March 2014  

   
Harris County Judge Delivers State of the County Address

 

With unincorporated Harris County set to pass the City of Houston in population by the next Census, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has called for a reexamination of how local, regional and state governments provide necessary services for their constituencies.

   Harris County Judge Ed Emmett delivers his seventh State of the County address.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett delivers his
seventh State of the County address. Photo by:
Richard Carson/Greater Houston Partnership

"Rather than try to emulate what has been deemed successful in cities and communities that grew up before the advent of automobiles, we should tackle a different task, with vastly more potential," Emmett told the nearly 1,000 attendees of his 2014 State of the County Address. "That task is to leverage the strengths of our metropolitan area and become the leader for others around the world to follow."

Assuring those gathered that Harris County's financial condition remains "excellent," Emmett used his seventh State of the County Address to congratulate members of Commissioners Court and the County Budget Office for ensuring that the county is well poised to meet the challenges of the future. He was introduced by Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee.

While acknowledging the possibility of stirring controversy, Emmett said it is time to ask questions about how services such as health care and housing are delivered and how to eliminate duplication of facilities and governmental agencies. He said it's time to ask how the metropolitan region can be governed more efficiently.

"I realize that some will engage in so-called turf battles," Emmett said. "Others will try to strangle government growth by imposing arbitrary limits on revenue, not realizing their short-sightedness. And still others will focus only on the short-term politics involved. We must resist all such hindrances."

2014 State of the County Address
By Harris County Judge Ed Emmett

Thank you, Commissioner Lee.

County government is very much a team effort involving the Commissioners Court and many other elected and appointed officials. As Harris County’s longest-serving elected official, Commissioner Lee well represents the solid foundation upon which our county is built. On a personal note, El Franco Lee and I began our political careers together when we were elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1978 and we, like county government in general, are of the school of politics that believes in working together to serve the needs of the community.

And speaking of the team effort, the county team is well represented here today. My thanks to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Honor Guard as usual, and to Judge Karahan of Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 8 and Don Hawkins, who is a highly active member of the Harris County Citizen Corps.

And special thanks to the members of the St. Thomas Episcopal School pipe band.

This is my seventh State of the County Address sponsored by the Greater Houston Partnership and the League of Women Voters. Thanks to both organizations for giving me yet another opportunity to discuss the greatest county in the world. And, since we are in the election season, I must take a moment of personal privilege to urge everyone to vote in the March 4 primary. You can’t complain about the choices in November if you don’t bother to vote now.

In prior years, I have focused on specific issues of relevance and the sound financial foundation of Harris County. As I stand before you, the financial condition of Harris County government is excellent. County Budget Officer Bill Jackson and his staff have done a tremendous job of presenting budgetary approaches to meet changing conditions and needs. Without sound finances, no entity can perform well, so Harris County is in a good position financially.

But at all times, I have maintained that the true state of Harris County is measured by the quality of life of its residents. That is still the best measure of the state of the county.

TranStar Emergency Operations Center
TranStar Emergency Operations Center

There are, obviously, many factors that make up the quality of life here in the nation’s third-most populous county. Some of those factors are quantifiable. Some are not. In years past, I have spoken of transportation projects, indigent health care, criminal justice, mental health, hurricane preparedness – and yes, the Astrodome. Earlier this year, I outlined to my staff the personal priorities I have for the coming year. Those priorities include finding a solution for the fate of the Astrodome; fully developing a pilot program to divert individuals with mental health issues from the county jail; using the expansion of the TranStar facility to make Harris County’s Office of Emergency Management even more effective; and creating a clear plan for a regional,

multi-modal transportation system that will allow our county and region to live up to its potential as the Gateway of North America.

Beyond those four specific priorities, other matters need ongoing attention. Amid all of the controversy and confusion swirling around national health care policy, Harris Health and Harris County must still provide health care to those who cannot afford it. Indigent health care is not merely about providing services to those who need help. It is about protecting the entire community from disease and possible pandemic.

