Houston's Mayor and the Imperative to Compete

For Annise Parker, competing globally is about a lot more than delivering services efficiently.
by | December 3, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

Like every mayor, Houston's Annise Parker knows that a city must function 24/7: All cities have to see that the trash is picked up, that the water and sewer systems work, that the system of roads and transit gets people to where they need to be--the things that allow citizens to live in proximity to each other. But to the mayor of America's fourth-largest city, that's just the baseline.

What cities do that is above this baseline, says Parker, is key to how they compete. There has to be something about a city that makes people want to live there, and people want to live where they can do four things: find a job; find an education; find a mate; and be entertained.

On those dimensions, Houston stacks up remarkably well. The Houston metropolitan area is creating jobs faster than any other in the country, and its unemployment rate for 2012 is projected to be 6.8 percent. Houston is the world capital of the oil and gas industry, has the country's largest international port and the world's largest medical complex. It is home to five universities and is the most ethnically diverse city in America. And it has all the major amenities--food, sports, culture and entertainment.

Not that Houston hasn't faced the same challenges as any other big city. It's been a difficult few years, but Houston was last into the recession and first out, and the overall impact of the economic downturn was less than in the nation as a whole. The city managed its way through the recession by cutting costs, furloughing workers and laying off about 700 non-public-safety employees from its overall workforce of about 21,000.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker  
   Houston Mayor Annise Parker
Beyond the economy, Houston has to deal with infrastructure on two fronts--the new infrastructure that is needed to support growth as well as existing infrastructure that had been neglected and underfunded for years. One of Parker's top priorities as mayor has been to put dollars into infrastructure.

Coming into the mayor's office after three terms as the city controller meant that she had an in-depth knowledge of the city's financial situation. She could see, for example, that the city's water and sewer fund, which is supposed to be self-funding, was actually losing $100 million a year. She was able to get the city council to agree to an overhaul of the rate system that included a rate hike, and persuaded the voters to adopt a new revenue source, a fee to allow the city to deal with drainage and street flooding. (Houston, she notes with a laugh, is "terrain-challenged," having been built on a flat coastal prairie prone to flooding.)

She also got the voters to approve a $410 million bond issue for "vertical infrastructure," such as fire stations and libraries. That issue included $100 million for a hike-and-bike trail system. Private-sector leaders said they'd match that money if the voters approved the issue, so now the city has $200 million for the trail system.

To Parker, meeting those challenges is all about competition, and in her view that competition is more across international borders than across state lines. She says Houston looks not only at other U.S. cities but also at the great global cities, such as Rio, London and Dubai.

"Running a city," Parker said in her second inaugural address, "is like riding a bicycle: you keep moving forward or you fall down." Looks to me like Annise Parker and Houston are pedaling in the right direction.