Stamping out More Dollars for Food Stamps

October 31, 2012

The City of Houston voted today to pay $159,684.96 in grant money to hire people to work at the Houston Food Bank to enroll Houstonians on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – more commonly referred to as “food stamps”). The Houston Food Bank will try to enroll about 1,400 more people in this federal program.

Many of the council members asked over and over again at the hearing today where the money came from and why they are paying for it out of the General Revenue Fund. The City of Houston was given this grant money for Katrina reimbursements. This money is currently in the Special Funds. No money can be distributed out of Special Funds to a particular group, so the money will be transferred from Special Funds to the General Revenue Fund and then to the Food Bank. It’s kind of like transferring money from your savings account to your checking account so that you can write a check.

Council Members Brown and Pennington voted against this measure. CM Pennington said that basically more research needs to be done on the matter and that there are housing improvement needs as well. Council Member Christie ultimately voted for this but inquired about people buying junk food with the Lone Star Card. This is a question I receive at work all the time, and it can be very confusing. The Lone Star Card (kind of like a debit card) may contain SNAP benefits and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) money. While the two programs are both handled by the federal government, they are separate, and it can be difficult to discern which program is being used for purchases at a store. SNAP funds are restricted to certain items. These items are usually pretty healthy with a few exceptions. What is confusing is that TANF funds have less specific restrictions. So if you see someone purchasing junk food at a store with a Lone Star Card, it might not be SNAP money. It could be TANF money. (Side note: if you want anything related to SNAP changed, contact your federal representative. SNAP is administered by the state, but any change must take place at the federal level.  The federal government regulates TANF as well).

The Food Research and Action Center released a report saying that only 60% of Houstonians who qualify for food stamp benefits actually receive them. While that may be true, I don’t believe that this number is quite as staggering as one might think. Many people who qualify for SNAP benefits don’t receive them because they choose not to. I’ve had countless people call my office and explain that they lost their job and don’t really want to go on food stamps and ask what other services are available instead. Maybe this doesn’t make up the other 40% of those not on food stamps, but it has to account for a considerable percentage. I really doubt that the majority of the 40% not receiving benefits (who qualify) don’t know that food stamps exist.  While some federal programs are obscure, I guarantee that SNAP doesn’t need a promoter.  Then when you take into account the people who the Houston Food Bank will never reach, it will be interesting to see how much they can actually increase that percentage.

A misconception about SNAP is that it is there to foot the bill for all of the recipients’ food.  Rather the program is in place to supplement the bill.  Many people who are already on food stamps go to the Food Bank to get the rest of the food that the SNAP didn’t cover.  Therefore it is likely that most people going to the Food bank are already on food stamps.

Just so everyone reading this is clear, I am completely in favor of helping people get food.  I’ve helped countless people in the Senate office with food stamps, and I will continue to help those in need.  I just believe that the money would have been better spent if they donated it to the Houston Food Bank for food purchases instead. At least that way you know for sure that your tax dollars are actually being used to feed the hungry.

Rather than questioning which account this is coming from, the question the council members should have asked is why we are spending tax dollars to get more people to spend tax dollars?  Trickle down government at its finest.

 

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Mayor Parker Proposes $410 Million Bond Measure

July 11, 2012

Mayor Parker’s $410 million bond package, if approved by council, will go up on the November ballot and will not require a tax increase. The measures are:

$144 million for public safety:
Improvements at neighborhood police stations citywide
Expansion of Fire Station 55, City Council District D
New fire station to serve Pine Brook area, City Council District E
Expansion of Fire Station 22, City Council District I
Fire station maintenance/improvements citywide
Facility security improvements
Other building repairs

$63 million for health, sanitation/recycling, and general government improvements at city facilities not
included in the other categories:
Renovation of the Westpark recycling facility, City Council District J
Renovation of the Central Depository, City Council District I
Possible repair of Sunnywide Multi-Service Center, City Council District D
Repairs to City Hall and City Hall Annex
Environmental Remediation

$15 million for affordable housing:

These dollars will be used for demolition of blighted properties to
make way for new affordable housing.

$28 million for libraries:
Renovation of the Montrose Library, City Council District D
Replacement of the Moody Library, City Council District H
Replacement of the Meyer Library, City Council District K
Renovation of Robinson-Westchase Library, City Council District F

$160 million for parks:
Bayou Greenways Project
Improvements at Haden, Busby Park, Judson Robinson Sr., Jaycee, Wright, Bembry,
Hermann, Alief, Nieto, Squatty Lyons, Gragg, Braeburn, Glen and Wildheather parks
Pavilion replacements
Swimming pool upgrades and replacements
Ball field lighting upgrades
Trail replacement and overlays
Bayou Greenways Project

Controller Ronald Green asked for information about the proposal but was denied by the mayor’s office.  He said that if it is “‘that secretive, it can’t possibly be good for the city.’”  City Council will vote on these items at a later date.


Results of the Budget Amendments

June 20, 2012

Here is a list of all of the budget amendments and votes on each (the final ones will be updated once the archive video is online for me to view):

Amendment List (click here)


Proposed Budget Amendments

June 13, 2012

Today’s city council meeting was packed with discussions about many different issues including amendments to the budget.  One that just cannot be overlooked is Council Member Helena Brown’s amendment for the city to stop paying into the pension systems.  Her solution to the pension problem is to just stop paying.  CM Brown’s amendment will “bring to question the state constitutionality of forcing a municipality into bankruptcy by obliging them to maintain an unsustainable pension plan” (see here).

