$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.


Proposed Houston Crime Lab

March 21, 2012

Mayor Annise Parker recently unveiled the city’s plan for a new crime lab in Houston that will be overseen by an independent board. The current crime lab is riddled with problems. There are thousands of untested rape kits and a complete mismanagement of evidence.  Since 2002, changes have been made within the system but to no avail.

Mayor Parker and her chief development officer, Andy Icken, are expecting the program to cost nearly 20% more than the current system, which is run by the police department (see here).  As I’ve said in this blog before, cuts across the board are not ideal because every department/program is unique.  Some should be cut more than others (and some should be cut completely).  Then there are these rare situations where maybe we have to spend a little more money to get the outcome we need.  While I don’t advocate spending more money on anything needlessly, this isn’t needless.  After three mayors and ten years of battling this problem, something needs to change, and creating more independence for the lab might just be the something that needs to happen.  This is a public safety issue, and public safety is one of the few things that the government should be in charge of handling.  Of course, the change in the program will bring its own set of problems; however if Mayor Parker stays steadfast in fixing these problems as they occur and truly makes sure that the lab is independent, it just might work.

With that being said, I am, however, reluctant to support this program 100% until I see more details.  This is essentially creating a new department and a new bureaucracy, and that is rarely ideal.  I would like to see the breakdown of the budget to know fully why it is going to cost more money. I would also like to see her plan on how the current problems will be fixed under the new system.  Why is it that the nonaffiliated scientists will suddenly be objective, but they couldn’t be under HPD?  Will the independent board really be independent?  What would it cost to privatize this program? What about a private system with some government oversight (since it is a public safety issue)?  Clearly there are items to work out before I would be comfortable with the city moving forward, but I am optimistic that this change might be for the best.

One item to note: Mayor Parker preferred to have a regional crime lab (see here) in conjunction with Harris County; however, the city and county couldn’t come to an agreement on the financial aspect.  I think before the city implements the crime lab, Mayor Parker should continue to work with Harris County until that option has been completely exhausted so that they can share necessary information and save money.

I Think You Are Too Loud…Here Is Your Ticket!

October 13, 2011

Officers used to be required to use a sound meter to write a ticket for noise violators.  Now officers can write a ticket if they basically think that the noise is too loud.  No sound meter is necessary.  The ordinance will increase fines up to $1,000, and the time to begin yard work changed from 7:00 AM to 8:00 AM.  This came about because the city of Houston receives over 60,000 calls a year to HPD because of noise violations.  Sound meters are expensive, and not all HPD officers had access to them to carry around at all times. 
The new ordinance is a bit of a tradeoff.  On one hand, HPD officers will have more leeway to write tickets to violators, which is great for those who have noisy neighbors; however, on the other hand, no one wants to receive a ticket without proof that they did something wrong.  It really is like writing a speeding ticket without using radar and basing it on how fast they think you are going.  How will this possibly stand up in court? 
Although this increase in scope and flexibility for officers might sound like a bad thing (and many believe it is), I have a feeling many residents are going to be relieved.  I work for a state senator, and we have people who live outside the city limits calling and writing all the time asking for the state to give the county the ability to create sound ordinances.  I read the comments on many of the news sites online out of curiosity about what people think about this one, and it looks like many people who wrote in were supportive.  It will be interesting to see if anyone takes this to court. 
What are your thoughts?

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).

Jolanda Jones Violated City Ordinances

June 9, 2011

The Office of Inspector General determined that Council Member Jolanda Jones used her position as an elected official to solicit clients for her private law practice after volunteers passed out fliers at an event urging people to never speak with the police unless they talk to a lawyer first (see flyer here).  CM Jones said that she did not break any rules because she was acting as a private citizen and was invited to the event as a lawyer, not a council member.
The flyer does not mention that she is a council member, but it does provide her council office number to report misconduct.  This is where the conflict of interest comes into play.  If her office receives information about police misconduct, there is nothing her staff members can do.  It needs to be reported to Internal Affairs within HPD.  So what did she intend her staff to do with the information if someone called her office about misconduct?  Refer them to her law office? 
She also instructed her staff members not to meet with OIG investigators, which means that she is in violation of failing to cooperate and interfering with the investigation.  The most egregious allegation against her, however, is that she used her city staff on city time (TAX DOLLARS) to notarize documents for her law practice, fax legal papers, and drive her to court hearings (related to her private business).  She allegedly did this before expressing her concern to city council that slashing council’s office budgets by 10% is too much because their employees are essential.  I agree that they are essential in making sure the city runs properly, but driving her around on the city dime is not essential.  In fact, it is illegal!
Mayor Parker recently stated that she does not believe CM Jones should face criminal charges, although that is left up to City Attorney David Feldman.  Mayor Parker said that CM Jones will need to face city council to determine if she should be reprimanded, censured, or even impeached.  I agree that she should face impeachment by city council, but I don’t agree with Mayor Parker that she should not face criminal charges.  It is not as if there is one minor mistake here.  She is a lawyer and should have a better grasp on the law and, therefore, know that what she did violated ordinances.  But do you really need a law degree to know that city workers should do city tasks??  It seems like she made a series of poor choices and inappropriate behavior. How can someone with disregard for the law be the one to create it?

