a giant indoor park — about which no details, price tag, or even feel-good drawings have yet been released? Maybe harder than you might think: In stories about a survey sponsored by KHOU and Houston Public Media whose results were released yesterday, a few news outlets did produce dutiful variants of a “Taxpayers Oppose Money for Astrodome” headline. But coming to that conclusion from the actual data collected in the survey might have been a bit of a stretch. Here’s the somewhat ambiguous wording of the question presented, with no context, to likely voters in the coming election: “Harris County proposes turning the Astrodome into an indoor park. Should the taxpayers of Harris County spend any amount to make the Astrodome into an indoor park if no private investors want to fund the entire project?” 31 percent said yes, 51 percent said no, and 17 percent of respondents said they didn’t know. The subset of respondents who thought they were being asked if they’d be willing to give county government a blank check for a plan they’ve never seen wasn’t broken out separately. [Houston Chronicle; KHOU; Houston Public Media; Astrodome coverage on Swamplot] Photo: Russell Hancock
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s new “not fully hashed out” plan for reusing the Astrodome is to turn the structure into the world’s largest indoor public park and recreation area. The park might incorporate a number of public institutions and museums within it. Plus: a pavilion for music and other events, and sports facilities such as archery ranges and hiking and biking trails, an archery center, and a large open green space. The fully air-conditioned park would be open to the public every day — except when used by the Rodeo and conferences such as the OTC.
Will Harris County citizens support turning the Astrodome into a park? Strangely, the best evidence that a majority would favor it may come from a recent survey commissioned by 2 organizations that have been trying very hard to get the building torn down.
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Texans and Rodeo Fans on Board?
Swamplot will dig into some of the more entertaining and eye-opening details of the proposal later. But in the meantime, before folks go around shouting “heck, yeah!”, hyperventilating, or considering it all but a done deal, you might want to make note of a few circumstances surrounding the release of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and Houston Texans‘ 37-page illustrated guide to spending $66 million of somebody’s money to tear down the Astrodome and build a memorial park and “Hall of Fame” in its place.
The proposal was leaked to reporters yesterday — likely before the Rodeo and the Texans had planned, a source tells Swamplot. (A sample “huh?” slide from it is illustrated above.) Nevertheless, the release marks the latest evolution in the 2 organizations’ willingness to publicly acknowledge their (likely longstanding) role as the foremost opponents of preserving the Astrodome in any form. (Last year the Rodeo and the Texans released a cost estimate for turning the Dome into a parking lot.) Whether this is a concerted strategy in the organizations’ campaign to kill the Dome or a fumble, it does signal a possible risk for them: What would happen if the until-now-growing sense among many Houstonians that everything possible has been tried and somehow mysteriously “won’t work” (blow up the place already, I’m tired of hearing about it!) gave way to a realization that the same 2 parties may have, in fact, been responsible for bungling, blocking, discouraging, sabotaging, or outright vetoing every single proposal for saving or revamping the Astrodome over the last dozen years? Would it kill all the seeming public-sentiment victories they’ve achieved so far?
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Dome-Be-Gone for $66 Million
One of the largest rhetorical weapons in the arsenal regularly wielded by proponents of repurposing or demolishing the Astrodome over the last several years has been a brutal financial factoid regularly drawn into arguments over the Houston landmark’s future. How much money in maintenance and debt-service costs have county taxpayers had to spend just to keep the retired sports stadium around and rotting? Why $2.4 million or so each year, claimed news report after news report after editorial after news report. Like the once-record-breaking 642-ft. clear span inside, it was just one of those things people who were paying attention knew.
But that figure isn’t accurate, Harris County’s budget chief now says. And at a meeting called by Judge Ed Emmett this week, Bill Jackson tried to set the record straight: First, he said, the Astrodome is “essentially debt free“; all but 5 percent of outstanding debt payments connected to the facility stem from work done in 2002 and 2003 — after the Dome had been retired from professional sports — to prepare the larger park for the Texans to use it. (The total amount of that remaining debt, according to a Houston Chronicle recalculation earlier this year, is $6 million.) Using the accounting principle of “first in, first out,” this means that all debts attributable to the Dome itself have now been paid for, Jackson said.
How about maintenance and insurance costs, then?
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Now Down to $171K a Year, Give or Take?
TURNING THE FERAL HOGS OF BARKER AND ADDICKS RESERVOIRS INTO PORK CHOPS FOR THE NEEDY Yesterday county commissioners approved a 1-year contract yesterday with Brookshire’s J&J Packing Co. (pictured at left at 35602 W. Hwy. 90) to slaughter and butcher feral hogs found damaging sports fields and other facilities in and around West Houston’s George Bush Park and Congressman Bill Archer Park and turn them into meat for area food banks. Harris County precinct 3 employees will now be responsible for trapping the hogs and transporting them to the Brookshire plant for processing. “The plan is to trap the varmints in four, 4-acre fenced structures — two in each park — where they can survive for up to several weeks, having grass, water and room to move around,” writes Kiah Collier. “The larger traps will be more effective than smaller ones employees have been using, [Precinct 3 special activities coordinator Mike] McMahan said, because the pigs do not realize they are in a trap and are less likely to panic and warn others. ‘Pigs become very aware of those situations very quickly,’ McMahan said. ‘Pigs are very smart animals.’ But a wildlife disease biologist tells Collier that similar plans tried elsewhere have turned out to be very expensive, and that there are disease risks: “It’s great publicity while it works,” says Brian Mesenbrink with the Texas offices of the USDA’s Wildlife Services, “but the minute something goes wrong, the minute somebody gets sick, there’s going to be all hell to pay. No one thinks about that going into it. They just see the fuzzy and warm side of it.” [Houston Chronicle ($)] Photo: J&J Packing Co.
