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Metro’s post-Culberson future

You might not be aware of this, but famously anti-Metro Congressman John Culberson lost his bid for re-election on Tuesday. What might that mean for Metro?

Lizzie Fletcher

In one of the more stunning defeats of incumbent Republicans on Tuesday night, Lizzie Fletcher beat out long-time Congressman John Culberson in the Texas 7th District. It is the first time this seat has been held by a Democrat in more than 50 years.

While Fletcher campaigned primarily on inclusiveness and healthcare, one portion of the platforms on her campaign website should not go unnoticed. “We need to partner with cities, counties, and METRO to bring additional resources and improvements to our region,” she says on her website. “We need an advocate for policies that both maintain and expand our region’s mobility infrastructure. And we need to make sure that Houston receives its fair share of transportation funding to move our citizens across the region.”

This seems like a logical and rational position given Houston’s congestion issues and rapidly growing size. But, she adds one additional note. “John Culberson has failed to be a partner in this effort. Even worse, his record shows that he has actively worked against expanding transportation options in Houston.”

Some might dismiss this as campaign rhetoric, but the thing is, she isn’t wrong. In a now infamous 2014 fundraising event at Tony’s, the posh Italian eatery in Greenway Plaza, Culberson bragged about preventing light rail from expanding to a line planned for Richmond Avenue. “I’m very proud to have been able to protect Richmond and Post Oak from being destroyed as Fannin and Main Street were destroyed,” he said. “This is the end of all federal funding on Richmond.”

[…]

Now that Culberson’s aversion to rail is removed from the district, it will be interesting to see if Fletcher takes up the mantle of public transportation and acts as less of a hindrance — or even an advocate — for programs that would increase rail and other public transit programs through the Houston-Galveston region.

KUHF also asked those questions.

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said she thinks Lizzie Fletcher will be a huge help as the agency moves ahead with a new regional transit plan.

[…]

But what does Fletcher’s election mean for any Richmond rail plans?

Patman said for cost reasons they’re now considering bus rapid transit for the Richmond corridor, to help provide better connections between downtown and The Galleria. But she added that project would also require help from Washington, D.C.

“Just as we built two of the three rail lines with a federal match, we will need federal money to help implement our expanded transit in the region,” explained Patman.

So first and foremost, Culberson’s defeat means that when he officially opposes the Metro regional transit plan, as I expect he will, he’ll do so as just another cranky member of the general public. And not just with Lizzie Fletcher in Congress but Democrats controlling Congress, there should be a good chance to get the Culberson anti-Richmond rail budget rider removed. That’s all very much to the good, but it’s a start and not a done deal. But as Christof Spieler helpfully reminds us, there’s a lot of work still to be done, as any federal funds only exist as matches to local money. We need to put up the cash first, then we can try to get federal help. Christof has a few suggestions, and I would submit that the changeover in Harris County Commissioners Court, as well as having a potentially friendlier-to-rail representative from the county on the H-GAC Transportation Policy Council, could be game changers of equal magnitude. You want to see this gap in Metro’s transit infrastructure get filled? Start by engaging on the 2019 transit plan referendum, and tell your local officials to support Metro in this effort.

We’ll have to wait a little longer for the inevitable Prop B lawsuit

It’s still coming, just not, like, today.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said he would delay a City Council vote to hire a law firm to represent the city in possible litigation over Proposition B, the ballot item passed by voters to grant Houston firefighters pay parity with police.

City Council had been set to consider a contract with Norton Rose Fulbright for $1.3 million. The contract would set aside $250,000 for the firm to handle litigation over real estate purchases in connection with infrastructure projects, with the rest set aside for a court fight over the parity measure approved Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Turner said he will look to Fire Chief Samuel Peña to restructure the fire department to absorb the measure’s additional cost, which both Turner and City Controller Chris Brown say will total more than $100 million in its first full year.

Turner said Wednesday he does not know “how we’re going to pay for it,” but he made clear initial layoffs would come from the fire department. For months, Turner has warned that the city would need to make cuts if voters approved Proposition B. It passed with 59 percent of the vote.

The measure would tie firefighters’ pay to that of police of corresponding rank and seniority. City Council, which is not meeting Thanksgiving week, agreed to bring the item up at its Nov. 28 meeting.

“I don’t know the answers,” Turner said. “I don’t know how we’re going to balance the books when we have been given an added bill of $100 million each year.”

He added: “The tough decisions start now. They start right now.”

The mayor said the fire department “restructuring” would include a reduction from four shifts to three, as well as other methods of reducing costs.

See here (at the bottom) for the background. I suppose one possible path to brokering a peace treaty might include an agreement to get everyone possible on board for a push to repeal – not amend, repeal – the stupid revenue cap, which would at least prevent the city from losing revenue for no good reason. There can’t be a vote on that before May of 2021, however, so that may be too long-term for any benefit, but one way or another this needs to be tackled, and it’s in both sides’ best interests for it to go away. I’m just spitballing here. The smart money is still on a lawsuit being filed, and after that who knows.

