The individuals and firms leading Renew Houston, a ballot measure on a new fee to improve the city’s drainage and streets, have collectively made more than $12 million from the city in the past five years for their work on city projects, city records show.
The payments bolster an argument that opponents of the drainage fee have made --- that the engineers are in it for their own pocketbooks. They say that's one of many reasons voters should reject the fee by voting 'against' Proposition 1 on Tuesday.
“This is an issue driven by engineers who can make more money off the city for the next 25 years,” said Bruce Hotze, a Houston businessman who is part of the political committee No Rain Tax.
But the backers including the most prominent supporter, Mayor Annise Parker, downplayed the interest they may have in the measure, pointing instead at the expertise the engineers have on drainage. This is the most viable plan to address the city's flooding problems, which crop up in some places after the slightest rains, they say.
“I think the argument I hear most against Proposition 1 is that it came from a bunch of drainage engineers,” Parker said. “No duh. Who knows the problems we have with drainage better than they do?"
Renew Houston's leaders and their firms have done extensive business with the city since June 2005, much of it on drainage and streets projects, city records show:
- Pate Engineers, where one of Renew Houston’s chief spokesmen Jeff Ross is an executive, has made $6.1 million.
- Walter P. Moore and Associates, where Edwin Friedrichs, another officer of Renew Houston, is a senior principal, has been paid more than $3.7 million in the same period.
R.G. Miller Engineers, where Jack P. Miller is president, has been paid nearly $1.4 million.
Jones & Carter has made $925,000. Bob Jones, its president/CEO and another member of the Renew Houston team, said his work for the city plays no role in his stance on the tax issue.
Costello Inc., the firm of Councilman Stephen Costello, has been paid more than $45,000.
- Together, these backers and their firms have given $37,500 to Renew Houston, which has taken in $336,300 total, according to the group's statement of contributions. But an equally strong show of support is the $300,000 they and their firms have loaned to the effort.
Jones said his group is simply telling residents that there is a problem and it will take money to fix it, akin to a doctor telling a sick patient the same thing.
He added that he can't benefit from the new levy, anyway, because he’s retiring in a year or two.
“I will not personally make any money off of this,” Jones said.
But while city accounting records show payments of almost $1 million to his firm, Jones questioned the figures.
“I never made hundreds of thousands working cumulatively for the city,” Jones said. ”We do very little work for the city of Houston.”
Renew Houston was formed as a nonprofit in March 2009 and is headquartered in the offices of the Houston Council of Engineering Companies, whose members stand to collectively make millions of dollars if Proposition 1 passes.
The proposition has been boosted by hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from engineering and construction groups. Costello, Harris County's AFL-CIO, the Houston Contractors Association are among its supporters. The group has spent more than $500,000 on garnering support of the measure.
In a call with bloggers and journalists Monday, Parker was dismissive about the financial ties of Renew Houston's supporters.
"Yes, it is the same pool of people who do business with the city," Parker said. "Now does that mean it’s not valid, that we don’t need to spend money on drainage because of the messenger? Don’t kill the messenger."
The measure is opposed by several city council members and a number of fiscally conservative factions including two political action committees, Taxpayers for Financial Accountability and No Rain Tax, as well as the Houston Independent School District, which claims it will have to lay off teachers if the measure passes.
Critics have seized on what they claim is a vagueness on what the fee will be and how the projects would be prioritized. Parker says it will cost $5 a month for the owner of a 1,900-square-foot home on a 5,000-square-foot lot. And the order of repair will follow the city's comprehensive drainage plan, according to the mayor.
"We would do this based on the drainage master plan of the city and driven by priority projects,” Parker said. The projects would also be derived from the city's pavement assessment survey, “where we know the conditions of the streets of Houston and work our way through those streets assisted with the drainage plan.”
That approach, she said, “would take the politics out of it.”
The proposal has drawn the ire of the region’s African-American federal and state delegations after Jones, the Renew Houston supporter, sent an e-mail to Houston city councilmember Wanda Adams, who is black, castigating her anti-Prop 1 stance: “Hopefully your community and your district will be able to find some leadership. It is certainly lacking right now.”
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Lee Ann O'Neal contributed to this report.
Photo of rain in Houston by flickr user divinenephron, used via a Creative Commons license.