Chron: Bill White’s “new parks” ordinance has mostly funded existing parks

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We were surprised earlier this week by a nice local government watchdog/accountability piece that appeared in the Chronicle.

Background: In 2007, Mayor Bill White and his Council pushed through an ordinance that was sold to the public as a way to increase park space in Houston. The ordinance effectively amounted to a tax on developers, who were required either to set aside land for city parks, or to pay the city a fee (which the city would presumably use to acquire new park space).

In retrospect, we should have anticipated what Jayme Fraser would be reporting years later:

Six years after residential developers began paying a fee city leaders celebrated as a promise to expand park lands, more than $11 million has been collected and not one acre has been purchased.

Parks advocates lauded the 2007 passage of the open space ordinance as the city’s first major promise to expand green space.

A Houston Chronicle review, however, shows city officials spent millions out of the dedicated fund to replace playgrounds and add amenities to existing parks, but not to acquire land.

The open space ordinance was designed to encourage developers to donate land for parks, only paying the fees if they did not dedicate property for open space. Yet, nearly everyone has written checks rather than hand over land. Only 12.8 acres have been dedicated in lieu of fees and just 1 acre is managed by the parks department, rather than a private development.

Interestingly, the 2007 ordinance allowed revenues collected to be spent on acquisition of new park land as well as refurbishment of existing parks.

Was the public misled in 2007?

That last is what should have set off alarm bells at the time (but in our post at the time, it did not) — The White Administration basically pushed through what was effectively a tax on developers, sold it to the public as a way to increase park space, and used the money to “improve” existing parks (a practice that has continued under the Parker Administration).

Former Mayor White all but admits the deception later in the story:

Bill White, who was mayor when the ordinance passed, said the city cannot spend millions each year buying land. Leaders also must ensure funding exists for development and upkeep, he said. “The difference between a safe community park and a weeded lot is maintenance and facilities,” he said.

Translation: He never intended that new money to be used to acquire NEW park land (suckers!).

Peter Brown is now SHOCKED

The reporter chose to use former councilmember Peter Brown as the story’s voice of outrage:

Although the ordinance allows the money to be spent on improvements, many involved in its passage expected that to be secondary to land buys.

“It’s shocking,” said Peter Brown, who was on City Council when the ordinance passed (with his support) and now directs Better Houston, a nonprofit planning group.

Peter Brown shouldn’t act so shocked. At the time, he seemed scared to death that the public might perceive that the City of Houston would do exactly what is has been doing with the fees to fund new *wink* parks:

“Because of the way the ordinance is drafted, I suspect that most everybody will buy their way out of the dedication requirement, and that could open us up to charges of creating a hidden tax,” said Councilman Peter Brown.

Yes, it could. Because that’s pretty much what it was.

Indeed, a cynic might conclude the whole thing was just a nice, green-sounding scheme by Bill White to raise revenues to improve existing parks without touching the property tax rate (because any increase would look bad for his eventual run for bigger office). Too bad it was sold as something else.

Good for the Chronicle for revisiting this issue.

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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX