The County Connection
Lina Hidalgo | Harris County Judge

January 17, 2022
On January 17th, we celebrate the vision of a man who changed the world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a warrior for the civil rights of African Americans and all disadvantaged communities in this nation – for the right to vote, to eat at any lunch counter, to attend any school. Dr. King spurred a movement, but we continue his fight to this day. And that legacy of demanding change and speaking up for equality, justice, and an end to poverty in American society for people of every color lives on in our work in Harris County.
One of my priorities as County Judge is to ensure that we are investing in wealth building in our African American communities, who have for far too long been left behind. In 2020, a disparity study estimated that only 9% of Harris County contracting dollars were directed to Minority/Women Owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs), compared to qualified MWBE availability of 28% in related industries. The summer following the adoption of our countywide MWBE policy in November 2020, 12.7% of all contract spending went to MWBEs, an increase of 3%.  Additionally, 17.1% of new contract awards and 67.4% of subcontractor awards went to MWBE firms during this time. By implementing MWBE policies, we are investing in the future of qualified minority businesses that may not otherwise get an opportunity to succeed.
We have also ensured that equity is inserted into everything we do. We are designing our initiatives and programs – from COVID-response to flood control to crime fighting – to prioritize the most vulnerable people and communities. From establishing a Diversity and Inclusion Policy for our Budget Management Department to authorizing Texas’ only African American-owned bank for Harris County financial business, to declaring Juneteenth a county holiday, we’re continuing to fight for the inclusion of our African American residents and all historically marginalized people.
On this MLK Day, I am so proud of all that we have accomplished while I look ahead to all the battles yet to be won. Below, I share some of the programs, initiatives, and achievements we have made that demonstrate our commitment to a truly equitable Harris County. We will never give up the fight for equality and justice for every resident, regardless of race, sex, religion, or income. MLK Jr.’s legacy of demanding change for what is correct, fair, and good lives on in all of our work in Harris County. Not just on MLK Day, but every day of the year.
Lina Hidalgo

Fighting for Dr. King’s Legacy

Since we took office in 2019, Harris County has supported the fight for social justice, equality, and peace by harnessing local government to advance those causes.

Only African American-Owned Bank in Texas Now Authorized for Harris County Banking

In December 2021, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Court were proud to make Unity National Bank, the only African American-owned bank in Texas and one of a very few African American-owned banks in the United States, an authorized bank for Harris County investment funds. Until now, the Harris County banking process did not have any MWBE participation.

“Worst First” Model Prioritizes Flood Control Projects In Areas With Higher Risks of Flooding and Damage

The County Judge’s office has implemented a “worst first” model to inform which flood control bond projects to prioritize. While all bond projects will be completed, the County has begun using the Social Vulnerability Index developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prioritize areas that are particularly prone to disasters and face additional barriers to recovery after flood events. In particular, the Halls and Greens Bayou watersheds, two historically under-invested watersheds and home to African American communities, will see investments through the flood bond. The County also reformed the Harris County Community Flood Resilience Task Force to ensure membership and purpose reflecting the diversity of Harris County and its most vulnerable communities.

Harris County Joins “Ban the Box” Movement to Remove Criminal History Disclosures on County Employment Applications

For too long, Harris County has allowed discrimination against employment applicants with criminal or arrest records by requiring job applicants to declare their criminal history at the start of their employment applications. In early January 2022, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and the Commissioners Court voted to join 37 states and more than 150 cities and counties across America in removing questions about an applicant’s criminal history from county employment applications. This effort, nicknamed “Ban the Box,” will prohibit Harris County from asking about a person’s arrest or conviction record before determining if they are otherwise qualified for a position, which means that questions about a candidate’s past history will not automatically disqualify them from getting a job. Given the history of mass incarceration in our nation, that affects African American communities, in particular, this is a step toward economic opportunity and second chances.

Harris County Approved Historic Investment to Improve Voting Access Prior to November 2020 Election

Harris County now allows residents to vote at any polling location on Election Day, not just their home precinct, and has expanded early voting hours and locations, including increased access for students with early voting polls opened at the University of Houston and Texas Southern University. For the historic 2020 election held in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Harris County made a $17 million investment to triple the number of Early Vote locations and implement drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting and provide mail-in ballots. As a result, Harris County saw almost 70% turnout — the highest in 30 years, with record turnout from both parties. The County also created an Elections Administrator Position to modernize Harris County elections and ensure voting is fair, efficient, secure, and accessible and approved funding of up to $54 million for new, state-of-the-art voting machines.
Even in the face of historic voter suppression at the state level, the County has continued to expand access to the ballot box. The County opened up its first polling place at the Harris County jail so incarcerated people are not unjustly denied the opportunity to vote. The County has also continued to increase access to polling locations by improving signage and communications leading to increased turnout in May and November local elections over comparable years and allocated $12 million to significantly expand vote by mail to ensure safe and accessible voting for seniors and residents impacted by COVID-19. The County has also focused on voting registration across all communities.