Another issue that never leaves us is hurricane preparedness. The County Office of Emergency Management and all of its partners constantly strive for improvements in cooperation and coordination. With the creation and state funding of the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, of which I am a board member and the president is my predecessor, former County Judge Robert Eckels, we are analyzing approaches to lessen the devastation to life and property caused by hurricanes in our area. Some innovative ideas have been promoted, and it is important to determine if any of them can be implemented. Equally important, though, is to research what approaches have been taken – or not taken – in other vulnerable areas around the world. Make no mistake, though. The best approach will always be to keep people out of harm’s way.

A third area that almost everyone agrees needs constant attention is the education and care of young children. This past year saw a well-intentioned, but misguided effort to fund a limited early childhood education program. I would note that it is important to focus on having the “right players” involved. For example, school districts might be a good place to start. And there is a statewide effort under way to improve early childhood education. The Greater Houston Partnership and others should be part of that effort.

Education and Care of Young Children

However, there are many aspects to giving children what they need to perform well as students and, ultimately, as adults in the workforce. Day care, education, nutrition, health care and the development of non-cognitive skills are all important. While the county government does not touch all of these, I believe we have the opportunity to create a forum for what I call “whole child development.” As county judge, I will create such a forum this year.

From the Astrodome to whole child development, all of these priorities deserve attention, and we are fortunate in Harris County to have the wherewithal to deal with them. Today, though, I want to begin a discussion of a broader nature. It is a discussion of the fundamental nature of the governance of our region.

Ever since I moved to Houston in 1966 – 48 years ago – I have marveled at, and loved, the dynamism of this community. Looking back, the growth and changes have been spectacular. In 1966, there was no Loop 610, no Katy Freeway, the Humble Building was a tourist destination, Drs. Cooley and DeBakey were putting the Texas Medical Center on the world stage and, yes, the Astrodome was the Eighth Wonder of the World. Kingwood and The Woodlands were forests, and the Cy-Fair school district had but one high school. Three years would go by before Houston Intercontinental Airport opened and all commercial flights were ended at Hobby. Just think how much change – overwhelmingly positive change – has occurred since then.

A lot of the change was driven by the private sector, as new businesses flourished, foundered and flourished again. Individuals and families made lifestyle choices that changed the landscape. And through it all, different governmental entities took actions or, in some cases, failed to act. The result of the interplay between businesses, individuals and government is a unique urban/suburban region that now must face the future. I believe that future is highly dependent upon a redefined structure of governance in which Harris County will play a leading role.

Recently, I read a book that equated the rise of suburban sprawl with the decline of the American Dream. Frequently, I hear people say this or that has to happen to make Houston a “world class city.” That is the wrong goal. Please don’t get me wrong. I love the City of Houston. But the City of Houston is only one component part of Harris County and the larger multi-county region. Years ago, the City of Houston pursued a creative strip annexation policy that greatly expanded its extra-territorial jurisdiction. The purpose was to prevent the city from being surrounded and, perhaps, strangled by other municipalities. That was a wise policy. However, it was anticipated that the city would annex subdivisions as they were completed. For a variety of reasons, that has not occurred, so population growth in unincorporated Harris County has boomed. More than 1.6 million people live in unincorporated Harris County today. In fact, if the city does not change its policy of very limited annexation by the next census, more people will live in unincorporated Harris County than inside the City of Houston. That makes Harris County and, indeed, our region vastly different from other urban counties and regions.

Therefore, our goal should be to redefine our region as the model of what a community born of the automobile age can become. Rather than try to emulate what has been deemed successful in cities and communities that grew up before the advent of automobiles, we should tackle a different task with vastly more potential. That task is to leverage the strengths of our metropolitan area and become the leader for others around the world to follow.

I confess, with a smile, that those of us in county government sometimes chafe at the attention lavished on the City of Houston. Earlier this month, I sat at the head table during the Greater Houston Partnership’s Annual Meeting and chuckled at how often the term “city” was used, when the reference was really to something outside the city limits. For example, the new ExxonMobil facility is not in the City of Houston, but if you ask any of those who are being moved here from out of state, they would probably say they are moving to Houston. When trade missions are organized, the mayor is asked to lead them, even though the resulting business is likely to locate outside the city limits. The reality is that, from a public perspective, Houston is shorthand for the entire region.

