2019 State of the County Address

Welcome

I’m so honored to be here with all of you. Thank you, Bob Harvey and the amazing team at the Greater Houston Partnership for your work and for bringing us all together. To all of the elected leaders here today, thank you for your partnership, your support.

To everyone here today. Thank you. You represent what is great about our community.

From the business, government, and community leaders working together to tackle challenges that don’t respect political boundaries. 

To philanthropists who give back.

Folks from all walks of life who, no matter who they are or where they come from, are ready at a moment’s notice to lift heaven and earth in service of their community. 

Folks like Alfred Maduike, who recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I met Alfred a few weeks ago, when I spoke at a naturalization ceremony at the MO Campbell Center, the same place where I became a US citizen. Like so many others, Alfred left his parents and siblings behind and came to America in search of opportunity. He came here from Nigeria to study to be a registered nurse. As he studied and worked to pay his bills, he felt the pull of public service for a nation he now called home. He put his studies on hold and joined our armed forces, where he now serves as a Private First Class in the Texas National Guard. He served our nation, before he even became a citizen.

Thank you for your service.


We Must Not Get Complacent

Stories like Alfred’s make Harris County what it is. A place where amazing people have always come to settle from around the world, in search of opportunity and brimming with hope and an industrious spirit. 

There are millions of stories like these which have, over time, built a special place unlike any other. A place that saw a swamp and turned it into a powerhouse. A place that put a man on the moon, a place that built the biggest medical center in the world, an energy capital of the world, and two tier 1 research institutions. A place where, thanks to our incredible Port of Houston, Ship Channel-related businesses contribute to more than 1.3 million jobs throughout Texas. 

I know that everyone, and especially the business leaders in this room, see that, today, the state of our county - from an economic standpoint - is strong. At 3.8% average for the year, we are experiencing the lowest unemployment rate in the last 5 years. Harris County continues to enjoy a AAA bond rating. 

We’ll continue to do everything we can to foster economic prosperity. As we establish the county’s first ever office of economic opportunity, we’ll be reaching out to the leaders of industry powerhouses here today, so we can remain a competitive, thriving region. 

But if we want to excel, we must not get complacent. Economic strength is just one measure of success we must follow.

To a veteran coming home ill-prepared for the 21st century workforce, it doesn't matter that unemployment is low.

To a family struggling to pay their medical bills, it doesn’t matter that we have a world-class medical system if they don’t have access to insurance. 

To someone with a great job, things probably don't feel like they are going great if their home keeps flooding and they feel trapped in a constant cycle of disaster and recovery.

Stories like those ultimately hold us all back

Today, we are at a moment of great consequence in Harris County- from access to education, to transportation, flooding and the sheer division in the nation that is a particular threat to a community as diverse as ours. 

The urgency to address issues that have the potential to either supercharge or truly hamper our region, is what inspired me to run for this position. And my firm belief that our talented, committed, diverse population can get there has inspired my promise to tackle our challenges together. 

It’s been almost exactly a year since election night. By the time we won, after over a year of campaigning, I’d concluded two things: 

First, there was incredible opportunity and so many things to work on that we couldn’t possibly do it all at the same time. I wanted the community’s input on what to prioritize. 

And second, County government was too much of a mystery to too many people. It was opaque and difficult to navigate.  I wanted to take advantage of the transition period to bring people into our government. 

So instead of naming a traditional transition committee, we decided to launch a massive civic engagement campaign that we called “Talking Transition Harris County.” The idea was to host 7 town hall meetings we called “Civic Saturdays” throughout the county, on 7 different issue areas. They’d be events aimed at listening to the community and learning about their priorities. I instituted a rule that folks couldn’t be talked at for more than 15 minutes. It had to be about listening. The idea was to spend time hearing from community members for the first part of the day. County departments were all present to join the dialogue. Then, at the end of each Civic Saturday, we’d gather academics, advocates, department heads, and business leaders and challenge them to work together to come up with actionable steps Harris County could take based on the input we’d heard earlier. 

