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.

 


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.


Hobby Expansion Almost Ready for Take Off

May 23, 2012

Mayor Parker announced that Southwest Airlines (SWA) will pay for the $100 million Hobby Airport expansion, which is the first step to opening the airport up to commercial international flights.  The agreement made by Mayor Parker and SWA says that the city will own the improvements to the airport, but SWA “will have preferential scheduling rights and pay no rent for its use of four of the five new international gates, and will also pay no rent for its use of the customs facility. The fifth additional gate and the customs facility will be available for use by all other airlines at Hobby, but unlike SWA, the other airlines will pay rent.”  In addition, SWA must abide by the Hire Houston First policy to make sure that local workers get a chance at the construction jobs.   This agreement must be confirmed by City Council, likely to take place on May 30th.

With many groups, such as Greater Houston Partnership supporting the Hobby expansion, there has also been plenty of criticism. The most vocal critique was a so-called independent study that said that the expansion would add 10,000 jobs and bring $1.6 billion to the Houston economy.  Many council members said that the study was biased and should be thrown out.  United Airlines, the competitor which flies out of Bush Intercontinental, argued that the expansion would actually cost Bush Intercontinental thousands of jobs and lose $295 million in the local economy.  Of course, both competing companies have their own agendas that conflict with each other.  It seems likely that both studies are exaggerated.

There are so many different theories out there about whether having one central hub for major flights is better than having several options where essentially the city would “compete against itself” as United President and CEO Jeff Smisek says.  However, if companies want to compete, should the government really stand in the way of that?

So far council members supporting the expansion are: Helena Brown, Andrew Burks, Stephen Costello, Ed Gonzalez, Al Hoang, Melissa Noriega, Oliver Pennington, and James Rodriguez.  I would like to know whether the other members just have not made a decision yet or are actually against the proposal.  If they are against it, I am curious as to the reason, as there surely could be more items to consider.

So far it seems like this is a pretty good deal for Houston.  It requires a private company to cover the costs of something the city will have for years to come.  Ultimately even if Hobby does not see an increase in 20 more flights a day as predicted, there appears to be very little risk for the city, so I hope to see this expansion take off.


$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.


The Feeding Ordinance is Hard to Swallow

April 4, 2012

Houston City Council passed the feeding ordinance today despite the protests from many Houstonians. Although this ordinance is slightly better than the one originally proposed, Mayor Annise Parker severely failed on this one.  The ordinance that passed requires written permission from the property owner to feed five or more homeless people and gives the city parks director the authority to designate certain parks as legal feeding venues (see here).  The ordinance also asks for charitable organizations to voluntarily register with the city and agree to safety rules and the coordination of scheduling.  The penalty for violations is $500.

There are many, many things wrong with this ordinance, and I think many of the council members and others have done a great job explaining that.  So rather than reiterate the same reasons why this ordinance is so awful, here is my take on how they should fix the ordinance (IF they HAD to pass something at all – and at this point, I am not convinced of that):

The City of Houston could create a website that allows charitable organizations to sign up on a voluntary basis, similar to the current ordinance.  The website would allow charitable organizations to sign up on a calendar for a date, time, and location for where they are planning on feeding the homeless.  Owners of private land even put their location on the calendar to allow charitable organizations to sign up at their place too.  The difference between this and the current ordinance is that this plan wouldn’t prohibit other groups from feeding the homeless on the same day.  Rather, it would just allow groups to coordinate their efforts, and since the website could run on its own, it would cost very little for the city to help this coordination…. Again, only if the city really thinks that this “problem” is as necessary as they say.

Charities that feed the homeless have to work very hard for the monetary donations they receive.  I am sure that many charities would voluntarily sign up for this website to join efforts to make sure that they aren’t planning a big event to feed the homeless at the same time and place as another group.  Coordinating efforts is helpful and might be welcomed by groups.

This would completely do away with penalties and requiring written permission to feed five or more people.  Charities would be able to see many private locations that welcome their services.  If a private land owner is worried about loitering and littering, there are already laws on the books for them to follow.  We don’t need more!  Also, if a land owner has tried to remove the homeless from his or her land to no avail, they could put up a “no loitering” sign and another sign explaining that food is not allowed on the property.  Surely charities will listen and find another place to feed the homeless.  Charities aren’t here to make enemies!

There are many other cities that have similar ordinances such as Orlando, Dallas, and Las Vegas.  All of these cases ended with lawsuits and many unhappy people, and there is no concrete evidence that such ordinances have helped anyone concerned.  Mayor Parker should rethink the message this is sending to the city.  This ordinance will do little other than making Houstonians angry and criminals out of those who are here to help.

Thanks to the following council members who voted against the ordinance: Mike Sullivan, Helena Brown, Al Hoang, Oliver Pennington, C.O. Bradford and Jack Christie.

Council Members who voted in favor of the ordinance are: Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Wanda Adams, Ed Gonzalez, James Rodriguez, Mike Laster, Larry Green, Stephen Costello, Andrew Burks, and Melissa Noriega.