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Local politics

On to the next big financial issue for the city

It’s always something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Four years ago, the main source of Houston’s deteriorating financial health — billions of dollars in unfunded pension obligations — loomed over the race for mayor, promising a massive test for the winner.

Now, Mayor Sylvester Turner, having overhauled the city’s troubled pension systems, is running for re-election and touting the reforms as his signature policy accomplishment. He faces several challengers, including Bill King, the businessman he defeated four years ago, millionaire lawyer and self-funder Tony Buzbee, City Councilman Dwight Boykins who has clashed with the mayor over firefighter pay and former Councilwoman Sue Lovell, as well as a handful of lesser known candidates.

Whoever wins will be forced to confront another simmering financial problem: Houston’s $2.4 billion unfunded liability for retiree health care costs, the result of years of deferred contributions, an aging city workforce and, experts say, growing medical costs that outpace the city’s revenue.

The total has grown in recent years by an average of $160 million a year, or more than $400,000 a day. That is less than the $8.2 billion unfunded pension liability’s $1 million-per-day growth rate, but enough to require swift and sweeping changes, experts and local officials say.

“We’re in the earlier stages in this. It’s not a crisis by any means, but it would be better to address it now,” Controller Chris Brown said. “We don’t want to let this thing grow to another $8 billion unfunded liability. … Let’s pay a little now instead of paying a lot later.”

The unfunded liability refers to the city’s obligations in the coming decades for retired employees’ medical, life and prescription drug insurance, commonly called other post-employment benefits, or OPEB. Houston has covered its OPEB expenses through a pay-as-you-go system, akin to making a minimum credit card payment while the balance grows.

[…]

“We have also been in discussions with the employee groups working toward consensus, while keeping in mind the sacrifices employees have made to help us achieve the city’s historic pension reform,” Turner said.

The proposals align with recommendations from a separate firm, Philadelphia-based PFM, which said in its 10-year Houston financial plan the city should eliminate OPEB coverage altogether for retirees or dependents who have access to other coverage.

Other cities have taken a similar approach, limiting cuts for retirees and older employees who were promised certain benefits, while requiring bigger sacrifices from younger and future employees with more time to prepare.

The good news here is that the city doesn’t need to go through the Lege to fix this, and the basic plan for a fix is already in the works. Mayor Turner will be proposing his plan later in the year, and most likely that will put the city on a path towards containing this problem. There’s still a big piece of the puzzle missing, though.

Even after reigning in the city’s OPEB liability, Brown said, the city faces numerous looming financial problems, including annual deferred maintenance and, in the recent city budget, recurring spending that outstrips recurring revenue. In addition, Houston has been operating under a voter-imposed cap on property tax revenue since 2004 and has trimmed its tax rate to avoid collecting more money than allowed.

“This is another piece of the larger problem that’s looming for the city of Houston, which is the structurally imbalanced budget,” Brown said. “Essentially, we want to be paying for all of our current expenses in the fiscal year in full. And we don’t want to defer anything out, i.e. kick the can down the road.”

Yes, the revenue cap, which costs the city many millions of dollars for no good purpose. There’s a lot the city can do to control costs, but not everything is within its power. Some things just get more expensive over time, and if the city is not allowed to reap the benefit of economic growth, it cannot deal with those expenses. If we can get past this issue, and Mayor Turner gets re-elected, then maybe, just maybe, we can get a rev cap repeal measure on the 2020 ballot. There will never be a friendlier electorate to deal with t.

Revisiting City Council redistricting

This would be interesting.

At Wednesday’s council meeting, District E Councilmember Dave Martin said the city should consider redrawing city council district boundaries, particularly in his own district.

District E includes two far-flung suburbs, Kingwood and Clear Lake. Martin said it’s a “ridiculously arranged council district” where it is difficult to coordinate meetings.

“I’ve always felt that the folks in Clear Lake do indeed deserve their own representation there, because it is tough for someone to drive 60 miles on a weekend to get to a certain area,” Martin said.

Mayor Sylvester Turner agreed with Martin’s assessment of District E.

“I will tell you it is an interesting drawing,” Turner said. “Because you certainly cannot go from Kingwood to Clear Lake for a town hall meeting, two town hall meetings.”

Turner said he would support taking a look at the map after the 2020 census.

“I don’t know what the thinking was back then,” Turner said. “But it does seem to be not in the best interest of two areas that are so geographically separated. I think it’s worth taking a look at.”

There’s a copy of the map embedded in the story, and you can also see it here, with links to individual district maps here. It’s true that District E is this two-headed amalgam of far-apart suburbs, with a bit of connecting tissue in between, but any proposed solution to address that is complicated. The problem is that the Kingwood part of E abuts District B, and the Clear Lake part borders on Districts D and I. Any redesign of the current map that would split District E into separate parts has to take into account merging a bunch of white Republicans with a bunch of black and Latinx Democrats. Even before we take Voting Rights Act requirements into consideration, I can guarantee you that a substantial number of people would be unhappy with any alternative.

What you could do is reduce the size of individual districts to be roughly the size of the Kingwood and Clear Lake pieces, then redraw the map with however many districts there would be with such smaller population requirements. That would result in a map with anywhere from 15 to 21 districts, depending on how much you padded out the two halves of E. We can debate whether that’s a good idea or a bad idea, but we’d also probably need a charter amendment to make it happen.

Personally, I’d be willing to at least explore the idea, and maybe have someone draw a few sample maps, to give a picture of what this might look like. Honestly, I think we ought to consider the same for the Legislature, where individual districts have grown in population quite a lot in recent years. This is especially true for Senate districts, which used to be smaller than Congressional districts but are now larger and will get more so in 2021 when Texas is given additional seats in Congress. It’ll never happen of course, but that doesn’t mean we should never think about it.

Harris County gets official approval for voting centers

Full steam ahead.

Diane Trautman

Harris County on Monday received permission to use voting centers, which enable voters to cast ballots at any location they choose, in high-turnout elections, County Clerk Diane Trautman announced.

Under this system, voters are not required to vote in their assigned precinct. Trautman, who has made establishing the centers a top priority since taking office in January, has said the change will make voting easier, since residents can more easily cast ballots near work or school.

More than one-third of voters visited polling sites outside their home precinct in May’s low-turnout school and municipal elections during a voting centers trial run, the clerk’s office said. Trautman called that test a success and asked the secretary of state to approve using the system in general elections, which can draw more than 1 million voters.

“Feedback from communities across the county has been largely positive, and I am pleased that voters will be able to choose a convenient location to cast their ballot,” Trautman said in a statement.

See here for the background, and here for Trautman’s statement. There are some issues to work out in advance of the voting centers’ implementation, but I have faith in the Clerk’s ability to get it all done. I look forward to seeing the finished product.

Study shows a lot of gaps in Harris County’s ability to respond to chemical fires

This quantifies what was painfully apparent in recent months.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

More monitoring and manpower is needed for Harris County to better respond to chemical fires like the three that struck the region earlier this year, worrying residents and shutting the Houston Ship Channel, according to a study evaluating the county’s response to the fires.

The most critical response gap identified involved staffing in the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, where another 16 hazardous materials technicians — at a cost of $1.6 million annually — are needed to bring the team up to compliance with national standards. Other recommendations include real-time monitoring of air, soil and water conditions, along with the training and resources necessary to share that information among the various departments — and the public — during a potential catastrophe.

”This is an example of us recognizing the county is not where it needs to be,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday, noting the need for better information sharing with the public.

[…]

In all, the report by PENTA Consortium, a private consultant hired by the county, lists 49 recommendations for the commissioners’ court to consider, broken down by issues that need immediate attention and those that should be reviewed longer term.

Some of the recommendations involve little or no additional funding, such as pushing for local authorities to have more active participation within a unified command after an incident; appointing a senior advisor for emergency management for the county judge’s office; and tasking departments to take comprehensive looks at their internal decision-making authorities and processes.

Others require a heftier investment.

Elena Craft, with the Environmental Defense Fund, said she was encouraged by some of the recommendations.

“I think initially some of the gaps seemed like no-brainers,” she said, adding that “having a comprehensive assessment of where those gaps are and a time frame, essentially a road map, of how to fill these gaps was obviously needed.”

The 133-page report is referred to as “gap analysis” because it is aimed at allowing an outside consultant to find areas of improvement or failures in current policies. In addition to staffing shortages, lack of coordination among the local emergency responders also hampered the response to the fires, which sent plumes of black smoke into the region, the study found.

We’ve talked about Harris County’s non-hurricane disaster preparedness before, and I’m glad to see the county is returning to the subject. Hurricane preparedness is vital, of course, but I think we can all agree that chemical fires happen a lot more often. All of the things they are talking about in this story are necessary, and we’ll be much better off when we have a firmer handle on them.

Consent decree to fix sewers approved

As we have discussed before, there are concerns about how the extra cost of this decree will affect low-income residents.

