Harris County Judge Ed Emmett (R-Houston) delivered his seventh “State of the County Address” and set the stage for this coming year’s priorities for the Harris County Commissioner’s Court this week. Emmett also took advantage of the moment to remind everyone that early voting for the 2014 Primaries is underway and to go vote.
Emmett began by stating strongly, “As I stand before you, the financial condition of Harris County government is excellent.” He credited his County Budget Team led by Bill Jackson for presenting budgetary approaches designed to meet the rapidly changing conditions of a growing Harris County. “Without sound finances,” Emmett said, “no entity can perform well, so Harris County is in a good position financially.”
Judge Emmett put forth a series of priorities for his staff to focus on for the coming year. “Those priorities include,” Emmett stated, “finding a solution for the fate of the Astrodome; fully developing a pilot program to divert individuals with mental health issues from the county jail; using the expansion of the TranStar facility to make Harris County’s Office of Emergency Management even more effective; and creating a clear plan for a regional, multi-modal transportation system that will allow our county and region to live up to its potential as the Gateway of North America.”
Beyond these issues, Emmett laid out other areas in county government that will require ongoing attention. “Harris Health and Harris County must still provide health care to those who cannot afford it.” Emmett explained. “Indigent health care is not merely about providing services to those who need help. It is about protecting the entire community from disease and possible pandemic.”
Emergency preparedness has also long been a priority of Harris County. “With the creation and state funding of the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, of which I am a board member,” Emmett stated, “we are analyzing approaches to lessen the devastation to life and property caused by hurricanes in our area.” Emmett also recognized former County Judge and State Senator Robert Eckels for his work in this area.
Emmett emphasized education as a priority for Harris County. “This past year saw a well-intentioned, but misguided effort,” Emmett stated, “to fund a limited early childhood education program. I would note that it is important to focus on having the “right players” involved. For example, school districts might be a good place to start. And there is a statewide effort under way to improve early childhood education.”
Emmett continued,” However, there are many aspects to giving children what they need to perform well as students and, ultimately, as adults in the workforce. Day care, education, nutrition, health care and the development of non-cognitive skills are all important. While the county government does not touch all of these, I believe we have the opportunity to create a forum for what I call “whole child development.” As county judge, I will create such a forum this year.”
Emmett went on to discuss a broader issue relating to the fundamental nature of governance of this growing region of Texas. Emmett discussed the massive growth of Harris County noting that when he moved here in 1966 there was no loop 610 or Katy Freeway. Houston Intercontinental Airport was still on the drawing boards and the Astrodome was still the “8th Wonder of the World.
“Just think how much change – overwhelmingly positive change – has occurred since then,” Emmett said. “A lot of the change was driven by the private sector, as new businesses flourished, foundered and flourished again. Individuals and families made lifestyle choices that changed the landscape. And through it all, different governmental entities took actions or, in some cases, failed to act.”
“Frequently, I hear people say this or that has to happen to make Houston a ‘world class city.’ That is the wrong goal,” Emmett stated. “Please don’t get me wrong. I love the City of Houston. But the City of Houston is only one component part of Harris County and the larger multi-county region.”
More than 1.6 million people live in unincorporated Harris County today. In fact, if the city does not change its policy of very limited annexation by the next census, more people will live in unincorporated Harris County than inside the City of Houston. That makes Harris County and, indeed, our region vastly different from other urban counties and regions.”
Therefore,” Emmett continued, “our goal should be to redefine our region as the model of what a community born of the automobile age can become. Rather than try to emulate what has been deemed successful in cities and communities that grew up before the advent of automobiles, we should tackle a different task with vastly more potential. That task is to leverage the strengths of our metropolitan area and become the leader for others around the world to follow.”
“Harris County, the City of Houston, other counties and cities, a myriad of special districts, and – most of all – the Legislature must be creative in shaping the future,” Emmett stated.
Emmett went on to discuss a wide variety of challenges that have been faced in the region and how those were addressed including when the Jeff Davis Hospital became dysfunctional; flooding problems leading to the creation of the Harris County Flood Control District, subsidence problems; transportation problems that were addressed by the creation of the Harris County Toll Road Authority and TranStar; rail transportation that is vital to the growth of Houston as a port city and more.
“All of these examples represent special solutions to special problems. All of them have something in common – Harris County,” Emmett proudly stated.
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