County Judges Lina Hidalgo, Trey Duhon and KP George of Harris, Waller and Fort Bend counties, respectively, presented at the Katy Area Chamber of Commerce’s State of the Counties event on …
County Judges Lina Hidalgo, Trey Duhon and KP George of Harris, Waller and Fort Bend counties, respectively, presented at the Katy Area Chamber of Commerce’s State of the Counties event on March 11. The three judges spoke regarding the challenges – economic and otherwise – presented by COVID-19 since the first case in the region was identified in Fort Bend County on Feb. 4, 2020.
“But there’s also hope,” said Hidalgo. “With the vaccinations that are being dispersed in all our counties with top efficiency.”
Hidalgo, who presented via prerecorded video, said the county was closing in on administering 200,000 shots by Harris County Public alone and said the Federal Department of Emergency Management vaccination site was delivering about 6,000 vaccines per day. Still, she said that Harris residents need to be aware of the fact that only about 7% of the county’s population has received the full course of the vaccines, though residents over the age of 65 had a higher rate than the general population at about 40%.
Hidalgo also acknowledged that many in the county are suffering from economic challenges caused by the pandemic. The county has established a joint program with the city of Houston to provide $159 million in rental assistance to county residents who are facing financial difficulties.
“We’ve learned lessons from the previous (rental assistance programs) we’ve done,” Hidalgo said.
Hidalgo also said the county has committed tens-of-millions of dollars for countywide programs to assist residents facing domestic violence, increasing access to high-speed internet for school and work, providing hotspot access for students and supporting childcare to ensure parents can continue to work.
Hidalgo said the county’s achievements included moving forward with 144 projects to improve flood control and resiliency in the county, establishing a $10 million child incubator fund to support the education of Harris County’s children and setting up early voting locations and overnight voting to ensure that, despite the pandemic, voters could safely vote.
Hidalgo also said the county had replaced its budget director to reduce bloating in the county’s budget. The new director, David Berry, has helped the county successfully track money associated with its COVID-19 relief programs.
Duhon said he had begun his tenure as Waller County judge in 2015 and has seen six FEMA events since he was sworn in.
“So let me say this,” Duhon said. “When it comes to emergency management, Waller County has got it covered.”
Duhon praised county staff for their responses to COVID-19 and Winter Storm Uri, paying special attention to Emergency Management Coordinator Brian Cantrell and Road and Bridge Department employees. He also praised county residents for reaching out to one another during both Uri and the challenges of COVID-19.
Duhon said the county is working to get the economy back on track as the pandemic begins to wind down, though he emphasized that the pandemic is ongoing and that he strongly urges residents to continue precautions to protect the community.
“We’ve got our recovery committee up and running, and still, as a community, we’re doing a great job,” Duhon said.
Duhon said the United Way in Brookshire was distributing food and water to those in need along with other organizations throughout the county.
“And we’ll make sure people are taken care of and nobody falls through the cracks, no matter what,” Duhon said. “If they need help, they will get help. If anyone does need help or if you know if anyone that needs help, tell them to contact The United Way in Brookshire – they head up our recovery committee.”
Duhon said the county’s achievements over the last year weren’t isolated to emergency responses. The county also completed multiple building projects, including a new criminal justice center and an annex for the county’s fourth precinct between Katy and Brookshire on Highway 90.
From a fiscal perspective, the county was able to drop the county’s property tax rate by about 7%, Duhon said. The rate, which is the lowest in 32 years, went from $0.662225 per $100 valuation in 2019 to $0.616662 per $100 valuation for the 2020 tax year, a reduction of $0.45563 per $100 of property value. With that decrease, the county was still able to increase its overall budget due to new facilities coming into the county such as Amazon and Ross in the last few years which have increased both sales tax and property tax revenues by millions of dollars, Duhon said. Of the county’s roughly $40 million budget, proceeds from the new Ross Dress for Less distribution center near Brookshire account for $2-3 million, he said.
Waller County is also working on developing a truly balanced budget by changing the way that certain budget items are managed and setting better-projected budgets in place, Duhon said. This helps the county manage its debt better and sets it up to have a better bond rating which will help it prepare for anticipated growth.
“And we’re going to continue to do things to raise – you know – to raise the level in Waller County and keep that quality of life up there,” Duhon said.
Fort Bend County
George was the last to take to the dais and praised his fellow judges for their efforts over the last year of challenges for the region.
George said he was saddened by the impact of COVID-19 in Fort Bend County with more than 52,000 cases confirmed over the last year and 527 fatalities at the time of his speech. However, George said he was heartened by efforts to distribute vaccines in the county which is being done in cooperation with partners such as Memorial Hermann and other area providers, he said.
The economic response from the county includes providing assistance to small businesses as well as distributing CARES Act funding of about $45 million in utility, rental and mortgage assistance to residents, George said. Fort Bend has allocated $53 million toward small business assistance, he added.
Fort Bend County continues to work on mobility and drainage, George said. A mobility bond package passed in November 2020 that will provide more than $218 million in mobility improvements to the county, with many of those in the county’s third precinct which covers most of the Cinco Ranch area.
George said the county is also in the process of constructing an emergency management building which is expected to open sometime in December of this year.
Flood mitigation remains a focus for the county, George said.
“I always say that as long as the Brazos River is in the middle of the county, we will have this problem,” George said.
George did not provide details on drainage projects; however, county records show the county continues to work toward adopting updated studies to predict flooding, improvements to drainage – including improvements to the Buffalo Bayou – and working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make improvements to Barker Reservoir to improve flood mitigation in the Katy area.
Fiscally and from a growth standpoint, George said the county had been able to decrease the county’s property tax rate for 2020 by about half a cent per $100 valuation with a reduction to $0.424967 per $100 from the prior year’s rate of $0.4447 in 2019.
Hidalgo also expressed appreciation for Duhon and George as well as the judges of other neighboring counties for their cooperation as the region has faced several crises over the last few years.
“I’m so grateful for my fellow county judges,” Hidalgo said. “Whether it be flood, fire, pandemic or winter storm recently, I’m grateful to you all.”
The full presentations provided by the Katy Area Chamber of Commerce are below:
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