December 30, 2019

2020 in Focus as New Council Set to Begin

Following another busy and productive year, Bellaire is in good shape as the incoming Council prepares to take office next week.  We’ll be getting right to work, as there’s a lot going on all over the City with no signs of slowing any time soon.  The election of new Council members suggests a change in direction as we look to build upon our past accomplishments while perhaps reenvisioning our future.  With all that’s on our plate we’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so, most notably with the Comprehensive Plan due for periodic review in the coming year.

A steady stream of new development applications commanded much of our attention throughout 2019.  Some were approved and some denied, while others—including the high-profile Bellaire Place at the former Chevron property—are still pending before the Planning and Zoning Commission.  Regardless of the outcomes of individual proposals, this level of sustained interest among the development community, representing significant financial investment in Bellaire, bodes well now and into the future.  Also, pursuant to and in furtherance of one of the primary goals of the Comprehensive Plan, we’re laying the groundwork for commercial area revitalization as part of downtown street and drainage improvements that are on schedule for completion in the spring.

While we continue to make steady progress on local drainage like the downtown project, the bigger storyline over the past year has been in regional flood control.  The Bellaire Master Drainage Concept Plan, now underway in partnership with the Harris County Flood Control District and TxDOT, is in itself a significant achievement.  It sets the table for ongoing regional cooperation and cost participation in the kinds of major, large-scale improvements that will make the biggest difference in more severe storms, which vastly exceed what local systems are designed to handle.  In the coming year we’ll get a better idea of what those projects might look like, and how much they’ll cost.

Authorized but unissued bonds are a likely source to help pay for our share of regional drainage improvements when opportunities arise.  The combination of the federal CDBG-DR grants we were recently awarded, unused sidewalk money and cost savings from earlier phases is enough for us to complete everything we set out to do in our 2016 bond program (plus 23% more in water line replacements than originally planned) with that remaining authority intact.  It has also allowed us to push back by at least two years our forecast for future debt issuances, resulting in a dramatic reduction to our projected debt service tax rate and total indebtedness.

That provides some welcome relief on the debt service side of the equation amid continuing pressure on our annual budgets for maintenance and operations.  We’ll now be faced with a more restrictive legislative revenue cap that disproportionately impacts predominantly residential communities like ours, as we have limited revenues from sources other than property taxes to keep up with rising costs just to maintain existing services, let alone for enhancements.  With that in mind we’ve budgeted an appropriate reserve, which is important to protecting our AAA bond rating, while cutting back on and seeking to contain future growth in personnel costs, our largest expense category.

The resulting tax rate to fund this year’s budget is well within the new legislative revenue cap as though it had gone into effect a year early, while minimizing impacts on city services as much as possible.  (For several reasons it’s not an entirely apt comparison, but it’s a question I get—a lot—our 2019 effective tax rate increase of 1.64% measures favorably against West U.’s 2.17%; as a mostly residential enclave community, they're subject to the same basic constraints we are.)  Our overall tax burden also remains below the statewide average among our peers.

All of the foregoing has prompted good and important public debate about the direction of the City moving forward.  Who we are and what we want to be.  This year’s electoral turnover on City Council signals change, and we’re well prepared through our established strategic decision making process to adapt.  The incoming Council will soon take ownership of our Priorities document, the primary policy statement to which the City Manager and staff look daily in implementing Council direction.  It also happens that the Comprehensive Plan is coming up for its regular five-year review, a concerted and deliberative effort built around direct public engagement.  There will be numerous opportunities for each and every resident to learn more about the Plan, and to contribute to shaping the future of our city.  Your input is essential to defining our priorities and vision, and we look forward to working together with you throughout the new year.