Sorry, this is a long article. The health crisis and lack of in-person Council, commission, and board meetings have not slowed down the staff meetings and planning sessions at City Hall. Click on items of interest below to read the various updates at your leisure. As always, stay safe.
4300 Bellaire Blvd – The Parking Lot Next Door
The parking lot at 4300 Bellaire Blvd, built this past March on CenterPoint land directly adjacent to a private residence, was constructed by a Southside Place company in violation of an R-5 zoned residential district. Residents in the area did not receive advance notification from the City prior to the construction.
The lot remains in place in June even though a letter from the City was issued on March 26, 2020, advising the builder that the permit for construction of the lot was voided and the lot was to be removed not later than two weeks from the date of the letter.
Requests for Public Information revealed that Patricia King-Ritter, a past member of the Evelyn’s Park Conservancy Board and current director of Evelyn’s Park, submitted revised plans to a City building official, William Davidson in July of 2019. Mr. Davidson contacted members of staff and the City Engineer about approval from Planning and Zoning and the City Engineer. No response to that email was included in the City documents sent in response to the Request.
The plans were never submitted to Planning and Zoning. Not one person in a management position with the City of Bellaire or on any Board or Commission has admitted to any knowledge of the lot prior to construction.
Residents question what that says about the management of Bellaire. Mr. Davidson’s immediate superior was ChaVonne Sampson, the director of Development Services. And Ms. Sampson’s immediate superior is Paul Hofmann, the City Manager. Are we to believe that neither Ms. Sampson nor Mr. Hofmann were aware of this project until after it was completed? That Mr. Davidson approved this parking lot in a vacuum? Mr. Davidson left the City’s employ in early May.
Other documents now show that the lot was built in February-March, 2020, in cooperation with the Evelyn’s Park Conservancy, with Centerpoint lease agreements with the Conservancy already in place in 2017 and Southside Commons in 2019. Evidently once the developers of Southside Commons were provided an opportunity to sublease from Evelyn’s Park Conservancy they agreed to pay for the construction of the parking lot.
Recently Ms. King-Ritter submitted a letter to the City in which she explained why the lot should be allowed to remain in the R-5 residential district and literally next door to a Bellaire residence. The City Manager has approved this letter as an application to the Planning and Zoning Commission.
UPDATE: During her quarterly report at the June 1, 2020, Council meeting Ms. King-Ritter announced her resignation as of June 30, 2020. A search is under way for a new director. She also revealed that some Park employees have been furloughed due to the Covid-19 health crisis. Lou Waters, a former Conservancy Board member, reported that the Conservancy board is working with residents in hopes of an acceptable solution for the parking lot.
The parking lot issue could move on to Planning and Zoning and then to City Council. If Council approves, the first view on Bellaire Blvd would be a parking lot full of vehicles for a business in another city. What would this say about the integrity of our zoning ordinances and City administration?
This debate is not about Evelyn’s Park or even parking space, since additional parking for Evelyn’s Park is usually available across the street at Bellaire Methodist Church. It’s about Bellaire’s reputation and zoning laws.
Bellaire is supposed to be a secure upper class community, a City of Homes. Those homes were not purchased and property values did not increase in Bellaire because of a park. Residents have paid premium prices for our city services, our schools, our location, and our restrictive zoning that protects our homes, neighborhoods, and property values.
City Finances – Troublesome
City Council met telephonically at a Pre-Budget Workshop on Monday evening, June 8, 2020. The focus was on Council priorities, financial efficiencies, tax rates, and the fiscal forecast. Finance Director Terrence Beaman reported the preliminary report for the 2020 tax roll will be lower than last year’s. He expects sales tax revenue to bounce back by 2021. A proposed budget is due for Council discussion on July 20, 2020. Find the video here and the agenda packet here.
Due to the recent health crisis the City of Bellaire is facing some financial shortfalls, though City Manager Paul Hofmann assured City Council at the May 3, 2020, meeting that there will be adequate funds to maintain basic City services and a 60-day reserve fund. One positive announcement at that meeting was the receipt of a FEMA reimbursement for Hurricane Harvey in the amount of $1.04 million. But this is a one-time payment. Without it Bellaire faced a decline in revenue of as much as $1.73 million for this fiscal year.
