March 2015  

Harris County Judge Delivers State of the County Address

As Harris County's top officials take on an increasingly wide range of social problems, County Judge Ed Emmett used his 2015 State of the County Address last month to call on state officials to allow local authorities more flexibility to manage the constantly changing face of the state's most urban county.

Harris County Judge
Ed Emmett delivers his eighth
State of the County address.
Photo by: Richard Carson
"The population of unincorporated Harris County will soon surpass the population of the City of Houston," Emmett said. "Yet people and organizations continue to discuss urban issues only in terms of the city. Harris County needs policymakers and agencies in Austin and Washington to recognize that our residents need a different approach than that applied to rural counties and to urban counties in which the vast majority of people live in incorporated cities."
And with the county, the state and the nation facing sweeping changes in health care, Emmett also called for a frank discussion about changes in local health care delivery, asking whether it is now time for the state to consider establishing regional health care systems to replace the patchwork of local hospital districts and smaller public agencies.

Emmett concluded his address with a call to renew and strengthen support from the county, City of Houston, TxDOT and Metro for TranStar, the building that houses "the premier emergency operations center in the nation." The 20-year TranStar operating agreement among the four partners expires next year.

Emmett's speech was his eighth State of the County Address since becoming county judge, but this year's event was the first to be held at NRG Park, the county-owned park that is home to NRG Stadium, NRG Center, NRG Arena and the venerable Astrodome. NRG Park also will host Super Bowl 51 in February 2017.

Emmett concluded this year's event by inviting the nearly 1,000 attendees across the street to the floor of the Astrodome, which turns 50 years old next month. Emmett, the Urban Land Institute and other leaders have called for conversion of the Dome into the nation's largest indoor park.

"If we all pull together, the Dome can be a memorable site for some of the Super Bowl fans' experience," Emmett said. "It would be a shame to miss such an opportunity."

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

This is the eighth time I have had the opportunity to deliver a State of the County Address. Previous speeches have focused on finances, people, places and a variety of topics that were pertinent at the time. Today, I have come to the realization that it is necessary to step back and have a broader perspective, because the state of the county is really a state of constant change. Like it or not, all of us involved with Harris County government are managers of change. That change starts with people.

When I go to my office, I nearly always ride the public elevator and, upon exiting on the ninth floor, turn toward my office, go through a set of doors that prominently display my name, greet my staff and start dealing with the issues of the day. Once in a while, though, I turn in the other direction and go to the hallway that leads to the commissioners' offices. Along that hallway are photos of men and women who have served as county judges and county commissioners previously. What would they think of Harris County today? What were their plans for the county? I always want to say thank you to them for their service and for building such a strong foundation upon which we work today. But I also realize that they, and those of us who serve today, do not accomplish anything on our own. We are the public faces of Harris County, but the county has been blessed with dedicated employees who are the backbone, the heart and the soul. Some are higher profile than others. All contribute to the strength of this, the third-largest county in the nation. Some, however, leave an indelible mark on this county and the people who live here now and in the future.

One such person deserves special recognition. Art Storey, Harris County engineer and head of the Public Infrastructure Department, retired January 31. In more ways than the public will ever fully realize, Art shaped Harris County. His intellect, honesty and temperament made him a touchstone for all of us decision-makers. Heck, Art even managed to resurrect my tennis game.

Jo Storey, Art's wife of 57 years come Sunday, and Art are here today. Art, would you stand? Please join me in thanking Art for his years of guidance and service.

As Art leaves county government, just as when those folks in the photos lining the hallways left, others step in. That is why Gabe Baker, a recent graduate of Rice University, introduced me today and why Alberto Alvarado, a Bellaire High graduate and student at the University of Houston, led today's Pledge of Allegiance. And that is why I have a number of our other interns here with us today. Could I have them stand?

These young men and women may or may not ever work for Harris County or even be in government, but they represent the future. Just as previous generations passed the levers of government to us, we will happily pass them along to the next generation. That is why managing change is so important. County government must function in a constantly changing, now very urban, county, and it must function with a new cast of characters.

Think of the vast array of topics facing Harris County - transportation, criminal justice, health care, taxes and finance, buildings, parks, education, intergovernmental relations, elections, race relations, public housing and emergency management. The list is long, and priorities are ever-changing. Never forget, though, that how these issues are addressed by the county government is constrained by the state government, for we can only do what is permitted by the State of Texas. Harris County is an arm of the state.