It all sounded great, but the question was: “would people come?”

I remember driving up to to our first Civic Saturday event. It was in Pasadena. I was in the car with one of my staffers and was growing seriously concerned that nobody would come. We finally arrived and the parking lot was full. I figured it was because of the huge event happening next door. My staffer told me there was no huge event happening next door. Hundreds of people had arrived to make their voices heard. 

They even brought their kids, for whom there was childcare. 

I remember one discussion about sidewalks - a young mother spoke in Spanish with an older woman, who was speaking Arabic. Both through the live interpretation we provided.

In the end,we received over 11,000 survey responses. Hundreds came to the Civic Saturdays. And by the end of Talking Transition over 200 organizations—from community-based coalitions, to university research centers, to county agencies and other policymakers—participated in the policymaking workshops that we hosted at the end of each Saturday. 

It turns out that, when you ask people to participate, they show up. Folks want to help build a government that is responsive, that is proactive, and that prioritizes people. 

This showed me that participation matters. Our only limit is our imagination. 


An Ignorance of Limitations

When I came into office, a lot of folks pointed out my lack of experience. 

But what I’ve lacked in experience as a politician, I’ve made up for in an ignorance of limitations. 

Let me put it this another way: My team has never seen good ideas fail because of bureaucracy. 

We’ve never decided that something can’t be done because it has never been done before. 

Whenever someone tells us about the way something has to be, the way it's always been done, our response is usually, “why?”

When I was running for office folks used to ask, don’t you know the job is all about roads and bridges? 

$5,093,442,000

That’s Harris County’s budget, including the Flood Control District, for fiscal year 2019. 

Folks, that’s more than bridge money. With that sort of budget you can build bridges to opportunity for the people of Harris County. 

It’s simply a question of priorities. And we’ve worked over the past year to prioritize those initiatives that will positively transform the lives of people in Harris County - to hit the reset button on the way things are done in our government so that we can truly prioritize those things. 


Our Achievements

This past year, we’ve been in a hurry, not to learn, but to do. On a given day, all kinds of things end up on my desk - from mosquito control, to debris in the bayous, to the conditions of our jail, to our gun violence crisis. All kinds of important issues that affect the lives of people in our community.

Our job is to focus on the intersection between what meaningfully impacts our community and where the county has the authority and ability to make a positive difference.

To select those delicious, big problems, for which solutions exist - even if finding those solutions takes creativity, study, and deep conversation with residents of Harris County. Even if - especially if - implementation must be careful, measured, smart, but also aggressive. 

And as it turns out, we can make a real difference. I can’t possibly go over all the incredible accomplishments our teams have been able to lead over the past 10.5 months. But I’ll mention some. And I know how dry these things usually are. So let me try something different by showing you our progress through numbers.

4x

One of the most consistent pieces of feedback we heard during the transition, was folks wanting access to their county government. We’ve opened our doors in many ways - one of which is the changes to commissioners court. 

Commissioners Court meetings are now in-depth, dynamic conversations routinely attended by community members. We measure their length in hours instead of minutes. 

Four times as many people have come to speak to Commissioners Court this year as did in all of 2018.

48%

Here’s another example: We’ve made it easier to vote. In this past election, voters could choose among any of our 747 polling locations to cast their ballot on election day. They could vote near their workplace during lunch, for example, and not have to worry about choosing between picking up their kids from school or fighting traffic to make it to their assigned polling place on time. The results of this change have been a resounding success: a full 48% of voters chose a polling location outside of their home precinct to cast their ballot. It has been my honor to work with Dr. Trautman on this. Thank you to our County Clerk for opening access to the vote. This is just the beginning.

