in Houston, Texas

Feeling soaked by the Houston drainage fee? Look at the city's database and the Texas Watchdog/ABC 13 investigation

Wednesday, Jul 27, 2011, 10:19PM CST
By Lee Ann O'Neal
flooding

A massive new drainage program has drawn criticism from Houston residents, who worry  the implementation of a new fee has been slipshod or worse.

“It’s a bad science experiment,” west side Houston resident Clyde Bryan told the InFocus team at KTRK ABC 13, who partnered with Texas Watchdog on an investigation into the drainage fee, to be used for projects to stem flooding. Bryan said the drainage map for his street has missing houses and driveways, and that he worries the city is not accurately figuring the fee.
 
But city officials defend the program, and Mayor Annise Parker blamed any problems on how quickly the fee has been implemented. Property owners received the first bills this month.
 
“We are building a car while driving it,” Parker told KTRK. “This is light speed for a government entity to implement something this complicated this fast.”
 
Voters approved the fee last November, but politics and math problems have mired its implementation. The program was sold as one without any exceptions, but the City Council later exempted churches and schools. Parker pitched the referendum with the promise of an average homeowner bill of $5 a month, but the actual bills turned out higher, and the city ratcheted down the rate structure to compensate.
 
But the problems don’t end there. View a video report from the InFocus team at KTRK ABC 13 here, and access the drainage fee data below.
 
Texas Watchdog has posted the data as a searchable database (below) and also in two (large) downloadable Excel files --- broken into records where all information was released (about 42 MB) and a file with records for accountholders who had requested confidentiality of identifying information (about 6 MB). The downloadable files are the raw data we obtained from the city of Houston in mid-June -- see this readme file. The data accessed in the searchable database are a combination of the city's records and a few fields calculated by Texas Watchdog.
 
Some records may have changed as the city made corrections and updates since we obtained the data. To see the most up-to-date bills, please refer to the city's website.

Tips for Using the Searchable Database:
  • You can search on any combination of fields, for example, just by street name, or by street name and name on account, etc. The search engine will return results that meet all of the criteria you select.
  • In the NAME ON ACCOUNT field, search by last name, or last then first names or company name. So you could search for Smith or Smith Harry or ABC Corp. A search for Smith Harry will return any records where the name on the account contains the phrase Smith Harry.
  • In the STREET NAME field, search by the base street name --- Main or Travis--- leaving off any prefixes or suffixes --- East or Blvd. A search for Harrisburg will return any records where the address contains the word Harrisburg.
  • In the ZIP CODE field, search by the 5-digit zip code. A search for 77002 will return all records where the five-digit zip code is exactly 77002.
  • If you can't find the record you're looking for, it may be that that information has been held confidential by the accountholder, allowable under Texas law. About 140,000 of the more than 550,000 accounts in the database fell into this confidential category.
Questions? Need help searching for something in particular? E-mail us at leeann@texaswatchdog.org or call 713-980-9777.
 
Online Database by Caspio
Click here to load this Caspio Online Database.
 
Guide to the Results:
  • OriginalImpervArea - City's estimate of the impervious surface area at this address (in square feet).
  • OriginalAnnualChrg - City's original estimate of the annual bill due (before the 1,000-square-foot adjustment).
  • EstNewImpervArea - Texas Watchdog's estimate of the new impervious surface area, used to figure bills, based on the city's decision to lower all property owners' bills by an amount equal to what was due on the first 1,000 square feet of impervious surface area. Negative numbers mean that the property had less than 1,000 square feet of impervious area to begin with, and so our estimate is that the accountholder will not owe a fee.
  • EstAdjustedAnnual - Texas Watchdog's estimate of the new annual bill due (after the 1,000-square-foot adjustment). If this figure is negative (indicated by a number in parentheses), our estimate is that the accountholder will not owe a fee.
  • DrainageClass - Type of drainage system for the property, which is one factor in how the city calculates the bill.
  • LandArea - Total area of the property (in square feet).
  • SqFtRate - The city is levying the fee based on two rates, $0.032 per square foot of impervious surface area and $0.026 per square foot. The higher rate applies to nonresidential properties and residential properties with a curb and gutter drainage system. The lower rate applies to residential properties with an open ditch drainage system.

***
Contact Lee Ann O'Neal at 713-980-9777 or leeann@texaswatchdog.org

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Photo of "Houston Flooding' by Flickr user Dave77459, used via a Creative Commons license.

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