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

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Houston’s $4 Billion Budget

June 23, 2011

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).


Clutterbuck V. Cweren

May 5, 2011

Attorney Brian Cweren recently asked for a list of all neighborhood organizations in District C from Council Member Anne Clutterbuck, who only released the list after being told by the City Attorney that she must.  CM Clutterbuck then wrote a letter (on City letterhead) to everyone on the list, saying:
 
“‘While most candidates prefer to meet their neighbors and acquaint themselves with civic leaders in a less adversarial manner, I have been advised by the City Attorney that I am required by law to release your information to him.'” (see article here)
 
I understand why CM Clutterbuck didn’t want to release this list.  Although her reasons were probably somewhat political (Cweren bought websites with Clutterbuck’s name when he ran against her in 2005), I think there are other (better) reasons for not wanting to release the list.  Her staff probably spent a long time compiling the list, most likely on City time.  I personally put together my own list when I ran in 2009, and let me tell you, it took a LONG time.  Although all neighborhood organizations are listed on the City’s website, the information is outdated.  Not all organizations have websites, so her staff surely spent lots of time tracking down meeting times and trying to get contact information.  Her staff members were paid with tax dollars.  To then turn around and give that information to a campaign would be like Houston paying for City staffers to work on a campaign.  If she gave that list to her own campaign workers, she could have gotten in a lot of trouble for doing campaign work on City time.
 
At the same time, this is a public document, so the City Attorney probably made the right call in making her release it, but I do see why she at least asked about it before readily giving it up.  If I was in that situation, I might have sent that letter out on campaign letterhead to not waste tax resources on something so trivial, but the request did go to a City office, so using her City letterhead wasn’t completely without merit. 


Election 2011

January 15, 2011

According to the Memorial Examiner, Ellen Cohen, former District 134 State Representative, is running for District C in the November 2011 election.  Anne Clutterbuck is term limited and cannot run again.  It makes sense that a liberal democrat will want to run in a fairly conservative district to make sure another republican does not get that seat.  District C makes sense for Cohen because it closely encompasses her district when she was a state representative.  It might be a winnable seat for her because of name recognition.  This would make perfect sense to me if the districts were staying the same.  After redistricting, District C might be completely different from what it is now.  There will be an at large seat open, so why not run for that?  She is a big name and might easily win an at large seat.  Also, why did she announce so early?  You can’t even file for a campaign treasurer until February, so why did she announce this early January?  The answers to these questions will likely come out as the campaign season progresses.

Those who announced so far that they are running for the at large seat Sue Lovell is term limited out of  are:
– Jennifer Pool – a GLBT activist who currently serves as the City Commissioner of the Building & Standards Commission and serves on the Police Advisory Commission. 
– Eric Dick – a lawyer who, according to his Facebook page is “looking for actors for tv commercials” and already has a campaign treasurer.  You are not allowed to spend money or announce a treasurer until February.
– Amy Peck – Maybe…


Furlough Fiasco

December 8, 2010

Houston City Council unanimously passed an ordinance today to allow Mayor Parker to order mandatory furloughs next year.  City Controller Ronald Green said that we will probably need six or more furlough days to help balance the estimated $26 million budget gap.  This will not include police, firefighters, or other “necessary” staff.  Council members are expected to take the mandatory furloughs as well, but many said they will still show up for work even if they are not being paid that day.  Mayor Parker is starting with a voluntary furlough plan December 11-24 that she hopes will save about $1 million this month. 

I have to give Mayor Parker credit for going after the budget shortfall much more aggressively than former Mayor Bill White ever did.  She knows we need to recoup this money, and I agree with many of the steps she has recently taken.  (Quick update on one cost-saving measure for those who regularly read this blog: Mayor Parker significantly cut the city take-home car program by pulling many cars or by charging a fee for the use of the vehicle.  See the original blog about this here: https://peckblog.com/2010/08/09/city-take-home-vehicle-program-should-drive-away/)

I don’t think anyone on City Council wanted to vote for mandatory furloughs, but at this point, furloughs might be necessary.  City Council has to come up with money fast.  This might be ok for now, but I hope Mayor Parker and everyone on City Council knows that the current system for our budget is not sustainable.  Mayor Parker has been in the hot seat a lot lately: Houston’s finance director Michelle Mitchell stepped down, CM Anne Clutterbuck stepped down as mayor pro tem and tried to step down as chair of the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee (she agreed to stay on a while longer), and there have been rumors of Mayor Parker trying to create a majority gay council district after she moved the main redistricting role away from CM Mike Sullivan (he is the chair of the Special Ethics Council Governance Committee on Redistricting and Term Limits.  Mayor Parker decided to move redistricting to be addressed by City Council as a whole rather than just this committee).

If Mayor Parker wants to keep her seat next year, she needs to fix the budget gap and put into place a new system to better account for our budget.


Update: No Change to Term Limits

August 19, 2010

Houston City Council voted against a proposed charter amendment to change term limits from three 2-year terms to two 4-year terms.  I think this was a smart move.  Council members have more to worry about than extending their own terms in office. 

More new members voted in favor of putting the amendment on the ballot, but it was not split on party lines the way some might have predicted (CM Jolanda Jones was absent for a family obligation).

Those voting in favor of putting the proposed charter amendment on the ballot: Mayor Parker, Brenda Stardig, Jarvis Johnson, Wanda Adams, Mike Sullivan, Al Hoang and Oliver Pennington.

Those voting against putting the proposed charter amendment on the ballot: Stephen Costello, Anne Clutterbuck, Ed Gonzalez, James Rodriguez, Sue Lovell, Melissa Noriega and C.O. Bradford


We Have No Money, and You Want Buy What??

June 22, 2010

As Houston City Council continues with their annual budget process, some new ideas have been thrown out by council members.  Some are good, and others show me that City Council has no plans of reducing the budget. 

Bad Ideas:
– Council Member Jolanda Jones wants to add showers to restrooms used by council members.  First she used our tax money to paint her walls pink and for pink office chairs (see here).  Now she wants showers??  Shower on your own time!  I don’t understand why this is necessary.  Unless she’s secretly on a new show called “Pimp my Office”, we don’t need this!  Now we will need money to maintain the showers.  Then there will be the ordinances about who can use them and when they can use them.  Since transgendered individuals can use either the male or female restroom now, does that mean they can use either shower too? So a shower isn’t just a shower.  It is going to bring more problems than she might realize.

– Council Member Ed Gonzalez wants an assessment made of the total number of unlicensed pets in Houston.  Why??  What will the knowledge of this number do for us?  Nothing!  Why spend the time/money?  Why do we even have to license our pets?  I know we can’t have rabid dogs running around, but the cost structure for licensing pets doesn’t even make sense.  To license a certified “seeing/hearing” dog is free, but a renewal of the license costs $2.  Why? 

It’s not all bad though.  Here are some good ideas from our council members:
– Council Member Anne Clutterbuck proposed eliminating the extra pay for bilingual workers.  This is currently given to more than 1,400 employees in Houston.  The stipend is $70 extra a month, and it costs the City more than $1 million a year.  This proposal received a lot of press recently after various Latino groups protested.  Let’s panel the argument here.  This has nothing to do with ethnicity.  The reason why this program should be halted is because the City has no oversight over it.  There is no proficiency test for workers who claim to be bilingual, and there is no oversight to see if those getting paid even use their other language for their job. 

– Council Member Mike Sullivan wants to limit the SafeClear program to only weekdays at peak traffic times/areas.  If the original goal of this program was to get broken-down cars off the street quickly so that traffic can move smoothly, then they really only need to operate during times when a stalled car on the road would cause traffic jams.

– Council Member Stephen Costello proposed a study for best practices in other US cities for drainage funding.

– Council Member Melissa Noriega wants a review of possibly better uses of emergency communication systems.