Contributed by Kaia Flowers, history major with a social studies 7-12 certification
The arduous process of cleaning up damage left from Hurricane Harvey is slowly starting in affected areas of Texas including the city of Houston. As you drive the streets of effected neighborhoods you will notice pile after pile of debris on the side of the road. Mountains of sheetrock, ruined furniture and rolls of moldy carpet are signs that Texas residents are attempting to rebuild their lives now that the waters have receded. A big question on everyone’s mind, including City of Houston officials, is how do we pay for the damage left behind.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is expected to pay approximately 90 percent of Hurricane related damages which will leave Houston on the hook for the remaining 10 percent due. The cost of property damage is a large part of the long-term projections; however, there is the immediate concern of debris removal which will be upwards of $230 million.
Mayor Sylvester Turner has proposed a temporary property tax rate increase of 8.9 percent to pay for some or all of the projected cost. This will raise the city’s property tax from $0.586420 per $100 of valuation to $0.638750 per $100. The city estimates that the tax rate increase will result in an annual revenue increase of $115,034,347, an increase of 9.97 percent. Turner said that the proposed tax is temporary and will expire after 12 months. Turner explained in a news conference Sept. 13 that while this is a sensitive subject, the city needs this revenue stream to move forward in the rebuilding phase.
Over the past 20 years, Houston’s property tax rate has continued to decrease after peaking in 1995, but property tax is not the only source of revenue from Houston homeowners.
A drainage fund was voted on by residents in 2010 which city council then implemented a drainage fee in 2011 to fund drainage and street improvements around Houston through the Rebuild Houston program. The Rebuild Houston budget is a pay as you go system that allows capital improvements to proceed without the city incurring debt. However, the money trail is murky with transfers to numerous city accounts.
In 2014 the Rebuild Houston budget transferred $24 million to the storm water fund. The storm water fund is one of the ways the city maintains existing drainage systems and receives part of its funding through this drainage fee. This is something people would expect to find in a budget that is dedicated to drainage and street improvements around the city, yet in 2015 the transfer dropped to more than $14 million out of a $254 million budget. While lessening the Rebuild Houston funds for storm water improvements they have increased numerous other expenditures and transfers to other funds without making information about these transfers readily available to the public.
In the wake of several major flood events, Houstonians need to feel secure that city leaders are appropriately spending money to increase the efficiency of drainage systems.
If the City of Houston adopts this temporary tax hike for residents it should also be transparent about the use of the additional funds unlike the rabbit hole of typical city budgets. This tax will increase the burden of Harvey survivors that are already financially drained due to storm expenses, and everyone deserves to know that this money will be used for storm related expenses only.
Residents are encouraged to attend public hearings over the next several weeks to not only understand the city’s position on this issue but to speak out as well. I hope you are able to attend and talk to city leaders about concerns you may have or support the propose tax rate increase with appropriate transparency.