Harris County Commissioners Court
June 22, 2010, 9 am
Houston Tomorrow publishes notes from public meetings to help local governments in their mission to provide transparency and to allow a greater pool of citizens to participate in important policy discussions. These notes are not official meeting minutes, nor do they necessarily record every agenda item.
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.
Full Disclosure: The author of these notes, Jay Blazek Crossley, attended this meeting both to take notes and to speak to the Commissioners Court as a concerned citizen.
FY 2010 Capital Improvement Plan
This meeting of the Commissioner’s Court was preceded by the annual review of the Capital Improvement Plan, for which there are extensive materials available. Links to all of those materials are available at Houston Tomorrow’s previous story on the proposed CIP plan.
County Judge Ed Emmett asked several citizens who had signed up to speak about the CIP to do so at the beginning of the meeting as the normal time for public speaking is at the very end of the regular agenda, by which time the CIP would already have been voted on. These included members of the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition and Houston Tomorrow’s Jay Blazek Crossley, who questioned some of the methods and conclusions of the Population Study prepared by Harris County Management Services. Members of CTC questioned the Court’s apparent decision to pursue investments in sections of the Grand Parkway instead of Hempstead Managed Lanes, which CTC believes is a project “where the people are.” Commissioners Radack and Eversole responded to some of the concerns, but did not agree. Judge Emmett said that he thought the commenters were mistaken, and that Harris County does consider the Hempstead Managed Lanes a priority, but that they just did not expect to be ready to allocate funding to it this year.
Alec Dreyer, who became the CEO of the Port of Houston began the presentations on CIP proposals by explaining the state of port operations in Harris County. Commissioners asked him about the state of the Bayport Cruise Terminal in Pasadena, Texas. No cruise operators have set up at the terminal to date and there have been some concerns from nearby neighborhoods. Dreyer said that the success of the terminal was not a major financial issue for the Port, adding that “the economics [of a cruise terminal] are really driven by parking.” He said that Houston’s expected population growth is the major issue for the Port as this will create greater need for goods traveling through the port.
David Lopez, CEO of the Harris County Hospital District explained his concerns with the Federal Health Reform Bill and the changing nature of the hospital district. He said that even if everything goes as planned with the reform bill, Harris County will continue to be home to between 200,000 and 500,000 uninsured people. The Hospital District is working on developing a Medical Home concept, becoming an Accountable Care Organization, and reducing waiting times. They have 430,000 annual patient visits, 300,000 of which are unduplicated patients. Commissioner Steve Radack handed Mr. Lopez a map of the county showing red dots where the hospital district’s clinics are and noted that there were none in either Commissioner Radack’s or Commissioner Jerry Eversole’s districts.
Art Storey, Director of Public Infrastructure, commented for the five divisions of the Public Infrastructure Department (PID), beginning with saying that the Harris County Flood Control District simply needs to maintain the level of funding it has received in recent years to continue functioning, but that it is important for their planning to be able to reasonably expect that that level will stay the same in the future.
Harris County District Attorney testified during the Buildings section of the PID presentation, saying that a regional DNA lab that is independent of any law enforcement agency is critical. While all agreed that in the long term, the Institute of Forensic Science, which is currently being planned, will play this role, Lykos stressed that a temporary solution to take care of DNA cases is crucial. Lykos said that a closed lab exists that could be operational in 6 months and that Mayor Parker supports the County and City of Houston working together to get this lab up and running. Some commissioners expressed concern over being very clear about the County’s obligations to the City of Houston and vice versa.
Art Storey identified 25 priority building maintenance projects that amount to $63 million, but noted that the total maintenance needs stand at over $800 million, as noted in the ABC News Channel 13 story below. Commissioner Eversole asked for a report at the mid-year review on the additional building projects with a plan for what to do to get everything fixed.
Judge Emmett began the discussion of the Harris County Toll Road Authority noting that Commissioner El Franco Lee was instrumental in getting SB792 passed during the last session of the Texas Legislature. There had been a fear that the Texas Department of Transportation would sell the Grand Parkway concept to a foreign private firm, but the bill gave HCTRA the chance to do it themselves first. Emmett noted that he has a letter from TXDOT laying out a specific timeline, which if not met, would mean that TXDOT would pursue the project on their own terms.
Art Storey explained that they are removing the proposed Hempstead Managed Lanes from the CIP, because they are unsatisfied with TXDOT’s proposed design and geometry for the project as well as funding issues. Storey said that he had identified 5 flaws with TXDOT’s Hempstead proposal. In terms of funding, HCTRA currently owes $3 billion on tollroads and receives about $500 million annually from tolls, saying that HCTRA could do one more project with its available capital, but that they’re trying to do 3. Storey said that “not all problems can be solved by a toll road,” and suggested that HCTRA could participate in an alternative for the Hempstead project that was similar to their investment in the managed lanes in the middle of I-10, where they were not the only source of capital. Judge Emmett noted that they are waiting to see what happens with TXDOT operations and funding in the next Texas Legislative session in the spring of 2011 as well as with the upcoming Federal Transportation Reauthorization Bill. Commissioner Radack referred to those who had commented at the beginning of the meeting, insinuating that similar individuals had complained about the expansion of I-10, seemingly assuming that everyone agrees that that project has succeeded on all measures and was a good use of public funds.
There was no discussion about the $125 million dedicated in the CIP to design and Right Of Way acquisition for several sections of the proposed Grand Parkway in Northwest Harris County, but the entire CIP was passed as proposed on a single vote. Each part of the development of the Grand Parkway, and all other projects in the CIP, will need to come before the Commissioner’s Court again at the time that funding is identified and bids have been processed.
Much of the regular session of the Commissioners Court focused on the current hiring freeze and purchasing decisions. A hiring freeze is in place and expected to last at least three more months. Judge Emmett wants some leeway for Department heads to be able to make appeals to Commissioners Court for exceptions to the hiring freeze. Commissioners Eversole and Garcia offered arguments against having any exceptions to the hiring freeze as they felt that were the policy not applied in a universal manner, it would be unfair. They discussed some exceptions that Harris County Management Services had allowed, believing that they were working according to the wishes of the Court. These were for positions that were funded by grants or contracts, such as when the Sheriff’s department has contracts with neighborhoods for additional police protection. Commissioner Garcia objected that the County’s obligation to every citizen should be just as important as to those that have a contract for additional services. After additional discussion, the Commissioners asked that all exceptions in the future be brought before the Court.
During discussion of Management issues, Commissioner Eversole and Radack took issue with Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s decision to move some prisoners from a jail in several counties in Louisiana to one in another Texas county, both of which are done through inter-governmental agreements where Harris County pays the other county for the service. This discussion was covered by the Houston Press, Houston Chronicle, and in the Channel 13 story embedded above. During continued discussion of this issue, the head of the Purchasing Department agreed to submit future reports to the Court denoting which items had been through the normal Purchasing channels and which were inter-governmental agreements, which are not handled by the Purchasing Department.
During the public comment period, Scott Johnson with Super Neighborhood 22 explained that they spent 9 months developing a transportation master plan for the super neighborhood, involving input from 10 individual neighborhoods, including suggestions for future freight rail plans, commuter rail, streetcars, and other issues.
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