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If you can’t specify it, it’s not wasteful

After reading this op-ed by Todd Clark, the chair of the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund (that is, their pension fund), I have decided to adopt two rules for all future discussion of the city’s budget.

Let me speak briefly about the city’s Long Range Financial Management Task Force. This advisory committee could have focused on some key city issues, but it did not. The No. 1 agenda for this task force was to attack city pensions. The topics that were presented were financial in nature but they were also a smoke screen to go after the public employees, and particularly the firefighters.

This task force spent most of its time focused on pensions, which are tightly regulated and professionally managed. Despite its name, the task force focused only on the short term. What is worse, the focus on pensions was devised to take the public’s eye off the perennial mismanagement problems inside city government, which are politically uncomfortable for the mayor. The three city pension funds account for only 9 percent of the entire city of Houston budget, according to the task force. The committee spent 91 percent of its time and attention on the pensions. It appears to me, however, that the committee should have spent all its times examining the entire budget for waste.

City employees are repeatedly asked to make sacrifices due to continued wasteful spending by the city. Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund will continue to protect the firefighters and their families against these attacks and any future attacks by this mayor, as the Houston firefighters will continue to serve the citizens of this great city by protecting them from harm.

Rule #1: If you claim there is wasteful spending, but then fail to say what spending in particular is wasteful, I’m not going to take you seriously. Crying “waste” is the easiest and laziest dodge in the book. If you’re not giving specifics, you’re not contributing.

Rule #2: If you don’t acknowledge that police, fire, and emergency services constitute two-thirds of the city’s operating budget, I’m not going to take you seriously. Here’s that budget-balancing tool again, which itemizes how much we spend on different items. Clark goes on at length about how pension payments represent only 9% of the budget, but never seems to note that any truly vigorous effort to cut city spending would focus on the amount that we dedicate to police, fire, and EMS. I mean, surely in a time of declining crime rates, there is a case to be made to reduce the size of the police force. But just go try to find a candidate for city office who supports such a position. It’s not hard to conclude that one reason we’re talking so much about pensions is because we’ve walled off so much of the rest of the budget from consideration.

Now to be clear, I agree with Clark that we’re talking too much about pensions, and I have said so repeatedly in this space. I think there are things we need to consider doing to ensure that the pension plans remain solvent and that the city’s burden remains manageable, but I want to see a much more holistic approach to the budget than what I’ve seen so far. I am also not advocating for cuts to police, fire, and EMS, I’m just pointing out that everybody, especially the self-proclaimed budget hawks, studiously ignores the fact that this is by far the fattest part of the budget. They all prefer to hide behind the “wasteful spending” sham rather than be honest about what it is we do spend our money on. Clark is advocating for protection of the firefighters’ pension fund, and as such is not required to provide a preferred alternative. That’s fine and dandy, but it doesn’t make him any more credible or courageous, or any less self-interested, than anyone else in this discussion.

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  1. Ross says:

    I tend to think there’s not a lot of wasteful spending in the City budget – the knives have been applied for the last several years, and many cuts are already in place. What Todd Clark either ignores, or glosses over, is that pension costs are growing very quickly, and are one of the few places where real reform is possible. If the City doesn’t do something soon, voters will, and the public safety employees will not like the outcome.

  2. Diana says:

    Unfortunately the City of Houston is not the only one doing this, it’s all over the country and it’s a shame that all of these candidates (federal, state, and local) are playing the populist card and people fall for it.

  3. blank says:

    If you claim there is wasteful spending, but then fail to say what spending in particular is wasteful, I’m not going to take you seriously.

    I use an ever so slightly modified version of this:

    If you claim there is wasteful spending, but then fail to say what spending in particular is wasteful, then don’t be surprised when your favorite program gets cut.

  4. SP says:

    Priorities are out of whack at the City and going after the Fire Fighter’s pension fund is reaching for low hanging fruit. Wasteful spending — I’ll give you one, or a couple. Anyone involved in this issue or who has any idea of how the last two budgets were structured can tell you, Kuff. Why do you give the Admin the benefit of the doubt but ask the Fire Fighter’s pension board to qualify what is wasteful and what is not? Budgets are political documents, are they not? I dare the City and Bill King and other “reformers” to take on the public employees next legislature. I double-dawg dare them.

  5. “Why do you give the Admin the benefit of the doubt but ask the Fire Fighter’s pension board to qualify what is wasteful and what is not?”

    Because he’s claiming there is waste in the city’s budget. You tell me there’s waste in the budget, I’m going to ask you just what waste you think there is. I don’t care who’s making that claim. I don’t think that’s a particularly onerous burden if you’re not just bluffing.

  6. Joseph Houston says:

    Okay, lets start with a few “wastes” and work our way from there seeing as you have rarely, if ever, commented on them in past pension discussions. Everyone has to live within some means, be it your paycheck as a private citizen or whatever tax revenues and grants you obtain as a governmental body. Since there is an infinite supply of ways to spend money, everyone has a list of wants, that is why we budget what we have based on what we believe (and the political process).

