Harris County Judge defends 'equity' standard for flood projects

HOUSTON (FOX 26) — A week has passed since FOX 26 News reported emerging fears that Harris County was proposing criteria for funding flood protection projects that would favor some low-income neighborhoods.

Those protests came from a Congressman, a Harris County Commissioner, a local mayor and the Lake Houston Chamber of Commerce.

Houston City Council member Dave Martin called the proposed "equity" component for distributing the $2.5 billion local bond dollars "social engineering" which ignores the pledge of "worst first."

"Greg, I think your reporting was 100 percent accurate," said Martin. "I think because of your reporting, in identifying what I'm going to call a 'bait and switch' approach, a letter was sent out Wednesday, to all the legislators, who got involved in Austin because of the low and moderate income level that was going to be used as criteria to determine how these projects were going to be sequenced."

"Harris County had 23 public meetings, all across Harris County," added Martin. "At each and every public meeting, there was never a low-to-moderate income, an equity factor included in those conversations."

In response to concerns generated by the FOX 26 story, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo did in fact dispatch a letter to Houston-area lawmakers calling our story "misleading" and "inaccurate."

While FOX 26 reported Hidalgo's pledge to "execute" all projects approved by voters, the county judge said that the reporting was unclear to viewers and caused fear.

In a face-to-face interview on Thursday, Hidalgo confirmed that the economic vulnerability of underserved neighborhoods should factor into the order that flood projects are undertaken.

"There are some areas that haven't seen a project in a very long time, that would never see a project were it not for these equity guidelines," said Hidalgo. "Equity is a factor. Equity is the factor."

Hidalgo added that many low-to-middle income areas have been shortchanged by federal guidelines which favor projects in neighborhoods with the highest property values.

"Throughout our county, we have to be able to work and come up with an order that doesn't only look at high property values," said Hidalgo. "It ultimately hurts all of us. It's the right thing to do to look at things more broadly and it's the common sense thing to do."

Hidalgo would not outline how the potential equity standards under consideration would impact the $900 million local bond dollars still uncommitted to specific projects. She did say that since the FOX 26 story aired, the low-income standard for deciding "equity" has been at least temporarily abandoned in favor of a different metric.

"How long has it been since a project was last done? That actually better gets at vulnerable neighborhoods than asking income level," said Hidalgo.

And to critics, Judge Lina Hidalgo offered this message.

"It is not right, nor is it fair, nor is it accurate to create a class warfare around this," said Hidalgo.

There is at least one more public hearing on the issue. Hidalgo said she hopes to bring an equity proposal before Harris County Commissioners Court on March 12.