YOU'D THINK TAPPING THE RAINY DAY FUND, a $10 billion chunk of change Texas sits on in case of emergencies, would be a no-brainer for what was the rainiest day Texas has ever experienced. But alas, Governor Abbott says Houston has plenty of money to fund the recovery—which is expected to cost the city more than $250 million—at least until the legislature meets again ... in 2019.
Abbott says the state has already contributed $100 million to debris removal in Houston. But the recovery effort is straining the city’s already tight budget—Mayor Turner said Houston’s maxed out its $100 million flood insurance policy already, with two months left in the hurricane season, and would need $10 million to extend the policy into next April. That’s in addition to the mounting costs of rebuilding, and doesn’t yet touch the large-scale infrastructure projects that Houston will need in order to protect itself from future storms.
Turner says if the state can’t help, it’ll be necessary to implement a temporary tax hike of 3.6 percent to raise an additional $50 million for recovery efforts. Although it would cost the average homeowner just $48 more a year, the move is controversial in a city where the storm has hit many hard in the wallet, and it’s unclear if the proposal will pass when Turner brings it to a vote on October 19.
“It raises a concern that the mayor seems to be using this as hostage to raise taxes, when in reality, the city of Houston is sitting on hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that he’s not tapping into,” Abbott said.
He’s talking about TIRZ, or tax increment reinvestment zone, funds. But those are area-specific funds to be used mainly for infrastructure improvements within the boundaries of the individual TIRZ, which may not be where the money is needed most. Much of that money was already earmarked for flood control projects and maintenance before the storm hit, and the funds with the most money are in the most wealthy districts, which poses a problem for poorer areas or areas with no TIRZ at all.
Turner’s spokesman Alan Bernstein said in a statement that there are state rules that govern the TIRZ funds’ usage, and that the city "cannot raid funds that the state has indicated cannot be raided.”
There’s no question that many Houstonians are hurting financially, and as the largest city in the state that contributes a huge amount to the state’s coffers, it seems reasonable that for our rainiest of days, we could stand to benefit from the state’s $10 billion emergency fund. And although Abbott didn’t rule out tapping the fund when the legislature meets in 2019, Turner noted in his letter to the governor that "there hardly seems a more appropriate use of the nearly $10 billion in taxpayer dollars in the fund than on recovery from this storm"—and that need is immediate.