Fort Bend County residents thought they would be voting on a nearly $100 million facilities bond this November.
That notion has been flipped on its head, though, as it will be deferred to a later date. Instead, county commissioners will ask voters to approve a flood mitigation bond worth up to $80 million.
On Aug. 9, the Fort Bend County Commissioner’s Court unanimously approved a motion by Precinct 4 Commissioner Ken DeMerchant and Precinct 1 Commissioner Vincent Morales to place a flood mitigation bond on the upcoming ballot. According to DeMerchant, the bond would allow Fort Bend County to leverage $233 million in federal dollars for projects that have been FEMA-approved or are in the process of being approved in response to damage from Hurricane Harvey, such as drainage projects in Big Creek, the Brazos River, Stafford Run and more.
“It stretches our dollars a lot further,” he said.
A watershed study undertaken by previous courts is underway on the tributaries in the county, which Morales said should be completed no later than the first quarter of 2021, noting flood mitigation was at the forefront of the county’s collective mind even prior to the proposed bond. Getting approval for the bond – which could be for anywhere from $68-$80 million, according to DeMerchant – would allow the county to hit the ground running on projects already approved or pending approval that don’t have federal dollars attached. They are needed to target drainage and flooding issues in Upper Oyster Creek and Meadows Place as well as road projects.
“The taxpayers would be giving us the ability to react if those applications are approved in the next few months,” Morales said. “We would have the opportunity, with voter approval, to address those projects and leverage those projects with federal funds.”
While both DeMerchant and Morales acknowledged that facility improvements and expansion are still needed, they said this compromise was the best option.
“Maybe in the long run it will turn out to be a good thing, because we wanted to make sure the voters understood that we’re serious about flood mitigation,” DeMerchant said. “That and fixing the finances are 1A and 1B in my mind.”
Both said discussions with homeowners and residents in their districts prompted initial discussion about flood mitigation – the need for which was exacerbated by Hurricane Harvey and major rain events on May 7 and June 5. Morales noted National Weather Service data concluded that the past seven years has been the most rainfall the county has received since 1950, and homes in his precinct that hadn’t flooded in 30 years were impacted by such events.
“The county is growing, and there is definitely a need as far as facilities and improvement of facilities. Without mobility, if you can’t get from point A to point B, the economic growth will slow down,” Morales said. “There is a need as the county continues to grow for facility improvement and expansion, but the time is not right now.
“ One of the conversations I had was that mobility was always tops on their list, but now flood control is the most important issue, and mobility is No. 2. We’ve got to figure out how we can weather these storms.”
In terms of weathering storms, DeMerchant said the county’s financial health presents another dilemma.
“Commissioner Morales and I have partnered with new-and-improved techniques of countering existing issues, which is warranted if the county continues to grow and move forward,” he wrote in a July 18 letter.
DeMerchant said Fort Bend County has been doing a “pay-as-you-go” for many projects in the works – such as repairing roofs and air conditioning and road projects – by pulling from the county’s general fund. He equated the practice to continually putting a yearly expense on a credit card as opposed to refinancing or getting a second mortgage.
“Fixing flooding and finances was always a given,” he said. “These are long-term financial items that are expensive. Why not get a loan and then pay it off over a longer period of time? We keep using our general fund to pay for all of these projects as recently as last year.”
DeMerchant said the county’s general fund balance is well below a healthy figure. The plan to fix that, he said, is to get certificates of obligation from lenders for long-term financing, paying back the county’s general fund and funding its retiree health care.
“Commissioner Morales and I realized we’ve gotten to a tipping point. We thought we needed to make it part of a bond referendum,” DeMerchant said. “Even if it’s not part of a bond, it’s something that needs to be addressed by some sort of long-term funding.”