Houston is facing a federal mandate to upgrade its embattled sanitary sewer system, stirring concerns among advocates and civic leaders that the estimated $2 billion bill — and the higher rates required to pay it — could overburden low-income families.

The average city sewer bill already exceeds what the Environmental Protection Agency considers affordable for more than 113,500 Houston families, Houston Public Works and Census Bureau data show. That could rise to more than a quarter of all Houston households if sewer costs increase by 19 percent.

Such a hike is unlikely to happen overnight, but the average city water bill has risen 17 percent in the last six years via annual increases for inflation alone.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has not said how much bills are expected to rise as a result of the consent decree, citing a pending rate study, but repeatedly has said costs will remain “well below” the EPA threshold.

Experts, however, say that guideline — which aims to keep annual sewer charges below 2 percent of the citywide median household income — has been “discredited” in large part because it obscures the burden on poor families.

In Houston, for instance, sewer charges could more than double and still remain below the EPA threshold. That is in part because the city’s rates today are modest: A 2017 American Water Works Association report ranked Houston’s average bills and their affordability roughly in the middle of the nation’s 25 largest cities.

“The intellectual case for using median household income as the exclusive determinant of affordability has collapsed,” said Tracy Mehan, AWWA director of government affairs. “What about the employment rate? What about the 50 percent of the population that’s ignored at median levels?”

Adam Krantz, CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, of which Houston is a member, agreed.

“There is really very little underpinning that 2 percent,” he said. “That being said, it’s what has driven consent decrees in virtually every major city across the country. This needs to be done on a more sensitive basis in terms of what really is affordable.”

[…]

A 2016 Houston Chronicle analysis found that neighborhoods most likely to experience sewer spills were disproportionately home to low-income and minority residents, and 77016 matches that. The area — where 97 percent of residents are black or Hispanic and the median income is a third lower than the citywide figure — tallied the third-highest count of spills from 2009 to 2016.

“Separate and apart from the consent decree, we need to address SSOs (sanitary sewer overflows),” Turner said last week. “And there’s no question many of those SSOs are occurring in low-income, minority neighborhoods.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t know how to address the issue of what poorer people are charged, but past studies suggest that a more strongly tiered rate structure that charged high-volume water users more proportionally would be a good starting point. Maybe spend some money helping low-income people conserve water and thus keep their bills as low as possible. No matter what, this is a long-overdue step, and the benefit of reducing sewer spills will go heavily to those same neighborhoods. We just need to help mitigate the negative effects on them. Council has officially approved the agreement, so now is the time to figure the rest of this out.

Harris County goes shopping for new voting machines

It’s time.

Diane Trautman

Harris County formally has begun searching for a new voting machine model with the aim of debuting the devices in a 2021 election, County Clerk Diane Trautman announced Tuesday.

Speaking at the International Association of Government Officials trade show in downtown Houston, Trautman said the county plans to select a vendor for new voting machines by next July. She estimated the cost of purchasing about 5,000 machines would be $74 million.

“One of the issues that I campaigned on was making the election process simpler and more convenient, and more trustworthy,” Trautman said. She added, “Now it is time to address making the voting process more trustworthy by replacing our outdated voting machines.”

Trautman said replacing the current machines, some of which are 20 years old, is an important next step after her administration debuted countywide voting centers in May. Harris County awaits approval from the secretary of state to expand the system, which allows voters to cast ballots at any location, regardless of their assigned precincts.

The clerk’s office plans to form a community advisory group in the fall and issue a request for proposals to vendors in January. A voting selection committee comprised of election workers and staff from the county universal services and purchasing departments will help choose two voting machines as finalists in March.

John Coby was at that trade show as well, and he’s got some pictures if you want to see what Trautman et al were looking at. The goal is to have the new machines in place for the 2021 election, which will provide a nice lower-turnout environment for a shakedown cruise. The head voting honcho at the Clerk’s office is Michael Winn, who came over from Travis County, where they replaced their voting machines a few years ago and have been doing some design work for the next generation of them. Look for some of those features, which will include a printed receipt, as we go forward.

Mediation 3.0

Third time’s the charm, right?

The Houston firefighters union and Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration will return to mediation Aug. 1 in the hopes of working out a new contract amid a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Proposition B.

The ballot measure, which grants firefighters the same pay as police of similar rank and experience, passed last November but was struck down by a state district judge who ruled it unconstitutional and void. The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association appealed the ruling, sending the case to Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals.

Last month, the appeals court ordered the city and fire union to hold talks within 60 days. The union announced Wednesday the parties had agreed to hold the mediation session Aug. 1, which a spokesperson for the mayor confirmed. The two sides also agreed to have Houston attorney Daryl Bristow serve as mediator.

[…]

Asked Wednesday if there was any reason to expect a deal on the third mediation attempt, Turner repeated his claim that the firefighters deserve a pay raise “the city can afford” and said he would seek to reach a deal.

“The resolution has to be one that’s good for the people of the city of Houston,” Turner said.

See here for the background, and my thoughts on this process, which doesn’t seem any more likely to resolve things now than before, but you never know. They have a different mediator this time, for whatever that’s worth. I don’t know what timeline they may have, but most likely they will either come to an agreement or declare that it’s hopeless in a fairly short period of time.

What can the county do about ethics?

Maybe something. Maybe not. Who can tell?

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis has proposed two ethics reforms he says are needed to improve transparency in county government, though Texas counties’ limited rule-making power may scuttle his plan.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously backed Ellis’ request to study how the county can establish mandatory registration of lobbyists and a blackout period for campaign contributions to elected officials from firms who seek or receive county contracts.

“We’re living in a time when public trust in government is shaken and everyday people are concerned about the undue influence of special interests,” Ellis said in a statement afterward. “We have an opportunity and obligation to strengthen public trust by reducing any appearance of or actual preferential treatment when it comes to how public dollars are spent.”

[…]

Ellis said the county needs an ethics commission to enforce any new rules. His vision, however, may be hamstrung by the limited ability Texas counties have to enact such policies. Unlike municipalities, which can establish their own rules and ordinances, counties only can follow the lead of the Legislature, Harris County First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said.

That limitation tied the hands of County Judge Ed Emmett, who established a task force that recommended a series of ethics reforms in 2009. Among them: creating an ethics committee, posting officials’ personal and financial disclosure forms online and ethics training for county employees.

The county attorney at the time concluded Commissioners Court lacked the authority to act on many of the proposals. The ethics committee only met twice before the county attorney said state law prevented the body from meeting confidentially, granting protection to whistleblowers or having the authority to supervise elected officials or their departments.

Some county ethics rules remain in place. Elected officials still must complete the disclosure forms, and any county employee involved in negotiating contracts with vendors must declare conflicts of interest. Commissioners Court members often disclose during meetings why they are abstaining from a vote, though written conflict of interest forms are not filed with the district clerk until afterward.

Soard said the Legislature has not given counties any new powers to establish ethics rules in the decade since Emmett tried, though El Paso and Montgomery counties sought and received special permission from state lawmakers to set up their own ethics commissions. Harris County could try a similar approach, Soard suggested, though the Legislature will not return to Austin for a regular session until 2021.

“We’re certainly working with the commissioners to see what the county can do,” Soard said.

I’m sure I’ve been salty on this blog about past attempts to improve ethics in Harris County. In retrospect, the lack of authority as granted by the state seems obvious. Maybe we’ll have better luck this time, but I agree that getting a bill passed in the Lege would help. There’s always 2021.

We have a consent decree

It appears to be a done deal.

Houston would add $2 billion to its planned sewer system improvements over the next 15 years under a proposed deal with state and federal regulators that is expected to produce higher water bills as soon as next year.

The Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned that Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes spill waste into yards and streets hundreds of times each year, contaminating local streams in violation of the Clean Water Act. Eighty percent of area waterways fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than sue the city over these long-running problems, the EPA initiated negotiations nearly a decade ago, hoping to produce a “consent decree” specifying projects and procedures Houston would use to reduce spills by upgrading pipes, improving maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging the city’s more than 6,000 miles of sewers, 390 lift stations and 39 treatment plants.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Tuesday that talks have been completed; his office expects the item to reach a city council vote as early as July 17.

“It’s good for the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I am proud to have resolved this long-standing problem in a way that will fix problems that have challenged our city for decades and will bring enhanced services to future ratepayers for decades to come.”

The deal would prioritize fixes in nine areas that experience voluminous spills during rainstorms. In an effort to reduce the more numerous spills that are a chronic problem when the skies are clear, the agreement would mandate a more aggressive schedule for assessing and repairing the city’s sewer system.

Houston also would commit to clean and inspect its 127,000 manholes and 5,500 miles of gravity-driven pipes every decade, to carry out more preventative cleanings in problem areas, and to emphasize its program to educate residents not to pour grease, oil and other fats down the drain.

[…]

It is unclear how much water bills would rise as a result of the federal decree. The city has begun a rate study that will incorporate the consent decree and other factors and suggest new rates to take effect in July 2020.

Some council members were told in preliminary briefings this spring that rates would rise about 4 percent in each year of the agreement, resulting in an increase of more than 70 percent by the end of the 15-year term, though Turner professed ignorance at that figure Tuesday. Other cities under comparable decrees, including San Antonio, will double their rates during their agreements.

Turner stressed that the projected overall cost of the deal is “substantially less” than the $5 billion to $7 billion the EPA was demanding in the Obama administration’s final year.

Despite the mayor holding a news conference to announce the agreement, the Turner administration considers the decree confidential, distributing it only to the elected council members and topping it with a memo that mentions fines for those who disclose its contents.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t understand the reason for keeping the decree secret. I’ll be happy if Council pushes back against that. As for water rates going up as a result, well, we should have been doing this a long time ago, and last I checked fixing broken things isn’t free. I’ll say again, how much is a lower level of fecal bacteria in your water worth to you? It’s worth a gradually increasing water bill to me.

A preview of the joint primary

Diane Trautman

Like Campos and John Coby, I recently had the opportunity to visit the Harris County Clerk and get a preview of the proposed joint primary. Coby describes it in some detail, with pictures, so I won’t duplicate his effort. Basically, the process will be very much like what you are used to already. The main difference in terms of the experience is that instead of telling the poll worker what primary you want to vote in, you pick it from a touch-screen tablet. Otherwise, it’s exactly what you’ve done before – you show your ID and sign in, you get a code for one of the eSlate machines, and you go vote. That’s all there is to it. The practical effect is that now all of the machines are available to you. There aren’t machines designated for one primary or the other, so if you’re voting at a location that historically has a long line for one party with idle machines for the other, that will no longer happen. This should help the lines move more efficiently, which in a year where a very high turnout is expected on the Dem side is greatly appreciated.

Primaries are run by the parties, and the initial reaction to this was positive from the HCDP and negative from the Harris County Republican Party. We were told at this visit that both Dem Chair Lillie Schechter and GOP Chair Paul Simpson had been in to see the same setup, and it went well. Simpson is supposedly going to make a decision about this in the next two to three weeks. I asked about the experience other counties have had with joint primaries. Michael Winn, the elections administrator who came from Travis County, said they made the change in 2011 and haven’t looked back. We’ll see.

We also discussed how election night returns are reported, which was a concern in the May election after the switchover to voting centers. We’re used to seeing reports come in by precinct, but with anyone being able to vote anywhere now that’s going to be a different experience. They’re working on that now so as to provide a better picture of where the vote totals are coming from, and they promised a preview for interested parties (campaigns, media, etc) in October. I’ll report back then. In the meantime, I have a good feeling about how this is going. Let me know if you have any questions.

By the way, Commissioners Court updated the county’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies

Nice.

The Commissioners Court voted 3-2 along party lines to [add sexual orientation and gender identity to the county’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies].

County Judge Lina Hidalgo, along with Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — all Democrats — voted in favor. Republicans Jack Cagle and Steve Radack voted against. Prior to the vote, several LGBTQ advocates spoke in support of the proposal, while only one person — Dave Welch of the Houston Area Pastor Council — spoke against it.

Welch told the court that sexual orientation and gender identity are “undefinable” — and claimed the new nondiscrimination policies would “be used as a bludgeon against those who disagree.”

Commissioner Garcia responded with an emotional story about his late brother, Huberto, who died from AIDS in 1995.

“My brother was gay, and he grew up at a time when if you exhibited any tendency … you got beat up,” Garcia said. “So, here we have an opportunity to simply say, ‘People matter, and that people will be protected.’

“My brother couldn’t come home to die with his family,” Garcia said. “California at the time was the only place he could get healthcare”.

[…]

The new policies would take effect immediately and bring Harris County in line with other major Texas counties, including Bexar (San Antonio), Dallas and Travis (Austin) counties. Harris County is the third-most-populous in the nation and has more than 15,000 employees. The policies would also cover several hundred employees at the Harris County Flood Control District (think: Hurricane Harvey).

This only merited a passing mention in the Chron, which I find disappointing. Note that this policy applies only to Harris County employees; Commissioners Court doesn’t have the authority to do this for the county as a whole. Despite the failure of HERO, the city of Houston has long had a similar non-discrimination policy for its employees, which Mayor Parker updated to include transgender employees back in 2010. Elections have consequences, y’all. Kudos to Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia for getting this done.

By the way, City Council passed the budget

In the end, this was pretty boring. Which is a good thing.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston city council approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year with little commotion Wednesday, authorizing a spending plan that was scrambled at the last minute by developments at the Legislature and a judge’s ruling that the voter-approved Proposition B is unconstitutional.

The council voted 12-4 in favor of Turner’s budget after approving a series of amendments during a nearly seven-hour session. The budget covers city spending for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

About half the spending — $2.53 billion — will come out of the city’s tax- and-fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day core operations, including public safety, trash pickup, parks and libraries. The city is set to spend about 1.9 percent more than it is projected to spend during the current fiscal year.

The remaining spending will come out of “enterprise” funds, which are supported by fees, including the Houston Airport System, and city utilities, which run on residents’ water bills.

[…]

Also complicating the budget was a bill passed by the Legislature that limits the fees telecommunication and cable companies pay cities to use their rights of way. That opened a spending gap of more than $16 million, according to city budget officials.

Wednesday’s budget approval followed consideration of more than 30 amendments proposed by council members.

Among the amendments approved were proposals to create new finance transparency requirements, change how the city sets its next budget and commission studies that could change how the city’s fleet management and solid waste departments operate.

In the end, there were no layoffs thanks to Prop B getting tossed by the courts. That could still get reversed on appeal so it’s not a settled matter, but for now it’s where we are. A respite from that drama, no matter how brief, is welcome.

Joint primaries

Another potential change to how we vote is in the works.

Diane Trautman

Harris County primary voters could see a big change at the polls in 2020 if local party leaders agree on a new proposal.

Under the current system, voters go to the polls and they’re asked to say which party primary they want to participate in, Republican or Democratic. Voters line up separately. But Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman said Tuesday that combining the lines would be more cost-effective and give voters more privacy.

“You won’t see a Republican party here, Democratic party here. You’ll see one of each at each table, and you’ll have three lines that you could go in,” Trautman said.

Voters would check in at joint primary tables and select one party on an iPad.

“The other thing they’re going to notice is that there aren’t any lines outside the door,” Trautman said. “So that will be refreshing.”

She said the new plan addresses the biggest complaints she hears from voters.

Harris County officials hope to reach an agreement with party leaders by the end of the month. If approved, the new system would be in place for the next primary in March 2020.

The HCDP has agreed to this. The Republicans, not so much.

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Paul Simpson said Texas law allows parties to run their own primary elections, and he is reluctant to cede that role to the county clerk.

“The Democrat county clerk’s proposed joint primary elections would empower the bureaucrats and, worse, let one party’s workers run the other party’s primary election that selects its candidates, running the risk of disenfranchising, inconveniencing, and confusing voters,” Simpson said in a statement.

I actually have some sympathy for Simpson’s position. I have no doubt that if Stan Stanart had proposed this, I’d be suspicious, even with the knowledge that Harris is the only major county in the state that doesn’t hold joint primaries. I’d need to be convinced as a Democratic primary voter, and I’m sure Paul Simpson believes his voters will need to be convinced, too. (He’s on the ballot in 2020 as well, you know.) That said, I hope he goes into the discussion with an open mind. This makes sense on a couple of levels. One, you don’t have to announce your preference in front of strangers, which is the privacy appeal. Sure, anyone with VAN access can look up your record, but how many people do that? It’s also a more efficient use of resources, which should help shorten lines. Again, if there are questions or concerns, then let’s ask the party chairs in the other counties that do it this way, and see what they have to say about it. I’m happy to let Paul Simpson voice his worries, but let’s not be ruled by fear.

Prop B layoffs rescinded

No Prop B, no need for layoffs. Funny how that works.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council on Wednesday formally reversed the 220 firefighter layoffs and hundreds of demotions it approved earlier this year, making official Mayor Sylvester Turner’s pledge not to lay off or demote any firefighters in the aftermath of a judge’s ruling that Proposition B is unconstitutional.

Before a state district judge threw out Prop B, the voter-approved charter amendment granted firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority. Turner warned that Prop B would require layoffs to offset the cost of the raises, a point hotly disputed by the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. City council voted in April to send firefighters 60-day layoff notices, which the panel unanimously rescinded Wednesday.

The council also voted to reverse more than 400 demotions within the Houston Fire Department. The layoff notices had gone to the lowest-ranking firefighters, initially requiring the city to fill in those positions from the top down through demotions.

“This puts everything back the way it existed prior to that vote,” Turner said.

The city also had sent layoff notices to 47 municipal employees, but Turner already had rescinded those unilaterally because those layoffs did not require council approval.

Councilman Dwight Boykins asked Turner if the layoff reversal would impact Fire Chief Sam Peña’s proposed department restructuring, which would move HFD from a four-shift to three-shift model — a move the union opposes. Turner confirmed that Wednesday’s vote has no bearing on the proposed shift change.

Councilwoman Brenda Stardig also asked Turner if the city plans to recoup back pay granted to firefighters before Prop B was ruled unconstitutional. Some department employees received raises the week before the judge’s ruling.

Turner said his administration is “addressing how to deal with that issue,” but in the meantime he sees the raises as a “credit on future negotiations.” The mayor said last month that he did not intend to “claw back” funds from any firefighter.

Obviously, this isn’t the end. We’re about to have an election that will re-litigate this whole thing – though don’t expect anyone to give a plausible answer to how they would have handled this all differently – and that court ruling has been appealed to the 14th Court of Appeals. But in a real sense, this is over. Whatever happens next, it will occur in a context of Prop B not having happened. So maybe now, at least for a little while, we can talk about something else.

Moving ahead with voting centers

The first time was a success, so we’re going to keep using them.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted unanimously to apply for state approval to expand the use of countywide polling places to general elections.

County Clerk Diane Trautman said a trial run of the system during the low-turnout school board elections in May was successful. Trautman’s goal since taking office in January has been to implement countywide polling, where voters can cast ballots at any location rather than in assigned precincts, in high-turnout general elections which can draw more than 1 million voters.

Previously, Harris County featured countywide voting only at a small number of early voting sites, and never on Election Day.

“I am very pleased with the results of the May election,” Trautman said Tuesday. “As I hoped, in using a small election, we would find areas where to improve, and we did.”

[…]

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who in the past has raised concerns about elderly voters losing their longtime polling places to consolidation, asked Trautman to promise to keep all polling places open. Trautman replied she would not close any sites.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the addition of countywide polling centers should make voting more convenient, since residents can use sites close to work or school, and boost turnout.

“It’s bringing that increased access to the vote to so many more people,” Hidalgo said.

A Rice University survey of 256 voters in the May election by Elizabeth Vann and Bob Stein found that most residents visited polling sites within one mile of home.

“Did voters seem satisfied? Overwhelmingly,” Stein said. “About 90 percent claimed they were satisfied finding their location.”

Stein, a professor of political science, cautioned that higher-turnout elections will bring additional challenges, such as long lines and parking problems. He said he plans to study the 2019 Houston municipal elections in November, which will have higher turnout than the May school board balloting, but still low compared to a November midterm or presidential election.

I’m very glad to hear that the people who voted liked the experience. I’m a confirmed early voter, so nothing will change for me, but lots of people vote on Election Day, and this should make it better for them. I have very modest expectations about how it will affect turnout, but I do think it will help keep lines from getting too long. There are improvements I’d like to see made in how the returns are reported, which I hope can be in place for this November. Otherwise, I look forward to getting this implemented.

Fee collecting time

Worthwhile effort, but keep expectations modest.

Marilyn Burgess

Harris County has an $80 million backlog of uncollected civil court fees dating back to the 1980s, new District Clerk Marilyn Burgess said, prompting her office to launch an aggressive collection effort.

Burgess said she was shocked when an employee told her shortly after her election in November that the county had stopped attempting to collect the fees in 2011 — a revelation that surprised the county’s auditor. She has since launched a new collection effort, but only expects to successfully recoup about $20 million, from the past three years of billing.

“It’s important to the county, because if we collect that, that’s $20 million less that Commissioners Court has to assess in property taxes from the taxpayer,” Burgess said.

An influx of millions would provide a boost to the county court system, which is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Harvey and is looking for ways to pay for a long-delayed new family courthouse.

[…]

According to Burgess, an account manager informed her in November that he had told his supervisors that the district clerk’s office was failing to collect certain categories of civil court fees. The department’s accounting system shows the district clerk mailed invoices for these fees eight times from 2001 to 2011, but not again until January, when Burgess took office, she said. About one-third of fees owed to the district clerk remain unpaid from 2017, for example.

Starting with the most recent bills, Burgess said her staff will work to collect fees as far back in time as possible. At a certain point, she said, labor and postage become more expensive than what the county could hope to collect.

“Right now, we’re doing pretty good with what we’re collecting, but we’re in 2018,” Burgess said. “When the payments stop coming, we won’t go any further back.”

Some of this is process, which can always be improved, and some of this is effort, which will run into diminishing returns. The city did something like this for debt collections back in 2011, at a time when finances were very tight. It made sense, and it did make a dent, but you’re never going to come close to the topline amount. We’ll see how well District Clerk Burgess does with her initiative.

The state of the city 2019

There are still things to do that don’t have to do with the endless fight over Prop B.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner used his fourth annual State of the City address Monday to announce a plan aimed at drawing private investment to city parks in underserved areas, while casting the state of the city as “strong, resilient and sustainable,” a depiction his mayoral opponents swiftly rejected.

Turner, who is up for re-election in November, also renewed his call for a multimodal transit system with rail and bus rapid transit, urging residents to give Metro borrowing authority for its long-term plan in November. The agency is expected to put a multi-billion-dollar bond request on the ballot.

“This is not the city of the 1990s,” Turner said. “This city has changed. The region is changing. People are demanding multimodal options, and we have to give it to them.”

[…]

Speaking to a packed crowd of elected officials, city staff and the business community, the mayor pitched Houston as a prime location for technology startups, touting steps the city has taken to expand its tech presence. He acknowledged that “Silicon Bayou” has played catch-up to other cities that were faster to attract talent.

“It makes no sense why the (tech) ecosystem in Houston should not be No. 1 in the world,” Turner said, pointing to the city’s large medical center, multiple universities and reputation as the world’s energy capital.

Several minutes into his address, delivered at the Marriott Marquis hotel downtown, Turner announced a “50-for-50” plan aimed at revitalizing city parks “primarily in communities that have been underserved.” Under the plan, Turner said, 50 companies would each “partner” with a city park, volunteering to “take ownership” of the park and maintain it for about five years.

[H-E-B President Scott] McClelland, who chairs the Greater Houston Partnership, committed onstage to participate in the program.

You can see the text of the Mayor’s address here. There’s some stuff in the story about the other Mayoral candidates, which, whatever. I’m more interested in seeing Mayor Turner give full-throated support to the Metro referendum, which we are very much going to need. We can go from a city and a region that has okay transit to a city and a region that has good transit, if we want to. The only person running for Mayor that I trust with that is Mayor Turner.

No arbitration

And we’re on to the next phase of the firefighter pay battle.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association on Tuesday asked Mayor Sylvester Turner to enter arbitration to settle its ongoing labor dispute with the city, a request the mayor shot down as he called instead for a return to collective bargaining.

The union’s request came less than a week after a state district judge ruled Proposition B unconstitutional and void. The charter amendment approved by voters last November granted firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

Turner made clear Tuesday that he does not intend to accept the union’s request.

“The city of Houston is willing to return to the table for collective bargaining which would be the regular course of business,” the mayor said in a written statement.

[…]

Fire union President Marty Lancton said the mayor had yet to contact the union about sitting down to negotiate anew. He repeatedly has questioned Turner’s claim that the city could not afford Prop B, and on Tuesday cast doubt on Turner’s willingness to negotiate a “fair raise” for firefighters.

Arbitration, Lancton contended, would resolve the pay dispute before Houston’s 2020 fiscal year starts July 1.

“This is a sensible solution,” Lancton said. “We continue to wait for the call that the mayor says he is willing to make. Let’s resolve this now, mayor.”

Turner spokeswoman Mary Benton said the union “knows how to reach the mayor,” and repeated Turner’s statement that his “door is open and he is ready and willing to meet with the fire union.”

So if I’m interpreting this correctly, the Mayor is offering to go back to the collective bargaining process, while the firefighters are saying instead let’s take our respective offers and present them to an arbitrator and let that person make the call. I’m not quite sure what to make of that. I suppose this is the HPFFA’s way of saying they trust the city to negotiate in good faith. If so, all I can say is that the city could say the same about the firefighters. Whatever the case, we’re now at a standoff about how to go about resolving the larger standoff. The firefighters can claim that they have the will of the voters on their side, but unless they win their appeal of the summary judgment declaring Prop B unconstitutional, that only means so much. In the meantime, I’m going to find my happy place and practice some deep breathing.

Double dipping

You almost have to admire the nerve.

CM Steve Le

Houston’s highest-paid city council staffer has continued to collect his $119,600 salary despite being out of the state in a U.S. Army military law training program since January.

Daniel Albert, chief of staff to District F Councilman Steve Le, deployed to Fort Benning in Georgia as part of the Judge Advocate General’s Officer Basic Course from Jan. 21 through March 1, learning military skills and tactics. He then reported to the JAG Legal Center & School in Virginia, where he studied military law from March 4 until Wednesday.

