The charter amendment known as Proposition 1 on the ballot passed by a narrow margin. It calls for a dedicated fund of $125 million to address street and drainage problems in the City of Houston. That fund is in addition to what the city already spends on drainage and infrastructure.
Mayor Annise Parker says there are five sectors in the fee plan — residential, commercial, industrial, governmental and everybody else.
“It all has to add up to $125 million per annum, so it’s a zero-sum game. We can’t decide oh we think a fair fee is X, it’s got to be we have to have a fair fee on all five of those categories and those fees all have to add up to $125 million.”
The fee is assessed based on how much impervious cover is on your property. A good way to visualize that is to imagine what your property looks like from above. Picture how much ground is covered by your house or business. Don’t forget to take your driveway or swimming pool into account. Those things will all be factored in to how much you are charged.
On the other hand, if you own an empty lot you won’t pay anything.
“If you contribute to drainage problems, you have to pay a drainage fee. Nobody subsidizes anybody else. It’s the fairest way we can lay it out.”
The mayor’s plan has no exemptions, which means schools and non-profits will also pay. And that may turn out to be the sticking point for the administration as details of the fee are hammered out.
“We’re concerned that this is the direction that the mayor and the city want to head.”
That’s Steven Murray, director of communications at Houston’s First Baptist Church. He says if the city goes through with the plan it would be a significant departure from the longstanding practice of exempting churches.
“We’re fearful that this new tax, really in essence, will just set open a slippery slope of other fees that the city may levy against non-profit organization, such as churches, but others as well.”
First Baptist isn’t alone in its position. The Houston Area Pastors’ Council strongly opposes the fee. And Councilmember Mike Sullivan has said he’ll ask for exemptions for churches and schools.
But Mayor Parker points out if any one group gets an exemption, the fee for everyone else will go up.
“If Councilmember Sullivan wants the residential property owners of Houston to pay a higher drainage fee, he can propose an exemption.”
Councilmember Sullivan did not return our phone calls or respond to a request for an interview.
One way or the other, the drainage fund must go into effect by July 1st, as mandated by the ballot initiative. Parker says she’ll likely start negotiating the actual fee rates in February. After that councilmembers will have the chance to pile on their amendments, which will no doubt include any number of exemptions and exceptions to the rule.