HOUSTON — With mountains of debris sitting in front yards and tens of thousands of southeast Texans still in the early stages of re-establishing their lives after Hurricane Harvey’s destructive rainfall, city and state officials sparred Monday over who should cover which recovery costs — and when those funds should be disbursed.
While city and state officials in the weeks immediately following Harvey’s historic rainfall threw verbal support behind building and upgrading massive flood control projects and learning from past development mistakes, a Houston City Council meeting Monday foreshadowed the political and financial tensions that could complicate such efforts.
The politically charged debates between State Sen. Paul Bettencourt and the Houston City Council came during the first public hearing over Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposal to raise property taxes for one year to help with some emergency costs. The council will vote on the matter next month.
Bettencourt, R-Houston, and some residents portrayed the proposal as insensitive to the financial woes facing homeowners and renters grappling with the costs of repairing houses, finding new places to live, replacing vehicles and refurnishing their homes.
“I don’t think we should be kicking Houstonians while they’re down,” Bettencourt said to applause from residents.
But Turner and other council members said the hike wouldn’t be necessary if state officials would provide certainty on how and when they plan to tap Texas’ savings account to contribute to relief efforts. Council member Dwight Boykins chastised Bettencourt and other Houston-area legislators for not lobbying Gov. Greg Abbott harder on the region’s behalf.
"That's what I expect — not us fighting against you,” Boykins said.
State officials have said they plan to tap the state’s savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, but want to learn more about the full scope of what’s needed for the wide swath of southeast Texas battered by the worst rainfall in U.S. history.
Bettencourt said the state funds could go toward a new reservoir in western Houston, upgrades to two existing reservoirs and a physical storm surge barrier often referred to as a “coastal spine.” Together, those projects will cost well over $10 billion and will likely require contributions from several layers of government.
Council member Brenda Stardig indicated support for the city funding some relief efforts now if the state was going to make substantial contributions to large-scale flood control projects later. Many of those projects have been discussed for years but gained little political or financial support.
“Imagine the homes that might have been saved if we had taken action then,” Stardig said.
Turner, though, failed to get Bettencourt's commitment to financially support such projects on Monday.
Bettencourt urged the council to tap tens of millions of dollars in money from special taxing districts within the city to help cover costs. He also claimed the state had already sent the city $100 million, a statement that drew immediate ire from Turner who said the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided that money.
Bettencourt also suggested the city should have damaged properties reappraised so landowners aren’t paying taxes on assessed values that no longer reflect the state of what they own. A spokesman for the mayor late Monday questioned when there would be time for that since tax bills are set to go out in late November.
Bettencourt drew claps and verbal signals of agreement throughout his discussion with the council. And many residents also opposed the proposed property tax hike when they spoke Monday. Mindy Smith told council members her city property taxes have increased 18 percent in the past five years. She said there are plenty of unnecessary city expenses that could be clipped from the budget to help fund recovery costs.
“How about you cut some of that before you come and ask me to cut my family’s budget?” she said.