With a little more than eight months left in office, Houston Mayor Annise Parker used her final State of the City Address on April 16 as an effort to both shape her own legacy and challenge her successor to maintain the momentum she believes has been created on several pressing issues.
The term-limited Parker spoke for 40 minutes before a crowd of over 2,000 at the Hilton Americas Hotel, and discussed her successes and regrets during her six years in office. Citing critical issues like tackling rapid population growth, crumbling infrastructure and the city’s pension crisis, Parker noted that while her administration has sought to confront those matters head-on, time is running out for her to do so, which means the next person to occupy the Mayor’s office will need to approach the job with the same passion that she has brought.
“Throughout my time as mayor, and actually during my nearly 18 years in government, I’ve worked hard to put Houston first,” Parker said. “The payoff is a Houston that is better prepared for the future and is better off today than we were five years ago. But being mayor requires more than rhetoric about hiring more police officers, filling more potholes or magically eliminating pension debt. A mayor has to know how to pay for it and how to make it happen. It’s easy to point out problems. The hard part is finding solutions. How will the candidates for mayor put Houston first? I want a mayor who will fight to keep Houston first as a national and world leader and a mayor who tells the truth, even when few want to hear it, and who tackles the hard problems head on.”
While Parker conceded she couldn’t solve every problem that comes with being mayor of one of thelargest cities in the country, she did highlight a few of the initiatives put in place by her administration that are making a difference, including efforts to reduce homelessness, the Rebuild Houston, pay-as-you go program to address infrastructure issues, such as the prevalence of potholes on countless streets, expanding the city’s recycling program and addressing the pension problem, which has been a critical issue since the day she took office. She said the recent deal with the firefighters pension to lower city costs for a three-year period while not decreasing benefits marks a milestone in the tumultuous negotiations.
“Putting Houston first meant hard choices that first year in office, when we had to lay off 776 city employees to balance the budget, but we are now leaner and more efficient,” she said. “The agreement last month with the Houston fire pension system marked the first time the fire pension has recognized that pension costs threaten our ability to provide other crucial services to taxpayers. It is the first step toward constructive relationships between the system and future mayors and brings firefighter contributions in line with the contributions of firefighters in other cities in Texas, but I have never said that it represents pension reform.”
The mayor touted the city’s efforts to remove obstacles to housing that can prevent the homeless from being able to secure steady employment and said the The Way Home initiative has helped to cut the city’s homeless population in half. The program has housed more than 3,500 homeless veterans, she said, making Houston a leader among U.S. cities in the effort to reduce homelessness.
Parker said a cooperative financing arrangement that helped to fund a new human trafficking unit at the Houston Police Department is helping to shine light on a problem that has been ignored for far too long.
“In 2013, there were 28 human trafficking related charges filed. Last year, that number jumped to 101 and human trafficking tips have increased more than 1,000 percent since 2013,” she said.
While acknowledging the urgent need to repair the thousands of potholes on Houston streets, Parker said the voter-approved Rebuild Houston program has spent or earmarked more than $655 million and has paid for 515 miles of street to be rebuilt or repaved. But because the city includes over 6,000 miles of road, much more remains to be done.
“It took years to get into this situation. It’s not going to take nearly as long to get out of it, but Houston drivers will need patience,” Parker said.
Parker gave no hint of what her future plans involve, but during a post-address news conference, she didn’t rule out elected office at some point.