Council approves drainage fee, proposes redistricting

April 6, 2011 4:03:49 PM PDT
It's being called one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Houston's history, affecting nearly every property owner in the city. The voter-approved drainage fee is now a city ordinance -- with some exceptions.

Houstonians have been watching the debate closely. A monthly fee for just about every property owner in the city will help pay for drainage projects.

In front of his open ditch front yard, homeowner Paul Nicosia says he's ready to pay his share of the city's drainage fee.

"Personally I think the work needs to happen, and it's paying for it as you go," said Nicosia.

After months of controversy, protests, and hours-long debates, Houston City Council finally passed the drainage ordinance. It was a hard-fought win for Mayor Annise Parker.

"This has the potential to transform Houston going into the future. This is perhaps the biggest infrastructure project in Houston's history," said Mayor Parker.

But the mayor had to compromise, bowing to pressure. The city agreed to exempt existing structures of churches and schools, though opponents say it didn't go far enough because it doesn't include future buildings.

"The houses of worship are not totally exempt; it is just to placate the churches and blunt the opposition," said Pastor Steve Riggle of the Grace Community Church.

The drainage fee is expected to add about $5 per month to the average homeowner's bill. One of its biggest supporters insist that Houstonians will see a difference on their streets.

"It's a paradigm shift. We're really changing the way we're funding infrastructure, we're going to be an illustration to the entire city," said Houston City Council Member Stephen Costello.

Two big issues on table for Council

Two big debates at City Hall today -- one could change how City Council districts are divided and the other concerns who pays, who doesn't, and how much when it comes to the city's new drainage fee.

Our flood drainage system is something we all need and we all benefit from, but who should pay for it? Voters approved a designated drainage fee to do just that. Now the City Council crafted the ordinance to determine who will pay for it.

Houston City Council voted this afternoon on a plan that would exempt churches and schools from paying the controversial drainage fee. At least three council members voted against the ordinance.

This ordinance has been the subject of much debate at city hall in recent months. Voters approved it last November and Houston City Council has been trying to craft the drainage fee to apply across the city of Houston in order to pay for critical drainage to keep the city from flooding.

Mayor Annise Parker had said initially that she did not favor exempting anyone from the fee, but that has been the focus of much of the debate. The mayor saying as recently as last week that she now supports exempting churches and schools but still others want more exemptions, questioning whether we should also exempt hospitals and nonprofits.

Some on council do believe everyone should pay, but some council members and some people we talked with feel differently.

"We are property owners; we pay for our taxes for our houses. But then that same money we put into our churches, we'll be paying once again for that fee, and I think it needs to be raised," said Carlo Inzunza.

"The churches and the schools need to be left out of it. I feel that they should be left out of it," Willy Dunn said.

Estimates show the average homeowner would pay about $5 and $6 more per month.

The council was also talking about redistricting. The city has been working on adding two new districts to satisfy the voting rights act of 1965 and to create and preserve some predominantly Hispanic districts.

The council saw the initial proposal this morning, and in it, Council Member Anne Clutterbuck would be moved to a new district altogether, and the Heights super-neighborhood would be divided into two different districts.

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