311

We’ve found that navigating local government has been difficult to understand for residents. Who do you call if you see a pothole you need repaired? How do you reserve a community center? To make it easier, next year we’re launching a new 3-1-1 system for unincorporated Harris County. That way, residents won’t have to investigate which precinct they’re in, find the name of the commissioner, and call them. We’ll do the work for them. I’d like to thank Commissioner Adrian Garcia for his leadership and partnership in this effort. Thank you.

Let me transition to another issue we’re addressing differently: Resiliency. For our region to continue thriving, we need to be a safe place where people want to live and work, relocate and start a business. And while we do that, we can also be on the cutting-edge of resilience. We can implement policies that keep us safe, and improve our quality of life. A network of bayous that doubles as a network of trails, for example. A county that is as resilient as it is beautiful.

There are no silver bullet solutions to flooding. But we can take the most meaningful, aggressive steps to get to where we need to be. That’s why we're shifting the paradigm on how we deal with flood control in a way that puts people and science over politics. 

The best innovations, from floating wetlands, to flood mapping technology. 

The completion of projects as fast as we can do them while doing them well. 

Tough conversations about buyouts and land preservation. 

We’re working to stop the problem from getting worse, by challenging all players to accept that if we exacerbate flooding, one day we are all out of business. 

105

Another way we’re doing things differently: we’re moving faster. When it came to flood mitigation work, the old way of doing business was to wait for federal disaster funds to arrive before beginning flood projects. No longer. With the support of the Court, we’ve fast-tracked drainage improvement projects for all 105 subdivisions in unincorporated Harris County that flooded not because they were deep in the floodplain, but because they had poor drainage infrastructure. Thank you to our Engineering Department, which made this possible.

1,178

Our long-term mitigation projects won’t be done overnight, but we know investments are paying off. Let me give you one example. During Tropical Storm Imelda we saw tragic losses to life and property, but because of work to buy out homes we know that 1,178 homes were saved from flooding. I’d like to recognize the folks at the Harris County Flood Control District for everything they are doing to save lives and property.

In the meantime, we are also improving our ability to respond before, during, and after disasters.  After Tropical Storm Imelda swept through our region, we did not wait for Federal Assistance to arrive to help our residents recover. Within four days, and 25 days before FEMA opened their centers, our Community Services Department worked hand in hand with our Office of Emergency Management to stand up Local Recovery Centers to provide survivors a place they could go for help. Thanks to their work we provided a place for residents where we brought together key resources and folks could go to request help to muck out their homes, apply for financial assistance, or just have someone to talk to. I’d like to recognize the great work of our Office of Emergency Management and Community Services Department. 

But we must remember that when it comes to building a culture of resilience, government can never do it alone. After Imelda, we saw this firsthand - from businesses donating goods to nonprofits stepping up to help people clean up homes. This is what makes Harris County strong. In this way, we are all first responders.  

Along those lines, we have a very special person here. Jayden, if you’ll please stand up. After his mom picked him up from Aldine High School during the tropical storm, Jayden Payne - 16 -  saw an SUV drive into a flooded ditch. Without regard for his own safety, he ran across the road, jumped into a flooded ditch and helped pull a woman and her two year old toddler out, saving their lives. Thank you, Jayden.

Between Harvey, Imelda, and the Tax Day floods, our communities have endured three 100-year or 500-year floods over the past four years. The debate is over. Harris County is now “Exhibit A” for how the climate crisis is impacting the daily lives of people in America. Our work now is to take action. But not just when it comes to flooding. We need to also address the day to day quality of our environment more generally. 

Clean air and a clean environment are human rights. Following the series of petrochemical fires we’ve had this year, we have an opportunity to create new environmental policy. It’s as much about the environment as about building a level playing field. Companies that play by the rules should not be at a disadvantage to those with lax standards. 

30+ 

Our residents should never have to worry about the quality of the air they breathe or the environmental conditions in which they’re raising their families. That’s why in September, we committed millions to build a state-of-the-art air monitoring network, hire public health and safety experts, and add resources for HazMat First Responders. We are working to shift from a reactive, to a proactive stance when it comes to our environment. All told, this represents the most significant expansion of the County’s ability to address environmental challenges in at least 30 years. I want to thank our amazing Harris County Fire Marshalls’ office and our incredible Pollution Control Department for everything they’re doing to support this expansion.

