Disaster Preparedness • Economic Recovery • Resilience

In Houston, a Record $2.5 Billion Bond Referendum for Flood Control is Passed

Exactly a year after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Gulf Coast of Texas, voters in the Houston area overwhelmingly approved a $2.5 billion bond issue for flood control. The Category 4 storm made landfall on August 25, 2017, causing more than $125 billion in damages, and flooding over 150,000 homes and 300,000 vehicles.

“The bonds would be sold in increments over at least 10 to 15 years, as needed for multiple phases of each project,” according to a report from the bond issuer, the Harris County Flood Control District. “The actual timing of the individual projects will depend on a variety of factors including environmental permitting and right of way acquisition,” the report continued. Harris County includes Houston, the largest city in Texas.

The report noted that some of the projects are already underway or nearing construction. “Projects will be authorized individually for funding by Harris County Commissioners Court, based on recommendations from the Flood Control District.”

The vote is a victory for those who advocate preventative flood control. It follows a concerted effort this summer by Harris County officials to gain support for the financing. That effort included the holding of numerous community meetings on the referendum.

Support for the bond issue was broadly bipartisan, and supported by both Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, a Democrat; and the Harris County leader, Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican. Although the state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has urged property tax reductions, he permitted Harrison County to move forward with the special bond election.

On August 25, Harris County, TX, voters passed the referendum by an impressive 85% margin. The bond issue was the largest ever to go to a referendum of the county’s voters.

The proceeds of the borrowing are directed funds, to be used exclusively for flood control affecting 23 watersheds, and covering 237 potential projects. The bond funding will provide more than four times the amount previously available for this purpose. This will increase the Harris County Flood Control District’s annual budget to $500 million from $120 million.

Specifically, the bond funds will help buy out more than 1,000 homes in areas especially vulnerable to flooding, and to build more detention basins to hold storm water. Proceeds will also help expand local bayous which provide much-needed drainage following storms. The funds will help match federal dollars directed to flood mitigation following the hurricane.

Flood Control District officials said that the extreme flooding following Harvey was not only the result of the hurricane itself in 2017, but also the accumulation of rain in the region from an unusual number of storms during the previous two years. Since 2015, according to meteorologists, the Houston area has suffered three 500-year flood events.

Debt service on the bonds will be paid by an increase in homeowner taxes in Harris County. According to the Harris County Flood Control District, this will raise property taxes paid by the average homeowner by $5 per year over the next 10 to 15 years, about a 1.4% increase.

Passage of the bond referendum follows the approval of new rules from the City of Houston and Harris County requiring that structures on flood plains be built higher off the ground than previously permissible.

State Rep. Sarah Davis summed up the feelings of many in Southeast Texas, in remarks quoted by ABC news, she said: “A lot of politicians say this next November election is the most important of our lives/ But in my opinion, this election today is the most important of our lives, because we didn’t vote for one person or party, we voted for each other. We voted to save our communities.”

Harris County Judge Emmett, the chief executive of the Harris County Commissioner’s Court, addressed a crowd gathered to celebrate the referendum, saying “When was the last time you saw 85 percent for anything? Now the real test begins.”

Emmett also warned of the consequences of not enhancing flood control in the Houston area. “It is the most important local vote in my lifetime,” he said. “If Harvey came next week, we’d be in a world of hurt.”

The Harris County Flood Control District was created by the Texas State Legislature in 1937 and is overseen by the Commissioner’s Court. The District provides programs designed to support economic development and to safeguard homes and businesses.