AP NEWS

Harris County delays decision on flood bond project priorities

March 7, 2019

The Harris County Flood Control District on Thursday canceled a meeting with commissioners and community groups to discuss the order in which more than 100 flood control projects should be completed.

The district also pulled its proposal from the Commissioners Court agenda for Tuesday, when court members hoped to approve it.

Matt Zeve, the district’s deputy executive director, said the meeting was canceled Thursday because the number of community members who expressed interest in attending far exceeded the number of seats available at the TranStar headquarters conference room where it was to be held.

“We had a larger-than-expected desire to attend by more folks than we have room for at this facility,” Zeve said. “In order to accommodate such a large crowd, we couldn’t do it on such short notice … and secure a larger venue.”

Zeve, who briefed reporters for about 20 minutes in a TranStar conference room, said the flood control district has yet to determine when to reschedule the meeting.

The 10-year bond program, which voters overwhelmingly approved last summer, includes 237 projects. Zeve said engineers have begun work on 134, though most are in the planning stages. Since the district is operating at full capacity, Zeve said the district must determine the order in which to complete the remaining 103 projects.

Thursday’s meeting was supposed to be the final of three in which the flood control district accepted suggestions from neighborhood groups, business associations and other non-governmental organizations about how projects should be evaluated.

Of particular contention is how to ensure wealthy and poor neighborhoods are served with the same urgency. Commissioners Court last year, led by then-County Judge Ed Emmett, unanimously agreed to include language in the bond order requiring flood project funds to be spent equitably, a recognition that in some cases, money from the federal government must be used in affluent neighborhoods.

The current proposed criteria for ranking projects are: existing drainage conditions at a site, the number of residents a project could remove from the floodplain, the suitability of a site to also serve as a park or other recreational purpose, the efficiency of a project expressed as its cost divided by the number of structures protected, long-term maintenance costs, environmental concerns, whether a site has been served by a flood protection project in the past decade, and whether a project can be funded by partnerships.

Zeve said the flood control district engineers hope to complete projects that help the greatest number of residents first, though the county’s flood control policy ultimately is set by Commissioners Court.

He outlined the challenge facing engineers and court members: Each watershed has urgent needs exposed by Hurricane Harvey or earlier storms, but the county lacks the resources to complete each project simultaneously.

The discussion has left residents across Harris County’s 23 watersheds nervous. Though the flood control district has pledged to complete each of the 237 projects, no neighborhood wants its improvements placed at the end of the list.

The wariness extends to commissioners. On Wednesday afternoon, an aide to Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle sent an email to constituents stating the office had been informed of Thursday’s meeting only hours earlier, and that several community groups in the precinct had been left off the invite list. Zeve acknowledged commissioners were given notice about the meeting on Wednesday.

The email urged residents to submit feedback to County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office, which organized the meeting.

Longtime Bear Creek resident Bill Book wrote a letter to Hidalgo, urging the county to postpone the meeting since groups with an interest in attending, such as Barker Flood Protection, were omitted from the circulated list of suggested stakeholders. He said Thursday afternoon he was pleased the county had reversed course.

“I think this was the right thing for them to do,” Cook said.

zach.despart@chron.com

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