During his training, Albert was on active duty status, earning a lieutenant’s pay. For the first two months of his deployment, however, Albert listed standard 40-hour work weeks on his city time cards.

On March 22, Le and Albert were informed that the Houston Chronicle had requested records relating to Albert’s city work. Two days later, Albert logged into the city payroll system and scheduled six weeks of paid leave, entering 30 days of vacation or other leave — though he had accrued only 11 such days at the time. The next night, records show, he deleted those entries and used the 40 days of paid sick leave he had accumulated instead, scheduling the sick leave to run through this Friday.

City ordinance prohibits employees from working outside jobs while on sick leave. Houston city workers can use 15 days of paid military leave if they apply for that status, but city officials have no record of Albert submitting the required paperwork.

JAG school officials said Monday that Albert still was on site participating in the program, which will train him in military law and begin a years-long commitment representing the Army or Army soldiers as a reservist with the San Antonio-based 1st Legal Operations Detachment.

Le said he asked the city’s Human Resources department and Office of Inspector General to look into the issue several weeks ago after community members raised concerns.

Albert, who did not return calls for comment, said in an email that this OIG probe prevents him from discussing the matter, though he said he was concerned that unspecified “misunderstanding(s) … would condemn a person in public shame before a thorough investigation.”

“I am confident that this matter will be resolved,” he said.

Councilman Greg Travis, who said he feels a kinship to Le as a fellow political conservative, nonetheless blasted the arrangement.

“He doesn’t show up to work, and I think the frustration is shared by everyone on this floor, council staffers and council members,” Travis said of Albert. “When you have somebody in your office who’s unethical, who’s taking money for work not performed, you’ve got to fire them. There’s no way you’re out in another state and you’re performing your job.”

Councilman Dave Martin, another conservative district council member, echoed that.

“It doesn’t smell right and it has never smelled right ever since the day I found out how much money he was making and the fact that I’ve never seen the guy at City Hall — and I see every chief of staff at City Hall every single day because I go to City Hall every day,” he said. “This guy is the anomaly.”

[…]

Le, who is responsible for approving Albert’s time cards, said he approved the lengthy sick leave after Albert told him he had broken his leg and was advised by a doctor to take time off.

Le said he was unaware, however, that city rules prohibit employees from working outside jobs while on sick leave or that Albert had not used vacation days earlier in his deployment. Le said he examines Albert’s time cards but not which types of leave are used. He also said computer problems prevented him from approving time cards for part of the year.

Emphasis mine. This is not the first time that Daniel Albert’s work habits have been questioned, but this particular instance is really egregious. Putting aside CM Le’s professed ignorance of city rules (reminder: Le was elected in 2015, so he is not a dewy-eyed newbie), based on his own words either Albert lied to him about why he was claiming sick leave, or he is lying to us about why he approved the request. I mean, one either has a broken leg or one does not, and that fact ought to be easily verified. I don’t know what the mechanism is to get Daniel Albert to pay back the salary he didn’t earn to the city, but it needs to be used. And the voters in District F will want to know about all this as they decide who to support this November.

Census outreach

I am puzzled why this is controversial.

A divided city council on Wednesday approved a $650,000 contract aimed at boosting the number of Houston residents who participate in the 2020 census, a measure that generated partisan debate in which some council members worried the outreach would have a liberal bent.

Under the contract, Lopez Negrete Communications — a firm specializing in Hispanic marketing — will conduct outreach intended to improve response rates in the 2020 national survey. Council members passed the deal on an 11-6 vote, with most of the council’s conservative cohort voting against it.

The hour-long debate centered around allegations from a handful of council members who said subcontracting companies or partnering organizations may conduct census outreach in a way that is slanted toward Democrats or liberals.

Mayor Sylvester Turner repeatedly dismissed the idea, telling council members the contract “has no partisan bent at all,” and would bring in more money to Houston, because the federal government distributes funds to cities and other local communities based on census data.

The mayor has said a signficant undercount could impact city services, with each uncounted person costing the city about $1,500 in federal funding. In 2018, the Census Bureau posted a slow population growth estimate for Houston, creating a $17 million hole in the city budget.

At-Large Councilman Mike Knox clashed with Turner over the deal, expressing concern that the main firm would partner with organizations that have unknown “missions and agendas.” For instance, Knox said council could not prevent organizations from conducting voter registration efforts amid census outreach.

[…]

District I Councilman Robert Gallegos, a vocal supporter of the contract, criticized his colleagues for opposing it, saying outreach is needed to counteract the impact of a possible census citizenship question.

“Residents in my district are fearful of filling out that census,” said Gallegos, whose southeast Houston district is overwhelmingly Hispanic.

He also said it was “frightening” that Knox took exception to the deal over concerns that those conducting census outreach may also register people to vote.

“That right there, I just thought it was a joke,” Gallegos said after the meeting. He said Houston would risk losing social programs and political representation if the city’s population is under-counted.

Either Lopez Negrete will do a good job of delivering the service they have been contracted to provide – boosting the response rate on the Census, to ensure that Houston is properly counted and thus gets its fair share of political representation and federal resources – at a fair price, or they won’t. I’m not saying a firm’s politics or values can’t be an issue, but the job has to be the first priority, and I don’t see anyone raising concerns about that. As for Mike Knox’s issues with Lopez Negrete possibly registering voters, I presume this is the usual Republican fear and loathing, and I have no time for that. Let’s make sure all our people get counted. That’s what matters. KUHF has more.

Firefighters get Prop B back pay

Good for them.

The city of Houston on Friday issued lump-sum paychecks to more than 3,900 firefighters, a move Mayor Sylvester Turner said reflects the implementation, retroactive to Jan. 1, of Proposition B, the measure granting firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and experience.

Marty Lancton, president of the Houston fire union, said that contrary to the mayor’s “Orwellian claims,” the paychecks did not fully equalize base and incentive pay between fire and police, as laid out in Proposition B. Lancton said the city “badly botched” implementation of the measure.

The back pay, worth $27.4 million, comes a week after Turner and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association ended court-ordered mediation without an agreement to phase in the raises over several years.

[…]

For now, the fire department’s biweekly payroll will increase from about $10.2 million to $12.3 million, Turner said. The city has dipped into its reserves to fund raises from Jan. 1 through June 30, which Turner said will cost $31 million. Lancton also has questioned the accuracy of that figure.

Both sides, meanwhile, are awaiting a state district judge’s ruling in a lawsuit brought by the Houston Police Officers’ Union, in which the police union and city have alleged Prop B violates the Texas constitution.

I don’t have anything to add to this, I’m just noting it for the record. I look forward to the day when I will be able to get all of this out of my brain, as I hope to do with Game 6 of Rockets-Warriors.

The firefighters have a new enemy

It’s a renewable resource.

CM David Robinson

Houston City Councilman David Robinson said he returned $7,500 in campaign contributions from the city’s firefighter union because of ethical concerns.

Robinson was one of two council members who said they received text messages from Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton asking them to return campaign contributions from the union’s political action committee. They said they received those texts after city council last month voted to send 60-day layoff notices to 220 firefighters to help offset the costs of implementing Proposition B, the voter-approved charter amendment that requires the city to pay firefighters the same salaries as police of corresponding rank and seniority. Robinson and Councilmember Martha Castex-Tatum, who said she also was asked to return her donation, voted for the layoff notices.

In an April 29 letter to Lancton, Robinson wrote that he believes it is “improper” to keep the donations he has received from the HPFFA’s political action committee since 2016 if they were intended to sway his votes on issues related to Prop B. The letter said a check for $7,500 was enclosed.

“I also did not realize, until I read your text, that you expected a certain vote or outcome in exchange for those donations,” Robinson wrote. “I find it highly inappropriate for your organization to expect that I would take specific actions on your behalf in return for contributions.”

[…]

Though the requests to return political contributions are not illegal, they could backfire on the fire union, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said.

For the most part, Jones said, the union rarely has acted in ways that could turn public opinion against them. The requests, he said, could make people view the union is “corrupt” and “petty,” while elected officials such as Robinson appear above the influence of outside interests.

“This time they overstepped, and they’re the ones looking bad, not the elected officials,” he said. “If anything, it makes elected officials look good.”

There’s more to the exchange, including Lancton’s response, which I’ll leave to you to discover for yourself. Robinson has one Republican opponent so far, though there’s plenty of time for others to arise. He’s also got $200K in the bank, which I daresay made returning that one check a bit easier. As for the firefighters, it’s all fun and games until the people you pick fights with win re-election. We’ll see how that goes.

Here’s the Mayor’s budget

A lot of people won’t like it, but this is what happens when you heap a big expense on top of an already tight fiscal situation.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday proposed to close Houston’s $179 million budget gap for the upcoming fiscal year by tapping into the city’s reserves, eliminating more than 60 vacant positions and laying off more than 300 city employees.

Turner’s proposal would reduce the overall budget of city departments by about $36 million, a figure that includes layoffs of firefighters, fire cadets and municipal workers, all of whom have received pink slips.