Being a realist, I am not suggesting trying to change that perception. However, when it comes to addressing the needs of the future, our region must design new approaches, break some old patterns and write our own book. Harris County, the City of Houston, other counties and cities, a myriad of special districts, and – most of all – the Legislature must be creative in shaping the future.

Over the years, our region has faced various crises, and decisions were made to improve the situations. Here are some examples.

When Jeff Davis Hospital became dysfunctional and an embarrassment, the Harris County Hospital District was created under the auspices of Harris County.

In 1937, recognizing the necessity of an organization dedicated to preventing flooding, the Harris County Flood Control District was created by the Texas Legislature, and Harris County Commissioners Court was designated as the district’s governing body.

Many years later, seeing the major subsidence problems caused by the pumping of groundwater, the Harris Galveston Subsidence District was put in place.

In 1983, the Harris County Commissioners Court created the Harris County Toll Road Authority and - in a move that has proven to be brilliant - structured it so that profitable toll roads can pay for new toll roads and so-called free roads to enhance mobility. What would our traffic situation be without Beltway 8, Westpark, Hardy, the I-10 managed lanes or the numerous county roads that have been built or improved using toll revenue?

As mentioned earlier, TranStar represents the best in a cooperative effort to protect our community. It is the implementation of a creative idea that saves lives and protects property.

More recently, in response to the need to improve our freight rail system, eliminate grade crossings and develop options for commuter rail, the Legislature created the Gulf Coast Rail District. Harris, Waller, Montgomery, Fort Bend and Galveston counties and the City of Houston are members of the district, which could become the driving force for many transportation improvements that will allow the entire region to grow and prosper.

All of these examples represent special solutions to special problems. All of them have something in common – Harris County.


Artist rendering of the future Harris County
Institute of Forensics Sciences building
On a day-to-day basis, Harris County does many things for the more than 4 million residents and countless visitors. Roads, parks, libraries and courthouses are somewhat taken for granted. Other county facilities like the Institute of Forensic Sciences and Reliant Park stand out for their noteworthy roles.

Looking at Harris County today, it is easy to be proud of what has been done. However, there is much left to do. Harris County contains all or part of 34 municipalities, 556 municipal utility districts, 33 emergency districts, and numerous other special districts. We are surrounded by other counties that are either growing as rapidly as we are or they soon will be. It is not at all clear that we can count
on the same level of federal and state support that we have enjoyed in the past, so Harris County – as the largest player in the region – needs to work with all partners, public and private, to make sure that the services and infrastructure necessary for continued regional vitality are developed in a timely fashion. I realize that some will engage in so-called turf battles. Others will try to strangle government growth by imposing arbitrary limits on revenue, not realizing their short-sightedness. And still others will focus only on the short-term politics involved. We must resist all such hindrances.

The current state of Harris County is sound financially, programmatically and institutionally. The future state of Harris County will depend on the ability of the region to work together to best address the needs of our residents.

At the risk of stirring controversy, I propose that we start asking questions like the following:

 

Is it time for the creation of a regional health care delivery district?

 

Is it time for public housing and housing assistance programs to be consolidated?

 

Is it time for regional ports to function as a unit?

 

If the City of Houston continues its policy of not annexing subdivisions, is it time for the county and municipal utility districts to develop a new path for street maintenance?

 

Is it time to reexamine the multiple layers of law enforcement?

 

Is it time to ask what can be done to improve streets and roads in all jurisdictions?

 

In 1957, the Harris County Home Rule Commission issued a report titled Metropolitan Harris County. Is it time to ask again how governments in the area should be organized to face the future as a metropolitan region?

For sure, the answer to the last question is yes. So, I ask groups such as the Greater Houston Partnership and the League of Women Voters to join with Harris County, the City of Houston, and other counties and cities in creating a bold vision of a metropolitan region that is the envy of the world. We owe that to those who gave us such a solid foundation. More importantly, we owe that to the generations to come.

Thank you.

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