Revenues from user fees for City programs and facilities have decreased. Reduced sales by retail establishments mean a decline in sales tax revenue. For the past several years Bellaire has collected an average of $2 million or more per year from taxable sales.
Adding to the bad news, the City Manager advised that sales tax revenue was paid in error to Bellaire by the State Comptroller for a company that moved from Bellaire to Houston over 5 years ago. Bellaire must repay the last 4 years of that revenue, about $694,000. Neither the identity of the company nor the terms for repayment have been revealed.
Bellaire’s real estate market appeared to stabilize after the multiple floods that culminated with that hurricane in 2017, though ‘Never Flooded’ signs are still prevalent. However local realtors are noting a price decline for residential sales in 2020, which in turn would lead to the decline in property tax revenue in next year’s City budget.
Residents are also concerned about the threat of more commercial developments, such as the parking lot on Bellaire Boulevard or the development of the old Chevron property, and the negative impact they could generate for residential property values and Bellaire’s image as a residential refuge.
Reorganization Of City Departments
City Manager Hofmann and Assistant City Manager Brant Gary have been working on a proposal to restructure the City Departments in 2021. Presented at the April 20, 2020, Council meeting, it includes a reorganization plan that would combine the Public Works and Development Services departments. Changes would also be made in the Finance department and Human Resources.
Background on the two departments follows:
Development Services evolved from the Inspection Department. It is the department that residents, builders, and remodelers visit to obtain permits for a myriad of projects, everything from new construction to installation of a water heater. City Inspectors visit job sites to verify that the proper regulations and building practices are followed. Owners of vacant residences and commercial buildings are required to obtain a certificate of occupancy prior to occupancy, requiring City inspection.
Development Services is also responsible for enforcing Bellaire’s zoning ordinances. Historically this department has been funded through the General Fund in the City budget, financed by revenues from property taxes, park fees, traffic fines, licenses and permits, sales tax, etc.
Public Works primarily oversees infrastructure projects for streets, drainage, sewer and water lines, including bond projects. This department is also responsible for our solid waste and recycling programs and our public water and wastewater systems. Public Works is funded by the Enterprise Fund, which is essentially a for-profit enterprise. Your water bill (water, sewer, and garbage) covers most of the income to this Fund.
Part of that income is transferred to the Debt Fund as a portion of debt service, on the premise that a fair portion of our bond money flows to infrastructure projects, and so a portion the profit from the Enterprise fund should go towards paying down our bonded debt.
This appears to be an apples and oranges proposal, especially regarding Development Services and Public Works. Folding these two departments into one seems like an awful lot of time and effort for a small result.
In a lengthy and complicated presentation Mr. Hofmann explained that three (3) staff positions would be eliminated, to include a building official, a project manager, and a human resources position.
The City would no longer use an independent City Engineer under contract, currently approved by City Council. Instead in-house resources would be used.
Based on all this Mr. Hofmann projected an annual savings of $250,000 and the loss of three staff positions. For the record, at the end of fiscal year 2019 Bellaire had 183.5 full time employees and a budget of about $40 million dollars.
UPDATE: As of May 4, 2020, William Davidson, the building official, was no longer working for the City of Bellaire. Then on May 29th came the announcement of the resignation of Cristin Emshoff, Assistant Director of Development Services. It appears that two of the three staff positions have already been eliminated.
Contrary to previous City Councils that tended to simply agree to Mr. Hofmann’s proposals, both new and old members had some reservations about this one.
Council member Lewis objected to eliminating the outside City Engineer. She values the importance of an independent City Engineer that answers to City Council, not the City Manager. Council members Pappas and Wesely requested details of the positions and services of the various departments. Council member Wesely commented that this was a great deal of shuffling just to hypothetically eliminate three positions.
Remember the Budget Discussions last year? One has to wonder why Mr. Hofmann did not suggest eliminating those three staff positions last August, when City Council was working on the budget for year 2020. The Mayor had asked him to list $1.4 million in possible budget reductions.
