Jun 14, 2023 - News

Advocates push for new Houston parks funding formula

Houston park dedication fund balances by sector
Data: City of Houston; Map: Rahul Mukherjee/Axios

Houston advocates are lobbying the city to change its funding formula for park expansion and improvements.

Catch up quick: There are 21 park sectors in Houston grouped together by the city's dartboard of freeways.

  • Each sector has a dedicated fund for new parks and park improvements that was created in 2007 by City Council.
  • In Houston, developers of housing communities are forced to either build parks in their development or pay into their sector's fund at $700 per unit as they build new homes, a price point that hasn't changed since 2007.

Of note: These funds are not used for routine maintenance or workers' salaries, which instead come out of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department's annual budget.

Why it matters: The current system gives preference to more affluent parts of Houston, like sector 14 — containing River Oaks, Montrose and the Memorial Park area — which has $11 million ready to work with, per a budget questionnaire posted online by council member Sallie Alcorn.

Meanwhile, less affluent communities have fewer assets.

  • Third Ward has $343,000 in the bank, while the Greater East End has only $89,000.
  • The reason for the disparity is that some areas of town have more development than others, according to Estella Espinosa, spokesperson for the Parks and Recreation Department.
  • In total, the sectors' funds add up to $31.4 million.

Driving the news: Advocates, including Greater Third Ward Super Neighborhood vice president Ed Pettitt, want a deal like Houston's new sidewalk program, which similarly divvies up the city into sectors and uses developer fees to fund sidewalk improvements in each sector.

  • However, the new sidewalk program has one caveat: 30% of the developer fees go toward projects citywide instead of staying inside the sector in order to provide a more equitable distribution of funds.

Instead of the current system, Pettitt wants 30% of the available park sector funds to be distributed for improvements to parks citywide.

What they're saying: "We've redlined certain communities out of funding," Pettitt told a City Council committee Monday.

Between the lines: The push is part of a larger agenda to get more funding for the Columbia Tap Trail in Third Ward, which has long been underserved since it was created in 2009.

  • The same advocates want to see the Houston Parks Board — which oversees several linear parks along Houston's bayou system — take over operations for Columbia Tap and turn it into its own linear park with funding from the sector's park fund.
  • Currently, the trail is operated by Houston Public Works and lacks key safety features like 911 call boxes, surveillance cameras and lighting, advocates argue.

What we're watching: How City Council and Mayor Sylvester Turner, who sets the council's agenda, respond.

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