Update. August 9: City Council delayed a vote on the bonds until next week. Council members did vote, however, to include on the November ballot a measure that would make it easier to sell alcohol at Heights bars and restaurants, and one to fund $1 billion in pension obligation bonds.Houston City Council is set to vote Wednesday on whether to put a half-a-billion-dollar bond package on the November ballot.
So what might you be voting to pay for with your tax dollars over the next decade or so, should council members give it the green light?
The $495 million package would put $158 million toward police and fire department projects; $104 million for parks and rec upgrades; $109 million for general government-building improvements; and $123 million for library projects.
The Houston Fire Department would be set for $54 million in new trucks and equipment, while police would get $66 million to replace their aging fleet — upgrades first responders first asked for years ago. More than $100 million would go to three new community centers in Alief, Sunnyside and an undisclosed neighborhood in District G (which includes the Galleria and Memorial City). More miscellaneously, $1.3 million would go toward public pool upgrades, $9 million toward a new Solid Waste Department facility, and $16 million to library repairs.
Conspicuously missing from the bond package are affordable housing bonds, which have been included in every bond package — five of them — passed by voters since 1991 (the Chronicle has a handy graphic on this). This is in spite of the fact that Houston is in an affordable housing crisis, acutely worsened by this year's freeze on housing vouchers ordered by the federal government, which affected more than 900 families in the Houston area.
Mayor Sylvester Turner's spokesman, Alan Bernstein, said his boss ultimately decided against including housing on the 2017 bond referendum because the city still has $30 million in housing bond funds that have gone unused — including $15 million approved in the last bond package, in 2012. Remarkably, former mayor Annise Parker admitted to the Houston Chronicle earlier this year that affordable housing was really only on the ballot because of political pressure, and that "I don't want to say that we did it with the expectation of not using [the funds], but that's in essence what we did."
Bernstein said Turner is putting an end to that mind-set, but that he still thinks the $30 million will be enough to hold the city's affordable housing needs over until the next bond referendum down the road, and that the mayor isn't putting libraries and parks over housing.
"Why ask for new debt when the previous funds haven't been spent yet and would be enough to last until a future bond issue?" he said. "It has nothing to do with allegedly prioritizing housing behind anything else."
Bernstein noted that the $30 million is in addition to TIRZ tax-dollar funds that go toward affordable housing, but a recent audit found that over the past decade, about half of that TIRZ housing money went toward administrative expenses and projects with only a "tenuous" relationship to actual housing.
We will update this story once City Council votes on the package Wednesday.