The City Manager’s response angered many residents: Library services, including summer reading programs and a half-time library assistant at $10,800 annually; cutbacks in janitorial services and landscape maintenance; reduced Parks and Recreation programs including special events such as 4th of July and the Daddy-Daughter dance. Of course those cuts did not occur. Instead the Mayor and City Council voted to reduce the budget by $200,000.
The only sizable staff reduction suggested on Mr. Hofmann’s list was to leave the position of Assistant City Manager vacant, budgeted at $204,000. But by December 2, 2019, he had hired Brant Gary for that position. Mr. Gary previously served as Bellaire’s Public Works director from June of 2014 to January of 2017, when he left to work for Fulshear, TX.
Traffic on South Rice Avenue and Parking in Front of City Hall
UPDATE: At the June 15, 2020, City Council meeting the Mayor and members of Council voted unanimously to return this segment of South Rice Avenue to the original arrangement of four lanes with parallel parking along the west side.
At the May 18, 2020, Council meeting the supposedly temporary parking arrangement on South Rice Avenue in front of the City Hall/Civic Center was on the agenda. The original proposal to add angled parking and reduce southbound traffic on South Rice during the construction process of the facilities has continued.
The City Manager wants the temporary arrangement to become permanent. The question is, who has the right to make this decision? Judging by resident response to this issue, Bellaire residents want the return of our shady and much safer 4-lane avenue. Parking spaces are available in two City lots off South Rice, by the Rec Center off Fifth St, and the Condit lot on evenings, weekends, and during the summer.
Residents who expected City Council to approve the return of that area to four lanes and parallel parking via a proposal by Council member Hotze were astonished when it was not approved. It is now scheduled for the June 15, 2020, Council meeting. Residents can email the Mayor and members of Council with their thoughts and concerns via City Clerk Tracy Dutton, email@example.com, and request that she forward the email.
One thing – there’s a City ordinance requiring parallel parking in this stretch of South Rice Avenue: Sec. 30-107. – Specific restrictions—South Rice Avenue. Parking on the west side of South Rice Avenue between Locust Street and Aspen Street shall be parallel to the curb only, with the wheels nearest to the curb not more than three feet from the curb.
Find more on this subject here: South Rice Avenue in Front of City Hall – Do We Have To Live With This? and here: What Happens When The City of Bellaire Violates Its Own Zoning Violations?
Unfinished Bond Projects
Bellaire voters approved $53.98 million in bonds in 2016. As of 6/22/2020 $34.25 has been committed to bond projects. How have those funds been spent? Click on the graphic at left to view current projects approved and funded by City Council.
Almost $20 million remains, and only 2 construction contracts still to be awarded. In addition, the City has received over $4 million dollars in HUD grants to be applied to one of those projects.
Updates on bond projects are not often included in the City Manager’s reports presented during City Council meetings unless requested by council members. Here are updates on two major bond projects still not completed.
Siemens – Paul Hofmann and Brant Gary promoted the $12.8 million Siemens contract back in 2016. That ended with a yea vote by the Mayor and five members of Council to replace every water meter in Bellaire ($4.95 million) and to upgrade the wastewater system ($7.5 million), including installation of new equipment for the wastewater plant.
Our analog meters and $70,000 annual meter reading costs are gone, to be replaced by even more costs for management, maintenance, portals, etc. And debt. Find the ongoing costs for the Siemens contract here.
The supposed closeout date for the project was July of 2019. Once the City assumes full ownership of the project it will be another year until the accuracy of the meters and the quality of the workmanship in the wastewater plant are reviewed and verified. As of June 1, 2020, no date has been posted for the closeout, however Siemens has received $12 million of the $12.8 million dollar contract.
Due to a lightning strike on May 15, 2020, the Neptune equipment which electronically reads the water meters throughout the city was lost, along with its uninterrupted power supply. Siemens is scheduled to come out and assess the damage and provide a quote for replacement. There was no word on warranty or insurance coverage.
Find more detailed information here: Where Do We Stand Wih The Siemens Project?
