October 13, 2020

Estimating the Anticipated Fiscal Impacts of the Sidewalks Charter Propositions

Pursuant to state law, today the City has published the official Notice of Election on three resident-petitioned sidewalks charter propositions, including estimates of the anticipated fiscal impacts of each of the proposed amendments if approved by the voters.  Because it’s really not that simple—“standalone” sidewalks must be distinguished from those coupled with new street and drainage infrastructure, and there are a number of possible scenarios to consider for individual projects and locations—the Notice gives a range of anticipated fiscal impacts.  The City has therefore additionally published an accompanying Fiscal Impacts supplement discussing them in greater detail and attempting to address some of the unknowns.

Depending perhaps on your perspective, the fiscal impacts are rather modest in terms of dollars and cents.  As I’ve written previously, the real impact is on the sequencing and timing of expenditures, in that the City would be forced to do things out of order (Prop A) and before the required resident consent (Prop B) could be obtained.  All sidewalk projects include engineering and design, obviously, and so there’s no increased cost associated with those items.  Rather, it’s by mandating that work be completed prior to seeking resident consent that these amendments would have the greatest impact in determining whether new projects are initiated at all.  To do so would risk taxpayer funding on sidewalks when there’s a good chance they’ll never be constructed.  (And to set the record straight on that last point, it’s a red herring to conflate sidewalks with drainage, or engineering and design with conceptual planning; those are demonstrably false comparisons.)

Apparently not contemplated in the propositions, but further complicating any attempt to estimate their fiscal impacts, is the likelihood of having to repeat certain steps of the process.  Say the residents of a particular block have indicated their general receptiveness to the idea of a sidewalk (because surely the City would have asked at least informally before proceeding with engineering and design), but once the detailed plans are delivered at least six months prior to formal consideration (Prop A), it becomes a negotiation.  The residents would have every right to withhold their consent and demand changes to the plans (and no one should fault them for that), potentially resulting in a prolonged back-and-forth until either 50% approval is achieved (Prop B) or the project is abandoned.  In attempting to estimate the anticipated fiscal impacts, it’s impossible to know how much money might be spent on plan revisions, or how many times the process under Prop A, and then Prop B, would have to be restarted, with final consideration pushed six months further out each time.

Even if it’s the residents who initiate the project by making a request to the City to have a sidewalk installed on their block, there’s no carve-out for that; the wording of the propositions makes clear their requirements could not be waived in such (or any) circumstances.  Setting aside the question of funding—although realistically, in the absence of a bond program or some other plan to pay for requested sidewalks that’s probably the only question—all of the same considerations would still apply.  The residents’ having made the request would not itself satisfy Prop B or alter any of the timelines or sequencing of the process.  But of course it would suggest there’s a lesser risk that the money spent under Prop A would ultimately be wasted.

Also note that while the six-month deadline under Prop A is tied to the City Council’s final consideration of an ordinance for the construction of a new sidewalk, Prop B would have to be satisfied no more than three months prior to the commencement of the actual construction.  Depending on construction schedules—since it’s not like the contractor has their crews lined up and equipment idling outside City Hall the night of the Council meeting—it may not always be possible for them to start within three months.  When it’s not, and each time it’s not, Prop B would be triggered once again.

Alternatively, the City might hold off on requesting consent under Prop B until construction could be scheduled, but that would mean the ordinance would have already been adopted, conditioned on later obtaining that consent.  With the City’s obligations to the contractor so uncertain, would they in fact schedule a commencement date, tying up their crews and equipment prematurely?  Would they even bid on the project in the first place?  If not, or if even some potential bidders choose not to, might the bids we do get be much higher as a result?  That would be another fiscal impact that, while foreseeable, cannot possibly be estimated.

Turning to Prop C, which would require offsetting any additional water runoff caused by the installation of a new sidewalk, estimating the anticipated fiscal impact is comparatively straightforward.  For sidewalks coupled with street and drainage improvements, there would be no fiscal impact at all because the amount of runoff attributable to the sidewalk would be too insubstantial to warrant any increase in the size of the sewer pipe that’s already included in the project.  It’s for standalone sidewalks that different scenarios and cost estimates come into play, depending on the infrastructure already existing on the block in question.  At one end of the spectrum are standalone sidewalks added to blocks with existing underground storm sewers with sufficient inlet capacity; at the other are blocks without storm sewers, for which Prop C would necessitate either grinding down or removing and replacing gutter lines to create additional capacity, or going ahead and installing sewers.  The capacity needed wouldn’t be much, but since you can’t do just a tiny fraction of a project like that, for whatever attempt might be made to offset that minimal increase the potential costs would vary depending on the specific scope of work identified.

So as you can see, estimating the anticipated fiscal impacts of the three proposed charter amendments isn’t all that simple.  I’m sure there are countless other scenarios and variations that could come up that haven’t been thought of or addressed.  I would encourage you to read through the entire Fiscal Impacts supplement, as it illustrates not only the range of potential fiscal impacts but also the mechanics of how this would all work, and then decide for yourself.

Also keep in mind that regardless what happens with this charter election, it’s not going to magically resolve the debate.  Sidewalks always have been, and will continue to be, a subject of fierce disagreement in Bellaire.  Those who want them and those who don’t aren’t going to suddenly change their minds based on the outcome.  That being the case, this election isn’t really even about sidewalks, but about the City Charter.

As an independent home-rule municipality, Bellaire enjoys the privilege of self-governance through a democratically elected City Council, pursuant to the Charter.  It is the foundational instrument reserving to the people our right to decide the future direction of our city, and it belongs to all of us.  Amending the Charter is the ultimate exercise of our self-governance, and whether or not to do so is a weighty question that all voters should consider carefully.