Proposed Houston Budget

May 19, 2011

Mayor Parker said the current economic times are the hardest the City of Houston has faced since the oil bust of the mid-1980s.  Given her proposed budget, she is probably right.
Under her proposed $1.8 billion budget that City Council still has to approve, there will be layoffs of 747 employees, closures of 8 swimming pools (Alief, Cloverland, Finnigan, Independence Heights, Landsdale, Love, Robinson, and Taylor) and 7 community centers, and the consolidation of 7 health centers down to 4.  It also calls for closing all city-funded youth sports leagues, except for baseball (this is funded by the Astros). Youth tennis, summer food, and enrichment program will remain.  Libraries are staying open, but there will be an adjustment in hours.
Her plan does not include any tax increases and will spend overall $100 million less than the current fiscal year.  The proposal also dedicates about two-thirds of the budget to public safety.  Under a tentative deal with the police officer and firefighter unions, her plan will not layoff any firefighters/police officers. 
I have to say that I am impressed with her budget for the most part.  She said she wouldn’t raise taxes, and she didn’t.  Where others might have not worked so hard to actually balance the budget, she made the tough choices.  Mayor Parker probably angered her base by all the closures of the pools and community centers, but she knew it had to be done.  These are luxuries that we can’t afford right now.  I am curious as to what they will do with the pools and community centers.  I hope they don’t let them sit and become run down.  Hopefully they can sell them to non-profit groups who want to continue allowing the public to use the facilities for free.
The real priority should be public safety, and based on the numbers in the budget, Mayor Parker’s priority is public safety too.  The plan will surely change at least a little after City Council makes changes/deals before they vote, but it really looks like Mayor Parker made the tough choices and hard decisions that she said she would.

Dynamo a Go

December 2, 2010

The Harris County-Houston Sports Authority approved a 30-year contract with the Houston Dynamo.  Under this contract, Houston Dynamo will pay $65,000 a year to lease a stadium to which both the City and the County have pledged to pay $10 million each.  I have serious problems with this contract on many levels:

First, have we not learned anything from the red light camera contract fiasco??  Voters decided to ban the cameras, and now we might have to pay millions of dollars because everyone neglected to tell us that we still have a contract with the camera manufacturers for several more years.  Silly me, I thought officials would use this situation as a lesson and learn that signing long-term contracts, without clauses about a discontinuation if voted down on the ballot, is not smart!

Second, even if officials didn’t learn their lesson about signing long-term contracts, you would think they would have the business sense to realize that a 30-year contract means that they can’t renegotiate the terms for 30 YEARS!  $65,000 a year from Houston Dynamo sounds good now, but what if that starts looking bad on year 3?  What if fights break out, and we have to hire more police for the area?  Who is going to pay for this?

Third, there is still no word on which buildings will actually have to pay the new Renew Houston monthly taxes.  If the stadium falls under this new tax, who foots the bill?  The City could potentially have to pay itself (into a separate fund) a monthly tax.  If they do, they really should have considered increasing the lease because it will be a hefty amount.  They should really take that into consideration when renewing the lease…. Oh wait… I guess they can’t do anything for 30 years.

Finally, I am not completely against Houston and Harris County paying a little bit of money to aid in the infrastructure around an area that will make them some money in the long run.  It is yet to been seen, however, if many people will actually go downtown to watch soccer games.  At the end of the day, the Houston Dynamo will pay much more money than the City and County combined (Houston Dynamo pledged $76 million to build the stadium plus the cost to lease it yearly).  So this deal doesn’t sound as horrible as it could be for Houstonians, but this is not the year to contribute $10 million to a risky project.  Remember the deficit we have in Houston?  If we weren’t paying for the stadium, that money could go towards HPD, who has recently been forced to slash more than $15 million because of our deficit.  Chief Charles McClelland has been forced to institute a hiring freeze, delay two cadet classes, and cut overtime for officers.  Chief McClelland has been doing a great job in his new position as Chief of Police, and these cuts are not his fault.  He is doing the best he can with what they are given, but wouldn’t it be nice to give them a little more?