Pros and cons of Proposition 1 drainage fee

October 14, 2010 4:34:45 PM PDT
In less than a month, voters will be asked to make a big decision that could affect nearly every property owner in Houston. Proposition 1 calls for a fee to help pay for improvements to the city's crumbling drainage system. A lot of groups are taking sides on this issue. Every time it rains, there is the threat of flooding. Part of that is Houston and part of that is our aging infrastructure. It needs an expensive overhaul - something a new fee could certainly fund.

You may have seen the political ads on television and wondered what it was about.

"This is the flood of '83 and here's the flood of '01. Water got so high, police and fire couldn't get through," says an actor in the ad. "Here's where I'm voting for Prop 1 - a pay as you go plan to finally rebuild our streets, fix these drainage problems, and create jobs."

Prop 1 on the ballot is a new drainage fee all Houston land owners would pay based on the square footage of their developed land.

"It's about economic development. It's about the city's long-term growth," said Theldon Branch of Renew Houston.

The group behind the ad is called Renew Houston and it says as much as 80 percent of the city's roads and drainage infrastructure is outdated. And fixing it would be too expensive without a nominal fee added to property owners' bills.

"Basically, you can go down pretty much any street in the city and see how we really need this proposition to pass," said Branch.

Proponents say the fee would raise $12 billion over the next 20 years. It's money the mayor believes Houstonians are willing to invest.

"35,000 Houstonians signed a petition saying do something about flooding in the city of Houston. We can't pass the fee until citizens decide they're gonna pass Prop 1," said Houston Mayor Annise Parker.

However, KTRK Political Analyst Dr. Richard Murray isn't so sure a recession is the best time to push any new fees.

"Usually these kind of measures require winning among affluent whites and minority communities. Now maybe the affluent whites are going to be OK, but I don't see much of a sign in the African-American community particularly that this deal's been sold yet."

And that's exactly the purpose of the new ad.

However, there is significant opposition building against Proposition 1.

"I think the problems with Prop 1 are severe," said Paul Bettencourt with the group Stop Prop 1. "This fee won't be tax-deductable like property taxes are, so when you pay it you won't get a break on your federal income tax."

There are three major anti-Prop 1 arguments:

The first is that the mayor says the rate will be .032 cents per square foot. But Prop 1 does not define a rate in the language on the ballot.

Secondly, those against Prop 1 say that while the city calls the new property owner expense a fee it is essentially a tax.

Finally, those who want to vote against Prop 1 this November say it is nothing more than a backdoor way to levy a tax on the city's tax-exempt entities.

That is why the Houston Independent School District has opposed Prop 1 if it is not exempt from the fee. Estimating the added cost would suck as much as $3.5 million a year from its coffers and would force layoffs.

"We do have an impact. The impact that we foresee to HISD will truly impact the quality of education we can provide to our students," said Greg Meyers, HISD Board President.

It would also impact otherwise tax-exempt churches, which is why Thursday a group of ministers met downtown to oppose the ballot proposition.

"It's a tax against our churches, and it's a tax against our community," said Pastor Elmo Johnson with the Rose of Sharon Baptist Church.

"I cannot see myself behind the pulpit trying to tell my people, who are low-income families, that we need to place the offering so that we can pay for the streets and the drainage system when they're already paying taxes," said Pastor Hernan Castano with the Iglesia Rios de Aceite.

Again, the city says it cannot afford a drainage fix without the fee, but opponents think there has to be another way especially in the midst of economically difficult times.


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