Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to put four bond measures totaling $848 million on the November ballot to address tremendous population growth in Harris County during the past two decades.
“When you consider that Harris County has more people than 24 states, it really isn’t that much,” County Judge Ed Emmett said.
The referendum will create four separate ballot items: a $700 million bond for roads and bridges, a $60 million bond for parks, $24 million to update the overcrowded animal control facility and $64 million for flood control improvements.
These bond measures will not result in tax increases. Unlike taxes, municipal bonds are essentially loans that a government requests with voter approval. Private investors purchase bonds, which, in turn, fund cities, counties, school districts or other government entities. Bonds are commonly thought to be safe investments. Eventually, Harris County will have to pay back the bond debt.
Figuring out how big of a loan to ask for is often a balancing act between those who manage the balance sheet and those who have spending priorities.
Such was the case Tuesday. The budget manager and county engineer had come up with preliminary numbers. Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack asked whether the county’s budget could withstand bumping the parks bond from $24 million to $60 million. Without missing a beat, budget manager Bill Jackson nodded, stating $60 million would be fine.
“All of the commissioners have in their minds those hot projects that we are just dying to get done,” said Jack Cagle, who represents Precinct 4. His top priorities include completing construction on Kuykendahl and Gosling Road bridges as well as improving mobility on a number of east-west corridors like Telge, Eldridge and Gosling.
Cagle also hopes to fund development of the Spring Creek and Cypress Creek greenways, since more neighborhoods and communities have requested access to outdoor trails.
“We’re excited to continue these projects if the voters approve it,” Cagle said. “If not, we’re going to be in a situation where we have a penny’s worth of budget and $10 worth of projects.”
Radack said bonds allow civic leaders flexibility in how they distribute funds. If voters approve the bonds, it could be years before the money is all spent or if there is a calamity the county might spend it immediately. “I’ll put on the agenda projects I think are important, but the priorities can change instantly,” Radack said. His overall priorities are “to improve mobility, reduce congestion, improve safety – in the most economically prudent way possible.”
But Emmett said the commissioners should get going immediately in their efforts to educate voters about why bonds are on the ballot in the first place: “Once we approve this this morning, then it’s time to start getting people engaged in the process of supporting the bond election. That’s important.”
Mr. Emmett is exactly right–voter outreach should have begun yesterday (preferably before then.) As we have seen in Montgomery County and elsewhere recently, failed bond elections can mean a year or more before voters may be ready to consider another election. Working diligently to communicate these benefits to voters and dispel any myths will be key to a successful outcome for the county.
Here are my recommendations for a successful outreach effort and, ultimately, a successful bond election outcome.
My Recommendations for Harris County:
(Note: I am in not affiliated with Harris County in any way. These recommendations are entirely my own.)
- Evaluate Strengths and Weaknesses. Conduct a thorough analysis of the strengths and weaknesses associated with these four bond election packages NOW. (As in Day 1.) Preferably, develop a short report that takes the perspective from a likely supporter and a likely opponent. From there, develop a matrix that enables you to predict the type of message that will be crafted by your opposition and how you plan to address it.
- Craft a SHORT but Clear Message. After thoroughly evaluating the four bond packages and how they will be perceived by supporters and opponents, develop a short message to voters. A trend in infrastructure bond elections lately is to tie it into a transportationy-type language (e.g., “Move Harris County Forward, GO Harris.” My personal opinion is to avoid it–it’s overused and mostly ineffective. Instead, tie this message to things people care about, like growing the economy and reducing commute times.
- Deliver Effective Message to the Right People. The greatest challenge I see for these four ballot measures is that they’ll appear on the ballot alongside the statewide Proposition 7. Frankly, some voters will look at the ballot and decide which one they don’t think is necessary. While both are critical, quite frankly some conservative voters may pick and choose which one of these they will support. Make it clear that these projects are critical to keeping up with the county’s unprecedented growth and that those bond dollars will be spent locally will be critical. Finally, in the past, bond elections were won with 70 percent of the vote. In this new era, voters (especially voters who show up during non-Presidential years) take any bond election with a major dose of skepticism. Making an effort to mobilize quickly as misconceptions and flat-out falsehoods as the arise will help ensure long-term success.