in Houston, Texas
Metro board expected to finalize sales tax referendum Friday
Thursday, Aug 02, 2012, 08:32AM CST
By Mike Cronin
cash register

Sometime Friday, Houston-area voters will learn what question Metro board members will pose to voters on Election Day this November.

Metro is weighing whether to seek greater authority to borrow money or a greater share of local sales taxes, or some combination, after September 2014. The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Houston levies a 1-cent sales tax, keeping most of the collections but  allocating 25 percent to other local governments for street construction and repair.

Options for the referendum include leaving the funding formula as-is to freezing the amount of money Harris County, Houston and 14 smaller cities receive from local sales tax revenues for “general mobility payments” at whatever level they reach in 2014, with proceeds above that flowing to Metro’s coffers.

That second idea is championed by Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia. “We’re trying to find the balance between what we need now and what we’ll need in the years ahead,” Garcia said.

A meeting of the Metro board is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. on Friday at Metro’s headquarters at 1900 Main St. Board members said last week that they plan to agree on a rough draft of the ballot language by the end of the meeting.

(Did Metro keep its promises made during the original 2003 public vote? Click here for to read that story. Click here to see the graphic outlining promises made and promises kept.)

The Harris County Commissioners Court opposes capping the payments. And Houston City Councilman Oliver Pennington last week called for the City Council also to vote on the issue.

But Houston Mayor Annise Parker earlier this summer backed board chair Garcia’s plan.

As mayor, Parker appoints five of Metro’s nine board members. She named Garcia chairman two years ago after he ran her mayoral campaign. The council unanimously reappointed Garcia and the other four Parker-named board members -- Vice Chairman Allen Watson, Dwight Jefferson, Carrin Patman and Christof Spieler -- earlier this summer.

The deadline to place a referendum on the November ballot is Aug. 20.

The local governments have received about $1.04 billion in payments from fiscal year 2004 through May 2012, said Jerome Gray, Metro’s spokesman.

Some people who live in the 14 affected cities, like Bellaire and Katy, say the system could be made more equitable.

“Why can’t Metro tax the additional 23 cities that are getting services?” wonders Theresa Kosmoski, 51, a local-governance consultant who lives in Spring Valley Village. She put that question to the Metro board during a public hearing last month at the Spring Branch campus of Houston Community College.

Christof SpielerChristof Spieler

“We pay the tax but get no Metro service,” Kosmoski said later via phone. “The point is this money is not a gift to Metro. It’s for mobility. Use some of the tax dollars for mobility in the towns that are paying the tax.”

Everyone in the greater Houston area benefits from public transit, responded Spieler.

“We would not be as prosperous, as healthy, or as well educated as we are without places like Downtown, the Texas Medical Center, and the University of Houston, and all of those are dependent on transit,” Spieler said in an e-mail to Texas Watchdog. “Downtown would not be able to function without transit.”

Spieler said Metro specifically serves Spring Valley with its MetroLift service for residents with disabilities and local bus routes in and outside the city’s limits.

“All of the city is within a mile of a Metro bus stop,” he said.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo of cash register by flickr user Johnny Grim, used via a Creative Commons license.

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