Confusion clouds Houston's new drainage fee

July 27, 2011 8:12:39 PM PDT
With some rain finally in the forecast, maybe it feels better to pay your brand new Houston drainage bill. The first rounds of those bills are due this month.

The program's unveiling was full of confusion and after digging through every single bill with the investigative group Texas Watchdog, we still have questions about who's paying what and why.

Let's get this out in the open right at the outset. Houston resident Clyde Bryan doesn't like the new drainage fee.

"They're employing voodoo science to get the job done," Bryan said.

When he showed us the drainage map for his street, houses are missing, driveways too; the street is jagged and he worries it's not accurately counting how much money each homeowner owes the city.

"It's like a bad science project at a high school," Bryan said.

For example, when Bryan called the city to verify his bill, he found out he didn't have one. The city counted his lot as part of his neighbor's.

"It's not voodoo science," said Tommy McClung with the City of Houston Public Works Department.

The city blames any confusion on the speed in which it was all put together and promises to do better.

"Our view is get it right, be responsible, 'cause we want folks to know that, one, we may have gotten it wrong and two, if we have, we're going to get it right," McClung said.

But as the city races to raise money to improve drainage, is it too late? The city already wants your money and our joint investigation with the team at Texas Watchdog revealed a pretty murky system.

"Voters asked for this tax, drainage is a problem. We get that. How do you know if your institution, your school, your own home is being charged the right amount of money. I am not convinced we do know. I am not convinced the city knows," Texas Watchdog editor Trent Siebert said.

So far, more than 19,000 people, or about 4 percent of residents, have complained about their drainage bill. Houston Mayor Annise Parker says she's proud of the program, but admits there are problems.

"We are building the car while driving. This is light speed for a government entity to implement something this big and complicated this fast," Parker said.

When it comes to improving drainage, the numbers on the bill aren't all you're paying.

The city is charging other government agencies - even other city departments - bills paid for by tax money or user fees, just moving from one government to another.

"A city taxing a city? That'd be like you taxing your wife," Bryan said.

And as a city department, Houston's airports can't put up a fight. The drainage fee for Bush, Hobby and Ellington airports is $6 million a year, every year.

The airports have a lot of concrete but no money trees. The cash comes from airport users, like you. You'll pay another $200,000 for the bill at the Port of Houston and at least another $500,000 more for the bill at Harris County-owned Reliant Center and even more to pay METRO's bill.

In Bryan's mind, it's good money down the drains, chasing the city's $125 million goal.

Long ago, the mayor and council decided the city should pay its fair share of the bill as well. But when we tallied up the city's share in the fund, we calculated $9.2 million, or about 7 percent of the entire fund, comes from taxpayers to pay the city's bill.

The biggest item is Bush Intercontinental Airport, which comes in at $3.8 million in drainage fees. Click here to see the other biggest city payers.


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