What a difference a year – and better sales tax receipts and a better real estate market – makes. Mayor Parker has unveiled her budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, and it promises no service cuts, no layoffs, and no tax increase.
Last year, the city issued 764 pink slips and cut services as budget officials grappled with a projected $100 million shortfall. Projected growth of city property and sales tax fuel an expected increase of $78 million in general fund income for the coming fiscal year.
Parker’s budget proposes spending all of the increase and tapping the city’s reserve account for $25 million. She’s proposing buying several new things with that money:
- Offering single-stream recycling – the big rolling green barrels instead of the handheld bins – to at least 30,000 more Houston homes.
- Increasing staffing hours on the city’s 311 help line to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The one-stop line for reporting potholes, getting city service schedules, checking up on your speeding tickets and accessing scores of other city services currently operates 14 hours a day.
- Putting $2 million into the operation of a sobering center the city hopes to open later this year. Police will have the option of bringing people they detain for public intoxication to the center instead of jail.
- $5 million for forensic services. It is to be used for improved crime lab operations by a new independent board of directors the mayor hopes to install or on reducing the backlog of untested rape kits.
The police department budget alone is proposed to grow, by $58 million. Much of the police spending increase is explained by built-in increases in pension contributions, health benefits, seniority raises and fuel costs.
Here’s the Mayor’s press release on the budget, which has more details. Looking at this reminds me why I believe that it may be harder for someone to defeat Parker in 2013 than it might have been to do in 2011. The expansion of curbside recycling, which seemed unlikely to happen previously because of the Mayor’s reluctance to seek a garbage collection fee, is the sort of thing that will make voters happy. The sobering center, which has now been approved by Council, will save the city money and will enable it to reach the Mayor’s goal of getting the city out of the jail business. The money for forensic services is a step towards another of the Mayor’s goals, which she addressed in her inaugural speech. Whether or not the city can work out the governance issues with Harris County, getting that done would be a huge accomplishment. My point is that by the time the 2013 campaign starts up, she’ll have a lot more positive things to point to, something that’s a lot harder to do when you’re cutting $100 million from your budget. It’s not a panacea and there are no guarantees, but I do think any potential challengers may find that the road next year is rockier than they thought it might be in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 elections. The environment just isn’t going to be the same.
There’s still a lot to do before we even start thinking about 2013 elections, and first up is Council’s turn to examine and attempt to modify the budget. I’m sure everyone will have their own priorities. And I can’t let this go without noting the following:
Councilwoman Helena Brown alone opposed city funding for the [sobering] center.
“The project can be better accomplished by the private sector,” she said. She also emphasized her opposition to excessive spending and said the sobering center is “like a slow cancer that will contribute to the death of the city.”
And so she voted against an action that will save the city a couple million bucks a year because she opposes excessive spending. We need a new word, to denote when something passes unanimously except for CM Brown who voted against it for reasons only she can understand. Leave your suggestions in the comments. Stace has more.
UPDATE: Here’s the full Chron story on the sobering center.