“That government is best which governs least.” If we as conservatives believe this, then we should all be watching closely what happens in the Woodlands, a vibrant, growing township near Houston, Texas.
With a population of more than 100,000 now, the Woodlands began as a master-planned community envisioned by Texas magnate George P. Mitchell. Much more than a bedroom community for oil execs, the Woodlands is now home to corporate offices of companies ranging from the Occidental Petroleum Corporation to Baker Hughes to Halliburton. This year, it was ranked No. 1 city in America in which to live by Niche, a data-driven marketing and recruiting firm.
Yet despite its success as a township, its board of directors is pushing for the Woodlands to incorporate as a city. Armed with an Incorporation Study from an Ohio consulting group, the board has called for a November referendum on the issue. While that’s certainly the right way to go about it—letting the voters decide—the bigger question is why mess with success?
Township Chairman Gordy Bunch claims “Incorporation does not include a tax rate increase.” But how does that work? Currently, residents pay county taxes, and their roads are maintained by county crews. The new city would take over about 500 miles of roadways—with no equipment or staff in place. In the same manner, the city would start a new police department from scratch to replace the sheriff’s deputies and constables who patrol it now.
That’s why a new study released this month shows that the Incorporation Study is fatally flawed.
“This review of the township’s model reveals a massive understatement of the expenses associated with incorporation and inaccurate franchise fee projections,” says Jim Carman of the Howard Hughes Corporation, which conducted the study. “The Woodlands residents and businesses would pay significantly more to support the costs of an incorporated city than they currently pay as a township or risk a lower level of service and public safety than we enjoy today, burdening a future mayor and city council with the decision to raise taxes or cut services.”
Are residents of the Woodlands willing to accept a lower level of public safety? Probably not—but that’s what incorporation into a city, under the current plan, could bring. Police departments aren’t free or even cheap. The costs of establishing a Woodlands Police Department would range from $12.1 million to $14.5 million, another study says. And the plan fails to mention ongoing costs such as liability insurance, collective bargaining, special crime units and support services (things sheriffs and constables have in place already).
The larger question is why? The Woodlands model, like the Texas Model of low taxes and reasonable regulation, is a rousing success. Why abandon that now? Jim Carman, a Woodlands resident himself, urged his fellow Woodlanders to reject the board’s push to incorporate as a city in a recent letter.
“The success of The Woodlands has not happened by accident,” he wrote. “Our unique governance model was designed to deliver outstanding services while keeping property taxes low and avoiding the overreach of government bureaucracy, in keeping with founder George Mitchell’s vision to deliver the very best environment for families and businesses to thrive.”
The threat often cited by those in favor of incorporation is that Houston might forcibly annex the Woodlands. But because of legislation advocated by the Texas Public Policy Foundation in 2017 and 2019, the threat of being annexed without consent is now gone. There’s no danger of forced annexation, and after seeing how Kingwood (a master-planned step-sibling) fared after being gobbled up by Houston, there’s little chance Woodland residents would vote to become subjects of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.
The Woodlands should be left in its pristine state—with its small but efficient township structure, its unique identity as a haven in the midst of the chaotic Houston metropolitan area, and its strong non-governmental institutions. Adding a layer of bureaucracy atop the township’s success would be like throwing a fire blanket atop a small blaze. The effect would be suffocation. In the Woodlands, the truism really is true—its government is governing best because it’s governing least.