February 2012  

   
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett Focuses on
Litany of Public Projects to Recognize 'A County of Substance'

Assuring business and community leaders from around the area that the state of Harris County is "far better than most governmental entities," County Judge Ed Emmett focused a large part of his annual State of the County address Feb. 15 on highlighting the role that generations of county leaders have played in ensuring that Harris County remains "A County of Substance."

   Harris County Judge Ed Emmet delivers his fifth State of the County address.  Image courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership/dabfoto creative
Harris County Judge Ed Emmet delivers his fifth State of the County address. Image courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership/dabfoto creative

Emmett spoke to approximately 1,000 attendees at the Greater Houston Partnership's annual event at the Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel. It was Emmett's fifth State of the County address since becoming county judge in March of 2007. He was introduced by Irma Diaz-Gonzalez, the president of Employment and Training Centers and the former chair of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"Our finances are tight and our needs, like our population, are growing," Emmett said. "But county leaders are committed to providing efficient, effective government. We are also committed to maintaining the trust and confidence of county residents."

Emmett also acknowledged several high-profile scandals involving county officials in 2011, and told the gathering that the county "must find a way to prevent unethical behavior as much as possible and to establish clear channels for uncovering and reporting such behavior when it occurs."

But Emmett sought to keep the spotlight primarily on the hundreds of major projects and programs ensuring the county's economic vitality, listing precinct-by-precinct highlights of successful programs initiated or completed by Harris County commissioners in the past year.

"Years from now, if we do our job well," Emmett said, "a future county judge will stand before an even bigger crowd and speak of an even larger, more prosperous county."

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2012 State of the County Address

By Harris County Judge Ed Emmett

Before I start, I think a round of applause is in order for the St. Thomas Episcopal School pipe band.  Great stuff!

First, I thank the Greater Houston Partnership and the League of Women Voters for making this annual “State of the County Address” possible.  It is something I look forward to every year.

And to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Honor Guard and Lt. Diaz, you always make Harris County proud.

Sameer, when I first heard you sing the National Anthem at the India House, I knew you needed to be part of the State of the County. Thank you!

Rev. Johnson’s strength and spiritual guidance is known throughout the community.  I’m honored you are part of this event.

And that gets me to Irma.  Anyone who has attended any of my previous State of the County addresses knows that I view Harris County as people.  This county of 4 million is an organism made up of many living, breathing parts that are constantly changing.  Irma Diaz-Gonzalez is a 25-year member of the Greater Houston Partnership, a past chairman of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a successful businesswoman admired and respected by all who know her.  She is truly a woman of substance, which made her the perfect choice to introduce me today.

After almost five years as county judge, I am convinced that Harris County is a county of substance, so how fitting to have a woman of substance do the introduction. Thank you, Irma.

Indeed, Harris County is a county of substance.  Harris County is different from other governmental entities, even other counties.

Our 4 million residents are remarkably diverse.  Those of us who have lived here very long have watched the diversity grow exponentially.  It is a good thing!

Those same 4 million diverse residents have spread out throughout the county.  Roughly half a million live inside Loop 610.  Another million and a half live between Loop 610 and Beltway 8. Approximately 2 million people – or half the county’s population – live outside Beltway 8.

And it’s important to note that approximately 1.6 million people live in unincorporated Harris County.  If that area were a city, it would be the fifth-largest in the United States.

As I stand here, my task is to describe the state of this remarkable county in 2012.  The easy answer is to say the state of Harris County is good, far better than most governmental entities. Our finances are tight and our needs, like our population, are growing.  County leaders are committed to providing efficient, effective government.  We are also committed to maintaining the trust and confidence of its residents.

The county has had its share of scandals and, sadly, there will no doubt be more.  But they are more than offset by the dedicated, honest service rendered by the vast majority of county officials and employees.  We need to do a better job of defining and enforcing the county’s ethics policy.  Otherwise, the good work is masked by negative publicity.  The good work is masked, but it is still there.

What everyone needs to understand about Harris County being a county of substance is the ongoing, long-term nature of what the county does.  In 2012, we enjoy the benefits of actions taken and decisions made by county officials years ago.  The decisions made by Harris County this year will affect generations yet unborn.  Harris County, starting with Commissioners Court, is maintaining a focus on the future.

The list of roads, parks and drainage improvements put in place by Harris County would take the rest of the afternoon to properly discuss.  How bad would area traffic congestion be without Beltway 8 and the rest of the toll road system?  Think about the green spaces and recreational facilities built and maintained by the commissioners.  What kind of drainage would there be if the Harris County Flood Control District had not invested so heavily in major bayou projects and detention ponds?  Too frequently, the role of Harris County in these areas is overlooked.

Excavation at Eldridge Detention Basin
Excavation at Eldridge Detention Basin

Of course, there are many other aspects of county government that directly or indirectly impact residents’ lives.  From criminal justice to health care to elections and libraries, the list goes on and on.

As county judge, I will highlight three examples of county substance that might escape notice. First, the Harris County Office of Emergency Management is widely regarded as one of the best in the country.  Mark Sloan and his team, including private partners and the Community Emergency Response Teams, are frequently
The Harris County Emergency Operations Center, activated to deal with severe winter weather in February 2011
The Harris County Emergency Operations Center,
activated to deal with severe winter weather in
February 2011
asked to assist and teach other jurisdictions.  OEM’s high quality is not an accident or a sudden development.  It is the result of careful planning by earlier county officials and a commitment to the concept of TranStar, the facility jointly operated by TxDOT, Metro, the City of Houston and Harris County.  We must never lose sight of its importance.

Related to emergency management and the protection of residents and property is the work of the County Fire Marshal’s Office.  The cooperative partnerships formed with area volunteer fire departments proved their worth during last year’s wildfires.  Day after day, and night after night, those folks worked their hearts out.

I ask that our Fire Marshal, Mike Montgomery, and all others in our audience who served in that effort please stand so we can recognize them.  Thank you!

The third example of substance is of a less formal nature.  Sometimes county officials make little-noticed decisions that pay great dividends.  This year is the 100th anniversary of Rice University. (I, as a Rice alumnus, had to get a reference in somewhere.)  When Rice Institute first opened, it was a mile past the end of paved roads and outside the Houston city limits.  With all due respect to Mayor Parker, my fellow Rice alum, our alma mater began as a purely Harris County institution. Several decades later, when the Great Depression had put almost all institutions on the ropes, another person who attended Rice worked with the Board of Trustees in his capacity as a probate judge to secure Rice’s financial future by giving the institute a major stake in the Rindon oil field.  That person was then County Judge Roy Hofheinz.  His actions benefitted not only Rice, but all those, like me, who attended in subsequent decades.

Over the years, Harris County has become a county of substance due to the work and dedication of many individuals and teams.  Because county government is structured with the Commissioners Court in charge, I asked each commissioner to give me noteworthy present or future projects of substance in their precincts.

The dean of the court, Commissioner El Franco Lee, has faced the challenge of making county government serve a largely urban precinct.  Not only that, he has had to accommodate pressures caused by growth outside his precinct and even outside Harris County.  Precinct One is working on an array of mobility projects - widening Cullen Boulevard to a four-lane, divided thoroughfare and widening Scott Street to four lanes.  Commissioner Lee has ongoing projects to improve drainage and simultaneously create green space in major watersheds.  The Sims Bayou Federal Project, a cooperative effort between the Harris County Flood Control District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, includes widening and modifying 19.3 miles of the channel, replacing or extending 20 road bridges, and creating three storm water detention basins that will have 475 acres of green space.

The Hunting Bayou Project will improve that channel from U.S. 59 to Wayside Road, excavate a 75-acre, 300-million-gallon storm water detention site and replace or modify more than 20 bridges.

Many amenities - such as parks, trails, ponds at stormwater detention basins, and thousands of new trees - are planned for all of Project Brays.  Photo courtesy of HCFD
Many amenities - such as parks, trails, ponds at stormwater detention basins, and thousands of new trees - are planned for all of Project Brays.  Photo courtesy of HCFD

And, when complete, the Brays Bayou Project will widen and modify 21 miles of channel, replace or improve 32 bridges and create four detention basins.

These are projects of a county of substance.

Harris County historically began in what is now Precinct Two.  Commissioner Jack Morman and his staff are working to preserve the past and secure the future.  One example of that balanced approach is the commissioner’s engagement of residents and civic groups in the effort to save the historic Sylvan Beach Pavilion, which suffered severe damage from Hurricane Ike.  For many people, that facility is more than cherished memories, it is a bridge between the past and the future.

Sylvan Beach Pavilion
Sylvan Beach Pavilion

Photo courtesy of Hank Hancock and Offcite.org

Commissioner Morman developed and is implementing a plan to rally public support for its restoration to grander times.  A world-class team of architects and contractors has worked with the Precinct 2 team and community leaders to ensure the pavilion will meet historic standards and serve residents for decades to come.  It is expected to reopen in early 2013.

Precinct 2 also has arguably the most important facility in this entire area.  Our region’s economy is inextricably tied to the Port of Houston.  Commissioner Morman views the development of transportation infrastructure as critical to the continued growth and efficiency of the Port of Houston.  Plans developed now by Jack and his staff regarding toll roads, the Interstate 69 bypass and other projects will be critical to having the Port of Houston fulfill its potential as the Gateway of North America.

In Commissioner Steve Radack’s Precinct Three, they are continuing construction on an 867-acre park on the Katy Prairie – a project saving taxpayers $14 million to $16 million by showcasing how different levels of government can work together.  The park, called John Paul’s Landing, will feature a 400- to 500-acre lake for canoeing and fishing.  It also will provide storm water storage.  There will be walking trails, picnic areas and playgrounds.  But here’s the best part – nearby, TxDOT is building Segment E of the Grand Parkway.  By working with Commissioner Radack, TxDOT is excavating the soil needed for fill material for their project from the park site.  That means Precinct Three gets the initial phase of the lake built at no cost.  At the same time, the Harris County Flood Control District gets a sizeable storm water storage area without spending local tax dollars – a savings of $10 million to $12 million.  And by allowing TxDOT to excavate 2 million cubic yards of soil from the site, Precinct Three is helping TxDOT avoid the purchase of fill material and an excavation site.  That saves the state – and you and me – roughly $4 million.  Quality of life and savings.  Together.  It’s being accomplished by working together and being creative.

