Council members offer their ideas for upcoming budget

Jun. 11, 2014Houston Chronicle

Despite serious financial troubles looming next summer, Houston City Council members on Wednesday offered roughly twice as many budget amendments seeking to spend money as those looking to control costs.

Mayor Annise Parker said her team will work through the items with council members in preparation for what is expected to be a marathon meeting next Wednesday at which the 63 amendments and her proposed $5.2 billion budget are likely to face a vote. The fiscal year starts July 1.

Driven by rising pension costs, contractual raises for employees and the increased cost of servicing the city’s debt, Parker’s proposed spending plan already envisions an 8 percent increase in the tax- and fee-supported general fund – roughly half of the budget – that covers most basic city services.

Among the notable amendments is Councilman C.O. Bradford’s idea to give each of the 11 district council members $1 million to quickly address simple neighborhood needs, such as mowing overgrown lots, placing cameras to monitor illegal dumping sites or razing dangerous buildings.

Bradford said citizens consistently have told him that small problems the city should be able to dispatch quickly are not, or are not addressed at all. District council offices do not have the resources to respond without going through the relevant city department, he said.

“Let the district council person work with neighborhood constituents and identify things they ought to address, then let that council person get council approval and move forward,” Bradford said. “No part of the process is waived. This is not a slush fund. Council still has to vote on it. If approved, it could be very beneficial in improving the quality of life in neighborhoods by fixing some of these minor things much more quickly.”

Bradford noted that the proposal, if approved, would not benefit him because he is elected at large.

He stressed that his idea is not to spend more money, but to ask the mayor to offset the $11 million cost by making equivalent cuts within the $2.4 billion general fund budget.

Parker said she sympathizes with council members wanting more control over spending in their districts, but said her budget proposal includes “no unspent large pockets of money.”

Troubles looming next year are related to a cap on city revenues that voters imposed a decade ago. Unless the cap is adjusted by voters, soaring property appraisals are expected to force a cut in the property tax rate next year, carving millions of dollars from the budget in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2015.

In that fiscal year, Houston will face a projected $142 million gap between expected revenues and expenses in its general fund, topping the $137 million shortfall the city had to close during the economic recession, when Parker laid off 776 workers.

Despite the city’s fiscal outlook, most of the amendments proposed by council members with a clear financial impact were focused on spending. Other amendments are aimed at policy changes and would carry no apparent price tag.

Areas identified by some council members for additional spending include summer jobs and after-school programs, speed bumps, Department of Neighborhoods staffing, the Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care and mowing overgrown lots. A few council members want to earmark money for projects in their districts.

Other members, however, offered amendments to cut or control spending or revenues.

Councilmen Dave Martin, Stephen Costello and Oliver Pennington propose to extend a policy in the current budget mandating that revenues collected above projections be saved, not spent.

Councilman Jack Christie proposed devoting any excess revenue to paying down pension debt; Councilman Stephen Costello would implement across-the-board cuts and devote the roughly $46 million in savings to the underfunded pensions.

Martin also wants to give council the option of cutting 2.5 or 3.5 percent out of the general fund budget – an amendment Pennington also put forward – or a similar choice between two property tax rate reductions.

“I just think it makes fiscal sense,” Martin said. “It makes prudent sense to prepare for the future and what we see coming in 2016. And, our residents are going to see a dramatic increase in their property tax bill this year. If we can help, I think it will be much appreciated.”

Councilman Dwight Boykins offered amendments to raise the senior property tax exemption from $80,000 to $90,000 or to as much as $160,000.