The mayor’s budget also would draw $116 million from the city’s reserves, which Turner said the city can afford because it will end the 2019 fiscal year with a higher-than expected general fund balance. The next fiscal year begins July 1.

Laying out the final budget proposal of his first term, Turner framed the financial plan as conservative and said his administration “scrubbed every department” in search of places to trim costs. The budget also uses a conservative projection for the amount of new property tax revenue Houston may take in, Turner said.

[…]

Turner said a large chunk of the 2.2 percent increase in general fund spending is driven by the cost of Proposition B, the voter-approved charter amendment that grants firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority. The raises will cost $79 million during the next budget year, Turner said.

District E Councilman Dave Martin agreed with Turner’s fiscal assessment of the budget, contending that the city has faced a challenging situation with small revenue growth projections — about 2 percent in property taxes and 1 percent across all sources — amid large added costs such as Prop B.

“We’ve been working on this for nine months, accumulating a healthy fund balance, not filling slots that were available for employment,” said Martin, who chairs the council’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee.

Under Turner’s proposal, public safety — which includes the fire and police departments, the municipal courts and emergency operations — would make up about 58 percent of the general fund budget, at a cost of $1.5 billion. The fire department’s budget would increase to $558 million, a 4.5 percent boost over how much the city estimates it will spend on the department this year.

The fire department was allocated $503 million in the current budget. Total projected spending, however, has grown to about $534 million with the city covering Prop B raises retroactive to Jan. 1. Turner said the adjusted paychecks would go out Friday.

[…]

Controller Chris Brown, the city’s elected budget watchdog, said he does not feel confident that Turner has accurately projected Prop B’s cost because the mayor has yet to supply his office with financial data backing up the $79 million estimate. Brown also wants to generate his own independent figure, which he said he cannot do without certain incentive pay data.

Turner told reporters Tuesday that the city attorney, Ron Lewis, had determined the city’s interpretation of Prop B would withstand legal challenges.

Still, Brown said the city has little breathing room if a judge rules the firefighters are owed more. He noted that the budget would dip the city’s target fund balance within striking distance of the minimum level allowed by city policy. The city’s reserves must make up at least 7.5 percent of the city’s general fund budget, and the 2020 budget target would leave the balance at $171 million — 7.9 percent, $9 million above the threshold.

“What if a judge says, ‘You know what, we think that this is $100 million,’ and we need to pay immediately this additional money?” Brown said. “Where is that money coming from?”

I see on Twitter that some firefighters have highlighted the above quote from Controller Brown, while in this article Marty Lancton again complains that Mayor Turner isn’t implementing Prop B exactly the way he wants it to be implemented. Well, someone has to talk about the cost of Prop B. As for Brown, he’s just doing his job. And the possibility that the cost of Prop B could go up on a judge’s order is a good point and more than a little disturbing.

From here, the budget goes through Council, where they can propose amendments and do whatever they’re going to do with it. I’ll be very interested to see if any of the ones that voted against the layoffs have anything constructive to suggest for how to avoid, or at least reduce them. The budget vote is scheduled for June 5, so mark your calendar.

Mediation fails to achieve Prop B agreement

I have three things to say about this.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday said a court-appointed mediator has declared negotiations between the city and firefighters union over the implementation of Proposition B at impasse, potentially leaving the future of the measure in the hands of a state district judge.

The announcement ends what had appeared to be some progress toward resolving the months-long dispute over how to phase in raises to firefighters required by the pay parity measure voters approved last November. The charter amendment requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and experience.

[…]

State district Judge Tanya Garrison had ordered the city, firefighters and the Houston Police Officers Union into non-binding mediation three weeks ago. Garrison’s order came as part of a legal battle between the three sides over the constitutionality of Prop B; she declined to rule on that issue until the three parties reached a settlement on implementation or an impasse was declared by the third-party mediator.

The three groups had met at least three times since.

At issue is how to implement the raises. The fire union has said it would ask its members to consider a three-and-a-half-year phase-in as long as no firefighters are demoted or laid off. Turner had said the city cannot avoid layoffs unless Prop B raises are phased in over five years.

At a Friday morning press conference, however, Turner said the city had agreed to the fire union’s previous offer to phase in the raises over three and a half years, with no firefighters demoted or laid off.

Turner said the union then refused to accept that agreement, as well as another offer that would have given it hundreds of millions of dollars in a block grant-like arrangement that the union could use at its discretion.

He accused the union of repeatedly “moving the goal posts,” and said that agreeing to its full demands would devastate Houston’s finances and credit rating.

“The city cannot go beyond what we have proposed without bankrupting the city,” he said. “As long as I am mayor, we are not going to bankrupt this city. Everyone in the city would pay the price.”

Mediator David Matthiesen did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

In a statement, the fire union said it had agreed to take a four-year phase-in to its members if pay parity was implemented “effective immediately,” the city agreed to no layoffs and if the city disclosed “what each firefighter will earn in salary and incentive pay.”

HPFFA President Marty Lancton also said the city demanded in negotiations that Prop B be rescinded and declared unconstitutional, a request he adamantly opposed.

“Citizens’ rights to petition the local government must be protected,” he said.

1. You really have to admire Marty Lancton’s ability to keep the focus of this debate on one point, which is the pay raise that the voters agreed to give the firefighters. The fight here is not over whether or not to implement Prop B, it’s over how to do it. That’s what the mediation was about, that’s what the layoffs are about. The firefighters don’t like the way the city is implementing Prop B and have been complaining nonstop – and very successfully, at least from a short term political perspective – about it. Their grievance is that some firefighters will be laid off, and some others demoted, in order for the city to pay for Prop B. If the city had decided instead to lay off police officers, solid waste workers, and more municipal employees instead, there’s nothing in the firefighters’ rhetoric to suggest they’d have had a problem with that. Beyond the fact that it was clear from the beginning that the city could not afford Prop B, this right here is why I don’t have much sympathy for the firefighters.

2. That said, part of the litigation that was brought by the police officers’ union was a claim that Prop B is illegal and should be invalidated by the court. The argument here is that the pay parity law conflicts with state law about collective bargaining. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have no insight into that question. I had thought originally that the litigation over Prop B would follow the template of previous lawsuits over city referenda and be about ballot language. I was wrong about that, which is why I like to emphasize my not-a-lawyer status in these matters. Be that as it may, it seems like a big stretch to get an election overturned. I will be surprised if Judge Garrison (who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine) rules for the plaintiffs. But again, I Am Not A Lawyer, so place your bets at your own risk.

3. The last couple of paragraphs in this story are about how the people other than Sylvester Turner who are running for Mayor are also critical of his handling of Prop B implementation, without a single word being quoted about what these alternative Mayors think should be done instead. They don’t like what the Mayor is doing, they oppose what the Mayor is doing, but what would they be doing if they were Mayor? You cannot tell from reading this story. Perhaps the reporter chose not to include what they said about that, perhaps the story editor excised it for space, or perhaps none of them had anything useful to say on the topic. You can probably guess which one I think it is.

Another view of pollution enforcement

The state has its role, but it’s not all on them.

Almost two months before a massive chemical fire erupted in Deer Park, sending a dark plume of smoke over much of Harris County, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked the head of the county’s Pollution Control Services Department what additional resources he needed.

County officials were nearing the end of a third day of annual budget hearings and Garcia was concerned the department lacked the manpower and equipment to properly monitor air quality in his eastern precinct, let alone the entire county.

So, he asked Director Bob Allen for a wish list.

“Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” Allen replied at the Jan. 11 hearing in the Commissioners Court chambers. He said the department could use additional air monitors — especially mobile ones — and noted Pollution Control had fewer employees than in the 1990s.

Garcia last week said he was struck by Allen’s “deer-in-the-headlights look.” He wondered why previous Commissioners Courts had not pressed Allen for more details, and why he appeared unprepared to outline an ambitious vision for Pollution Control.

In the end, the court in February approved a 28 percent budget increase for the small department, giving Allen an additional $1.2 million. The department inspects facilities and enforces state and local air, water, solid waste and storm water regulations.

The investment made little difference four weeks later when a storage tank farm at Intercontinental Terminals Co. ignited on March 17, burned for more than 60 hours and sent Harris County emergency responders scrambling to monitor pollution and keep the public informed of dangers.

The ITC fire, followed by a fatal explosion and blaze at the KMCO plant in Crosby two weeks later, tested the capabilities of several county departments and spurred the longest activation of the emergency operations center since Hurricane Harvey.

County leaders said Pollution Control, however, was uniquely unprepared for the fires. Department staff were unable to quickly test air quality and report results to the public, forcing the county to hire outside consultants and design a website from scratch. Garcia said he lost faith in Allen’s leadership.

Unlike the city of Houston and federal Environmental Protection Agency, Harris County had no mobile air monitoring vehicle especially useful in emergencies. Five of the county’s 12 ozone monitors were broken, and Pollution Control’s fast-response team consisted of four members.

