As we come to the close of 2017 and prepare for new challenges in 2018, I think it’s worth taking the time to review some of the more significant actions taken by the Jersey Village City Council over the course of the past year. I’ll also go over what I believe to be some of the biggest issues facing our city government in 2018 and how I believe we can address those issues in a way that benefits our city.
There is no doubt that flood mitigation is and will continue to be one of the biggest issues facing Jersey Village for the foreseeable future. It is no coincidence that it is on the top of this list. Jersey Village City Council must continue to make flood mitigation our top priority while continuing to manage other important responsibilities of city government.
City council initiated the process of developing the Long Term Flood Recovery Plan in mid-2016, with a Request for Qualifications approved by council in June 2016, followed by city council authorizing the city manager to negotiate a contract with Dannenbaum Engineering Corporation for professional services related to the development of the plan in August 2016, and finally authorizing the city manager to enter into an agreement with Dannenbaum in September 2016. (You’ll notice that city governments in Texas, by design, cannot operate quickly or efficiently when it comes to entering into major contracts.)
After months of work analyzing the flooding problem, meeting with city staff, and conducting three different public meetings on flooding, Dannenbaum presented to city council a final Long Term Flood Recovery Plan in August 2017. At the same meeting, council immediately voted to request Dannenbaum to develop detailed proposals for a number of engineering projects, including the golf course berm project identified in the flood recovery plan.
Unfortunately, city council also faced some significant challenges and obstacles in pursuing the flood recovery plan. As we recently discovered, Dannenbaum was unable to come forward with a proposal for the golf course berm within the costs outlined in the flood study. At this time, our city staff is working with another engineering firm in order to analyze the project and develop a proposal that would better fit within the financial parameters presented in the flood study.
Our city staff was also advised by the Harris County Flood Control District that projects affecting the White Oak Bayou channel, such as widening and/or deepening the channel to increase its capacity, would only be approved as projects downstream were completed. The reason for this restriction is that changes made in the upstream portion of the bayou channel without adequate changes first made downstream could make flooding in those downstream segments of the bayou far worse. Therefore, even if the city were to offer to provide advance funding to the Harris County Flood Control District for channel projects in Jersey Village, such projects would not be completed any sooner.
Instead, city council and our city staff have been in regular communications with the Harris County Flood Control District, County Commissioner Jack Cagle and Congressman John Culberson in order to aggressively make the case for expedited funding and approval of projects in the White Oak Bayou watershed.
Jersey Village was extraordinarily fortunate to have been spared from any significant damage to homes during Hurricane Harvey in late August. What became clear is that our current stormwater systems are capable of handling a significant amount of water when hourly rainfall is more moderate than the April 2016 flooding we witnessed. During recent conversations with Congressman Culberson, he indicated that Hurricane Harvey may finally spur Congress to fund many projects in the White Oak Bayou that have remained shelved for over 20 years.
Our city manager also applied for a number of grants, including funding from FEMA for home elevations in areas where residents are likely to continue to experience flooding even after flood mitigation projects are completed. We will find out in 2018 whether we were selected for award of these grants.
In the coming year, city council must continue to press forward with the following priorities in the area of flood mitigation:
- Continue to place a high priority on the golf course berm project and stormwater drainage improvements for Wall and Capri Streets: Homes on and near these streets remain at a heightened threat of flooding due to sheeting of water from the golf course and the inadequate nature of the 40+ year old stormwater drainage systems on these streets. We can still complete the golf course berm in 2018 and can begin the engineering work on the stormwater drainage systems next year with the goal of beginning work in late 2018 or early 2019. Due to rules surrounding flood control projects, the city cannot begin street work until the golf course berm is complete.
- Increase pressure on our regional and federal authorities for prioritization of White Oak Bayou watershed flood mitigation projects: We cannot take our foot off of the peddle regarding the urgency of obtaining federal funding for these projects or the initiative of the Flood Control District in initiating these projects once funded.
- Seek additional funding for additional flood mitigation: Just as we did in 2017, our city staff will continue to find and apply for grants to fund the projects identified in the Long Term Flood Recovery Plan.
Jersey Village had a rather interesting year when it came to leadership from our city government. Former Jersey Village city manager Mike Castro resigned his position in August 2016, which required city council to hire an interim city manager. While that interim city manager served in 2016 and in early 2017, he too stepped aside, in this case due to health issues. In order to maintain continuity of operations in the city, the city council decided to appoint Jersey Village Police Chief Eric Foerster to serve as interim city manager as the search for a new city manager was finalized in the first quarter. Needless to say, Chief Foerster performed admirably, particularly in light of the fact he was serving in two positions which are each challenging in their own way.
City council narrowed their search for a new city manager to a few finalists and reached an agreement early in 2017 with Austin Bleess, who officially started as our city manager on March 20, 2017. Since that time, Austin has done an excellent job getting up to speed on the various issues in our city and has already made significant strides in improving our city and the functioning of its government.
Of course, we also had an election in May 2017 in which Mayor Justin Ray and Council Member Greg Holden were each re-elected to their respective positions. Mayor Ray was sworn into his final consecutive term as Mayor and Council Member Holden began his third consecutive term (his second non-consecutive stint on city council). Their knowledge and leadership has been invaluable this year. I was also fortunate to be elected to Place 3 on city council this year. It has been an extraordinary and humbling experience.
