When the city of Houston commissioned a study on the condition of its 421 buildings last year, the report noted nearly $400 million in needed repairs and a $1.6 billion price tag for facilities over the next two decades.
Meeting that staggering need could take a while. Houston’s five-year capital improvements plan, passed by City Council last week, will take three years to tackle the $28 million in top-priority fixes detailed in the report – work needed to correct safety hazards, stop buildings from falling apart or to avoid facilities from becoming dangerous within a year.
“That’s a good thing, but compared to an unfunded $400 million of deferred maintenance, it’s just a drop in the bucket,” said Councilman Stephen Costello, who chairs the council’s budget committee. “We still have some really big problems facing us. Until we start thinking long term and figuring out financing ways to do that, we’re going to continue to just do a Band-Aid approach to fixing our problems.”
Mayor Annise Parker said her budget and capital plan for the fiscal year that began Monday address the most critical needs, and pointed to her decision to set aside $7.5 million for maintenance as evidence of her long-term view. That maintenance money, she said, is an effort to end the habit of building a facility, letting it rot, then shelling out for a replacement.
“It wasn’t a lot of money, but it is a step in the right direction, and I intend to continue to add to it each year,” Parker said. “It’s going to be institutionalized, and I defy any future mayor to create a budget that doesn’t put money aside in the general fund for regular maintenance of facilities.”
General Services Department Director Scott Minnix, who oversees city facilities, said he is thrilled at the emphasis on preventative maintenance, noting that more money was set aside in his own budget for that purpose, too.
“Is it enough? I can’t address the 20-year problem today, but the line item is a start,” Minnix said. “We definitely have to have a plan to address aging facilities, and now we have 16 council members, a mayor and her executive staff that are all on board with that.”
Minnix and Costello agreed one key to a long-range facilities plan is a study, slated to start in September, of how the city uses all of its work space. Those findings could lead the city to consolidate and sell some older structures, Minnix said, effectively reducing the repair bill projected in last year’s facilities report.
Other repair needs identified in the study, Minnix said, will be handled as part of larger renovation projects. For instance, the Jungman Neighborhood Library is slated for a $6.2 million overhaul this fiscal year, money that is not included in the $28 million that will be spent on critical repairs in the next three years. The Jungman library, at Westheimer west of Chimney Rock, will be renovated, with new wiring and windows, as well as a new roof and parking lot.
That’s great news to Briargrove resident Barbara Lilly, whose two daughters regularly use the facility, which she said is in rough shape.
“It hasn’t had any attention in quite a while,” Lilly said. “The carpet’s really old and dirty, the computer work stations are really old and outdated. I think if they spend some money cleaning it up and making it a nice place for people to come, that the neighborhood will start using the library more.”