HARRIS COUNTY’S NEW GAME ROOM GAME Among the new requirements for game rooms in Harris County just approved by commissioners this afternoon: A big sign outside that says “GAME ROOM.” And you’ll know there’ll be at least half a dozen “eight-liner” video poker machines inside, because they won’t be able to tint the windows anymore. New establishments will need to be at least 1,500 ft. away from schools, churches, or residential neighborhoods. “Charitable” bingo halls that fall under the ordinance won’t need to follow these new rules, but they will need to get a permit like other game rooms, pay a $1000 annual fee to the county, and shut down at 10 p.m. [Houston Chronicle ($); previously on Swamplot] Photo of recently shuttered game room on Monroe Rd. at Almeda Genoa: abc13
NOW PICTURE HOUSTON’S ASTRODOME REPLACED BY A GIANT WET PIT Simply filling in the 9-acre, 35-ft.-deep hole in the ground where the Astrodome now sits would eat up more than $10 million of the estimated $28 million it would cost to demolish the publicly owned structure, according to county engineers. (Another $8 million of that total has already been approved, for removal of asbestos, ticket booths, turnstiles, grass berms, and ramps, plus all the seats and interior items; that demo work is already taking place.) Which leads county commissioner Steve Radack to suggest that the money be saved and the site be turned into a giant flood-preventing detention pond — “if and when” it is demolished. That’d make for a rather eloquent and down-to-earth symbol to substitute for Houston’s most famous landmark. Judge Emmett, who before the failed bond vote favored preserving the Dome by renovating it, declared after Tuesday’s election defeat that “We’re going to have to do something quick.” But commissioner Jack Cagle says he has no deadlines for a decision in mind. So who’s pushing to have the Dome demolished in a hurry? The same folks who’ve been calling the aging structure an “inconvenience” to Rodeo and Texans game visitors, write the Chronicle‘s Kiah Collier and Nancy Sarnoff: “Reliant Park’s main tenants, the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo and the NFL’s Houston Texans want the county to act as quickly as possible, and certainly before the Super Bowl comes to Reliant Stadium in early 2017.” [Houston Politics; previously on Swamplot] Photo of Brays Bayou detention basin: John Lienhard
COMMENT OF THE DAY: THAT SHIP WON’T SAIL “May we have a Comment of the Day that isn’t from a Swamplot reader? This has to be it: ‘”We can’t allow the once-proud Astrodome to sit like a rusting ship in the middle of a parking lot. This was the best effort (to revamp the stadium), and voters have turned it down,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.’
I mean seriously, Judge Emmett? The County has mishandled the Dome from the beginning, and NOW you have a sense of urgency? And THIS was the County’s best effort?” [JD, commenting on Headlines: Astrodome Bonds Voted Down; Bayport Cruise Terminal’s First Ship Comes In]
WILL THE RODEO OR THE TEXANS PAY RENT TO USE THE ASTRODOME? Contradicting teevee reporter Ted Oberg’s declaration a couple of weeks ago that the county’s own projections show that the renovated Astrodome would barely break even, the Chronicle’s Kiah Collier produces the county’s underlying single-sheet financial summary (PDF), which projects net operating income of $1.9 million a year for a redone Dome, based on $4 million in revenue. There’s not a lot of detail behind any of the “ballpark” figures that go into that projection, though — and there’s clearly been disagreement over a couple of revenue sources that may or may not be included in it. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has now officially endorsed (PDF) the bond proposal on tomorrow’s ballot that would fund the conversion of the Astrodome into “The New Dome Experience” — but only, it seems, after wresting commitments from county officials to create some sort of repair fund for Reliant Stadium and to pay for repairs to the Reliant Arena — before replacing it, somewhere down the line. Judge Emmett and the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp.’s Edgar Colón now say the Rodeo may not have to pay rent to use the revamped facility, but whether the free-rent deal the Rodeo had with the Astrodome legally applies to a renovated and seemingly repurposed facility isn’t quite so clear to other officials Collier talks to, who claim any payments would be “worked out later.” The Houston Texans, meanwhile, who earlier this year with the Rodeo promoted a study showing how a $29 million demolition of the Dome would clear way for 2,500 shiny new parking spots — have been standing on the sidelines while the bond proposal is put to voters. Really, the team would have no interest at all in using a completely revamped name-brand facility right next to the site of the 2017 Super Bowl, even? “If the Astrodome is renovated,” the team’s coy statement reads, “we would consider using it, but do not have a specific use in mind at the present time . . .” [Houston Chronicle; previously on Swamplot] Rendering of the New Dome Experience: New Dome PAC/Kirksey Architecture