HOUSTON — Houston’s mayor wants voters to approve $495 million in improvement bonds in November, including $115 million for new vehicles, $7 million for salaries, $2 million for bike trail plans, and $350,000 to replace TVs and lighting in City Hall.
And millions of dollars more in the bond ask are earmarked for city building repairs.
In a mailing sent to voters this past week by the group promoting the bond, Mayor Sylvester Turner lent his support with a powerful statement.
These improvement bonds, he said, are proposed “as responsible ways to finance upgrades to dilapidated police and fire stations, parks and libraries. And none of these propositions will require a tax increase.”
Turner also noted that Houston police officers, municipal workers, and former Mayor Annise Parker support the bonds.
Voters will decide on the improvement bonds Nov. 7. Early voting in Houston begins today.
City Hall has said the bonds would not go toward Hurricane Harvey damage because the deadline to put this spending package on the ballot occurred before Harvey swept through Houston.
But some city leaders looking at the bevy of projects argue that the laundry list of spending amounts to misplaced priorities and fear that much of the money will be wasted.
They also question why long-term bonds are being issued for normal maintenance.
“These are not 30, 35-year assets,” said columnist and former Houston mayoral candidate Bill King. “This is a bunch of regular ongoing maintenance and vehicle purchases for the most part. And we’re going to finance that over 35 years? That’s absurd.”
He added: “The city is in such a financial mess. When you start borrowing long-term bond money to do basic repairs and to buy vehicles you know you’re in trouble.”
It’s also unclear, he said, if the money in the draft earmarks will actually find its way to where it is designated.
“The truth is they can switch it around any way they want to after a council vote,” King said. “They lay out, ‘this is what we’re going to spend it on’ and a big chunk of this is unappropriated.”
He pointed to $25 million for a “multi-service center” in a particular city council district. King said he believes that was added simply to get support in that part of town.
“That money will never be spent there,” he predicted. “It’s all a bunch of bull.”
Certified public accountant and former candidate for city controller Bill Frazer echoed some of King’s concerns.
Frazer has served as president of the Houston CPA Society and sat on the board of directors of the Texas Society of CPAs.
“When you finance that type of stuff with long term bonds, you get the goodies today but you pay for them down the road,” Frazer said. “It’s a classic example of ‘I’m going to deliver benefits to my constituents today, but somebody else gets to pay for it.’”
He likened it to a homeowner taking out a home loan for basic maintenance.
“You don’t use bonds for maintenance because maintenance is an ongoing cost,” Frazer said. “You get a home loan to buy the home. You don’t go out and get a home loan if someone is going to come out and get your house painted. Four million dollars for new fire trucks? You shouldn’t be borrowing 30 years for fire trucks.”
Frazer has a dire prediction: Taxes will have to be raised to pay off this debt.
“I don’t know where they are going to get the money to pay these bonds without a tax increase,” he said. “I don’t know where they are going to get the money. I reject the whole proposal… because I don’t think there’s much merit to it.”
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.