Is Another Houston METRO Bond Referendum on the Table? Mayor Turner Isn't Saying Either Way.

The Houston Press has acquired and analyzed a draft copy of the (apparently super secret) traffic and transportation component of the Mayor’s Transition Team Report. Unsurprisingly, there are discrepancies between Mayor Sylvester Turner’s “official” 17-page synopsis released to the public by City Hall last week and the comprehensive traffic and transportation document City of Houston officials refuse to provide to – or even discuss with – the media.

The most glaring omission: Forcing another bond referendum on voters to capture additional funds for Houston METRO.

METRO utilized most of the bonding capacity authorized under 2003 referendum. METRO should update their 20-year transit plan and go back to voters for more bonding capacity in the near future. METRO’s 20-year plan should include all modes and all technologies. METRO should consider [bus rapid transit] and [bus rapid transit] Lite as it may provide better benefit cost ratio for certain corridors. 
Attempting to (yet again) procure voter-approved funds for METRO expansion and improvement is nowhere to be found on Turner’s official document. Instead, the window-dressed METRO-centric items simply say “develop a METRO mission statement and vision that reflect the organization’s intended purpose,” “reconstitute a citizen advisory board for METRO consisting of regular transit users,” and “develop a plan for METRO to maximize the efficiency of the existing assets and focus on customer service.”

Approximately a month after Turner was sworn in to succeed Annise Parker, the 61-year old put together 13 committees, comprised of heavy-hitting local business leaders, academics, and in-the-know residents, to study Houston’s issues in order to sculpt future public policy. The committees – which included Comprehensive Financial Reform, Criminal Justice, Public Health and Quality of Life teams – were tasked with cataloging the current state of affairs and suggesting courses of action for improvement.

Sounds simple enough — until one considers the source, which may be suffering from a transparency problem.

Along with keeping all 13 of the comprehensive reports under lock and key, the City won’t even answer questions about the reports. “The transition team process was conducted entirely outside of city government,” Turner spokeswoman Janice Evans told the Press earlier this week.

Though the comprehensive report on Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones remains under wraps, community activist and TIRZ researcher Daphne Scarbrough sees issues with many of Turner’s seven recommendations for Houston’s controversial TIRZs. 

“‘Require a higher level of transparency?!’ What is the difference between having this and actually studying their budgets before they approve them?,” says Scarbrough. “The Memorial City TIRZ, which is totally composed of Metro National Developers, has not even submitted a budget for over a year and is the only TIRZ in the City to not have one.”

As far as the recommendation to “adopt TIRZ board composition guidelines to encourage diversity in all respects such as ethnicity, gender, age, occupation and stakeholder interests,” Scarbrough, a Montrose business owner, says, “Pretty funny, the Mayor has the ability to do that now.”

“The Montrose District only has four out of 15 board members who own commercial property in the district and pay the tax. All of the others are political appointees [and] many never rotate off the board. There is no provision for conflict of interest or nepotism, no enforcement for competitive bids.”

In fact, Turner and Houston City Council’s process of appointing and replacing TIRZ board members might get them sued.

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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen