Op-ed: City of Houston, Harris County – We could do better

By Hon. Carroll G. Robinson, Esq

It is anticipated that the 2020 Census will show that more people live in unincorporated Harris County than live inside the City of Houston. If this expectation turns out to be correct, unincorporated Harris County would essentially be the largest “city” in Texas.

Some of the reasons why more people are living outside of the City are: the cost of housing for low income and working class individuals (including the annual increases in property taxes as a result of annual property valuation increases), access to good paying jobs that provide a wage that lifts full time employees above the poverty line and the cost of transportation as a result of an inadequate citywide public transit system. Some people would also include on this list the perception of the public education system and concerns about crime in Houston.

Former Houston City Council Member Peter Brown was one of the first people to write about the city of Houston shrinking in size relative to the rest of the county and what that could possibly mean for the future of Houston. (See Michael Nichols and Peter Brown, Exodus to suburbs has Houston holding the bag, Houston Chronicle, August 30, 2013, pg. B7.)

Change is coming and it’s time for our community to have a foresighted conversation about the future.

City residents are both city and county taxpayers. It’s time for a serious conversation about consolidation of city and county services to reduce duplication and provide taxpayers with better services and property tax relief.

Part of this consolidation conversation must include expanding the size of Commissioners Court to six (6) Commissioners and the County Judge. The goal should be getting this expansion of Commissioners Court in place for redistricting in 2021. That is just four years from now and will require being prepared to go to the Legislature in 2019 to get this done.

It’s time for the County to stop building new Toll Roads. They contribute to flooding throughout the County and City of Houston.

Instead of building more Toll Roads, the County should use excess toll revenue, after debt service, to fund flood control projects and help Metro expand better bus service and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) countywide and regionally to those cities and counties in the Houston-Galveston Area that wish to participate. We also need to connect the City’s two airports and Southwest Houston/Alief to the Metro Light Rail System.

Vehicles pass through EZ TAG lanes on the Sam Houston Tollway …”It’s time for the County to stop building new Toll Roads. They contribute to flooding throughout the County and City of Houston.”

 

With the widespread use of autonomous vehicles by Uber and Lyft on the horizon, the City of Houston and Metro need to figure out how to integrate those new services (as well as traditional cab companies) into our region’s public transit system. (See generally, John Zimmer, The Third Transportation Revolution: The Road Ahead, Medium, September 18, 2016.)

The City and County need to work together with the Houston Technology Center, cable and phone companies and technology innovators such as Google, Amazon and IBM Watson to make our entire county and all the cities in it “smart cities”. We need to do this not just for countywide Wi-Fi and high speed 5G broadband services for faster internet and cellphone service, but for better emergency preparedness, resiliency and recovery as well as to implement cutting edge consumer services technologies to help improve the overall quality of life for all who live, work and visit our community.

If done correctly, this technological transformation could do more than just help synchronize our traffic lights and reduce congestion on local highways; it could create new well paying jobs and help reduce economic inequalities across our region.

It’s time for us to once again lead the way in our nation.

We can’t keep doing the same old things and expect things to get better in Houston or the County.

We have more pressing problems in Harris County that go far beyond spending taxpayers’ dollars to fix up the Astrodome. Those tax dollars would be much better spent investing in flood control projects and expanding all day, quality Pre-K countywide.

We have a broken bail system that needs to be reformed to help stop the criminalization of poverty in Harris County. We need to deepen and expand the Port of Houston to ensure that our region continues to benefit from international trade.

Environmental justice and reducing air pollution and other health hazards in minority neighborhoods across the city and county are also issues that must be priorities for all local elected officials. So too must be addressing homelessness and the poverty across Harris County and in Houston. (See, e.g., Isabel Soifer, Facing up to grinding poverty, Houston Chronicle, September 5, 2015, pg.B7.)

It’s time to eliminate the Harris County Treasurer’s Office and turn its responsibilities over to the Harris County Budget Office. We should also eliminate the Harris County Department of Education and invest those savings in flood control projects and countywide all day Pre-K.

 Streamlining, Consolidating and Modernizing local and county government in Harris County deserves an open, honest and transparent community-wide conversation ahead of the next round of city and county elections. Let’s not wait until redistricting in 2021 to debate the future of governance and public policy priorities in our County.

Hon. Carroll G. Robinson, Esq. is a former Democratic candidate for Congress and General Counsel of the Texas Democratic Party who has served as an At-Large Member of the Houston City Council as well as a Houston Community College Trustee. Robinson is also an Associate Professor who teaches at a School of Public Affairs and has taught at two Texas law schools.

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