Sunday, February 15, 2009

Let's Talk Incorporation

Sometime or another we need to start talking about this subject. Might as well be now. I have leaned toward incorporation for our community from the time I came here. That inclination has never been abandoned. However, the cost of doing that will probably drive my final vote, if it ever comes to that. In the meantime, you as well as I need to understand where we are and where we are going, relative to any futuristic vision that includes incorporation of our community.

The Woodlands Texas is engaged in a two-pronged transition. One prong got off the ground a couple of years ago when the community voted to form The Woodlands Township. This prong was intended to develop an interim government until we can decide on a permanent one. The township could be a permanent form of government, but many doubt it will serve us very well in the long term. For now, we are changing from an association-centric community to a special-district governed community. The primary difference between the two is that the special district acquires revenue via taxation, whereas the association acquires revenue through a fee. Another notable difference is the much smaller number of township representatives from the community engaged in major decision making. And similar to municipalities, this difference also affects the number of residents who are involved in the decision making processes of the community. From a tax perspective, the new government won't be much different in that our fees have always been based on property assessments, basically the same as our new government, starting in 2010. The primary difference is in tax exceptions. Abatement to corporations will be part of our tax structure if we get legislation this Spring, but abatement to homeowners will not, except for veterans and perhaps the elderly and disabled (I do not like to use that word).

The other prong is our long term solution. This subject is discussed in many circles but action is dormant for now until the first prong is settled. What will the government look like after 2014, the year in which we can first apply for incorporation?

That is the sixty-four thousand dollar question and the reason I have written this article. Will we look like Oak Ridge (inc 1979) or Shenandoah (inc 1974 by de-annexing The Woodlands) or Conroe (inc 1904) or Tomball (since 1800's)? Those are our closest neighbors who incorporated decades ago.

If we are to shape our community into one that we want, we must participate in the spirit of a hometown, something similar to Tomball's vision approach for their downtown district. Those stakeholders, those who live there, are openly invited to participate in determining the future of their downtown area.

So what governing components do we have today versus those of a municipality? That is a starter to consider. So I have generated a comparison table as a basis to begin this consideration.

Special District



Tax representation

City council or equivalent 1

Business management

Mayor and comptroller, or city manager

Garbage and Waste

Garbage division of city services, contract optional
None, deferred to County & State


City council 2, county commissioners and state legislators
None, deferred to County and State


City, county and state courts 3
 MUD district

Water & Sewage

City department
District fire services

Fire & EMS 

City fire & EMS services (same)

Law enforcement

Police department, contract optional 4

Parks and recreation

Parks and  recreation department, contract optional


Home-rule or General Charter 5
None, Deferred to County


Health Department
None, deferred to County

Regulatory Domain

Zoning, buildings, signs, nuisances, and subdivision development
Ad valorem tax & district sales tax  & borrowing (bond sales)

Revenue sources

Municipal sales tax, property taxes, occupation taxes, fines collected by the municipal court, fees imposed for utilities such as water, solid waste pickup, waste water, etc., state and federal revenues, and borrowing (bond sales)
Only through state legislation

Annexation Powers

Unlimited within 5 miles of city limits, assuming the "home-rule" model 6


Table notes

1,2An alternative is a City Commission where city administrators manage legislative duties as well as direct reports (employees).
3Required to enforce city ordinances. There may be some room to contract this function to a county court.
4This service is considered by many to be necessary to us by the Township employing policemen, but we should also be able to contract the service out to county law enforcement agencies, if the contract includes enforcement of city ordinances.
5Texas has a default charter for small cities that is sometimes utilized in the absence of a city charter. "Home rule" implies that a written city charter exists.

Some thoughts about the variables and what might occur in the community as we debate a new government:

  • Policing our community would likely be a hot topic when considering a new government. Some folks want our own police force. That means a payroll, asset management, local enforcement techniques, control processes, ethical guidelines, etc etc. I have a story to tell about city police forces, but it will wait until another article.
  • Ordinance making would also probably be a very hot topic. Right now the "shoe" is made to fit the county. Our community is vastly different than the rest of the county. It seems only right that we would have our own ordinances so the "foot would fit our customized shoe" properly. But when this is debated, we are almost sure to discover things that we have not thought about before.
  • Manager or Mayor? It is not clear what path we would take on this. There will be varying opinions and reasons to have one over the other. I expect this to also be a political mine field.
  • Council or Commission? This will not likely be a hot topic but it could. Most people envision and assume a mayor/council type of municipal government purely because they are accustomed to it.
  • Home-rule or default charter? I think the home-rule will dominate but who knows? Most cities in Texas defer to the default state-defined city charter.
  • Representation - by the people (at large) or by the village or both?
  • Service Company - continue to contract or build allegiance through full time employees? This will certainly be a hot topic. Many will want to continue as before, but costs and allegiance issues may drive the model to an employment one.
  • City Hall - a process is underway now to study this and come up with a recommendation and decision. This is being driven by the timing of land development and availability of resources. We could be forced to have the cart before the horse.
  • Water - here is another $64,000 question. We are in the midst of change. The area has grown so fast that it is steadily depleting the underground water reservoirs. We must transition to surface water. That will be another large capital expenditure which may prevent us from having a city water system, or it may have the opposite effect. This is an issue I would like to pursue further. In addition, typically, a city manages to acquire additional funds through service fees which are "hidden" in the water bill (last I saw, the bill is high in Houston with just fees.) This is the type of thing one must watch out for when choosing a municipality model for a government. Residents often pay additional fees on top of taxes.
  • Mass transportation and traffic management - it is inevitable that we must move to improve transportation within the boundaries of The Woodlands, but how will we do it? We face many issues, and it is unclear how we will solve them.
Finally, for now, we need to examine ourselves to see if we have an open mind. The Woodlands continues to be very unique in Texas. Modeling our town after Tomball or Conroe or any other small town does not see to me to be a good idea. We need to take it from the top. That requires careful thinking about what we want our service and jurisdiction table to look like in order to best serve this community. Again we need innovative thinking, not necessarily creative, not emotional, but logical and fact driven. If we go for incorporation, we may face significant political resistance in Texas by those who feel threatened by full incorporation.
1. City of Sweeny - Government defined

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