On Wednesday, City Council narrowly approved a sweeping revision of the flood rules specifying how high new buildings must be constructed. The amendment to the ordinance is lengthy and complicated, but fundamentally it requires that buildings located in the 500-year floodplain must be built two feet above that level.
The change will undoubtedly reduce the flooding risk for new construction. But if your house has previously flooded, the new rules do nothing to make it less likely it will flood in the future. The changes will also significantly increase the construction costs in the affected areas. By exactly how much and whether the increased costs are justified by future potential flood savings are the subjects of considerable debate.
There were good arguments on both sides of this proposed change. Personally, I thought Council overreached by going to two feet over the 500-year flood plain, especially considering that FEMA is expected to release new flood maps in the next couple of years that could drastically increase the size of the 500-year flood plain. Some think the map might encompass most of the City, which could make it very difficult to build anywhere in the City and affect property values.
But what I found insufferably hypocritical about the debate was one council member after another piously lamenting the flooding woes endured by their constituents when of those same council members have, year after year, approved budgets diverting the drainage fees paid by Houstonians to almost everything but flooding.
Most of you recall that in 2010, City voters approved the imposition of a drainage fee. The proponents of the fee reassured voters that the fee would be held in a lockbox and that “politicians can’t divert a single cent.” Ads like this one filled the airwaves.
Since voters approved the drainage fee, the City has collected about $700 million. To put that amount in perspective, that is three times the money that was needed to complete Project Brays. But instead funding projects like Project Brays, the City began paying for 500 Public Works Department employees from the fund in the very first year the drainage fee was assessed and has continued to do so ever since. Few of these employees have anything to do with flood control. Since then the money has also been used for bike trails, traffic control and miles and miles of asphalt overlays, which in many cases make flooding worse.
Before Turner became mayor, the City budget included a list of the employee categories that were being paid from the drainage fund. About two-thirds appeared to be bureaucrats working at City Hall. After Turner became mayor, the City stopped including that information and other details about how the drainage fees are being spent. You can compare the level of detail provided by the Parker administration to what the Turner administration now publishes [here – 2015 Budget] and [here-2018 Budget].
The ReBuild Houston website, which is supposed to keep taxpayers apprised of how their drainage fees are being spent, has not been updated since last June. Rebuild Houston Website
Perhaps the best indication of the City’s real commitment to flood control is that only 6% of the City’s current five-year capital improvement plan is devoted to flood control. [CIP Budget]
The debate on the new flood rules got testy when Dave Martin, the district council member representing Kingwood, emotionally narrated a slide presentation he and Turner had obviously coordinated, which showed the extensive flooding that occurred in Kingwood. Greg Travis, who was seeking to amend the proposed rules, challenged Martin, correctly pointing out that the new rules would do absolutely nothing to mitigate the flooding Martin was showing in his slides. By the end of the exchange Martin was cursing at Travis, a clear sign that Travis’s retort had struck a nerve.
I would take Martin’s and other council members’ emotionally call for action on flooding more seriously if they had not consistently voted for budgets which have allowed the drainage fees to be looted. If these members had really been serious about protecting their constituents from being flooded, they would have insisted that the drainage fees be spent on flood control. To their credit, council members Knox, Stardig, Travis and Kubosh all raised this issue of the diversion of the drainage fees during the debate on the new ordinance.
The City’s new budget will be adopted over the next several months. We will soon find out if the Council’s new-found religion on flooding is real or whether they were just crying crocodile tears this week. We’ll know that based on whether they insist that the drainage fees actually be spent on flood projects or whether they continue to allow the administration to use the drainage fees to fund its pet projects and as a slush fund to balance the budget. Of course, we will only know that if Council also insists that the administration once again provides the details in the budget on how the drainage fees are spent.