Harris County Commissioners Court
June 23, 2009, 9 am
Public Infrastructure Capital Improvement Program (pdf, 1.6 mb)
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Note: The Commissioners Court covers a wide variety of topics. Questions or comments regarding agenda items are discussed during the meeting, and some items may be removed. At the end the commissioners vote on the agenda as a whole.
The Harris County Commissioners Court discussed the 2010-2014 Capital Improvement Program on Tuesday, approved ethics reforms proposed by Judge Ed Emmett, and approved a burn ban in unincorporated areas as a result of drought conditions.
Capital Improvement Program
The commissioners reviewed capital improvement programs in five areas—Port of Houston Authority, Harris County Hospital District, Harris County Public Infrastructure, Libraries, and Reliant Park—as well as a report on population and the economic environment.
The commissioners inquired as to how the Port of Houston was faring in the recession. A representative of the Port of Houston Authority testified that traffic is down about seven percent from this time last year, but noted that traffic in Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two largest ports in the country, is down 22 to 23 percent. He attributed the Port of Houston’s stability to the fact that about 60 percent of its traffic is exports, while most other ports deal primarily with imports. Imports are down, he said, but exports have remained fairly stable.
Art Storey, executive director of the Public Infrastructure Department, told the commissioners that the Harris County Toll Road Authority has “more that the [state] legislature put on our plate than we have the revenue to do.” He said that the toll rates, which were indexed to the Consumer Price Index two years ago, will be adjusted for the first time, but that there was confusion as to which price index to use. He also said that project bids were coming in between 20 and 40 percent lower than expected, adding, “We think it’s important to move forward with the bidding process [on other projects]” to take advantage of the low bids.
Commissioner El Franco Lee (Precinct 1) asked Storey if the failure of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) restructuring bill would affect the county. Storey said that he expected TxDOT to continue, but that if the legislature failed to fund TxDOT projects, the county would be largely unaffected. Of the six projects in the county, only two—State Highway 288 and the Hempstead Highway—would be affected due to their status as state highways.
Storey also told the Commissioners Court that the Flood Control District will likely need more money in upcoming years, although he said it had nothing to do with the recession. He said that the flood control tax rate used to be five cents and was then raised to eight, but that it had shrunk to 2.5 cents. He stated, “You can’t have a dime’s worth of projects for a nickel.” Storey said that declining revenue could hurt federal funding as well if the district is not able to raise matching funds. Commissioner Jerry Eversole (Precinct 4) said that Storey and his staff have done a great job, and that he hoped funding would not be slowed to the point that the Flood Control District would have to pause construction to catch up with its engineering work.
The commissioners also discussed several buildings in the Capital Improvement Program, including a new Family Law Center, a forensics building, and the 1910 Courthouse. Harris County Attorney General Pat Lykos testified in support of the forensics building, saying that Harris County needed better facilities and access to resources. She said that the county currently has a backlog of over 3,000 rape kits, which could jeopardize evidence collection.
Approximately 30 people showed up to speak in defense of fireworks and against a proposed burn ban in unincorporated areas around the upcoming July 4 holiday. After several of them spoke, Judge Emmett said that the burn ban is different from a fireworks ban. If the Commissioners Court had wanted to impose a fireworks ban by July 4, he said, it would have had to act by June 15. Such action would only be permitted if the Keetch-Byram Drought Index was at least 575 in the county.
However, Emmett said that as county judge, he was considering an emergency order that would have to be signed by Gov. Rick Perry authorizing a county-wide aerial fireworks ban. He said he would consider the decision Tuesday afternoon, and asked anyone who came to speak about fireworks to follow his policy director out of the room and talk to her.
Laura Blackburn of the League of Women Voters spoke in support of the ethics reform on the agenda, saying that she had been a part of the county ethics task force and that Judge Emmett’s ethics proposal included all of the task force’s recommendations.
The Commissioners Court approved the agenda, including the burn ban and the ethics reforms. Tuesday afternoon, after the meeting, Judge Emmett issued a county disaster declaration and authorized the aerial fireworks ban. As of June 23, Harris County registered between 500 and 600 on the Keetch-Byram Index, and the drought is expected to worsen—exceeding 600 on the scale—within the next 14 days.
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