As I enter 2018, my personal goal is to continue to work closely with our city staff to find ways to make our government more responsive to the needs of our citizens, more cost efficient, and more transparent. Speaking of which…
When I campaigned for my seat on city council, I made it clear that transparency was one of my key concerns. This is not because our city government has particularly lacked transparency compared to other cities in Texas, but instead because I believe any government should continuously work to identify potential improvements in transparency. Without a continual review of transparency, government inevitably backslides into practices which make it difficult for citizens to completely and accurately observe the work performed by their elected officials and staff, and therefore makes choices at the ballot box less informed. Through the use of modern technology, it is possible to provide citizens with far greater access to their elected officials and information about how their tax dollars are spent than ever before.
In November 2017, the Jersey Village City Council unanimously approved my proposal to broadcast its meetings through the Internet beginning with the March 2018 regular session. These broadcasts will be live and archived for later access. Video will also be broadcast on tape delay on the municipal access cable channel.
Since I was elected, I have also been working with our city manager and our finance staff to qualify for the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Transparency Stars program, which recognizes cities and other local government entities for making financial data available to taxpayers in a manner that is easy to understand and study. We are well on our way to qualifying for four out of five stars. The fifth star will take some more work due to some issues with exporting data from our accounting software in a format that is easy for citizens to sort and utilize for their own analysis. I’m confident that we will get there very soon.
Moreover, our police department has been working with the developer of their crime database software to create crime reports that overlay on a map to allow citizens and those who are considering purchasing a home in Jersey Village to objectively review our low crime levels against surrounding areas. Such data visualization should help us to make the case to potential home buyers regarding the outstanding work of our police department. We all know how safe Jersey Village truly is, but we can do a better job in making that case. More importantly, however, it will also allow citizens to have a better understanding of where crime is actually occurring in our city.
As we enter 2018, I will continue to work with our city staff on these projects and identify additional ways we can make government more accessible and responsive to our citizens.
Our city staff and city council did an excellent job this past year in laying the groundwork for what is certain to be a bright future for economic development in Jersey Village.
In July, the Jersey Village City Council approved the creation of a new Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) in the Jersey Village Crossing area located along Jones Road just south of Highway 290. A TIRZ works by dedicating the property taxes collected above a set base value (also known as a “tax increment”) in a defined area to certain improvements or incentives within the zone. The benefits of such a zone are that they can be used to attract developers to an area that would otherwise be slow to develop, and the costs of infrastructure and incentives that are used to attract the developers are paid out of the taxes that are collected as a result of the investments made by those developers. The TIRZ has been used by small and large cities throughout Texas with great success.
The seven person Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone board met for the first time recently (I’m honored to serve as council liaison to the board) to discuss development in the zone and is currently reviewing the preliminary financing plan approved by city council earlier this year.
I am confident that we will begin to see the fruits of this effort over the next several years.
Implementation of the Jersey Village Comprehensive Plan
Two years ago, a committee made up of citizens created a plan for the future of our city. The document containing this plan is the Jersey Village Comprehensive Plan. You can click here to read the plan itself, and if you would like a more detailed explanation of what the Comprehensive Plan is and how it is used, you can click here.
Here are some of the items from the Jersey Village Comprehensive Plan that have been implemented or started during 2017:
- Wayfinding and Gateway Improvements – The Jersey Village City Council authorized the city manager to enter into a contract with a firm for the purpose of designing improved wayfinding (signs which provide directions to various city services and amenities) and gateways in the various entrances to Jersey Village. You can view some of the initial proposed designs by clicking here. Hopefully we will be able to begin work on these projects in 2018.
- Park Improvements – One of the key elements of the Comprehensive Plan included identifying and implementing improvements to our parks. Some of the specific park elements cited in the plan included both a dog park and a splash pad. City council approved the construction of a dog park near the detention pond along Rio Grande and included funding for a splash pad in the 2017-2018 budget with the intention of building the splash pad near the municipal pool in 2018. As of right now, both projects are on track to be completed next year.
- Jersey Village Farmer’s Market – Thanks to the efforts of our city staff and a group of dedicated volunteers, the Jersey Village Farmer’s Market began in July 2017 and has continued to grow every month since then.
- Improvements to Facilities and Marketing of the Golf Course – The Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee debated the merits of the golf course at length and agreed that the city needed to do a better job of improving facilities at the golf course and marketing it to the public at large. This year, city council gave the city manager approval to create a social media presence for the city, including the golf course. The council also approved the use of funds from the Hotel Occupancy Tax to renovate the golf course club house. While the clubhouse improvements have not yet begun, the increased marketing of the golf course has resulted in increased revenues. The ultimate goal is to ensure that the golf course is able to sustain itself without the need to expend general revenue funds.
One of my goals for 2018 is to continue to review items from the Jersey Village Comprehensive Plan and identify strategies from the plan that we can implement in the near future. The Comprehensive Plan is scheduled to be reviewed by a citizen committee again in 2019 (full committee reviews are conducted every four years), at which time adjustments can be made to the plan to reflect the changing needs of our city and its residents.
Looking Ahead to 2018
As we prepare to celebrate the new year, I remain optimistic about the future of Jersey Village. With construction on Highway 290 still on schedule for completion in 2018 and a regional economy that continues to expand, our city is prepared for the many opportunities and challenges that will inevitably come. City council must continue to ensure this city meets the needs of its current residents and protects their investment in their home by making our city as attractive as possible to potential new residents.
Entering this new year, as you prepare your resolutions, I encourage you to resolve to become a more active participant in our local government. Come out to a city council meeting to learn more about how your elected officials represent you. When online video streaming of our meetings begins in March 2018, take the time to watch. If you have a question, concern or complaint about how city government is functioning, contact your city council members (we’re all elected at-large, meaning we all represent you). If you’re so inclined, I encourage you to apply to serve on one of our various citizen committees.
Whatever you do, remember that democracy is not a spectator sport. It only works when you become an active participant.