Financially, Harris County is sound, with a AAA bond rating. We have no looming financial crisis such as unfunded pensions, and our ad valorem tax rate remains unchanged since 2007, when it was reduced by a full penny - the largest tax cut ever approved in Harris County. Many people are unaware that the county receives no general sales tax revenue. Given our need to keep up with rapid growth, I am concerned when legislators in Austin propose arbitrary limits on county revenue or spending. Several states have tried such an approach and discovered that good sound bites can irreparably harm the economy of a state or locality. Undermining the solid finances of county government would have repercussions in every area I mentioned earlier, so it is vital that county leaders work with legislators on this issue.

As I have said many times before, Harris County is unique. The population of unincorporated Harris County will soon surpass the population of the City of Houston. Yet people and organizations continue to discuss urban issues only in terms of the city. Harris County needs policymakers and agencies in Austin and Washington to recognize that our residents need a different approach than that applied to rural counties and to urban counties in which the vast majority of people live in incorporated cities.

The City of Houston annexation policies were designed to prevent the core city from decaying like so many core cities decayed in other urban areas. That is a good thing. However, if steps are not taken now, our county and region will face serious crises very soon. As the urban core city regentrifies, suburbs and close-in areas that have been skipped over are struggling. For lack of a better term, suburban poverty is staring us in the face. County government must have the tools and resources necessary to improve those areas, because I do not see a scenario in which the city steps up and improves the situation. In fact, the City of Houston's policy of limited-purpose annexation, in my opinion, worsens the problem by draining potential revenue from suburban areas. Before the 2017 Legislature convenes, let's commit ourselves to finding a new model of urban governance to better meet the needs of this unique county and the cities within it.

In the absence of immediate governmental solutions, though, we will likely have to craft another approach. That approach will be built upon the drive and creativity of non-profit organizations that exist to make people's lives better. As an example, Neighborhood Centers Inc. is now working with the East Aldine Management District to make a better community by making a variety of services available to the residents of the area. It is important that we support and strengthen such relationships.

Angela Blanchard, the president and CEO of Neighborhood Centers Inc. and Gerald Overturff and David Hawes of the East Aldine Management District are here today as representatives of the type of local effort that can truly make Harris County a better place. Would you stand, please?

Within the changing framework of responsibility created by the rapid urbanization of unincorporated Harris County, two particular needs stand out - indigent health care, including mental health, and transportation infrastructure. Both of these can only be addressed through more support from the State of Texas and through new strategies and partnerships.

Health care across the board has become a politicized topic. For most residents of Harris County, health care is a matter of insurance premiums, level of care, choice of doctors and yes, politics. For those who are unemployed and uninsured, or part of the working uninsured or underinsured, health care is a confusing maze. In speeches, testimony and conversations, I have pointed to the fact that much indigent health care in Harris County is paid for by the property tax payers. It is also heavily subsidized by private hospitals, both non-profit and for profit. There are many providers such as El Centro de Corazon and Vecino that are doing great work around the county, but they can only do so much. Texans' tax dollars in Washington are not coming back to our state and county to provide relief to local taxpayers and support for providers. That is simply wrong. But the more important aspect of the health care debate gets lost in the political arguments. That is the fact that massive human potential is wasted when so many people are lacking medical homes and basic health care, such as immunizations and other preventive medicine.

And speaking of immunizations, a large unvaccinated population would be a potential disaster. We must continue to educate the public, debunk scary myths and protect our community.

Perhaps it is time to reexamine the basic approach being taken to indigent health care. The Harris County Hospital District, now known as Harris Health, defines indigent as 200 percent of the federal poverty income level. Surrounding counties define indigent as low as 21 percent. There needs to be a uniform definition, such as 138 percent - a level used in the Affordable Care Act. Beyond uniformity, other basic changes would be helpful. Should indigent health care be solely a county responsibility or is it time for the State to establish regional health care systems that support private clinics, hospitals and programs?

Of course, I can't talk about Harris County and health care without focusing on mental health. I and others have pointed out repeatedly that the largest mental health facility in Texas is the Harris County Jail. Thanks to the efforts of the 2013 Legislature, a pilot program has been established to develop a jail diversion program to remove the so-called "frequent flyers" from the criminal justice system and get them the mental health attention they need. But much more is required. The Harris County Psychiatric Center, jointly owned by the county and the state, has 274 beds. Harris County has nearly 4.5 million residents. Enough said. Texas must step up to its responsibilities in the area of mental health by funding more facilities and making sure that mental health authorities function as effectively and efficiently as possible. With regard to transportation infrastructure, the problem is obvious. If our region is to continue to grow and prosper, the transportation system - all modes - must be constantly maintained and expanded.