Will teachers turn out for Mike Collier?

He sure hopes so.

Mike Collier

On his long-shot campaign to unseat incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Collier is hoping he’s popular in a lot of rooms that look like this one — where after hearing from him, education-focused voters in a reliably red county said in interviews that they planned to vote for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, then cross over to back Collier.

Collier, a Houston accountant and a failed 2014 candidate for Texas comptroller, is at a deep, perhaps insurmountable disadvantage in deep-red Texas, where Patrick has served in state government for more than a decade and accumulated about 35 times as much cash on hand.

Still, Collier says he can see a path to victory — and it starts here, in a crowd of retired teachers, scribbling on the bingo card-like sheets they’ve prepared for the occasion, sipping coffee out of teeny foam cups, some nodding along and a few nodding off.

But are there enough rooms like this to carry him to victory?

[…]

If Collier is positioning himself to draw center-right Republicans back over the line, public education may be his best issue. Patrick is not an uncontroversial figure among teachers, retired teachers and public school parents.

As a former chair of the Texas Senate’s public education committee and as the leader of the upper chamber, Patrick has championed what he calls “school choice” and critics, many of them public school educators, call “vouchers” — programs that would give Texas families subsidies to fund private school tuition for their kids. During last summer’s special session, as the Legislature debated an influx of cash for public schools, the Texas House offered up $1.8 billion — $1.5 billion more than Patrick’s Texas Senate proposed.

“When you have 700,000 school employees, they’re not all going to be on the same page. That said, I do feel like if there’s any one person out there that they’re most unified about it’s probably the lieutenant governor,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

As a senator, Exter said, Patrick “was pushing reforms that lots of educators are not necessarily in favor of. He doesn’t seem to favor class-size restrictions and they really, really do. He really does favor vouchers and they really, really don’t. And the funding issues have died in his hands or at his hands.”

If public education is your issue, then I don’t know how you can even think of voting for Dan Patrick. It’s just that generally speaking, public education hasn’t been a big motivating issue for a lot of people, even those who have a direct stake in it. Maybe this is the year, I don’t know. The story talks about how pro-education candidates lost in this year’s Republican primaries, but that misses the point. Collier doesn’t need a majority of Republican voters to defect for him to win. If base Democratic turnout is sufficiently high – still a big if, even with the encouraging early voting numbers so far – he probably needs between ten and twenty percent of them. That’s doable, and it’s within the range of past performances. That’s an if on top of an if, but at least it’s a chance. If the teachers want to send a message, it’s in their capacity to do so.

Endorsement watch: City propositions

The Chron says Yes on Prop A:

Here’s the blunt truth: Voting “against” on Proposition A won’t cut your taxes. It will, however, open the door to more municipal debt.

That is why Houstonians should vote “for” Proposition A, which will reaffirm the decision they correctly made eight years ago to fund needed drainage and street improvement projects in the city by a pay-as-you-go system.

A second vote is being taken to fund the Rebuild Houston program because the Texas Supreme Court ruled a similar ballot question in 2010 was incorrectly worded. The earlier proposition asked, “Shall the City Charter of the City of Houston be amended to provide for the enhancement, improvement and ongoing renewal of Houston’s drainage and streets by creating a Dedicated Pay-As-You-Go Fund for Drainage and Streets?”

A subsequent class-action lawsuit said the ballot question should have specifically explained that city residents would be asked to pay a drainage fee through their water bills to fund those infrastructure improvements.

And No on Prop B:

If Proposition B were a referendum on our love and affection for Houston firefighters, as their union president claims, the choice would be easy. We’d back it. And so would Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was endorsed by firefighters in his mayoral campaign after decades of advocating for them. Instead, the mayor is dipping into his personal campaign funds to fight the measure on which too many influential Houstonians have remained mum.

Voters, don’t let the smoke get in your eyes.

In Prop. B, firefighters are asking for more than just appreciation. They’re asking for pay parity with police of comparable rank and seniority. They’re asking for what the mayor says amounts to a 25 percent raise that could cost the city an estimated $100 million the first year, forcing deep cuts to services and nearly 1,000 layoffs of firefighters and police.

Yes, we value firefighters. We value our kids, too. But most of us can’t go out and buy Junior a Lamborghini just because he asks for it.

And we can’t ignore that firefighters’ jobs are different from those of police. Both entail a great deal of risk, but firefighters have long been able to tailor their schedules to accommodate second jobs and businesses. Several Houston firefighters live out of state. And yes, as police point out, firefighters are allotted sleep time during their longer, 24-hour shifts.

Firefighters are asking voters for something police earned through years of hard-fought negotiations that required give and take from both sides.

I still think the ruling against the Renew Houston referendum was a screw job by the Supreme Court, but here we are. You can listen to my interview with Marty Lancton and my interview with Mayor Turner if you want to hear more about Prop B, and in the case of the Mayor, more about Prop A as well.

