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District may seek new rate for area

East Downtown entity wants funds to support its plan

By THAYER EVANS

Chronicle Correspondent

Commercial property owners in the East Downtown Management District may be asked this year to support paying a tax for area improvements that would have the same rate as they previously paid through an earlier enhancement plan.

The district's proposal to circulate a petition requesting a tax of 12 1/2 cents per $100 valuation comes as some business representatives in the area expressed disappointment in the five-year-old entity's record on addressing problems.

"I really don't see any improvement," said Tao La, manager of Kim Son Restaurant, 2001 Jefferson.

The district, which was formed in 1999 by the Texas Legislature and includes parts of Old Chinatown, provides public services for business owners and residents east of downtown Houston.

It was created to help revitalize an area that some believe has been neglected in efforts to revive downtown.

The district is authorized to partner with other government agencies and raise revenue to administer public projects related to economic development, public spaces, roadways and utilities.

As part of a three-year enhancement plan, the district began collecting a levy with a 12 1/2 -cent rate from commercial business owners in 2001, district spokesman Steve Pittman said.

That money was used to clean up eyesores and graffiti, make landscaping improvements and promote the area, he said.

However, the assessment ended in 2003 after the enhancement plan was finished, Pittman said. A quarterly landscaping maintenance program and graffiti abatement efforts in the district are continuing because those contracts, which are paid for, have not yet expired.

"The district itself still exists," Pittman said. "But in order to have the funding to provide projects and services, a board will have to go back to the property owners and ask them to petition for services and assessment on a new plan."

The district's new proposed five-year improvement plan was created using feedback from a survey the district distributed to commercial business owners last year, Pittman said.

He said it would have an annual budget of approximately $180,000, which would be derived from the proposed assessment annually over five years.

Before that can happen, Pittman said the Houston City Council must first approve a new 13-person board of directors, which he believes will take place next month.

Board members are volunteers and do not receive compensation, Pittman said.

"We had quite a few resignations," he said. "It was just a sense of the board that we would get a new group that would represent the property owners more fully."

At least 50 of the 462 commercial property owners in the district or those representing a majority of the district's surface area would need to sign the petition for the assessment to go into effect, Pittman said. Under those circumstances, he said the district would require payment of the levy by as early as January 2006.

"Really, the key component is the assessment," Pittman said. "The district can only do so much. There are things the district can do without the resources, but it's pretty limited."

Pittman said 40 percent of the district's budget would be spent on security, public safety and landscaping. Another 30 percent would be spent on business development, and 20 percent would go toward project management, he said.

The budget's remaining 10 percent would be spent on historic preservation, Pittman said. He said the benefits of the proposed plan are numerous.

"It gives the property owners really an ability to maximize their local dollars," he said. "When we can partner with Harris County or (the Texas Department of Transportation) on a project or the Greater East End (Management) District, those dollars go a lot further."

Scott Weaver, co-owner of Jeni's Noodle House, 2130 Jefferson, would not have to pay the district's proposed levy, because he and his wife lease the building their restaurant occupies.

Nonetheless, he said he and other business owners are frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of effort by the district's old board.

He said most of the board's members did not have business interests in the district, and he is hopeful the new members will.

"They went months, months and months where they couldn't have enough members present to get a quorum together to take any action, even though they were collecting money," said Weaver, 36, a Houston resident. "It was really kind of sad."

Still, Weaver said he supports having the district, but wants it to be more accountable to its patrons.

Weaver said he is not sure if the management district will get enough signatures for its planned petition.

La said he has doubts about the management district. He said he has noticed increased development, but is disappointed other problems have not been addressed.

"I have crack houses to the left and right," La said. "There are a lot of homeless. I really don't see any improvement."

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