HOUSTON (CN) – Houston garbage collectors are working 16-hour days picking up piles of soggy building materials removed from flooded homes, and the mayor says the process could drag on until Christmas if a tax hike is not approved to pay for more garbage contractors.
It’s been two more than two weeks since Hurricane Harvey dumped an unprecedented 51 inches of rain on Greater Houston, but evidence of the disaster lingers on curbs throughout the city and unsightly mounds of soggy drywall, carpet, doors and wood flooring that officials say are becoming a rancid health hazard.
Mayor Sylvester Turner has estimated the city will have to pick up 800,000 dump trucks of debris from the more than 125,000 homes flooded by Harvey.
Houston has already spent the $20 million that was in its emergency fund on Harvey recovery efforts, and Turner said at a City Council meeting Tuesday he expects trash disposal costs to exceed $200 million, leaving the city with a more than $20 million bill after the Federal Emergency Management Agency reimburses 90 percent.
So Turner is asking the City Council to approve an 8.9 percent property tax increase for 12 months that would cost the owner of a $225,000 home about $118.
The proposal brought anti-tax advocate Bruce Hotze to the meeting. Hotze, a lifelong Houstonian, said homes owned by two of his children were flooded by Harvey and that some of his displaced family is staying at his house in west Houston. He unsuccessfully intervened in a 2010 lawsuit the city filed to get approval of an increase in sewer and water fees.
Hotze stood at a podium in front of Turner and the City Council for an hour – speakers usually only get two minutes to address the council – his eyes twinkling beneath his bushy eyebrows, as several councilmen told how they are getting dozens of phone calls and emails from constituents each day asking when the city is going to pick up the trash in front of their homes.
Hotze said the city should delay the tax hike until the Harris County Appraisal District can reappraise flooded homes. Houston is Harris County’s seat.
“I’m not against raising taxes to take care of this for the year, but I don’t want to put the burden on those houses that are already flooded out,” he said.
“You want us to go back and reappraise all those homes, how long does that take?” Vice Mayor Pro-Tem Jerry Davis asked Hotze.
“I’m not sure. I would ask HCAD,” Hotze replied, abbreviating the Harris County Appraisal District.
“How many homes are we talking about?” Davis asked.
“We heard 800 here earlier today, just in that one neighborhood.”
“OK, so how many homes are we talking about?”
“I don’t know how many homes there are. The mayor probably knows, or somebody here knows how many homes there are,” Hotze said, his Texas twang faltering beneath Davis’ barrage.
Hotze is CEO of Houston-based Compressor Engineering Corp., a compressor-parts manufacturing company founded by his father in 1964. Hotze owns a home in west Houston that is appraised at $1.3 million, according to public records.
He told Davis that residents of his neighborhood have already removed their flood debris.
“OK great, so I’m glad you answered that because my neighbors haven’t,” fumed Davis, an African-American with a resonant voice.
Davis said, “Yesterday my neighbor asked me when are you going to come get this stuff out of the front yard. If I had the money I would take care of my neighborhood, I would go across the street to the other neighborhood and then down the road to the other neighborhood and get them all. Because they’ve been dealing with it for two weeks now and the smell, it stinks, it’s a health issue.”
“So my point is I’m going to support [the tax hike] because even though it’s going to kill the pocketbooks of some of the people in my district … and I understand it’s not the favorable thing to do. But I do know it’s the right thing to do because they need this taken away,” he added.
Councilman Dave Martin agreed with Davis. Martin represents Kingwood, a northeastern suburb that got soaked as Harvey stalled over the Houston area for four days in late August, before moving east.
A native of New Orleans, Martin said he returned to the Big Easy after Hurricane Katrina tore through the city in August 2005.
“This makes Katrina look like a walk in the park,” Martin said. “The reason why I say that is when the truck comes to your debris spot he can pick up about two or three houses, OK? Two or three houses when we in Kingwood have thousands of houses that are affected.”
Martin said it takes two hours for garbage truck drivers to get through Houston’s heavy traffic to the landfill and back.
“They do the same thing over and over and these guys are working 16 hours a day. It is a needle in a haystack unless you do something drastic, and I’m not going to call it a tax. I’m going to call it an emergency management payment,” Martin said, his eagerness to get the trash up showing in his red face.
Mayor Turner said that in addition to the garbage-disposal costs, the city must also repair two sewage treatment plants in west Houston and a water-purification plant in northeast Houston that were flooded by Harvey, and he isn’t sure if FEMA will pay anything to make the facilities more resilient against floods.
“Nobody wants to pay for taxes. I got that. I got that, but at the same there’s no machine back there printing money either,” Turner said.
Turner said Houston cannot expect any aid from Texas because Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said on Friday the state will not tap into its $10 billion Rainy Day Fund until 2019.
Turner, a licensed attorney, held his hand on his forehead above his glasses, wearily laying out the case that the city must hire private contractors quickly to pick up the storm debris, an appeal he will have to make over and over again in the coming days to win over some council members and residents whose knee-jerk reaction is to resist all new taxes.
“These contractors that are coming on board are not waiting on FEMA. They want to be paid now. To tell them FEMA is going to take care of 90 percent of your costs, but you can’t tell them when it’s coming, they say thank you very much. They want to be paid now, or they’ll go someplace else,” he said.
The city will hold three public meetings about the tax proposal as mandated by city rules, before the City Council votes on it Oct. 18.
Turner said San Antonio and Austin have already sent garbage truck drivers to help Houston clean up and he is working on an agreement with Dallas to send more trucks.
“The goal is now to have an army of crews that are working on our streets and picking up this debris,” he said.