Parker outlines schedule for drainage fee rules
City officials will be ready to discuss an ordinance and rates for implementing the voter-approved drainage fee in time for the January and February capital improvement hearings, Mayor Annise Parker said Wednesday.
She devoted the bulk of the year's final City Council meeting to laying out for council members a timetable for implementing the fee, which must be in place by July 1, 2011.
Proposition 1, dubbed Rebuilding Houston by the mayor's office, was the only one of three propositions voters approved in November. It amends the city charter to provide for the improvement and renewal of Houston's drainage and streets by creating a dedicated $125 million-a-year pay-as-you-go fund. Although the ballot initiative passed, Parker must persuade council members to approve an ordinance implementing the measure.
"When our work is done, we will have secured the infrastructure future of Houston for decades to come," Parker said. "The risk of flooding will have been reduced and our streets will be safer for the driving public."
The 20-year, $8 billion infrastructure program will be paid for with property taxes, developer impact fees and drainage fees ranging from $5 to $10 a month for an average Houston homeowner.
Only properties receiving drainage services will pay drainage fees, and only those properties that state law exempts from a such fees will escape the Houston charge. State law exempts state government facilities, as well as institutions of higher education, including Rice University and the city's other private institutions.
"We are following the state statute," Parker said. "Somebody got a legislator's ear, and they exempted institutions of higher learning. I don't know who it was and which legislator did it, but that's just a factor we have to put in."
Churches will not be exempt. The mayor noted that eight of the state's 10 largest cities have drainage fees; none of the eight exempt churches. For cities with a fee, only Austin and Lubbock exempt schools, while El Paso has a 10 percent discount for schools.
"I have yet to talk to any entity where there is any evidence that (the ordinance) will financially cripple that institution," Parker said in response to a question about opposition to Proposition 1 from churches and other nonprofit institutions.
According to the mayor's timeline, City Council will vote on a fee rate for the city's 575,000 property owners by March or April. The city also has to develop a drainage billing process, most likely piggy-backing on water bills. Engineering studies will identify the greatest needs and a schedule for meeting them.
Three opponents of the measure — Allen Mark Dacus, Elizabeth Perez and the Rev. Robert Jefferson — sued the city last week, contending that the language on the ballot misled voters and at least two procedural steps were ignored, making the charter amendment illegal.
Council member Mike Sullivan reminded the mayor that he, too, was opposed to Proposition 1 but pledged to make the process of implementing it as "fair and good as possible."
He still had differences with the mayor over several components of her implementation plan, including the formation of a citizen's oversight committee. The council should bear full responsibility, he argued.
"I'm not a committee person, never have been. I think that's what we're here for," he said.
Parker said she would be happy to consider Sullivan's concerns and leave it up to the council about whether to form a citizens' advisory committee.
"This process, the redistricting process and the budget are all going on simultaneously," Parker said. "These are the three highest priorities we have."
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