Houston’s $4 Billion Budget

Houston City Council voted on the budget for the next fiscal year.  The general funds budget ended up being about $1.8 billion, and the overall budget is $4 billion ($2.2 billion is for the enterprise funds like airport and water utilities that usually generate their own revenues through user fees).  All members voted in favor of it except Mike Sullivan and Anne Clutterbuck.  Here are the highlights :
 
Items Cut:
–  Total of about $100 million less than the current fiscal year.
– Largest cuts were to HPD and HFD (Note: I’m sure no one wanted to do this, but most of the budget is allocated to these departments, so there was no way to significantly reduce the budget without touching these two departments.   No officers or firefighters were laid off).
– Mayor Parker cut eight pools and seven community centers, but private donations of $350,000 are keeping the pools open.
– Layoffs of 747 city workers.
– Reduction of library hours.
 
Amendments that Failed:
– Council Member Wanda Adams introduced an amendment to increase each council member’s office budget.  The current office yearly budget is $382,432, and CM Adams wanted to increase it to $392,222.  She said she is getting 67,000 more constituents after redistricting.  Council Member Jolanda Jones said that they are elected to be responsive to their constituents.  I agree, but many (not all) council offices seem to just push you to call 3-1-1 instead of their office.  Or if you do call their office, they just give your information to 3-1-1 to “handle” your concern.  My thought is start doing actual constituent casework, and then we’ll talk about budget increases.  Council Members Adams, Jarvis Johnson, and Jones voted in favor of the amendment, but it failed. 
– Council Member Stephen Costello introduced an amendment to look into the lack of grocery stores in poor communities.  The amendment called for an establishment of guidelines for loans or grants, giving priority to projects in underserved communities.  While this certainly is an important issue, especially for those living in these areas, there are bus stops by many grocery stores in Houston, so it’s not like there is absolutely no access.  Mayor Parker pointed out that state law covers development deals; however the city has been known for approving development deals with grocery stores before.  This usually happens with tax incentives and not loans.  I’m ok with tax incentives in some regards but not with giving loans to companies.  Do we want to become the federal government?  This amendment ended up being pulled by CM Costello.
 
Problems for the Future:
– The budget defers tens of millions of dollars.  A deal with the police pension board allows the city to put off $17 million in pension contributions for three years.  A deal with the firefighters union allows the city to put off about $10 million in lump-sum payments for firefighters who leave the department.  This will be paid over four years instead.
– The red light camera issue has not been resolved.  If the red light camera company sues to recoup their money, or even if they make a deal with the city, we are taking about millions and millions of dollars here.
 
The budget also calls for a Long-Range Financial Management Task Force to recommend how to address the unfunded liabilities, pensions, debt, and other obligations.  The task force will include two council members, an appointee by the mayor, and representatives from the finance department, labor unions, pension boards, and controller’s office.  I’m ok with this idea, but shouldn’t the council members, pension board, and controller’s office have already been working on how to address these problems??  I guess they haven’t, but at least they are now.  Also, the budget includes no property tax increases.  It also doesn’t tap into the reserve account nor does it borrow money to pay for pensions (like Bill White’s budget did).

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