UPDATED: West U. Ponders Quitting METRO After Chairman’s Comments

December 18, 2009

Controversy has been building this week among 14 Houston-area mayors — Including the mayors of West U., Southside Place and Bellaire — who are worried they will lose substantial chunks of road repair funds their cities currently receive from Houston’s transit authority.

“If METRO pulled the plug on us, then what would the city’s decision be about staying with METRO?” said West University Place Mayor Bob Kelly while briefing the city council about the issue on Dec. 14. West U. officials are researching whether it’s possible to cease membership in METRO altogether.

The controversy started early this week when a Houston newspaper published comments by David Wolff, outgoing chairman of the METRO Board of Directors, saying he thought the transit authority should stop giving money for road improvements to cities in METRO’s service area. The transit authority should instead use the funds to reach its own goals like expanding light rail, commuter rail and more, he said.

“That was money to be used for transit, not for roads,” Wolff told InstantNewsWestU.com. “If METRO were able to regain its birthright it would be able to do much more in terms of transit.”

Mayors in the “multi-cities,” 14 enclave and outlying cities that belong to METRO, became concerned with Wolff’s comments because they say the money is important in their cities and its absence would have negative outcomes. The article left the mayors scrambling to figure out their next moves.

“We don’t want to overreact to an outgoing METRO chairman’s comments,” said West U. City Manager Michael Ross. “Cities like us, we want to understand what our options are. If we don’t like some of those options we want to see what can be done to change those options.”

Ross said West U. City Attorney Alan Petrov is examining state law and an agreement between the city and METRO to determine whether it’s legal for West U. to opt out of membership in the transit authority.

It’s unclear whether that is possible. In 1973 the state legislature passed a law that authorized the creation of local transit authorities. In 1978, Houston-area voters approved the creation of METRO and approved a source of funding for the transit authority.

That funding comes from collecting a portion of the state’s 8.25 percent sales tax from the governments in the transit authority’s service area. Harris County, Houston and the “multi-cities” all contribute 1 percent of their sales tax to METRO’s revenue. The cities get 1 percent for their own coffers, and the state gets the remaining 6.25 percent.

In 1999, METRO formed an agreement to give the cities a “general mobility fund,” which is 25 percent of METRO’s portion of the sales tax. The cities can use the funds for street improvements and transit projects.

METRO’s general mobility fund payment to West U. totals $259,000 per year. West U.’s share of its sales taxes has averaged around $1 million since 2006. That represents about the same amount that METRO gets from its 1 percent of West U. sales taxes.

“West U. and some cities may be at a point where we want to keep that 1 percent,” Ross said.

Wolff said no other Texas transit authorities return 25 percent of their sales-tax funding to member cities, and it was a mistake for METRO to enter the general mobility fund agreements. The agreements expire in 2014. At a board meeting on Dec. 17, Wolff asked other board members to think about the issue and begin public discussions about whether METRO should end the general mobility payments when the agreements expire.

“Between now and then there should be a public dialog among the voters about whether they want a first-class transit authority,” Wolff said. “It’s an issue that should be discussed in the open … Should METRO regain its birthright?”

METRO Board Member Burt Ballanfant, who represents the 14 multi-cities, said he’s been aware of the mayors’ concerns even before Wolff made public comments about ceasing the general mobility payments. He said he will work to address their concerns, but it is time to discuss the matter because of a referendum that voters approved in 2003.

“Under the mandate of the last referendum, that general mobility in some fashion would be put to the pubic for a vote,” Ballanfant said. The referendum mostly dealt with METRO’s plans to extend bus lines and build rail transportation, but it also authorized the general mobility fund.

Mayor Bob Kelly said he and other mayors are waiting to see how the board changes with the new administration of Houston Mayor-Elect Annise Parker, who has authority to appoint five of the nine board members. Many city officials hope the new board will want to continue providing the general mobility funds to cities.

“Get that on your radar screens, because I think not too far into next year this is going to hit a mass fluctuation there and we’re going to have to decide what to do,” Kelly said.

InstantNewsWestu Staff

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