Since 1989, Commissioner Radack has been balancing the needs of well developed incorporated urban areas and some of the fastest-growing suburbs in the nation.  While major transportation and other type projects garner much attention, the public has benefitted from smaller lasting projects such as dog parks and cricket fields.

Crews work on the duck pond near the wildlife refuge in Bear Creek Pioneers Park in Precinct Three.
Crews work on the duck pond near the
wildlife refuge in Bear Creek Pioneers Park
in Precinct Three.

Harris County’s newest commissioner, Jack Cagle, another Rice alum, is building upon a foundation laid by two long-serving predecessors, Commissioners Eversole and Lyons.  Precinct Four continues to be one of the hottest pockets for growth in the region, and maybe the entire nation.

Ribbon cutting marking completion of the improvements and railroad overpass on Will Clayton Parkway just west of HWY 59 in Humble
Ribbon cutting marking completion of the improvements and railroad overpass on Will Clayton Parkway just west of
HWY 59 in Humble

Certainly, many have heard of ExxonMobil’s plans for a massive new campus along Spring Creek that is expected to be the site of more than 30,000 jobs.  Without the active support of Harris County – particularly Precinct Four – this development might not be happening.  In fact, tremendous growth is occurring in all of Precinct Four and in adjacent counties.  And with that comes the need for more infrastructure.

Commissioner Cagle is addressing the need by establishing working partnerships with private interests, area legislators and other governmental entities.  In the Tomball area, that means moving on the long-planned improvements to State Highway 249.  That’s why Commissioners Court recently unanimously approved the order allowing the Harris County Toll Road Authority to negotiate on our behalf with TxDOT and Montgomery County as we find a way to expand those lanes that north Harris County so badly needs.

Commissioner Cagle, along with the entire Commissioners Court, will also act in concert with TxDOT and Metro to improve the U.S. 290/Hempstead Highway corridor.

Having mentioned numerous transportation and flood control projects across the entire county that will benefit generations to come, I feel compelled to point out a common factor in nearly all of them.  Without the talented, dedicated county engineer and executive director of public infrastructure, Mr. Art Storey, Harris County would be a lesser place.  His public accomplishments are there for all to see, but the leadership and guidance he has provided behind the scenes is immeasurable.  Today is the 54th wedding anniversary of Art and Jo Storey, but they were kind enough to join us today.

Art, please stand, as a representative of the best of Harris County government.

Now, I don’t want anybody reading anything extra into this recognition.  Art is not, to my knowledge, retiring.  He continues to help with and oversee the many projects under way to make Harris County even better.  Beyond projects, though, are other focuses.

Harris County is large, and its population is growing.  That population has daily needs that earlier county officials could scarcely imagine.  As a county, we are successful only if we meet those needs, too.

Our criminal justice system must provide justice.  Toward that end, the Institute of Forensic Sciences must be mentioned.  Dr. Luis Sanchez and his staff have organized a world-class operation that will get even better in new facilities.

The Forensic Genetics Laboratory investigates possible links between a suspect or a victim and evidence recovered from a scene.
The Forensic Genetics Laboratory investigates possible links between a suspect or a victim and evidence recovered from a scene.

 

Of course, criminal justice is about real people.  With that in mind, we must do everything in our power to prevent young offenders from lapsing into a life of crime – for their sake and the sake of taxpayers!

 
 
 

At a time when health care is a national and state issue, Harris County must lead the way in providing our indigent population with medical homes for preventive care.  That will require a regional approach that includes the involvement of neighborhood clinics and related health-care organizations.

As a county and as a society, we must constantly search for ways to assist those among us with mental health and/or substance abuse issues.  Better delivery of services to this segment of our population will not only make for a better society, it will lessen the pressure on our jails and hospitals, thereby making for more efficient use of public dollars.

Beyond those, each of us in this room has other specific interests.  When major events happen, the focus on county government shifts.  When a hurricane approaches, emergency preparedness comes to the fore.  At other times, the focus might shift temporarily to jail standards or a public health crisis or even how stray animals are handled.  Yes, sometimes ethics becomes the hottest topic.  Some ethical lapses are clear abuses of the position held. Others, though – at various levels – are simply greedy people trying to enrich themselves or their friends.

The public must be assured that every county employee is working full-time for the public’s interest.  We must be able to justify every dollar spent.  All conflicts of interest must be avoided, and public dollars must not be squandered.

Whatever it takes, Harris County must find a way to prevent unethical behavior as much as possible and to establish clear channels for uncovering and reporting such behavior when it occurs.

It is important that we handle all such issues swiftly and openly, so the public has confidence in county government.

Given all the projects and programs under way, it is my fervent hope that, years from now, if we do our job well, a future county judge will stand before an even bigger crowd and speak of an even larger, more prosperous county.  Perhaps he or she will mention the names of some who are in office today.  I know the state of Harris County will vary from time to time, but it will always be solid as long as we remain "a county of substance."

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