City Council voted yesterday to hold another vote on the Rebuild Houston proposition in November. You may recall that the Texas Supreme Court invalidated the original election held in 2010 because the City used misleading ballot language. But apparently your vote does not really matter, because Turner has said that regardless of the outcome of the election the City will continue run the program the way it has been.
Rebuild Houston was primarily the brain child of the engineering community and arose from their frustration that the City had for decades been under-investing in its infrastructure. They had the idea of establishing a new revenue source, the drainage fee, and then creating safeguards to ensure the new money would go to infrastructure and not disappear down the black hole of profligate City spending. A noble idea to be sure. But the engineers grossly underestimated the ability of City officials to find loopholes in their “lockbox” and their willingness to just blatantly ignore the charter amendment language.
The most striking example of the City’s disregard of the charter amendment’s safeguards is the limitation on spending on “maintenance and operations.” The amendment specifically provides, “no more than 25% of each annual appropriation to the Fund may be used for maintenance and operation expenses.” Here is the budget for the Rebuild fund that was just adopted by Council a few months ago.
Now I am sure that even the mathematically challenged will recognize that $88.5 million and $97.4 million are significantly more than 25% of $209.5 million and $222.5 million, respectively. In fact, every year that Rebuild Houston has been in existence the City, according to its own budget numbers, has exceeded the 25% voter-mandated limitation.* And trendline for M&O expenditures, both on a percentage basis and in absolute dollars, has been increasing.
In the first year after Rebuild was adopted, the City moved about 500 employees from being paid by the Public Works Department to being paid by the Rebuild fund. By my count, about half of these were sitting at desks at City Hall. To give you some idea how far afield the program has run, the City posted a position this year for a “pedestrian and bike coordinator” to be paid from Rebuild. [Click [here] for job posting.]
You may recall this commercial from the Rebuild campaign in 2011 promising that “the best part is the politicians can’t divert a single cent.”
Well, actually the City’s books show that about 56 cents of every drainage dollar has been diverted to something other than drainage. And that is based on a very generous definition of drainage to include any street, driveway, curb and sidewalk constructed at the same time drainage work is done. My best guess is that about 20% of the drainage fees have actually been spent on drainage. It makes you wonder how many people’s houses might have been saved from flooding during Harvey if the City had actually spent the drainage fees on drainage.
Of course, the whole point to the Rebuild program was to increase infrastructure spending. In that quest it has been an abject failure. Infrastructure spending has actually declined for the last three years.
Turner said in announcing the do-over vote that it was “just to reaffirm what already is.” Well, I don’t know about you, but I am not too crazy about “what already is.” So, I plan to vote against Rebuild. Hopefully we can come up with a real lockbox in the future instead, or perhaps some elected officials that will not pilfer the drainage fees to balance the City’s budget and to fund their pet projects. I know, I know . . . . but I can dream, can’t I? As recall someone said, if you can dream you can do it.
*The City justifies spending more than 25% on M&O by claiming that some of the expenditures they call M&O in the budget have a life of more than one year and reclassifying those in the audit as “capital outlays.” Magically, the amount they reclassify each year just happens to reduce M&O expenditures to just below the 25% limit. But I am sure that is just a coincidence.