With the US shale industry producing at near-record levels as oil prices languish around $50 a barrel, cities in oil-dependent states like Texas are resorting to increasingly creative means to compensate for the shortfall left by falling energy revenues, including selling off public assets, like Houston just did.
The city held what the Houston Chronicle described as “a yard sale of sorts” last week when the city council approved selling or swapping almost $2 million worth of city streets and utilities easements in a deal that will help close what’s expected to be a $100 million budget shortfall over the next five years.
Specifically, the council abandoned or sold several streets and easements on the east side of the city. The land is adjacent to an oil refinery owned by Valero Energy. The oil giant already owns the blocks immediately surrounding its facility, and the move will let the company assume the intersecting streets onto its land as part of a plan to build an office building, warehouse, security building and to add parking farther away from the central plant, the Chronicle reported.
The second example also comes from the east side, around Houston’s public Milby High School. The city agreed to abandon and sell parts of five streets and a sewer easement in and around the school campus for $431,000. But rather than pony up that cash, the school district is instead giving the city a 7.5-acre tract valued at $443,000 that used to be home to the now-defunct Clinton Park Elementary.
City officials have ramped up efforts to jettison useless easements and strips of city land in recent years amid repeated budget crunches. However, it’s somewhat less common for the dollar amounts to rise into the millions on the same meeting agenda. Councilman Robert Gallegos, whose district includes both sites, said he hopes the land swap can be beneficial for the neighborhood.
"Now that the city is taking over these 7.5 acres I hope this is a partnership that maybe the city and County Commissioner [Rodney] Ellis, we could work on hopefully making a community center," Gallegos said. "There's a desperate need for a community center in that community."
In another development that is draining the city’s tax base, Houston, one of the hardest hit markets from the collapse of oil prices, saw commercial vacancies rise to a 22-year high during the first quarter, according to a report by NAI Partners.
Unfortunately for Houston officials, there's little the city can do about the price of oil aside from praying that OPEC will come through with yet another production cut.