Houston’s mayor will ask voters in November to approve borrowing up to $410-million in bond money for everything from fixing up rundown fire and police stations to renovating a recycling facility.
But the biggest piece of the bond package would go to parks, with $160-million set aside for an ambitious plan that includes completing 150 miles of greenways along every bayou in Houston. The plan would basically link trails that already line sections of the city’s bayous.
“It completes a park vision that’s more than 100 years old,” Mayor Annise Parker said as she unveiled her bond plan to city council.
Borrowing park money would let the city collect $100-million in matching private sector money, so the entire plan would ultimately spend more than a quarter-billion dollars in public and private funds on Houston park land.
Another $144-million would go to the police and fire departments, including expansions and improvements of fire and police stations. The bond issue would also pay for a new fire station in the Clear Lake area.
Houston’s city government typically asks voters to approve bond issues every five or six years, mainly to finance infrastructure work like new buildings and road projects. The Parker Administration is touting its proposal as the smallest bond issue in more than three decades.
“It’s not a bad time to borrow money if you can,” Parker said, pointing to historically low interest rates.
One major reason the mayor isn’t asking for more money: The drainage fee.
Without the fee voters approved two years ago, the mayor would almost certainly have proposed a drastically different plan. That drainage fee Houstonians pay with their monthly water bills generates about $125-million a year for street and drainage work.
“There will be no additional debt taken out on street and drainage projects,” Parker said.
Now, since she doesn’t have to borrow money to pay for those essential projects, the mayor has the flexibility to push for other priorities – like parks. Indeed, it’s arguable that drainage fee money has essentially freed Parker to bankroll a dramatic expansion of Houston’s city park space.
“It’s a modest proposal that will do an amazing amount of things for Houston,” Parker said.
The bond proposal spreads the money around the city, offering something for voters in every council district. For example, the Moody and Meyer libraries would be replaced, while the Montrose and Robinson-Westchase libraries would be renovated with $28-million of the bond money. It also provides $15-million for affordable housing, an area of special interest in low-income neighborhoods.
Bond issues like these generally pass without a problem, but a number of government entities around Houston want to put bond issues before voters this November. The Houston Independent School District has unveiled a plan for whopping $1.9-billion bond referendum. Meanwhile, the Port of Houston and Houston Community College System are both considering their own bond referendums, said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU 11 News analyst.
The referendums will appear on the ballot during a presidential election year, insuring a large turnout from conservatives alarmed about government spending. Conservative voters may also be driven to the polls by a possible referendum to rescind an ordinance regulating feeding of the homeless, an effort pushed by Paul and Michael Kubosh, two attorneys who seem to enjoy making trouble for the mayor.
“Bond issues tend to succeed when they don't require a tax rate increase, and benefit large constituencies and stakeholders,” Stein said. “They tend
to fail when matched with other bond proposals and issue oriented initiatives.”
Parker has already introduced a political committee to campaign for the referendum, a routine custom for elected officials proposing bond issues.
A number of city council members expressed concern about the city’s borrowing habits and how it’s going to pay off its debt.
“We just need to have a look at that issue,” said Councilmember Oliver Pennington.
City council must approve putting the bond issue on the ballot. Although some council members are raising questions, the mayor will almost certainly win enough support to put the referendum before Houston voters in November.