CM Brown has a history of taking the easy way out, and this is no different.  A council member’s job is to critically consider every ordinance.  If a member already knows that he or she is voting “no” no matter what, that council member doesn’t have to take the time to fully consider anything.  There is a difference between making tough decisions and making no decision.  Also, rather than doing the hard work required to fix the pension situation, she is now saying that we should just stop funding it instead.  Unlike many other projects in the city, this is not one that can just be defunded.  City workers entered into a contract with the city, and the city has to hold up their end of the agreement.  Can you imagine what would happen if they don’t (the red light camera contract comes to mind)?  It is because of these types of situations that people have so little trust in our government.  Surely changes must be made with the pension system.  One idea might be to stop pensions for new employees, but pensions should still be paid to any current or former employee who presently qualifies for the pension and who we are contractually obligated to pay.  While I can appreciate her sentiment that the current pension program is expensive, her proposal just acts as a roadblock and makes real proposals more difficult to introduce.   Why propose ideas that have no chance of being implemented?

Other budget amendment Highlights:

Council Member Jack Christie – Proposed an amendment to require certain departments to fill all job vacancies with three months or forfeit the position.  Interesting idea, but I think CM Christie needs to look into this one a little further.  Departments such as Police and Fire might have vacancies because they are waiting to hire the best officers and firefighters for the jobs.  So this might be useful in some departments, but I think he should not extend this amendment to agencies across the board.

Council Member Ellen Cohen – Proposed a $5/person fee on adult entertainment establishments.  This is expected to generate about $3 million per year, and the money would go to help with the backlog of untested rape kits.  You may remember that when CM Cohen was a state house representative, she passed a similar tax on the state level (House Bill 1751 in the 80th Session) and received bipartisan but not unanimous support.  We will see how this pans out on the city level.

Council Member Andrew Burks – Proposed a ballot measure to change term limits from the current two-year term (up to three terms) to a four-year term (up to two terms).  So while this wouldn’t change the number of years members are in office, the change would allow members to serve longer terms and not have to campaign every other year.  This has been introduced in the past, but members failed to put it on the ballot.  While Mayor Parker supports this, it is not an issue she has pushed for.

Council Member Melissa Noriega – Proposed for an evaluation of cost savings to provide electronic documents for council meetings.  If it’s cost effective, I don’t see why they shouldn’t make this change.


$4.54 Billion Budget Proposal

May 15, 2012

Mayor Annise Parker unveiled a $4.54 billion proposed budget, including $2.08 for the General Fund (see her press release here).  The General Fund is where most of the city operations are funded.  Mayor Parker said about the budget that “Houston’s economy is doing much better than it was a year ago. Our job growth continues to be the envy of the rest of the nation, property values are improving, and consumer spending is on the rise. Challenges remain, but we will continue to meet them head on, making the right decisions even when they are tough.”

Let’s take a look at what we know so far:

Positive Aspects:

–          Over two-thirds of the General Fund will continue to be allocated to public safety.
–          Does not include a property tax increase (maintains the existing property tax rate of 63.875 cents per $100 of taxable value).
–          No fee increases.
–          No layoffs/furloughs/ service cuts.
–          Does not borrow money to pay for the pensions.
–          For the most part, it is a flat budget with “with funding levels for all departments at essentially the same levels as last year – with the exception of contractual increases for pensions and increases in health benefits, fuel, electricity, and information technology costs.”
–          The budget replenishes the Rainy Day Fund.

Negative Aspects:

–          Restoring night and weekend hours to the 311 assistance line is a waste of money.  There are so many problems associated with this department.  Calling 311 is often a nightmare for Houstonians.  You have to call several times, and you usually have to get your neighbors to call too before anything is done.  Since nothing will get done no matter what time you call, I see no need to pay for additional hours for this service until this department is more accountable to us.
–          While it is definitely positive that the budget hasn’t increased this year, how do we really know if we are spending the right amount of money in the right areas?  We need a better system to review and automatically remove wasteful spending and unnecessary programs.  Until we have this in place, passing any budget is irresponsible.  Right now it is just a guessing game.

These are just a few items that jumped out at me from reading Mayor Parker’s press release.  I am sure that there will be much more to say about this in the weeks to come as the budget is scrutinized further.  Unfortunately, I have a feeling that the “negative aspects” column will start to grow bigger and bigger… as will the budget once all the council members try to add more to it.


Where do Your Tax Dollars Go? There’s an App for that!

October 11, 2011

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.


It’s $3 Million…Can you Hear Me Now?

July 24, 2011

In a city where we’ve had to look for new ways to collect taxes, increase fees, and decrease services, we have been told that every penny counts.  Then shouldn’t $3 million count considerably?? 

Mayor Parker recently barely secured enough votes to approve a new wireless contract that would save $3 million.  AT&T is the current provider for city cell phones and emergency communications.  Parker has been trying for a while now to switch the contract over to Sprint to save $3 million.

Sure, there are a few detriments to consider: Sprint is not a Texas company like AT&T, Sprint might not have the  infrastructure and personnel support needed during disasters like hurricanes as AT&T does, and Parker’s former campaign treasurer is a registered lobbyist for Sprint.

So with all of these items to think about before approving the new contract, what was the main concern with Sprint?  They are not a union like AT&T!  $3 million is on the table here, and that is what council members are concerned with?  Council members approve contracts for the city all the time, and I can’t remember a time where members tried to go with another company based only on whether or not they are a union.  It is time for them to wake up and hear from their constituents that we need to take a serious look at our finances and cut every place we can.

How the council members voted:
FOR (approving the change from AT&T to Sprint):
Anne Clutterbuck, Stephen Costello, Sue Lovell, Oliver Pennington, James Rodriguez, Brenda Stardig, and Mike Sullivan

AGAINST (voted to keep the AT&T contract):
Ed Gonzalez, Melissa Noriega, Wanda Adams, C.O. Bradford, Jarvis Johnson, and Jolanda Jones