Moot Point, Indeed!

June 19, 2017

Frostwood’s Bruce Nichols was a guest writer for Gray Matters Houston Chronicle column on June 13, 2017. 

Residents Against Flooding (RAF) agrees with him that Tax Increment Redevelopment Zone (TIRZ) 17 can be an agent of change for the neighborhoods surrounding it.  In fact, RAF believes it is the only entity with the monetary and engineering resources to fix the problems created by “development on steroids” fostered by easy access to property tax dollars.  

When District A CM Stardig was defeated by Helena Brown, just as Nichols says, TIRZ 17 was purged of several of its bad players and neighborhood representatives were selected to replace them.  Even though those representatives were outvoted 5 to 2 at nearly every meeting, there was still a substantial and welcome shift in the direction of the TIRZ.  

During CM Brown’s tenure, a Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) plan was adopted by the TIRZ that provided much needed detention and bayou improvements.  Placeholders were inserted for not yet identified detention projects that would benefit all neighborhoods south of I-10, including Nichols’. There were new efforts to work together to move these projects forward.

Unfortunately, CM Stardig defeated Helena Brown in the subsequent election and immediately began undoing some of the positive aspects of the “new” TIRZ.

Metro National proposed rebuilding the 62-acre-foot Conrad-Sauer detention pond adjacent to property they were redeveloping.  It would be remade into a public park, Matthewson Road would be extended to Gessner with a bridge installed across the detention pond, and most importantly 44 acre-feet of detention would be added. Tenants of the new development wouldn’t have to look at an unsightly concrete lined hole in the ground, increasing the value of their property.

Because of the added detention, TIRZ 17 would pay for the work. Because Metro National was redeveloping the land anyway, they would perform the design and construction.  They would donate land for the road extension. State and local officials touted it as a “Win, win, win!” 

Unfortunately, the promise to add 44 acre-feet of detention wasn’t true. The engineering firm used by TIRZ 17 to substantiate these claims was also designing the Conrad-Sauer detention pond for Metro National.  They claimed “water couldn’t get into the pond” so it was only working to half capacity.  During the flood of 2015, power to the pond’s pumps failed and it overfilled, proving absolutely that water could get into the pond.

One of the two new neighborhood representatives, Reverend Bob Tucker, pointed to this conflict of interest and asked that they be removed as TIRZ engineers.  This incensed Metro National’s CEO who coerced the City (Andy Icken and CM Stardig) to remove Rev. Tucker from the TIRZ Board.  

Meanwhile a more cost effective 84 acre-feet of detention identified near Westview and Gessner was tied up in review by the City until removed from consideration by its owner. The Capital Improvement Projects plan installed under CM Brown was cancelled and a TIRZ Board committee was formed to write a new one. 

RAF had suspended its lawsuit while TIRZ 17 was actively working with us. Frustrated by these changes and the loss of Reverend Tucker as our representative, RAF filed suit in federal court in May of 2016.  Shortly after that, TIRZ 17 reinstated the cancelled Capital Improvement Projects plan.

At the time, Nichols was a member of the RAF Board, but soon resigned to focus on his role as head of the Frostwood Drainage Committee.

In his new role, Nichols identified a bold strategy – he would work with the TIRZ 17 Board while RAF applied pressure through our lawsuit.  Nichols and RAF Chair, Ed Browne, had several breakfast meetings discussing the strategy. Nichols was clear that without the lawsuit, TIRZ 17 probably wouldn’t work with him.

Why bring this to light now? There are several reasons:

First, in its Motion To Dismiss (MTD) our lawsuit, TIRZ 17 attorneys called our suit moot because the reinstated Capital Improvements Projects plan had everything that we had asked for.  This was disingenuous.

Revealed at last month’s TIRZ Board meeting and independently confirmed by RAF, TIRZ 17 will need to extend its tenure 7-10 years in order to pay for the projects in the Capital Improvement Projects plan. 

Generated for RAF by a well-respected CPA, revenue estimates for the year TIRZ 17 would normally expire, 2029, are over $28 million.  Extend the TIRZ by 10 years and we’re talking about 100’s of millions of dollars.

Was the TIRZ 17 Capital Improvement Projects plan a false promise strictly for lawsuit optics? It certainly seems so.

Meanwhile, TIRZ lawsuit strategy seems to be divide and conquer by appealing to one area’s self-preservation rather than protection for the whole area.  Projects scheduled for years where Reverend Tucker was the Board representative are at a standstill while newer projects are moving forward rapidly.

While we agree with the two-pronged strategy, RAF is not the villain.  Moreover, RAF contends that without a strong lawsuit, neighborhoods around TIRZ 17 would only see minimal flooding relief.

It’s important to note that Mayor Turner has made no secret of his desire to shut down the handful of rich TIRZ’s and use their money to pay down City debt. Noteworthy, a few weeks ago Auggie Campbell explained how TIRZ’s are useful to get around the revenue cap.

But what if there wasn’t a revenue cap?  When we elected Mayor Turner we tacitly agreed to honor part of his campaign platform – If he solved the pension problem, voters would remove the revenue cap.  On this November’s ballot, he will ask Houstonians to do just that – to remove the revenue cap.

Trouble is, without a revenue cap, the Mayor can capture TIRZ money and not be penalized for it, ending any hope for our timely flood relief. Even if TIRZ 17 gets its extension, it’s clearly subject to the whims of present and future politicians and TIRZ Board members. 

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