Looming Budget Crisis Has City Considering Solutions

Sep. 10, 2014Houston Public Media

At this week’s City Council meeting, council members heard the first update on the city’s financial status in fiscal year 2015.

But it’s what is to come next year that gets council members talking. The budget shortfall of fiscal year 2016 is expected to be about $140 million, or nearly 3 percent of the current budget.

Council member C.O. Bradford has long argued to define what the city’s “core services” are and then talk about which services within a city department are non-essential.

“I want to cut everywhere where there’s not a nexus between an activity and core services,” Bradford said. “And I don’t know where that is today, because as council members we can’t produce that unless we produce the definition of core services. I think I know what they are, but Council member (Robert) Gallegos may have a different opinion about core services.”

Council member Stephen Costello, chair of the budget committee, puts the city’s 23 departments into two categories: departments that provide basic services like public safety and infrastructure, and others that provide quality of life services, like the library and parks and recreation.

“What I encourage my colleagues to do now,” he said, “is to go back to each one of these departments where they have provided us a matrix of their activities and decide for yourself what you think is ‘core’ and what you think is not necessarily essential. And then let’s have a joint debate, all of us, and see if we collectively come to a similar conclusion.”

He said this will be the topic of the next several budget committee meetings, and he hopes that Council will have a recommendation on how to address the city’s fiscal issues by the end of the year.

But city services and the salaries that come with it are only one part of the problem.

Mayor Annise Parker says the biggest driver of the deficit is rising pension costs.

“While that if we could solve the pension problem, we wouldn’t have a budget problem. We still need to make sure that we do whatever we can to make sure that recurring expenses are less than recurring revenue,” she said.

Parker also said the current projection is more pessimistic than it will likely turn out. She said this is done because it’s better to be pleasantly surprised.