City Council will figure out what ‘core services’ are … eventually

Oct. 23, 2014Houston Chronicle

Members of the Houston City Council met again Thursday – in what is their third attempt – to hash out what constitutes the city’s “core services.” They again punted to next week.

The idea, with a roughly $120 million budget deficit looming next summer, is for council to identify what is central to the city’s mission and make cuts to the activities that are not. Members also are hearing updates from the departments of planning and health on their operations, as department heads continue the march of meetings to argue that what they do meets whatever “core services” definition is finally chosen.

My colleague Katherine Driessen gave a good overview of the process as the first meetings got underway, first at this hearing and then in a longer print story.

At the last such gathering, members agreed the core services definition should be as simple as possible and still cover the necessary bases. The agreed template was a statement from Councilman C.O. Bradford, who long has pushed council to have exactly this discussion: “Core services are garbage, water, infrastructure issues and safety services.”

A few suggested “quality of life” be incorporated into the definition in some way. There were other suggestions: Should health be mentioned, and is garbage covered under health? Is water part of infrastructure? No, it was decided, health issues are safety issues, and citizens view garbage and water as discrete activities, core services in and of themselves.

Here is the list of the four “core services” definitions that have been discussed in recent weeks.
Last week, the Houston Fire Department and Department of Public Works and Engineering took the hot seat (click for each department’s presentation).

The projected deficit and related discussions are related to the city’s general fund, which is fed mainly by property and sales taxes and supports most city activities. The other half (roughly) of the city budget is made up of so-called enterprise funds, fed not by taxes but fees, such as water bills and airport fees.

Public Works is a huge department, but most of what it does (water, wastewater, drainage) is in the enterprise funds, so the core services presentation was mainly an avenue for council to complain about Public Works rather than to target line-item cuts in its general fund budget.
The department pulls $34 million from the general fund, 95 percent of that for debt payments and electric bills for streetlights (though in the coming years these bills likely will drop thanks to a partnership to replace standard bulbs with energy-saving LEDs). The rest of the general fund money, about $1.7 million, pays for six people to fix broken traffic lights, and help clear accidents during rush hours and nine people to process the sale of public streets, alleys and easements.

Pushed on how the department could help the general fund deficit, Rudick said he could cease all spending on consultants but that amount is “minimal” anyway.
The only discussion of other efficiencies came from Councilwoman Ellen Cohen.

“Things that are decided at Planning are overturned in Public Works or Public Works will tell somebody something and Planning will turn around and tell somebody, ‘No, it can’t work,’” she said. “I don’t know whether that is because we have two people doing similar things or what, exactly. If there is redundancy, then that may be part of what we need to look at.”

Rudick said he and Planning Director Pat Walsh will be discussing that; the two have a good rapport, given that Rudick hired Walsh as a young engineer at the City of Sugar Land years ago.

The bulk of the discussion instead focused on Houston Fire Department, with Chief Terry Garrison stressing that 90.2 percent of his $507 million general fund budget is personnel, 97 percent of those classified firefighters, with relatively few civilian support staff. Much of the department budget beyond staffing, Garrison said, is mandatory: Accrediting agencies require ongoing firefighter training; critical safety gear must be maintained; drug testing is required.

“Do you think public education, PIO (public information officers), those kinds of areas for the fire service are core services? Lot of chiefs say, ‘If you’re going to cut, I’m just going to shut down these two fire stations’ and that gets politicians’ attention. That’s not what we want to do … but do we want to roll up our public education piece? It’s going to impact service somewhere.”

The public affairs office is about $462,000, or less than 0.1 percent of the HFD budget. Three staff from that office already have been assigned to fire stations to address a staffing shortage that created headlines all spring as overtime bills threatened to drive the department over budget. For background on that, try this story, or this one, or this one.

Council members asked whether take-home vehicles could be cut (the chief said he’s asked for a review), whether internal affairs could be staffed with civilians, or whether support services like uniform services, warehouse storage and staff testing could be merged with the police department (Garrison said he wouldn’t oppose it).

The meat of the discussion, however, focused on the department’s deployment model and a coming review (“work demands analysis”) that council members hope will find savings in it.

Garrison, who came to Houston in 2011, said he is most proud of changing to the current all-hazards model, which calls for the closest unit to respond to every emergency even if the emergency is a heart attack and the responding fire truck can’t transport the person to a hospital. All firefighters are EMTs and some are paramedics, he said, so why not use them at every opportunity?

Some council members long have seen flaws in this approach, however, particularly as talk turns to cost cutting. Of sending expensive fire apparatus repeatedly to unnecessary medical calls, Councilman Jack Christie said simply “we can’t afford it.”

Councilman Stephen Costello passed out charts showing how ambulances are far busier than fire trucks, repeating his concern that the department’s fleet is 57 percent fire apparatus when 85 percent of its calls are medical calls, which could be responded to with squads and ambulances, which are cheaper to run (staffed by two people, not four) and cheaper to purchase and repair.

Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said constituents have called her upset that the department has apparently sent the wrong vehicle to help them.
“I’m not sure the amount of time we’re saving in getting to that and the stress and wear and tear on our apparatus,” she said.

Sending the nearest unit saves roughly 40 seconds a call, the chief said, and an ambulance also would be sent if the information provided over the phone suggests it’s needed.

“I don’t care if there’s an engine or a ladder at a certain station,” Garrison said, “I care that what’s at that station provides the level of service necessary for the bigger picture. When you have firefighters sitting in fire stations, the best thing you can do is use those firefighters all the time. So we’re called an all-hazards organization where firefighters go on fire calls, EMS calls, hazmat calls. When someone calls 911, our members respond and they try to solve those problems.”