$1M council funds promise speedy decisions, not speedy action

Jun. 19, 2014Houston Chronicle

Frustrated by complaints from constituents tired of waiting for the city to fix potholes, install speed bumps and clean up illegal dumps, City Council this week voted to give each of the 11 district council offices $1 million to make quick fixes in their neighborhoods. A tiny fraction of the overall $5.2 billion budget, to be sure, but the measure sparked much excitement around the council table at the idea of being able to resolve residents’ – and voters’ – problems much faster than the traditional bureaucratic process.

That glee could be tempered by reality, however, as questions about how the program will operate get answered. To begin with, there are the existing city procurement rules and construction standards that could get in the way of the speedy fixes the funds are intended to provide. And then there is the city charter, which limits council members to a legislative role, barring them from administering funds or exercising the authority of department heads. That means, for the program to be legal, Mayor Annise Parker must approve each request, with no appeals process if she declines. A response would be required within 10 business days, but the mayor made clear her review will not be cursory.

“We check the legality, the necessity and the feasibility. Once we get through that, it is their discretion,” Parker said. “They are making a request to me, which I will not unreasonably withhold. They know that this money is available in their district, and it’s not that I’m going to be spending it someplace else.”

Legality is simple: The city cannot give away public funds, such as rewarding kids in city programs with bicycles or by hosting a breakfast for constituents in what amounts to a political event.

Quite murky

As for what is needed, Parker said asking to replace playground equipment that parks officials say has three years of useful life left, for example, likely will result in a denial and a three-year wait. Feasibility will depend on the request. Wanting to spend, say, $200,000 on spay/neuter efforts requires city staff or contractors to have the capacity to provide that many procedures.

“There will be some kinks we’ll need to work out, but there are checks and balances here,” said Councilman Mike Laster. “No City Council member is going to have $1 million to walk out and do something. He’s got to get approval.”

Laster has dubbed the idea a “frustration relief fund” for constituents tired of waiting on city departments whose priorities may not match those of a council member’s constituents.

“The way it works now is, council members make a request, and I look at requests from 11 council districts all across the city and I say, ‘This may be the worst thing in your district, but these things over here are worse than anything in your district, and we’re going to fund them first,'” Parker said. “It’s not that departments are slow, it’s that (a council member’s) priority project is No. 20 behind all these other priority projects. For these limited funds, it has the potential to move some projects forward.”

Councilman Dave Martin doubted the fund will dramatically speed up city processes, particularly for minor items, such as potholes, that do not cost much to fix by themselves.

“If I need a project done, a street repair, the movement of the street lights or whatever, and they put it in the queue, they’re not going to speed it up because my money is not going to make any difference,” Martin said. “And are they going to then say, ‘Are you going to pull it out your million dollars instead of pulling it out of my budget?’ That’s going to be the pushback. I don’t think it’s all been worked out yet.”

Half of the program still is quite murky. Council on Wednesday set aside $5 million in flexible general funds to be divided among the 11 districts, but the group is expected to add $6 million from the city’s capital spending plan, which has not come up for a vote yet. Those funds are split into buckets that cannot overlap, and Parker said it is unclear how those dollars will be divided.

Houston political consultant Mustafa Tameez said council members for years have felt powerless to address their districts’ needs through the budget process, but said this idea could come back to haunt them.

‘It’s doable’

“We have a $5.2 billion budget. A million dollars spent on a constituency of 200,000, roughly, is not going to address the needs of that area,” Tameez said. “And whoever has that discretion will make more people unhappy than happy. That’s the political price. And I don’t think people are thinking of it that way right now.”

Houston political consultant Adam Harris, who followed the budget deliberations closely, said council members often can be more agile than city departments in identifying problems, but he said the details of the program’s operations will determine its success.

“An interesting dynamic will be how the neighborhood associations begin to court their council members for their various projects,” Harris said. “For example, in my neighborhood they could use some speed humps, which there’s a years-long waiting list. Can now an active neighborhood association leapfrog the list and get their speed humps put in almost immediately?”

The program has produced some dark humor at City Hall in recent weeks with observers guessing how many council members will get indicted for misusing their funds.

Parker and many council members have stressed, however, that all spending from the funds would be routed through the city’s bidding processes. Still, the mayor acknowledged there is a greater potential for abuse in the program than in the city’s other methods of spending.

“We have a well-honed system of checks and balances designed to keep everything going through one system. I know council members will do their best to go around me and go to the departments,” Parker said. “It’s up to the mayor. It is more burden on the staff, but I understand why council members want to do it, and it’s doable as long as they understand that, if I say no, there is no recourse to that.”