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.



Hobby Airport Expansion Update: United Eliminates Jobs

May 30, 2012

Houston City Council voted 16-1 today to allow Southwest Airlines to pay $100 million to build international facilities at Hobby Airport.  Council Member Jerry Davis voted against the proposal because Bush Airport is in his district, and he has many constituents who work there.

Hours after the vote, United announced that it will eliminate 1,300 jobs as “a direct result of the Mayor’s and Council’s action.”  This is nothing more than retaliation by United.  The international facilities at Hobby haven’t even been built yet.  Part of the delay in the project in the first place was the fact that no one could really predict what might happen to United if the expansion went through.  To guess that it will cost them 1,300 jobs isn’t just a poor business move on their part.  Thousands of their employees have to go home today not knowing if their job will be one of those eliminated because United is trying to make a point.  It sounds to me like the only point they are making is that they don’t think they can compete with another company.

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.

Error on Average Drainage Fee

June 8, 2011

Mayor Annise Parker recently said that her administration erred in telling voters that the average drainage fee per household would be about $5.00 a month.  In reality the average fee is $8.50 a month.  Mayor Parker said that she will put a plan before City Council to bring the average closer to what she originally told voters.   She said “‘I understand that it doesn’t matter how many times we said, ‘This is an example; do your own calculation.’ What voters heard was it’s going to be $5. I believe voters should get what they thought they were voting for, but that may be difficult to accomplish.'”  

I can understand that people are upset that they aren’t getting what they thought they were voting on, but I find it refreshing that our elected official can not only say to the public that things didn’t go as planned but also to take action to correct the problem.  She told the voters something and wants to make sure that she sticks to this, and I have to give her credit for being so honest.  She also said that it would have been closer to $5/month if they didn’t exempt schools and churches, which I’m sure was a little bit of a political dig, but as long as she works with City Council to enact her plan, I have no problem with her actions.  I just hope that her plan is not to borrow the additional money, which is a possibility.

Mayor Parker also announced that residents in Clear Lake will not have to pay the drainage fee since their water services do not come from Houston.  You can read more about that here.

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.

City Layoffs, Price Increases, and Redistricting

May 10, 2011

It has been busy for Mayor Annise Parker and City Council as they are starting to get serious about closing the projected $130 million budget gap.  Today Mayor Parker announced that the city laid off 304 (and counting) employees to try to save $75 million dollars.

Mayor Parker and City Council are also increasing fees.  They recently voted to increase Safe Clear towing services to $50 a tow to save $3 million.  They are also selling buildings that aren’t being utilized.  

With one campaign opponent already announced, these decisions can’t be easy for Mayor Parker, but I think it is great that she is serious about balancing the budget. 

Mayor Parker also announced a second version of the new redistricting map.  See it here.

Census Data is Wrong… Until it’s Right

March 2, 2011

Mayor Annise Parker is convinced that the most current Census numbers are wrong.  The Census reported that 2.09 million people live in Houston.  After a settlement with the US Department of Justice in the 70s, the city agreed to add two new council districts once the population hits 2.1 million.  Parker says that at least hundreds of people were missed in the Census, so we really have enough people in Houston to add new seats.

I agree that we probably have at least 2.1 million people in Houston, but I don’t think we should spend the time and money on “probably”.  If Parker is right, and the Census numbers are wrong, then what data does she expect to use to determine the new districts?  She will have to use the “wrong” data.  So she is basically saying the data is wrong, but it’s right enough to use it to determine districts.  You can’t have it both ways.  The data is either wrong, or it’s right.

So why is she so determined to add these two seats when so many council members, both republicans and democrats, do not want to add the seats now?  I think that has yet to be seen, but it is very possible that she has some districts in mind that she wants to create.

Our population will likely reach 2.1 million (if it’s not there already) before the next Census, but this is something that can wait.  Every Houstonian has a district council member and five at-large members to go to when there is a problem.  In this time of economic uncertainty, we have more important things to worry about.  Now is not the time to change the rules for what is a likely political reason.