“We do not have the staff to sustain a response to the scale of ITC,” said Craig Hill, field manager for Pollution Control. He estimated the conflagration — which required the assistance of Louisiana firefighters to extinguish — was the largest the department had ever encountered.

The ITC fire was the first major emergency for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who said the incident exposed significant gaps in the county’s capabilities. Hidalgo said residents shared concerns about daily air pollution, let alone from chemical fires, at a February town hall in Pasadena. She said county government in the past has taken a too-lax approach to potential disasters at industrial sites along the Houston Ship Channel.

“We’re not just going to hope that this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “We’re going to do a thorough analysis and share the results, and do that quickly.”

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. Here’s that website that the county got set up to track air quality results, in case you’re curious. It’s amazing, and in many ways quite telling, that none of this capability had existed before. We’re pretty good on disaster preparedness when the disaster is a weather event, which we can usually see coming. The man-made kind of disaster, which let’s be honest should be at least as predictable given what we do in this county and the lax enforcement around it, we’re caught flat-footed. I for one am very glad to see that’s no longer the case.

Layoffs and demotions

I’m so ready for this to be resolved.

Houston firefighters have started to receive layoff notices amid the implementation of Proposition B, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said in a statement Wednesday.

Houston City Council voted last week to layoff 220 firefighters to help offset firefighter raises mandated by the voter-approved proposition. The union said the firefighters received the notices via email Tuesday in what Lancton called a “slash-and-burn plan” from Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Lancton also expressed disappointment with Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña over the layoffs.

“We are deeply disappointed that Samuel Peña has become the first fire chief in Houston history to willingly execute mass layoffs and demotions of firefighters,” Lancton said in a statement. “From the city’s founding to the Great Depression, to two world wars and deep downturns of the energy industry, no fire chief had taken this course of action until today. Chief Peña now is alone among all Houston fire chiefs in that dubious distinction.”

Hundreds of HFD personnel also received demotion notices Wednesday, according to a letter provided to Chron.com. The firefighters union estimates upwards of 450 HFD personnel will be demoted.

This all follows a week in which CM Dwight Boykins made some loud claims about Council not being briefed about demotions, only to be smacked down by other Council members and HFD Chief Pena. Meanwhile, mediation is still underway, so the chance remains that all this can be reversed. (Or maybe not.) Pour yourself a drink and sit for awhile.

Also, too: This is the part where I point out that for all of the artillery being aimed at Mayor Turner, I’ve yet to see any suggestion for what alternatives exist to all this. Here are the constraints that must be satisfied:

– Prop B implemented, with the accompanying increase in expenditures by the city.
– No layoffs or demotions.
– The budget must be balanced, as mandated by city charter.
– The city cannot raise any new revenue beyond what is allowed by the revenue cap, which in the past five years has cost the city half a billion dollars via mandated tax cuts.

Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments. If you say that’s not your job, that’s the Mayor’s job, I’ll say sure, but we have a couple of Mayoral wannabees who are busy lobbing spitballs about this without offering any of their own ways forward. (Though, in fairness, one of them is busy engaging in silly Twitter fights, so at least he has his priorities straight.)

Meet the new marriage license

Time for a change.

Diane Trautman

A sketched portrait of a bride and groom has been nixed from Harris County-issued marriage licenses to make the records more inclusive to “all unions, backgrounds and faiths,” according to clerk officials.

The ornate image of a woman signing a book with the groom looming nearby has been on the document since 2012, when former Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart decided after taking office that the licenses were “not that appealing” and needed to better reflect “one of the most important days of a couple’s life.”

A keepsake version of the license now features intertwined rings instead.

Diane Trautman, the newly elected Democrat, chose to reverse her predecessor’s romantic flair on the government-issued licenses soon after taking over the county position. She unseated Stanart, a Republican, in last November’s election.

A news release from the Harris County Clerk’s Office on Thursday quietly announced the artistic changes without mentioning what prompted the tweaks, which happened nearly four years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that legalized the same-sex unions.

“It is important that marriage licenses are reflective of the diverse nature of Harris County and is inclusive of all relationships,” Trautman said in a written statement.

You can see the press release, plus images of the new license and the new keepsake version of the license here. The County Clerk represents all of Harris County, which includes people who would not fit the image on the old license. This was an easy call, and I applaud it.

(I was married well before Stan Stanart’s redesign in 2012. Our marriage license is in the safe deposit box at our bank. I see it a couple of times a year, and offhand I have no memory of what it looks like. I don’t know how important the document itself is to people once the wedding is over and official. It’s not in the top twenty of things I think about when I think about my wedding, or my marriage. So if for whatever the reason you feel outrage about this change, please don’t feel it on my behalf.)

Council approves firefighter layoffs

And here we are.

City Council voted Wednesday to send 60-day layoff notices to 220 Houston firefighters to help pay for Proposition B, the voter-approved measure giving firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding rank and experience.

The 10-6 vote followed more than two hours of discussion. Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, meanwhile, continue to meet in mediation over how to implement Prop B.

Turner estimates the raises will cost the city roughly $80 million annually. He repeatedly has said that unless the union agrees to phase the raises in over five years, hundreds of firefighters and municipal employees will face layoffs.

The union has agreed to a phase-in over three and a half years, though Turner maintains that time frame would still necessitate some lay-offs.

Turner and the union will meet again Monday, but they face a looming deadline: The city must approve a balanced budget for the next fiscal year by July 1.

See here and here for the background. I’d have preferred a more decisive vote if I were Mayor Turner, but the die has been cast nonetheless. Maybe this will provide some incentive for a mediated agreement to be reached. If that happens soon, there would be time for Council to rescind this vote. Let’s say I’m not optimistic, but I won’t mind being wrong.

UPDATE: A later version of the story says who voted how:

For the layoffs: Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, David Martin, Greg Travis, Karla Cisneros, Robert Gallegos, Martha Castex-Tatum, David Robinson, Amanda Edwards and Jack Christie

Against: Dwight Boykins, Mike Laster, Mike Knox, Michael Kubosh, Steve Le and Brenda Stardig

I’m mildly surprised by Mike Laster, but otherwise this is about what I would have expected.

UPDATE: CM Travis’ office has emailed me to say he was not in attendance at Council yesterday due to a death in the family. As such, the vote was 9-6.

Off to mediation we go

Hope for the best, y’all.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mediation soon will begin in a lawsuit between the Houston police and firefighters unions over Proposition B, the voter-approved measure that gives firefighters equal pay to police officers.

In a Monday morning filing, State District Judge Tanya Garrison ordered the Houston Police Department, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and the city to meet Monday or Tuesday.

The parties last week agreed to turn to mediator Dave Matthiesen over Prop B, though representatives from the HPFFA said they would need more time to brief members.

In her filing, Garrison pushed back against HPFFA’s claim, saying it had plenty of time to prepare for mediation. She also ordered the parties to continue meeting until “a settlement is achieved” or “in the sole determination of Mr. Matthieson, they have reached an impasse.”

[…]

At a press conference Monday, some members of City Council joined with municipal employees to reiterate their support for mediation and a five-year phase-in.

Among the first positions cut will be librarians, dental assistants, custodians, a park ranger and an electrician, District I Councilman Robert Gallegos said.

“It’s totally unfair to them,” he said. “I don’t believe this is what Prop B is about and I’m sure that’s not what the voters intended. Firefighters do deserve a pay raise, but not at the expense of innocent municipal employees.”

See here for the background. Matthiesen is an attorney and Democratic supporter who is well known to all parties involved, so at least that was easy enough. I don’t envy him the task, but maybe everyone’s ready for this to be over already. As the story notes, Council will still proceed with voting on layoffs tomorrow, as this is part of the budget work. My guess is that this can be unwound if a suitable agreement is reached, but it’s also a bit of pressure on the firefighters, as this is where it officially gets real. I do wish the story had listed all the Council members at that press conference, if only so we can have a clearer idea of what the whip count looks like right now, but we’ll find out soon enough.

Wolfe censured by HCDE

A new episode of the Michael Wolfe reality show.

Harris County Department of Education’s board voted to censure Trustee Michael Wolfe over sexual harassment allegations hours after a state district judge denied his request for a temporary restraining order.

Trustees on Wednesday voted 4-2, with Trustee Don Sumners abstaining, to issue the formal reprimand. Trustee George Moore broke with others in the board’s new majority, of which Wolfe is a part, to vote in favor of the punishment. Moore would not comment about his vote.

At the board meeting, Wolfe said the allegations were politically motivated and he had not had a proper chance to defend himself against such controversial allegations.

“If any of you were in my shoes, you would want your due process in court before being branded a sexual harasser,” Wolfe said. “I’m shocked these allegations have gotten this far, especially in America.”

Wolfe had tried to stop the censure vote Tuesday evening by having his attorney file a petition for a temporary restraining order and arguing for the order Wednesday afternoon.

