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Here’s What Houston’s Next Mayor Can Expect from the Job

The city’s next mayor will have to face fiscal shortfalls, public safety worries, aging infrastructure and how to pay for it all. Former mayors and neighborhood leaders can offer guidance, but there’s no singular solution.

Perhaps no mayor in the country has more power over city government than Houston's, and City Hall's next chief executive will have to wield it wisely in confronting a slew of pressing issues.

As the city contends with budgetary shortfalls, public safety concerns, aging infrastructure and core service delivery challenges, the new mayor will have to answer a key question — how to pay for it all.

Despite a 20,000-person workforce and a $6 billion annual budget, financing municipal projects almost always presents a challenge.

"There's no magic pot of money," said Annise Parker, the former mayor, city controller and council member. "It's all about prioritization... There's never enough money for all the things that we'd like to do in the city."

A Looming Budget Deficit

The state of the city's finances has ignited a war of words at City Hall in recent days, following a report last month from the Greater Houston Partnership, an association of local businesses, that declared the city's budget deficit "must be solved."

When Mayor Sylvester Turner took office, the pressing financial issue was the city's ballooning pension debt. He shepherded a series of reforms through the Legislature in 2017 that largely addressed the problem. But the business group is now turning its attention to the city's operating budget.

The Turner administration and GHP officials have sparred over figures in the report, but there's no dispute that the city operates at a financial deficit. The question is how much more that deficit will grow — and whether it will require drastic cuts or layoffs to resolve.

For decades, City Hall has operated with annual budget gaps that it has typically closed with one-off measures like land sales, cost deferrals and — in especially bad years — layoffs. But some $600 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds saved the city from facing those gaps in recent years.

And while Turner has used the relief funds to bolster the city's reserves, which have reached their highest point in decades, he also has used them for recurring expenses, like raises for all city workers. The next mayor will likely face serious budgetary challenges after those reserves are depleted.

By the Turner administration's own figures, the deficit could grow to anywhere from $107 million to $244 million in the next mayor's first term.

"When I came in, they said it'd be a fiscal cliff if you did business as usual," former Mayor Bill White, who led City Hall from 2004 to 2010, recalled. "All that meant was that it was something you had to fix."

The partnership's report discussed potential policy solutions, including new fees, auditing and consolidating city departments and adjusting the city's revenue cap.

First adopted in 2004, the revenue cap restricts how much additional money the city can take in from property taxes. The city first hit the cap in fiscal year 2015 and has lost $1.8 billion in revenue since then — cutting its tax rate in 9 out of the last 10 years.

White won voter approval of a measure that allowed for an additional $90 million for public safety spending. At least one mayoral candidate has suggested broadening that exemption.

Ongoing Public Safety Concerns

Polls have consistently shown that crime is voters' top concern. Violent crime numbers are trending down from their pandemic-era hikes, but they remain above 2019 levels.

The police department has about the same number of officers it had a decade ago, and a Chronicle investigation this summer found response times have reached their slowest point in decades.

Houston has roughly 5,000 officers covering 640 square miles, far fewer per capita than cities like Chicago or New York. Turner has funded extra cadet classes during his tenure to help backfill retirements, but the raw officer count has remained mostly flat.

Still, response times were faster in the early 2000s, when police had fewer officers than they do today and were handling more calls.

City Hall's next boss will face a more immediate problem regarding firefighters' pay. The union and the city have been locked in a contract stalemate for all of Turner's tenure.

The firefighters saw no raises between 2017 and 2021. Turner bucked the stalled bargaining process to give them 18 percent raises over the last three years, but firefighters still want to be paid for the full span of the dispute.

State Sen. John Whitmire, a mayoral front-runner, won passage of a bill that gives firefighters automatic arbitration in those stalemates, but the city is contesting it in court. The next mayor will have to decide whether to continue that fight, drop it and go to arbitration, or try to strike a deal directly with the union.

Lagging Infrastructure

The summer drought has strained the city's water system. Many Houstonians have noticed spouting pipes in their neighborhoods or driven through the puddles left by broken water mains.

These issues have been reflected in 311 data as well. The city is on track to receive more than 34,000 reports of water leaks this year, the highest tally in at least a decade.

Turner has spent tens of millions of dollars to bring in contractors to help repair the leaks more quickly, and his successor will likely have to address that continuing need. The drought's consequences will likely worsen.

"That plays hell on the water distribution system and the street grid," Parker said. "Next year, there's going to be an explosion of potholes."

While the drought places a more urgent, short-term focus on infrastructure, the broader system will be a priority as well. The city has had three boil water notices in the last four years, and improving the drainage system is a pressing need in a city where tropical storms are a question of when, not if.

"We need a massive investment in the built environment in streets and drainage," Parker said.

Those needs are top of mind for residents, according to Cheryl Palmer O'Brien, who chairs the city's Super Neighborhood Alliance, the umbrella organization of civic groups.

"Some basic infrastructure is what we hear over and over and over. We've got to fix it," Palmer O'Brien said. "We have to understand and realize this is indicative of bigger problems."

The overarching question is how to pay for those upgrades. The city has shorted its street and drainage fund by at least $200 million over the last 12 years. Doing so helps cover operating gaps, but it cuts the number of street and drainage projects the city can address.

And while Harris County voters approved a $2.5 billion flood control bond in 2018, the city lacks a comparable pot of money for larger projects.

"We had a timeframe after Harvey where we were really focused on flooding," Palmer O'Brien said. "We always have to keep in the back of our mind that we live in a flood-prone city."

Improving Core Services

After water leaks, the city's beleaguered trash and recycling collections are the most common 311 complaints.

There have been 22,104 reports of missed garbage pick-ups this year, along with 15,303 complaints about late recycling service. It's difficult to quantify complaints about illegal dumping because it fits into several categories, but that remains an issue across the city as well.

"One way to achieve the public's trust and confidence is showing tangible improvement, and no deterioration, in the things that people look to the city as a service provider for," White said. "That means police, and fire, and EMS, but it also means making sure that some of the basic city services, garbage pick up and the water-sewer system, are done well."

Houston is the only major city in Texas — and one of the few in the country — that does not charge residents a monthly garbage collection fee. Proposals to start one have been kicked around City Hall for decades and have won more support from elected officials in recent years.

Parker said she supports one, and Turner has said the current system is unsustainable. The money from such a fee could help the Solid Waste Management Department, which has fewer resources than its counterparts in other cities, while freeing up the budget dollars currently allocated to Solid Waste for other resources, like police and drainage.

Palmer O'Brien said residents have heard city officials claim a lack of resources is to blame when it comes to garbage collection.

"What I've heard several civic groups say is, 'Don't tell me that it's all due to not having the money or the equipment to get our trash collected; tell me what you're going to do to fix it. Just fix it," she said.

(c)2023 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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