Council grapples with new program for neighborhood fixes

Nov. 17, 2014Houston Chronicle

Houston’s Rice Military neighborhood has exploded with development in recent years, as bungalows fall to townhomes and neighbors await the construction of nearby apartment buildings.

Civic leader Paul Hesson said this jump in density has brought a spike in accidents as hurried residents, construction workers and drivers seeking a way around the Washington Avenue corridor’s congestion blow through stop signs at four local intersections.

“We’re just getting overrun,” Hesson said. “We’ve had cars in ditches, property damage, vehicles into fences. We’re not aware of any pedestrians or cyclists or kids in strollers getting hit, but everybody knows it’s just a matter of time.”

The civic club put the neighborhood on a city list to be evaluated for speed cushions, but it is No. 74, meaning it could face a six-year wait, he said.

“That’s led to a lot of frustration,” he said. “The sense is that the city doesn’t care.”

It was precisely such a dilemma the City Council had in mind when it voted last summer to create $1 million funds for each of the 11 council districts, intending for those dollars to be used to quickly tackle small neighborhood issues that some members felt Mayor Annise Parker’s administration couldn’t address.

Ellen Cohen, one of several council members to target speed cushions, has set aside up to $100,000 to install speed cushions in Rice Military, which she represents. At about $5,000 per cushion, that would cover 20 bumps.

“It’s been my experience that that is one of the harder things to get moving in the city,” the District C councilwoman said of speed cushions. “There’s great demand and it’s very hard to get them through, largely because the city lacks the funding to do it.”

When the council approved the $1 million funds in the city budget in June, some observers derided the move as politicians seeking to bolster support via individual slush funds, a charge the funds’ backers strenuously deny, pointing triumphantly to the roughly 55 requests submitted so far for items such as curb repairs, after-school programs and playground equipment.

“The community has input, and the district council person, they have direct input,” said Councilman C.O. Bradford, the funds’ chief proponent. “This process is working. It’s off and running.”

Hesitant staff

Some council staff were apprehensive about the idea from the start, worried that all 200,000 constituents in each district would expect their neighborhood to get a cut of the relatively small sum and unsure how the projects would be chosen. Perhaps as a symptom of this hesitancy, only a few offices have submitted funding requests.

To comply with the city charter in Houston’s strong-mayor form of government, council members’ requests must be approved by Parker, who has formally OK’d three items that could total up to $130,000: staff overtime to mow weeded lots in Councilman Dwight Boykins’ District D, two part-time employees at Townwood Park in Councilman Larry Green’s District K and catering for a small business summit that Green hosted. Four requests were denied; most of the rest have been approved in principle and are pending.

The mayor acknowledged the approval rate would be lower had her staff not advised council members that some of their ideas were unworkable or improper, such as transferring funds to nonprofits without competitive bidding.

Boykins, who said the funds offer an opportunity to “think outside the box” in addressing constituent complaints in his Southside district, acknowledged he made several “creative requests” that the mayor’s office suggested he rework.

One of Boykins’ top priorities, for instance, was to trim some of the abandoned, overgrown lots that dot his district. He originally thought an innovative solution was to purchase three John Deere tractors for volunteers, but Parker’s staff advised him that, because of liability concerns, those funds would be better spent paying city employees overtime to mow lots on the weekend.

Boykins said he also has had to temper some residents’ expectations for the funding but has tried to illustrate its value by seeking highly visible projects, such as clearing weeded lots in busy areas and installing speed humps in four neighborhoods.

“If you know your district, you know where you’re going to spend that money to make sense and make it stretch,” he said. “You wish you could do that for every request, but you can’t.”

Parker said her concerns with district funds are tied to the projected $120 million budget deficit the city confronts next summer, with greater gaps expected in the following years. Still, Parker voted for the program.

“It’s not that I think it’s an inappropriate use of funds,” Parker said. “My concern with the process was that we are not putting money aside for future needs. Both through the capital side and the operating side, they took money that we had set aside for future reserves.”

Capital requests put off

Roughly half of the $1 million funds are operating dollars, pulled from the flexible general fund. The capital side is made up of bond dollars that were approved by voters in specific categories, such as public safety or parks. The council members will draw on the small amount set aside in each category in the city’s annual capital spending plan for unexpected repairs. Parker’s staff say they will approve no capital requests until the end of the fiscal year, when it’s clear depleting those funds will not leave the city unable to make emergency fixes.

Most council members are not considering such questions now, instead focusing on precisely how to go about gathering input, getting cost estimates and allocating their funds.

Green, who represents a southwestern district, has been the fastest out of the gate. He set a deadline for neighborhood groups and interested residents to fill out project request forms. He anticipated a flood of requests exceeding his $1 million allotment but instead ended up with about $750,000 of them – mostly street, park and sidewalk improvements, he said.

Tackling even small projects like street lighting and park staffing, such as the approved staff now working at Townwood Park, Green said, is a big deal for residents who have grown disillusioned with the speed of repairs under the ReBuild Houston program, which focuses investments in areas of dire need.

“We will touch almost 20 neighborhoods with our street lights with really not a lot of money,” Green said. “With the (ReBuild) worst-first model, you may not see a repair or reconstruction for five years. This shows the city is responsive, that while you’re paying into this huge ReBuild Houston pot, some of the smaller projects can be knocked off.”

Spaying and neutering

East End Councilman Robert Gallegos’ top priority is the idea he discussed the day the funding was approved months ago: getting nonprofit Emancipet to bring its 48-foot mobile clinic to offer low-cost spay and neuter procedures for at least six months in hopes of lessening the city’s stray animal problem. The idea costs $250,000, so he’s hoping to chip in $150,000 and get like-minded colleagues to cover the rest.

Gallegos also is among several council members still gathering cost estimates for such items as park lighting and walking trails, acknowledging the hard choices of precisely what to fund still await.

The city’s most engaged district, as measured by voter turnout and active civic clubs, is Cohen’s District C. She decided against a formal application process in favor of identifying needs via constituents’ emails, phone calls, letters and comments at public meetings.

“It’s a challenge, because obviously we can’t do what each civic club would want us to do,” Cohen said. “People are realistic and realize we’re going to do that which we think is going to provide the greatest good for the most reasonable price.”