Amid Political Barbs, Houston City Council Passes Budget

With this year’s municipal elections looming large in the background, the Houston City Council did its annual duty, passing a $5.1 Billion Dollar budget.

Here’s more on the process from Mike Morris of the Houston Chronicle

Houston City Council, in passing a budget amendment on Wednesday, made the mayor and some union leaders nervous by dipping into funds set aside for uncertainties including dollars for possible employee raises, to keep a program that gives each of the 11 district council members $1 million to spend in their areas.

That amendment to Mayor Annise Parker’s budget, approved by an 11-4 margin, came despite the city facing a projected $126 million gap next summer between revenues and expenses in its $2.4 billion general fund, which is fed mainly by property and sales taxes and funds basic services. That estimated deficit far exceeds the one the city closed during the recession several years ago, when 776 workers were laid off.

Houston’s coming budget challenges are driven mainly by soaring pension and debt costs and the impact of a decade-old, voter-imposed cap on what the city can collect from property taxes, the main source of general fund revenue.

[…]

The budget itself was approved shortly after 11 p.m. Wednesday after a solid 12 hours of debate, by an 11-4 margin, with Councilmen Jerry Davis, Dave Martin, Michael Kubosh and C.O. Bradford opposed. Few substantive amendments passed.

The highest-profile item approved was a proposal by Davis and Councilman Mike Laster to keep $11 million in the so-called council district service funds. That program, launched last year, is intended to help council members more quickly solve local problems such as mowing overgrown lots, fixing sidewalks or razing dangerous buildings.

The District Council member appropriation may have been one of the most high profile amendments that passed, but there was plenty of political theater over amendments that failed.  One of the day’s biggest debates was over a proposal to make across-the-board cuts to the city budget. Brought forth by Council Member Dave Martin, one amendment would have required every city department (except for the elected officials around the table) to make a 2 percent cut to their spending for city “savings” of $40 million.  The standoff sparked the usual debate of whether to save money via draconian cuts or invest in the city’s future.  Members like Martin and Jack Christie would prioritize these cuts above all else, but others acknowledge that the city has an actual job to do.

“The fact of the matter is we have costs and needs that need to be paid for now.” said Council Member Mike Laster.

“I am confident that there’s a lot of $ to cut in the budget, but it must be specific and start with the extras, not core services.”  tweeted Council Member Brenda Stardig.

In the end, more measured opinions like Stardig won out.  Martin’s amendment, even after being reduced from a $40 million dollar impact cut down to $20 million, was defeated 10 to 5.  Council Member Stephen Costello was one of the 5 in favor… a move likely made in hopes of shoring up support among his Conservative base for the Mayoral campaign.  Though votes like this could just as easily come back to haunt him if he were to be elected.

After a very long day, Mayor Annise Parker’s 6th and final budget was approved by Council.  Yet without intervention from the state, City leaders can do little to address growing pension obligations, which cause the greatest amount of uncertainty for how the city can move forward.  Nor can they anticipate what lies ahead for one of Parker’s signature initiatives– ReBuild Houston, which is currently tied up in litigation over apportionment of the drainage fee.  But with only months left for the current administration, these issues will be for the next Mayor to tackle.

City Council Sculpture

 

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