On Friday, HGAC’s Transportation Policy Council (TPC) tabled a funding request from the Uptown TIRZ for an additional $16 million for its Post Oak bus project.
Several dozen Uptown residents attended the meeting, and several addressed the TPC, voicing their opposition to the project and the request for additional funds. No one, other than Uptown’s executive director John Breeding, spoke in favor of the request.
County Judge Ed Emmett, who has opposed the project from the outset, grilled HGAC officials about the process. Sugar Land mayor Joe Zimmerman also weighed in with a number of questions. The principal point of concern was that Uptown had issued a press release claiming that the project was “on budget” and “fully funded”, begging the question of why it was asking for more money. HGAC officials struggled to answer Emmett’s and Zimmerman’s questions. At one point, an HGAC official said that Uptown had told them in 2013 the project was only going to cost $130 million, compared to the current budget of $200 million. This is, at least, the third explanation that has been offered in an attempt to justify the additional funding. I have not found any documentation showing that the costs were ever estimated at $130 million. But if so, it would be gross incompetence to underestimate the cost by over 50%.
It is hard to know what HGAC will do now, but Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack may have put the final nail in the coffin on the request by ominously calling for HGAC to have outside counsel conduct an investigation to make sure that there are no legal problems with the request or the project. That legal review is likely to raise a number of questions. For example, I found this statement in Uptown’s most recent audit:
“As of the June 30, 2016, reporting period, the Authority purchased a parcel of land from WMJK, Ltd. The Authority Director and District Chairman is an owner in this property. The Director filed an affidavit and recused himself from the Board vote. Subsequent to the June 30, 2016 reporting period, the Authority purchased an additional Post Oak Boulevard parcel from a District Director. The Authority has chosen to keep the purchase prices for property acquired along Post Oak Boulevard confidential until the Authority closes each parcel, this information is excepted from disclosure under 552.105 of the Texas Government Code. Total cost of acquisition is available upon request.” Click [here] to see the complete report. This related party note is highlighted on page 35.
Now, this all may be perfectly legal. But the optics of a bunch of wealthy landowners coming to HGAC, begging for more state and federal highway funds, which are desperately needed throughout our region, when they are lining their own pockets and then don’t even want to disclose how much they were paid, is, to say the least, unseemly.
There is an old saying: “Pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered.” Uptown’s overreach on this request may be leading it to the slaughterhouse. TIRZs were originally created to redevelop “blighted” neighborhoods. That laudable purpose has increasingly been subverted by special interests which have in many cases turned the TIRZs into opaque quasi-governments frequently benefiting a few at the expense of the public. And, as is the case here, the TIRZs frequent cram projects down the throats of residents and businesses despite their vehement opposition. As one of the speakers said on Friday, “This is Robin Hood in reverse. We are stealing from the poor and giving to the rich.”
It is past time that we re-examine the whole TIRZ/Management District paradigm. I am sure there is some good work that is carried out by some of these organizations. But the case for their existence – as entities wholly unaccountable to taxpayers or the public – is becoming increasingly tenuous.
The Texas Monitor has more at https://texasmonitor.org/uptowns-funding-bus-project-shelved-john-breeding/.