Calling five months of recovery work since Hurricane Harvey a “disaster within a disaster,” Galveston County Judge Mark Henry on Thursday asked members of the Galveston Regional Chamber of Commerce to re-elect him to another four-year term.
District court Judge Lonnie Cox, who is running against Henry for the judge’s seat, agreed with Henry’s assessment of the governmental response to the massive late August flood.
“Our plan and our response to Harvey was pathetic,” Cox said.
How voters perceive the leadership after Harvey might decide who becomes the next county judge.
Henry and Cox are vying for the Republican nomination, for which early voting begins Feb. 20.
Because no Democrats are running, the winner will be the judge-elect after the March 6 primaries.
Issues around Harvey, the response to the storm and the recovery moving forward were major topics of debate during the forum in Galveston.
Five months after the storm, many people are still living in damaged houses or are entirely displaced. State and local officials have blamed bad communication between several agencies and a lack of action by the federal government.
Henry said the county was doing what it could to help, sometimes by making difficult decisions. He pointed to a decision not to reappraise property immediately after the storm — a move that could have saved some homeowners money, but also would have put a financial burden on local governments because of reduced tax revenue.
“I had every affected mayor begging me, ‘please don’t do a reappraisal,’” Henry said. “One was in tears saying ‘We can’t afford it; please don’t do that to us.’”
County commissioners decided not to order immediate disaster reappraisals in October, although they hedged the decision a little by voting to support reappraisals if the cost per parcel were $1. The Galveston Central Appraisal District said the work would cost $22 a parcel.
Commissioners should have gone forward with the work and paid for it with some of the county’s reserve funds, Cox said.
“We had the reserves that would allow for reappraisal,” he said. “Since reappraisal only affects the taxing jurisdictions that ask for it, only those jurisdictions would be affected by the loss and the lower revenue.”
Cox said Henry had not done enough to support the Ike Dike, a $12 billion storm-surge barrier first imagined after Hurricane Ike struck in 2008. The Galveston County Judge should be the leading voice in calling for that project to be built, he said.
“We need to focus all of our resources on getting an Ike Dike,” Cox said.
The coastal barrier project had progressed under his administration, Henry said. He pointed to a study by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District in 2016, which supported construction of the barrier.
Further progress on the barrier depends on completion of a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Henry said.
“The Galveston County Judge cannot get $12 billion from the federal government,” Henry said. Such a project will require regional support, he said.
“Getting the coastal spine built is going to happen, but the county can’t be the only one saying it’s going to happen,” he said.
Some supporters of the barrier say Congress should waive the requirement for a corps study, which they say was done in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
The forum was mostly absent talk of one of the more controversial issues between the two men: a dispute over the firing of court administrator Bonnie Quiroga that led to litigation all the way to the Texas Supreme Court and, most recently, accusations by a local attorney of criminal wrongdoing against Cox.
The Quiroga issue didn’t come up during the forum, although Cox said he believed elected officials should control the budgets of departments they supervise.
Henry also pushed his work to reduce county taxes, which commissioners have voted to do for six straight years.
Cox said that the county’s tax rates are still among the highest in the region.
Election Day is March 6. Early voting begins Feb. 20.