Harris County and City of Houston Continue Work to Improve Infrastructure in Historically Forgotten Communities

In partnership with the City of Houston, Harris County is working to improve city streets around the historic Third Ward in Harris County’s Precinct One. The $43 million “Complete Streets” infrastructure project is utilizing the talents of TSU and University of Houston Engineering students to improve and beautify many major streets while improving safety and accessibility for drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, and riders of mass transit. Improvements to Cleburne Street, including wider sidewalks and improved transit stops, were completed in December 2021, while construction on other streets is ongoing.

Harris County Posthumously Supports Pardon of George Floyd and declares June 9th George Floyd Day

As a nation, we have collectively grieved for the loss of George Floyd and were outraged at the injustices committed against him. In the wake of his death, Harris County took steps to create independent civilian oversight of police, humane use-of-force policies, the establishment of a violence interruption program, and public disclosure of use of force data and video footage. Though nothing can change the tragic circumstances of his  murder, Harris County Commissioners Court in June passed a resolution supporting his posthumous pardon for a 2004 drug conviction based on invalid testimony. In June 2021, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo declared June 9th in Harris County George Floyd Day.

Harris County Lawsuit over I-45 Expansion Project Prompts Investigation into Environmental and Civil Rights Violations

Harris County has been fighting hard to improve the proposed TxDOT I-45 expansion project, which, as currently planned, disproportionately affects vulnerable communities of color, won’t solve our traffic problems, and will only worsen our air quality. In May 2021, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and the County Attorney announced a lawsuit against TxDOT which would require them to take community and environmental concerns into consideration for their design. In late June, the Federal Highway Administration sent a letter to TxDOT sharing the concerns we have about their lack of engagement with the community violating the Environmental Protection Act. The federal government asked TxDOT to pause the project over environmental concerns and is currently conducting an investigation into their compliance.

Harris County Approved Building a Memorial to Commemorate Black Victims of Lynching

Some of the things that really make our County special are our rich diversity, history, and our willingness to reckon with our mistakes. In September 2020, Harris County Commissioner’s Court approved the building of the County’s first lynching memorial to be built in downtown to commemorate the lives of four black men that were violently and unjustly murdered. The memorial will be built near the County Courthouse complex as a reminder of all of those who were denied justice in the past and our duty to right those wrongs as best we can in the present.

Harris County Approved the Youth Justice Community Reinvestment Fund

In 2020, Harris County approved the Youth Justice Community Reinvestment Fund with initial funding of $4 million to invest in community-based programs that reduce youth violence and detention and address racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system. In 2021, following the implementation of a new Detention Screening Instrument, the likelihood of Black and Hispanic youth being screened as eligible for detention dropped from 20% more likely than white youth to about equal across races.

Harris County Launched Investigation into Pollution Management of Union Pacific Railroad Property

In January 2020, Judge Lina Hidalgo and the Commissioners Court approved an investigation into the management of a contaminated Union Pacific railroad property in the 5th Ward’s Kashmere Gardens neighborhood. In August, the Texas State Department of Health published a study which determined that residents in the same neighborhood have been diagnosed at higher-than-normal rates of lung, esophagus, and larynx cancers, which are all consistent with the chemical contaminant polluting the railroad property. The County Attorney’s office is hiring an independent investigator to determine if the property is environmentally safe for neighboring residents and is determining the County’s legal response to Union Pacific’s application to amend its Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) permit. Additionally, Harris County Pollution Control is conducting ongoing soil and water quality sampling in the neighborhood near the railyards.

Harris County Increased Funding for Indigent Defense

The Harris County Criminal Courts at Law and the Harris County District Courts have approved a Managed Assigned Counsel program to oversee and enhance the independence, quality, and accountability of private attorney appointments for indigent defendants.

Harris County Raised Minimum Wage, Passes More Inclusive Nondiscrimination Policy

In 2019, Harris County Raised the County minimum wage to $15 an hour for employees and certain construction contract workers. The County has also passed a more inclusive nondiscrimination policy.

