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Houston Mayor Questions Texas’ Definition of “Rainy Day Fund”

A flooded downtown Houston is seen on August 28. (AP Photo/Jason Dearen)

After Hurricane Harvey dumped 50 inches of rain on the Houston metro, the state’s governor, Gregg Abbott, is denying Mayor Sylvester Turner’s request to dip into Texas’ Rainy Day Fund — and the mayor apparently sees the irony of the situation.

Turner sent Abbott a letter requesting access to the $10 billion reserve fund (technically called the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund) on Monday for debris removal and disaster recovery, in an attempt to keep the city from raising property taxes for 12 months. In turn, Abbott on Tuesday “strongly rejected” the mayor’s claim that he could avoid raising local property taxes if the state would tap the fund, the Houston Chronicle reports.

“In times like these, it’s important to have fiscal responsibility as opposed to financial panic,” Abbott said after a briefing with FEMA officials, adding that the mayor seemed to be using Harvey recovery “as a hostage to raise taxes.”

Abbot pointed out that the state has already approved nearly $100 million for debris removal in Houston and implemented an accelerated reimbursement program for recovery efforts. He also said that he would pay any invoice submitted by the city within 10 days, and that city officials in Houston are “sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars” in funds held by Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones. But the city claims it can’t use those funds for Harvey cleanup since they can only be spent in the districts where they were collected, and are largely intended for drainage projects to prevent future flooding.

If the city resorts to the tax-rate increase, it would raise roughly $50 million, and cost about $48 annually for the owner of a $225,000 home, the Chronicle reports.

How much money Houston is able to get its hands on may influence whether it builds back smarter and more sustainably, with future disaster mitigation in mind. As Michael Berkowitz, president of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, told Next City recently:

There is such an incredible opportunity, with the billions of dollars that are going to be spent on infrastructure, that if Houston … thinks about how to rebuild that infrastructure in a way that connects communities instead of disconnecting them, that makes more livable streets that promote neighbors checking on neighbors, or creates an environment where small and medium-sized ventures can flourish and not just the big corporations, all those things are important, real, opportunities for Houston [as it] rebuilds.