City budget hearings round-up: Airport and IT

Jun. 17, 2013Houston Chronicle

City Council last Tuesday concluded its run of budget hearings for Mayor Annise Parker’s proposed spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Below are synopses of the IT department and the Houston Airport System (click for video of the presentations). This, thankfully, covers all the budget hearings. For all the others, click here, here, here, here and here.

IT (click for budget presentation slides)

The city is stepping up investments in information technology in this budget, with many of those spread throughout the departments. But IT Director Charles Thompson also is seeing a budget bump, going from $52.6 million to $59.5 million ($21.3 million of that in the general fund).

The single largest chunk of the department’s 212.4 FTEs (66, to be precise) is devoted to infrastructure.

Part of the budget increase is driven by renewing software and other licenses, and a project to consolidate the city’s data centers from seven sites to one. It’s also driven by the addition of 17 staff to work with the new 700 MHz radio system that will let city and county public safety agencies more easily communicate (HFD went online April 29 and HPD joined on May 7). Here is some background.

The two largest pending projects that will be completed this fiscal year are a records management system for the police department, slated to be done in December, and a records management system for the Municipal Courts, which has an estimated delivery date of May 2014. Historic cost overruns in this CSMART program prompted a switch to a fixed-price contract earlier this year.

The only testy exchange at the hearing came when Thompson declined to confirm for Councilman C.O. Bradford, his main questioner, the total cost figures for those two projects; not because he didn’t know, he said, but because he didn’t want to provide inaccurate answers.

“The purpose of the meeting today is to discuss numbers,” an incredulous Bradford said.

For the record, CSMART is projected to cost $42.4 million, and the police records project is projected to cost $39.5 million.

Airport (click for budget presentation slides)

The airport system (Bush, Hobby, and Ellington Field) is funded entirely by fees, not taxes. Mainly these are collected from airlines, concessions, parking and car rentals. The airport system expects to collect $450.3 million in the coming fiscal year, and to spend $278.4 million of that, excluding debt service. Including debt service, the system will have $51.3 million left over to put toward capital projects.

Airport director Mario Diaz said a lot of effort in the coming fiscal year will go to planning the future of Terminal D, the international terminal, everything from the required width of gates (will they be docking A380s, Boeing 747s or 777s?), to the size of ticketing, baggage and security areas needed to process the projected passenger volume, to improving what Diaz admitted are lackluster restaurants not appetizing to travelers from Turkey and China.

At Ellington, Diaz’s team continues to study the feasibility of making the airfield into a commercial spaceport, not so much for vertical launches like SpaceX is examining in Brownsville, but for six- to eight-seat space tourism vehicles and other industry activities, he said. A study has shown making Ellington into such a hub is physically doable, Diaz said, and a commercial feasibility study is nearly done.

“What we’re looking to do is seize upon the opportunity to leverage the data and the experience and information NASA has and Johnson Space Center has, all the companies in aerospace in Houston have, to really attract these companies to come to Houston and assemble those aircraft in Houston at Ellington Airport,” Diaz said.

The airport’s goals for the coming year include establishing a baseline for overall customer satisfaction and then improving that score by two points (almost 5,000 people have been interviewed so far, with two more rounds of interviews planned).

To meet a strategic goal of restoring the facilities to “opening-day fresh,” the airport also will undertake a $4 million effort to analyze its runways and taxiways, water, sewer and HVAC systems, and buildings. Diaz said he already knows Bush’s main sewer line and the electrical systems in some terminals need replaced.

On security, Diaz said even before the Boston Marathon bombing and a recent gun suicide inside Terminal B (which HPD chief Charles McClelland called “game changers”), the airport was working with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to add 600 cameras, including some that can pan, to bring the system-wide total to 2,873.

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen asked how a recently added valet service is doing. After a long pause, airport finance head Mike Lee said, “It’s still early,” generating a chuckle from Cohen. Diaz acknowledged the service aims to generate revenue, and said he will pull the plug if it does not.

Diaz said the airport plans to add a lot on the Will Clayton entrance to Bush, where it currently offers no competing lot, and is working to implement a concierge service (particularly in Terminal D) that would arrange limos, rounds of golf, theater or sports tickets, all before arrivals leave the airport.

The most heat at the hearing was generated by Bradford and Councilman Dave Martin pushing Diaz on a proposed settlement with concessions vendors who allegedly owe the city $3 million in mixed beverage taxes (uncovered in an audit).

Diaz said two of several concession agreements would come before council in the coming months, with renegotiated terms extending the life of the contracts for 10 years. They had been slated to end in 2015, and have gone a decade without being re-bid, he said.

Martin said “it doesn’t smell right” to let firms who had not properly paid the city to put up $3 million in exchange for having their contracts extended. Councilman Larry Green wondered if the city would be “awarding bad behavior”; Bradford said he was concerned the contract would wind up being in place two decades without competing proposals having been sought from other vendors.

Diaz said the vendors don’t believe they owe the city anything and are willing to go to court over it. He said the city legal department favors a settlement. The contracts, rewritten and “modernized” as part of the deal, he added, could roughly double the revenues the airport collects through the contracts, in addition to any settlement payment.