Harris County Commissioners Court Unanimously Voted to Rename Road Commemorating Confederate General

Harris County is a place of diversity, inclusion, and acceptance, and to ensure that all feel welcome, we must remove symbols of oppression and hate. Accordingly, Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously in July 2020 to officially rename Robert E. Lee Road, in Precinct 1, to Unison Road.

Harris County Created African American Cultural Heritage Commission

In 2020, Harris County created the Harris County African American Cultural Heritage Commission to advise the county on how to protect and celebrate African American history and culture in Harris County.

Harris County Approves Resolution in Support of Proposed CROWN Act

Laws to regulate and control natural hairstyles traditionally worn by people of African descent such as afros, braids, locs, and twists have existed since slavery. Natural hair discrimination has increased racial inequity leading to disparate hiring or treatment in workplace and educational settings. In October 2021, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Court approved a resolution in support of the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Act at the State and Federal levels. CROWN aims to help eliminate discrimination based on hair texture and styles. Harris County is currently working to align its personnel policies with the CROWN Act to ensure that we have a respectful and open workplace for natural hair.

Commissioner’s Court Declares Juneteenth County Holiday

Juneteenth marks the day, June 19th, 1865, that the liberation of slaves reached Texas, effectively ending slavery throughout the United States. In June 2021, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioner’s Court declared Juneteenth an official County holiday, ensuring Harris county employees are able to join in the celebration of Juneteenth going forward.

Harris County Takes Steps to Establish Emancipation Trail, Toll Hike and Bike Trails

In December 2020, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioner’s Court made steps towards establishing the Emancipation Trail, a tribute to African American history in the region, as well as building hike and bike trails along toll roads throughout the county. Two firms were tasked with conducting separate planning studies and developing detailed plans for trails along the toll road system and Emancipation Trail. The Emancipation Trail study will provide a detailed proposal describing how the County would like to have this trail developed, including trail alignment, historical considerations, and proposals for the visual design and amenities along the trail.

New Policies and Guidelines to Incorporate Equity Across Harris County Hiring Practices and Departments

In 2020, a disparity study completed by Colette Holt & Associates estimated that only 9% of Harris County contracting dollars were directed to Minority/Women Owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs), compared to MWBE availability of 28% in related industries. Harris County has been working hard to rectify these inequalities by establishing the Office of Economic Opportunity as well as adapting inclusion policies and guidelines for hiring and contracting practices. In November 2020, Harris County approved a framework to help ensure more MWBEs will be hired to carry out Harris County’s contract work such as road construction, waste collection, and sewage maintenance. During the summer of 2021, 12.7% of all contract spending went to MWBEs, an increase of 3%. Additionally, 17.1% of new contract awards went to MWBE firms and 67.4% of subcontractor awards went to MWBE firms during this time. On March 1st, 2021, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioner’s Court approved a Budget Management Department Diversity and Inclusion Policy to use when choosing third-party financial advisory firms, underwriters, and legal services for its debt management activities. In November, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Court adopted new guidelines for advancing equity across county programs and services and equity commitments for county departments.
Of course, Dr. King defended all disadvantaged communities and we support those communities across all our work. For instance, in 2019 Harris County established a new Justice Administration Department and implemented cash bail reforms to protect the constitutional rights of defendants by correcting the often exorbitant and potentially life-ruining amount of bond demanded for minor offenses. Our ACCESS Harris program coordinates County services for our clients to ensure they are taking full advantage of the resources available to them. Our new “Healthy Minds, Healthy Communities” Initiative promotes mental health care, counseling, and suicide prevention in zipcodes with the highest rates of suicide and the lowest access to resources. We established a new broadband office and made a commitment to provide free public wifi in accessible locations like bus stops, and are building a $35 million complex to provide a cushion of shelter and resources for young adults transitioning out of foster care. We have just approved hiring five new employees to oversee our community’s access to affordable housing. We started a Healthy Food Initiative that is providing funding to community organizations mitigating the effects of food deserts and ensuring access to nutritious food for all. We established a fund for the most effective and impactful early childhood education programs serving our highest need populations. We keep a close eye on the most crippling needs of our most vulnerable residents and are doing everything we can to eliminate them by investing in solutions that will help them escape the cycle of poverty.
About Judge Hidalgo
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is the head of Harris County’s governing body and Director of the Harris County’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Judge Hidalgo, alongside four County Precinct Commissioners, oversees a budget of approximately $5 billion that funds services and institutions for the third-largest county in the nation, home to nearly 5 million people.
For more information about Harris County and the Office of the County Judge, click here.