Russell Poppe: Unique Public Meetings Drive Strong Support for $2.5B Post-Hurricane Harvey Bond Issue
After Hurricane Harvey caused $125 billion in damage to Harris County, Texas, in 2017, discussions at Harris County Flood Control District turned to recovery and building resilience against future storms.
The culmination of those efforts was a $2.5-billion bond program that in its final iteration contains 237 flood-risk reduction projects across Harris County’s 22 watersheds.
In June, after the Harris County Commissioners Court approved a special election for the bond program to be held on Harvey’s one-year anniversary, Aug. 25, “we started talking about how do we roll this thing out and how do we make sure that we have enough community support so it passes,” especially since voter turnout for a special election would not be as high as for a normal election, says Russell Poppe, executive director of the district, a special-purpose district that provides flood damage reduction projects across the county.
It was at this point that the idea to have 23 community meetings in each of Harris County’s watersheds was suggested as the best way to educate and solicit input from residents not only on the existing list of projects but also on other projects the community wanted addressed.
“These were held in all the watersheds over the span of just over two months. We were averaging four to five of these meetings a week,” Poppe says.
Under Poppe’s leadership, the district’s team organized and executed all 23 meetings, with most of the staff, including Poppe, attending nearly every single one. More than 3,800 residents attended these meetings.
The district held an additional 120 smaller meetings with civic associations, homeowners’ associations and other groups in the county over the summer.
Thirty-eight of the 237 projects on the final bond program were the direct result of the community meetings—a total of $482.85 million worth of work—ranging from studies, such as one looking at micro-detention, to major maintenance projects, explains Matt Zeve, deputy executive director of the district.
The meetings were the first of their kind associated with a local bond program, Poppe explains, with the goal being to both engage with and seek input from the public.
“[Poppe] and [Zeve] did an amazing job of engaging with the public,” says Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle. “They sat down and spoke with the residents of Harris County, rather than speaking at them.”
In part because of the district’s efforts, the bond passed with the support of more than 85% of voters, making it the largest bond Harris County voters have ever approved.
“It wasn’t just the Flood Control District. It took a lot of collaboration from across many different governmental agencies,” Poppe says. “It’s been a great experience, and certainly key to the success of the bond program.”