Happy New Year, city employees.
Thousands of city of Houston employees will have to take six unpaid days off in the coming six months, one of a series of actions Mayor Annise Parker is taking to close a $29 million budget gap.
“This is a step that I didn’t want to take,” Parker said on Thursday. Furloughs send “the wrong message to hard-working city employees who get up and pick up our trash, fix our roads, keep our libraries open, mow our parks.”
The furloughs will save the city $5 million and will apply only to civilian employees, with a few exceptions in such areas as trash pickup and other positions that generate revenue, Parker said. Employees who make less than $24,000 a year also will be exempt, she said.
I guess it’s still better than layoffs, but that’s likely small comfort for the people that will be taking what amounts to about a 2.3% pay cut. The main issue I have with this is where do you go from here? It’s a one-time fix, and the problems exist beyond this year. Obviously, you can hope that the economy improves and that property values begin to rebound – there’s at least some reason to be optimistic, or at least not pessimistic, about that nationally – but what’s the plan beyond that?
I’m sure you know where I’m going with this, so let’s get to it.
City Controller Ronald Green painted a more dire picture of the city’s budget situation through fiscal 2011.
The Parker administration has estimated the city will garner $36 million by selling city-owned property, but Green projects that figure will only reach $20 million at best. The added gap could make more layoffs necessary, he said.
“Most of our budget is in salaries, so where you make the cuts is with personnel,” he said. “Furlough days obviously will help with the bottom line, but it’s still not the ultimate solution.”
City Councilman Mike Sullivan, who has emerged in recent weeks as a sharp critic of the mayor, said the furloughs won’t go nearly far enough. Freezing spending at its 2009 level and deferring contractual 3 percent pay increases for city employees would save far more, he said.
“These are just one-time savings,” he said. “We’ve got to trim millions and tens of millions of dollars from the budget.”
I’m going to ask again, when will rolling back the property tax rate cuts that were adopted in recent years going to be on the table? It’s easy to beat your chest about making cuts when it’s primarily other people – city employees – who will feel the brunt of it. What’s your own skin in the game?
At a more fundamental level, to focus exclusively on cuts is dishonest and I believe ultimately destructive. Saying “we can’t raise taxes when times are bad” is little more than a shibboleth. If that’s really the case, then we shouldn’t have cut them when times were better, because the revenue we willingly forsook in years past would be mighty handy right about now. The same is true for Harris County, the state of Texas, and the federal government, which is filled with people (mostly but not exclusively Republicans) that scream about the deficit at every opportunity while also never missing a chance to increase it for the benefit of the wealthy. For some people, times haven’t been bad at all. When are these folks going to be called on to sacrifice for the greater good?