24 

A strong Harris County depends on a healthy population. Just this week, Harris County Public Health, after months of work, released a landmark analysis and roadmap showing a dramatic gap in life expectancy among our residents. 24 years between the census tract with the highest life expectancy (89 years) and the lowest life expectancy (65 years). It’s stunning. The good news is this plan provides us with a comprehensive path for improvement, which includes prevention rather than focusing only on building more hospital beds. I want to thank our Harris County Public Health Department for this effort and all their work to make Harris County healthier.

Let me move on to talk about another issue that impacts all of us in one form or another: Criminal Justice reform.  

Our criminal justice system is broken. Our jails and prisons are too full, our recidivism rates too high, and the amount of taxpayer dollars used to sustain a cycle of crime and incarceration too costly.  It is time to stop mindlessly moving people through a system that leaves many more broken than when they came in, and focus instead on smarter solutions like treatment and diversion. We have a great team leading on this, including Sheriff Ed Gonzales and the leadership of our County Criminal Courts at Law.  Together, we’re now making evidence-based decisions, instead of making policy based on newspaper headlines.

Here’s the most notable example. In July, a federal judge approved a consent decree we’d spent months working on, that reforms our broken cash bail system. It paves the way toward  ending practices that made wealth - and not potential danger - the sole basis for whether to keep someone in jail, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the constitution.

1,600

Bail reform does more than just protect the constitutional rights of defendants, it also lowers crime.  An independent academic study of Harris County pretrial practices determined that over a five-year period, with bail reform, 1,600 fewer felonies would have been committed. Too often, locking people up who shouldn’t be in jail in fact breeds criminality. Sometimes, it even forces innocent people to plead guilty. The bottom line is that we don’t have to choose between protecting public safety and protecting the constitutional rights of defendants.

$20 million

Bail reform also saves taxpayer dollars. After accounting for both reductions in jail time and increases in probation time, the county would have saved an estimated $20 million in supervision costs alone. 

We’ve been building on the groundwork that Commissioner Rodney Ellis has laid throughout his career, fighting for criminal justice reform. Thank you for your lifetime of fighting for justice. 

I also want to thank our Juvenile Probation Department and the juvenile judges, who have been starting on a path of juvenile justice reform work that I know will be a bright spot over the next couple of years.

Now, let me share a little bit about how we’ve been able to get to these and other wins. It’s all about working with and listening to the community. Sergeant Jason Williams is a combat veteran who served in both the U.S. Navy and Army. On February 26 of this year, he appeared at Commissioners Court with a list of very serious complaints about our veterans services department. As a result of his input, we’ve created an independent Veterans Services Department, are doubling the staff and implementing policies we identified looking at best practices nationally and working with him and leaders from across our community. Jason, please stand up to be recognized. 

Would anyone else who served our country in the military please rise? 

Thank you all. We can never serve our veterans in the same way that they served us, but we should do everything in our power to honor their sacrifice. 

All of my colleagues on Commissioners Court have made so many of these victories possible. Across issues as important as economic opportunity, environment, census, and flood control, we have voted as a united block, 5-0, on an overwhelming number of items at Commissioners Court. I want to thank Commissioner Cagle and Commissioner Radack.


Next Year’s Focus: Early Childhood Development

The issues we prioritized this year were about core immediate needs. Tomorrow is about building on that progress to invest in our future. 

I want to take this opportunity to announce a new initiative that will be an important focus of our work next year, on top of the flood control and safety work that is always a priority. 

Those of you who know me know that I’m a believer in research and data. And that’s one of the reasons why I think it’s worth spending time on the issue of early childhood.  