The county commissioners face a daunting task trying to provide roads for the influx of people into Harris County, not to mention dealing with the impact of major facilities such as the new ExxonMobil campus, which, by the way, is in unincorporated Harris County.

As the chairman of TxDOT's Freight Advisory Committee, my perspective is simple. If we do not improve the highway, rail and water corridors that carry freight in and around Harris County, our economy will stagnate. For example, the Highway 146 corridor on the east side is the only logical location for an Interstate 69 Bypass, but there are no definite plans, much less funds, to build such a route. Since the theme of this speech is managing change, transportation should be a prime target. Transportation policy cannot just be about roads the way they have been built in the past. Our transportation vision must embrace all modes and be flexible by recognizing that different parts of the county have different requirements. And the county and municipal utility districts must find a way to work together to maintain streets.

As I said, these two areas - health care and transportation - concern me the most, so I am asking for your help. This is not a political forum, but Harris County needs political help. We need organizations such as yours and individuals such as each of you to support proposals that look to the future rather than pander to some narrow interest. Even more importantly, we need November voters to engage in the primary process. Only then will the party nominees reflect a broad, common sense vision.

There are three more topics I want to mention.

Harris County is a partner in TranStar, the building that - after a recent expansion - houses the premier emergency operations center in the nation. Harris County, TxDOT, the City of Houston and METRO jointly manage the TranStar facility. The 20-year inter-local agreement expires next year. TranStar was originally built for traffic management and monitoring flooding, but it has become much more. It is a great example of cooperation that should be a model for governments to follow in other areas. It is an investment in the security and safety of area residents. I mention TranStar and Harris County's Office of Emergency Management because they are relatively unknown until a major emergency challenges us. As a community, we need to continue supporting TranStar and pool our resources to maintain its technology and responsiveness.

Unlike emergency management, which is a clear responsibility of the county, other issues challenge the county in new ways. In the summer and fall of 2013, there was a well-intentioned but misguided effort to create a new early childhood education program in Harris County. After being determined to be illegal, that effort has now been replaced by a new effort known as Early Matters. I wish that effort well.

The focus on early childhood education, supported by many people and organizations such as the Greater Houston Partnership, caused me to ask myself a basic question. Is there really one thing that is more critical to a child's development than any other? I don't think so. Education, health care, family structure, social services and a host of other factors all play a part in determining the development of a child. But what role does the county government play? I have used my office's child safety funds to launch what I call the Whole Child Initiative. Its purpose is to examine every aspect of a child's life in Harris County and make recommendations, some of which might fall under the purview of Harris County, but many more will not.

No one aspect of children's lives is disconnected from the rest. Thinking that any one thing can promise a better life for them is naive. It is not that easy, so at all levels, we need to take a holistic approach.

Finally, there is one more county issue to address. As you drove into the NRG complex today, you probably noticed a large domed building in the center. In case you have forgotten, here is a video to jog your memory.

I used to bemoan the fact that I had to deal with the Astrodome. No more. After hearing from thousands of people, not all of whom want to keep the Dome, I am thoroughly convinced that it would be a colossal mistake to not use the asset known as the Dome.

In December, the Urban Land Institute made some preliminary recommendations of how to best repurpose the Dome. Their final report is due very soon, but a visionary concept is taking shape that will feature green space, additional parking and a myriad of venues and activities that will not only bring life to the building, but will revitalize this part of town, be of benefit to both the Rodeo and the Texans and will be seen worldwide as an example of our positive, can-do attitude. In fact, it is my fervent hope that the organizers of Super Bowl 51 will not forget that the game will be played in a county facility, even though the county realizes few, if any, financial benefits from the big game. In fact, Harris County will incur significant costs related to emergency preparation and security and other matters important to a successful event.

If we all pull together, the Dome can be a memorable site for some of the Super Bowl fans' experience. It would be a shame to miss such an opportunity.

Immediately after the luncheon, I invite all of you to join me inside the Dome and let your imaginations soar regarding her potential for the future. We have buses waiting outside to deliver you right to the Astrodome floor for a brief visit before returning you here to the NRG Center.

As I stand before you, Harris County is one of the most dynamic places in the world, and county government is performing well. Our current situation did not happen by accident. It is a product of many, many decisions. Each of those decisions was part of the process of managing change. Many of those decisions were controversial, supported by a bare majority. Harris County and Houston and surrounding counties and cities have the potential to be known worldwide as a great place to live, do business and visit. It will only happen if we manage the process of change to the benefit of Gabe and Albert and generations to come.