Spruce, Fifth, and Bolivar Streets – During the June 1. 2020, Council meeting ARKK Engineers requested additional funds for construction mananagement. More than $116,000, a 29% increase, over their initial contracted price of $403,685 for these projects. The new construction management cost would be $520,000 plus the $43,000 ARKK received for Third Party Review.
James Andrews, a principal with ARKK, explained that because the projects are running so far over schedule ARKK has exhausted those funds. Neither Michael Leech with Public Works nor the ARKK representatives provided reasons or assigned responsibility for the failure to complete the projects on schedule. City Council voted to postpone a decision and will address it at the June 15, 2020 Council meeting. UPDATE: 6/15/2020 – Postponed again.
One example of the problems: On May 18th the contractor on Spruce hit a water line. Water was cut off to local businesses. The next afternoon City water was running from a large hose into the street at Spruce and Ferris. Another water line was broken about a week later. Work was delayed. In fact, the contractor has requested over 300 delay days. ARKK feels about 150 are legitimate.
For those residents not familiar with this project, the beautification plan for Spruce and Fifth Streets by H-E-B was proposed and promoted in 2017 by City Manager Paul Hofmann and Public Works director Michael Leech. Neither of these City employees has ever lived in Bellaire. Mr. Hofmann was hired in 2014 and Mr. Leech in 2017.
Despite opposition from residents and local businesses, the Mayor and five of the six members then on Council approved the project in February 2019. The contractor, A Status Construction LLC, was recommended by ARKK Engineers.
A wide two-lane commercial street in the 5100-5200 blocks of Spruce will be narrowed from 60 feet to 25 feet or less, even though the street is traveled daily by 18-wheelers and large delivery trucks as well as Bellaire residents. The remaining width will include 7-foot wide sidewalks plus angled public parking along the north side of the street.
Included are $360,000 in landscaping (plants, trees, irrigation) and $43,000 worth of special streetlights. Much of this will face the rear of H-E-B and then run along the various commercial businesses on the north side of the 5200 block. A number of the businesses are losing private parking spaces and limited driveway access.
The contract for this beautification/drainage project ended on February 15, 2020. On January 27th the City Manager assured Council members that the construction on Fifth Street and the 5200 block of Spruce would be completed within 60 to 90 days of the expiration of the contract. After 90 days only Fifth was fairly complete.
Tied to the Spruce and Fifth project is Bolivar Street, a cul-de-sac street off Jessamine just outside the Loop. In this case a 240-day contract, also with A Status Construction LLC, which ended on December 24, 2019. The street was lowered and now 6 inch curbs have been replaced by 18″ to 22″ retaining walls in some areas. Oak trees have been severely damaged. Five months after the expiration of the contract Bolivar Street construction is not complete. Bolivar – Before and After A $2 Million Dollar ‘Reconstruction’ Project
The combined costs approved by Council in 2019 for Spruce/Fifth and Bolivar/Maple totaled $5.28 million dollars, an increase of more than $700,000 over the amount of $4.5 million originally presented to City Council in 2017. If the ARKK request is approved the cost will increase to $5.4 million.
See the original proposals at left. No one on Council in 2019 questioned the increased costs. Note that there was no mention of landscaping, angled parking, or restricted streets in the original proposal for Spruce and Fifth or retaining walls along Bolivar.
In late January of 2020 the City engineers overseeing the projects assured Council that the contractor’s work is satisfactory, admitted that the 157 delay days requested by the contractor is outside the norm for such a contract, and stated that the work is progressing. At the June 1st meeting requests for hundreds more delay days were mentioned.
Meanwhile the City administration has assured local businesses that the project will now be completed by June 30. No comment from the businesses on Spruce and Fifth, or the homeowners on Bolivar and Pembroke. The dust, mud, and inconvenience they live with speak volumes.
Bellaire’s Debt is $127.5 million at the end of FY2019, one of the highest per capita in the state. Email comments to the Mayor and City Council via our City Clerk, Tracy Dutton, and request that Tracy forward your email: firstname.lastname@example.org