Decades of studies have shown that children who had access to high-quality early childhood programs completed high school without a suspension, had fewer arrests and substance abuse issues, and had higher rates of employment as adults. Early childhood programs have one of the strongest returns on investment for any type of public program. 

We know that many families don’t have access to critical services and supports like subsidized child care and that, even when they do, high-quality providers are few and far between. But we aren’t certain about all of the specific barriers that families face, how they make the critical decisions, and what opportunities they would like to see.

Early next year, we will engage our community in a series of conversations regarding early childhood development and education during the crucial first 3 or 4 years of a child’s life.

By combining what the science tells us with real community input, we will spend the next few months finalizing a plan that has a significant impact on the lives of children in Harris County.

It will take all of us. But, by the time we meet again here next year, I hope to be sharing with you all meaningful progress on early childhood development and education in Harris County. 

And brace yourselves we’ll be reaching out. This is an event with the Greater Houston Partnership. And that’s what we need to make a real dent in early childhood development - a partnership between government, industry, and community. 

Of course, we still have about a month and a half left before the anniversary of my first day in office. In some ways, it’s tough being a 28-year-old elected official. I know y’all saw the doomsday predictions on social media the day after election day. I was like, c’mon! I’ve got 3 years on the late, great Judge Roy Hoffeinz! He was 24 when he was he was sworn in! 

Since taking office, I’ve felt an enormous responsibility. An incredible sense of urgency. The first few days after the election, it was hard to get much sleep, and not just because we had events into the night and early morning interviews - the sheer excitement kept me up at night. 

I made the mistake - which, I have to admit, I’ve made before in my life - of thinking that if I put in enough hours of work I could get things done that much faster. Apparently, after running the Houston marathon, a staffer asked me how it was and I said something like “it was a great break!” I can tell you, I’m pacing myself more now, if nothing else so that I can put in the sleepless nights when we have to activate the emergency operations center during a major weather event or other incident.

On a daily basis, it’s still tough to accept that, though I see opportunity in so many places, we can’t possibly do it all at once. 

It’s very hard to hear the suffering of folks who hurt after a storm, and know that we’re doing all we can to move faster, but that even that is not fast enough.

The best decisions I have made have been about my staff - talented, passionate people who know nothing if not love and ambition for a better world. 

Let’s have all of my team - and all county employees - please stand.

We do this thanks to you. And the support of so many. 

I treasure the trust of the young women who come up to me and share how inspired they are and how much hope they have for everything more we will achieve. I carry the courage of every candidate who tells me I’ve inspired them to run for office. The strength of every immigrant who cheers me on with a clenched fist and encourages me to keep fighting for them. These are all enormous sources of responsibility but also enormous sources of strength. 

I learned soon after taking office that we have an army of compassionate, dedicated people in Harris County. I learned through the Talking Transition and the packed, 8 and 10 hour meetings of Commissioners court that we have a community full of folks who love where they live and are ready to make it better.

To the Greater Houston Partnership, the members. Thank you. Your dedication has helped this community get to where it is.

Across the country, thought leaders and governments are already looking to the examples we’re setting. In supporting the next chapter of Harris County, this swamp-turned-metropolis, this beautiful place that embodies the future of our very nation.


Conclusion

I’ve known the dedication of so many to building a better community.  I know the same people and have seen the same things you have. I strive to nurture all of that. To build the conditions for us to be the best that we can be. To tear down obstacles to opportunity. To ensure that we continue growing, while being smart, and fair, and tolerant. 

I want to live in a Harris County 

With a booming economy

Where everyone has a fighting shot

Where you’re not planning on the next flood but planning to start a business, to start a family

Where diversity is forever a strength

Where recovery does not discriminate

Where we innovate and attract the best minds like never before

I want to live in a Harris County that is the brightest possible example of what is great in this nation.

Seeing the commitment in our county, the love and sheer grit in our community, has made me even more determined to expand what's right and fix what isn't. 

We’re in a hurry, and we’re just getting started.