A state district judge denied Wolfe’s request. Civil Court Judge Steven Kirkland said he was reluctant to get involved in a “political squabble” or to interfere with an elected board’s right to formally punish its own members.

He asked Jared Woodfill, an attorney for Wolfe, whether the censure would result in Wolfe losing his elected position, prevent him from voting on future items or would force him to register as a sex offender. Woodfill said no, but pointed out the official punishment would brand his client as a sexual harasser and could make it more difficult for him to gain future employment.

“There’s no statutory authority for me to interfere with another governmental body and no clear basis for me to jump in and do this,” Kirkland said. “It is not under an authority of the court to interfere with what is, essentially, a political question.”

See here and here for some background. As is usually the case with anything involving Michael Wolfe, you need to read the whole thing, then wash your hands afterwards. Have I mentioned that he’s up for election in 2020? Having him provide opportunities for Jared Woodfill to lose in court is a point in his favor, I’ll admit, but voting him out will still be sweet.

What will Council do about Prop B layoffs?

We’re gonna find out.

Mayor Sylvester Turner told the Houston fire union Monday he would provide it with financial data leaders requested, a sign of progress at a critical point in negotiations between the mayor and union to phase in Proposition B raises for firefighters.

Officials from the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association have asked Turner to open the city’s books, allowing firefighters to verify that the mayor’s offer to phase in the pay raises over multiple years honors the terms of the charter amendment, which requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

Turner’s refusal to do so has been a key sticking point preventing a deal, union President Marty Lancton said.

The development comes two days before Houston city council is scheduled to consider a measure to lay off 220 Houston firefighters, which Turner has said is necessary to offset the cost of pay raises if Prop. B is not phased in over multiple years.

[…]

Fire Chief Sam Peña said he was “encouraged” by Monday’s talks, even if they did not produce immediate results.

“Anytime we’re sitting at the table and having a conversation is progress,” he said.

Peña said he was not sure whether Wednesday’s scheduled council vote would be delayed, but the department is moving ahead with implementation of Prop B anyway.

“The process needs to move forward, because the books do need to be balanced by the end of the fiscal year” in June, he said. Among the biggest changes Peña has sought is a switch from a four-shift work schedule for firefighters to three. Currently, firefighters work 20 24-hour shifts every 72 days, with occasional extra shifts for which Peña has said there is a high absentee rate.

The new, three-shift model would give firefighters regular days off. Peña said he was considering that switch even before Prop B’s passage as a way to save money that could be reinvested in fleet upgrades, among other things. Now, he said, it is about maintaining public safety while confronting HFD’s roughly $25 million share of Prop B’s annual costs.

The proposal headed to council on Wednesday shows that most of the staff reductions would come from firefighters, engineers and captains, though Pena said that absent any phase-in agreement, some employees could be demoted instead of having their positions absorbed through attrition.

See here for the background, and here for Mayor Turner’s letter. According to KUHF, the firefighters’ union tentatively agreed to the 3.5-year phase-in idea, though it sounds like there may still be sticking points as Mayor Turner is not saying that will eliminate layoffs – he’s been clear about needing a five-year plan for that – but merely reducing them. Like I said, we’ll see. In the meantime, 47 city employees who had nothing to do with foisting a large new budget item on us received their layoff notices late last week. I personally find that to be the most upsetting part of this whole saga. Just so we’re all clear, the stupid revenue cap prevents the city from raising taxes to pay for Prop B, and the city charter mandates a balanced budget. That’s why layoffs are inevitable barring a sufficiently slow phase-in. It was true (and communicated) before Prop B was ratified, and it remains true now.

We’re gonna need a bigger meeting room

Seems reasonable.

With a newfound public interest in Harris County Commissioners Court meetings, which at times have been so crowded that would-be attendees have been turned away, court members plan to build a larger chamber.

Commissioners Court [asked] County Engineer John Blount to design a new chamber on the first floor of the county administration building at 1001 Preston. The current chamber, on the ninth floor, has a capacity of 90 people. Blount said a first-floor chamber could fit as many as 220.

“We have to get a better courtroom,” Blount said. “If people had to do it again, no one would ever put the highest-occupancy facility on the highest floor of the building.”

The new chamber would occupy the west half of the first floor, which currently houses some employees of the county tax assessor-collector’s office. The office’s customer service windows on the east half of the floor, where residents can pay taxes or register a vehicle, would remain the same.

Blount said the county could design the new chamber in four to six months and complete construction about a year after that. The work would not affect in-progress renovations on the first floor, which include the replacement of exterior windows and doors. Blount said estimating a cost to build a new chamber would be a “pure guess” at this stage,

“There’s not a lot of structural work. It’s pretty straightforward,” he said.

[…]

The Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s office, which protects downtown county properties, said a first-floor courtroom would require fewer deputies, spokesman Kevin Quinn said.

Security staff have to perform extra work on the ninth floor, he said, because the metal detector checkpoint is between the court chamber and the elevators to overflow rooms.

“Every time people come back and forth, they have to be re-screened,” Quinn said.

Seems pretty reasonable to me. The existing space is overcrowded, inconvenient, and requires extra security personnel. The proposed new location will have adequate seating for everyone, will be easier for everyone to get to, will require less security presence, and will be inexpensive to construct. Go for it.

Is there a city/firefighters agreement in the works?

They’re talking, for whatever it’s worth.

Officials from the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association said Friday they would seek union members’ approval of a 3.5-year phase-in of Proposition B if the city meets certain conditions.

After meeting with the union to discuss the terms, however, Mayor Sylvester Turner released a statement saying the provisions were “not consistent” with discussions held at the meeting.

Union president Marty Lancton said he had in fact laid out the union’s terms to the mayor, which include a guarantee that no firefighters will receive layoffs “before, during or after implementation of Proposition B.”

“We said it implicitly and explicitly,” Lancton said.

The mayor acknowledged the union delivered a copy of the letter, but accused Lancton of publicizing it before the meeting. Lancton also said this was untrue.

Aside from the no-layoff guarantee, union officials said any phase-in agreement would have to be ratified through a collective bargaining agreement.

Lancton also said Turner’s administration must provide the firefighters with “complete access to city financial and budget information” and implement “complete parity,” including base and incentive pay, with Houston police officers.

The two sides were scheduled to meet again next week before Houston City Council considers a measure at its Wednesday meeting that would authorize 220 firefighter layoffs.

See here for the latest update. I mean, maybe they’ll hammer something out and maybe they won’t. Deadlines have a way of focusing the mind, especially when layoffs are on the other side. I’ll reserve judgment about what may or may not be involved until there’s a resolution, but I will say this: Very early on in this process, Mayor Turner’s position was that Prop B had to be implemented all at once, there was no legal path to negotiating a phase-in. Everyone seems to have forgotten about that, which in and of itself doesn’t bother me too much since I like the idea of phasing it in regardless. But if this is true, then all it will take is someone filing a lawsuit to screw this all up. Let’s worry about that another day, as it’s not a thing until and unless a phase-in deal is ratified. There’s plenty of trouble here already without borrowing more.

Was the McLeod replacement too hasty?

Eh, I dunno.

Judge William McLeod

Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court criticized their Democratic colleagues for quickly approving a new civil court judge at Tuesday’s meeting who had not been vetted by the full body.

The three Democrats voted to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to replace County Court at Law Judge Bill McLeod, who inadvertently resigned last week. Briones’ name was absent from the agenda, she had only spoken with the Democratic members and just 36 minutes passed between her nomination and approval.

“This is the least transparent appointment I have ever seen,” Republican Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said. “The unfairness of the process was overwhelming.”

During the meeting, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle held up Briones résumé, which he had been handed minutes earlier, and said he may have supported her if he only had the chance to review it. Instead the vote fell along party lines, 3 to 2.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who regularly pledges her administration will be more transparent than those past, defended the process.

Hidalgo said Commissioners Court faces several pressing issues, including responses to two massive chemical fires in recent weeks and a looming settlement in the county’s landmark bail lawsuit. When an assistant county attorney warned court members Tuesday that leaving Judge McLeod on the bench as a holdover judge almost certainly would force him to recuse himself from some cases, Hidalgo said the court needed to choose a replacement.

She said McLeod, not Commissioners Court, had created the predicament.

“I decided for myself it wasn’t going to go beyond this court,” Hidalgo said. She added, “This is something we needed to get done and move on from.”

See here for my initial reactions, and here for some further background. I have some sympathy for the Court here. This was a weird situation, not of their own making. I think most people would agree that inadvertent or not, McLeod did trigger the “resign to run” condition. I suspect as much as anything they just wanted to put this mess behind them, so they went ahead and named a replacement. I get it, but I have to agree that Commissioner Cagle makes a good point. They could at least have had something like a Judicial Committee hearing, to give all the Commissioners some time to know who they were voting on. I would hope this situation will never arise again, but in the unfortunate event it does, let’s take that lesson from this experience.

UPDATE: Stace sums it all up nicely.