The city of Houston recently unveiled a new feature on its website that allows you to track where your money is spent on the city level. Thank you to Mayor Parker and Council Member Noriega for putting this online app together. We pay taxes, and we deserve to know where that money goes.
Now the program isn’t perfect of course, but it will give you a general idea. You might be surprised by what you see. Some people are aware that long-term debt constitutes roughly 12% (12.57% to be exact) of the budget, but it really hits home when you look at how much you actually pay towards that area. If your home is appraised at $100,000 a year with a homestead exemption, you pay $64.21 to debt services and only $10.49 to Public Works.
Although this program is really interesting (and surely appreciated by many taxpayers), I think it also illustrates what I’ve said before in this blog and when I ran for City Council: we need to do a better job with the budget. Although council members do get a better breakdown of the budget than this app shows, it is not nearly as extensive as it should be. Put yourself in the place of a council member for a minute. Look at the programs and the percentages of each category. Where do you cut? Where do you add? You might be able to make a good guess, but really, how would you know for sure? Houston’s government isn’t so big that they can’t break down each agency into small components to really analyze how money is being spent.
Regular readers of this blog know that my other solution to this is to have all major programs that are expendable (not police, fire, etc.) undergo a review. Some would be yearly; some would be every other year (depending on the nature of the program). It is based somewhat on the state’s sunset review program. Too often items are voted on and then forgotten about until someone points out a problem. For example, it was pointed out last year that the city’s take home vehicle program for city employees cost millions of dollars ($4 million in maintenance alone), and the vehicles were only being used for work purposes only 54% of the time. Who knows how many years this was going on? No one knows for sure, but if this was something analyzed yearly or even every few years, they could have put an end to it much faster.
Although it would cost some money initially to perform these audits, I believe it will save money in the long run – and if it doesn’t, it could be cut too.