    That means we have to prioritize what we spend funds on. Focusing on pensions, one portion of employee compensation, doesn’t really do a lot of good since cutting them typically means having to increase direct pay lest you end up with the people nobody else will hire. For me, I say finish prioritizing the city zoo, the grants and private donations made in recent years have been enough to expand programs greatly enough that it should be able to make it on its own. The yearly direct subsidy is about $9 million plus all the secondary support which totals even more. More firemen & police or caged animals few can afford to see is an easy “waste” for me.

    Much has been made of corporate subsidies of late. The city takes an expansive view of where to spend such money, allowing retailers with multi-billion dollar sales to partake in the largess. Unlike subsidies for manufacturers that ship products made here to another area, this kind of subsidy simply shuffles the same jobs and sales tax revenue around from nearby stores. The intention of these monies is to increase jobs and revenue yet robbing Peter to pay Paul is not a valid use from a strictly accounting point of view. Does anyone really think WalMart, Krogers, Target, or others are basing their entire development of a specific location on a tax break? Does anyone really think this will generate more sales of jobs in the future?

    What about corporate takeovers of a sort? In recent times, the city bought a failed gold course in the northern part of the city for millions of dollars. The course did not have enough memberships to break even so it folded, the area off of Antoine long prone to flooding despite significant efforts on the part of all the available agencies. To recoup some of their investment, the owners attempted to break some covenants that meant they could not break up the property to develop low cost housing or other projects, a federal court telling them “no”. So a property that cannot be developed for another use is then bought by the city for considerable sums of money. There was no reason for the city to do this since the course was already stuck in the role of green space, making some wonder who got paid off to make it happen.

    Want more? Okay, the federal census indicated that the city had “X” number of people and the city fought the number, hoping to secure additional grant monies. As part of this effort, Mayor Parker pushed two additional Council seats down the throats of the public for millions in additional costs every year, no real need for them for at least ten years according to the feds. If the city was flush with money, there would be less of a problem but ask any of the 764 people laid off last year what they think, those who want to hold onto some of their tax dollars, or those who want ever increasing portions of the budget what they think.

    Back to priorities though, why continue to fund the arts? Seriously, people can self-select art funding by going to the theater, going to galleries, buying art, or in a myriad of ways yet each year the city shells out millions in art related grants. In a similar note, the city paid out exactly how much in subsidies to the Dynamo soccer team, a team that has played in already under utilized area stadiums for years? Want more?

    The whole spending by government agency issue also begets that the city should find out what people want money spent on, not a handful of iron-triangle key players either, and go from there. If it costs “X+” to hire a fireman with a modest pension and benefits, decide how many you want rather than keep trying to screw them on the back end after they have earned benefits. Do you want them providing active fire suppression or would you prefer they merely take the route other communities have leaned towards in keeping surrounding buildings wet for containment. By doing so, you can reduce the number of persons per truck back from the 4 minimum, just be prepared to see your insurance rates rise over time to take back any possible savings.

    For police, just acknowledge that you are not going to provide in depth investigations for burglaries, car accidents, loud noise calls, and vice related activities. According to city sources, there are tens of thousands of noise calls so that should save man hours galore, the same for the other calls, and let the citizens embrace what “no zoning” truly means when a “modeling studio” or “spa” opens up in their neighborhoods. Beef up the investigative bureaus for robberies and homicide, telling victims in other areas that they aren’t important enough to fully fund if that is the will of the people (tea partiers, right wingers, and lefties alike).

    There are countless decisions made on city budgets, the operating budgets, capital budgets, and enterprise funds, that if the average citizen were made aware of, they would get pissed off about. Let us open up that dialogue and see how it all works out, just remember that there are many hidden costs involved in each line item, telling city employees to “suck it up” because no one wants to pay their share unlikely to work for very much longer.

  7. SP says:

    Wasted money, time and effort on the Historic Preservation debacle, a “sustainability” office that gives Green Building tours and sponsors the Farmers market, on regulating every business activity under the freaking sun, 380 agreements that the City has to pay for anyway, shall I continue? OH and how about switching from AT&T to non-union Sprint which has been trouble from day 1, and last, but definitely not least, switching from BCBS to CIGNA and, guess, what, there is a big ol giant whole in the budget. Tell me when to stop, Kuff. Actually all this depresses me so I will stop myself.

  8. Ross says:

    A City employee getting a 90% pension after 30 years is wasteful. I would get 48% at that point, and have to pay $400 per month for my share of health insurance.

  9. Steven says:

    Ross, the municipal employees changed that provision of their pension years ago so the 90% is history and their health care costs increased well above $400/month a few years back.

  10. […] program”. Todd Clark, the chair of the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund, wrote an op-ed in March claiming that the city already had the information it said it was seeking; it also made […]