The problem with the revenue cap, in two short paragraphs

From the Chron:

The average homeowner has saved a cumulative $436 thanks to the rate adjustments driven by the revenue cap since 2014, an average of $87 per year.

The same adjustments have prevented the city from collecting $533 million than it otherwise would have.

So in return for a negligible reduction in your property tax bill, which you almost certainly didn’t notice, the city of Houston lost over a half billion dollars in revenue over the past five years. That’s more than enough on a per-year basis to bridge all the shortfalls that have been projected, more than enough to cover even the highest-end estimate of what the firefighters’ pay parity proposal would cost, more than enough to hire however many more cops we’re supposed to need, more than enough to make all of the employee pension systems a hell of a lot more stable, more than enough to buy out a crapload of floodplain-located homes, etc etc etc. Amazing what a little thing like $500 million dollars can do, isn’t it? And don’t forget, even though the average property tax cut was small, the biggest share of it went to the people with the most expensive property. (Not to mention, if you’re a renter, you got exactly zero out of this.) This right here is why I hold self-proclaimed fiscal peacocks who favor the revenue cap like a certain former Mayoral candidate I feel no need to name in such contempt. We cannot undo this stupid, harmful policy soon enough.

The pay parity proposal debate that wasn’t

Let’s not get ready to rumble!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s firefighters union has withdrawn from a Saturday debate with Mayor Sylvester Turner on their proposal to seek pay “parity” with police officers, saying the event’s host, the Harris County Democratic Party, had given the mayor too much control over the event.

The hour-long event would have marked the first time the mayor and the union addressed the contentious issue on the same stage.

“We looked forward to the debate,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said in a Wednesday morning statement, “but we recognize that party insiders failed to stop the manipulation of the ground rules to advantage the mayor. We are disappointed in the HCDP’s acquiescence to the mayor, but are grateful for the support of HCDP precinct chairs and the many Houstonians they represent.”

Among the union’s complaints were that Houston Chronicle opinion editor Lisa Falkenberg was to serve as moderator (the editorial board expressed opposition to the parity proposal in July 2017), and that Democratic Party officials did not agree to let Lancton address precinct chairs or let them vote on whether to endorse the proposition.

Alas. Here’s the earlier story announcing the event that was the original basis of this post. I am not able to be there for this not-a-forum, but perhaps you can be.

County Democratic Party Chair Lillie Schechter said the party engaged in “extensive conversations” with both camps on the format of the discussion but respects the union’s decision to withdraw.

“The event details appeared in a Facebook announcement seen and approved by all parties last week. It is unfortunate the firefighter’s union has determined these details do not meet their needs,” she said. “We regret voters will not hear from the firefighter’s union at this time. Mayor Turner and Lisa are welcome to use the full hour we have allotted for this event.”

The party’s leadership committee, after hearing from the fire union at a recent meeting, Schechter said, voted to schedule the debate to hear from both sides. She said the gathering was never envisioned as ending in a vote, saying such votes only occur at quarterly gatherings of all precinct chairs, the last of which was held Sept. 13.

Yes, speaking as a precinct chair, that’s how our rules work. Precinct chairs vote to endorse or not endorse ballot measures like this at our quarterly meetings. We endorsed the flood bond referendum at the June meeting, for instance. There were members from the firefighters’ union at the September meeting, talking up their proposal, but no motion for an endorsement vote. Which I have to say would have been contentious, and because of that I’m glad it didn’t come up. I don’t know what may or may not have happened behind the scenes, but I do know they could have made a pretty big fuss about this at the meeting if they had wanted to.

Personally, I think an event like this, aimed at the general public, rather than an agenda item for a normally dry meeting of precinct chairs, would be a much better way to allow both sides to air their views (I’m assuming that if Lancton had been given time to address us, then Mayor Turner or a representative from his office would have been given time as well). But hey, whatever. Perhaps the Mayor and Lisa Falkenberg can discuss the cost of this referendum.

The cost of Houston firefighters’ push for pay parity with police of corresponding rank and seniority could be 14 percent cheaper than what Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration has estimated, city Controller Chris Brown said Tuesday.

Brown’s office estimates that the proposal, which will appear as Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot, will cost $85.2 million a year, lower than the $98.6 million figure Turner has used. Neither estimate includes the 7 percent raise police would receive over the next two years if the city council approves a new proposed contract this week. That would increase the cost if voters decide to link fire and police salaries.

Brown acknowledged his analysis required a series of assumptions related to how the parity proposal would be implemented, and said the estimate shows the cost of the proposal would be “unsustainable.”

“The controller’s office believes that a sustainable solution exists but can only be achieved through negotiation in the collective bargaining process,” Brown said while presenting his estimate to the city council’s budget committee. “It’s through that process that the men and women of HFD should be able to negotiate a well-deserved raise, but also a well-deserved raise the city can actually afford over the long term.”

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton viewed Brown’s analysis as vindication of his view that Turner’s estimate is inflated.

“As the city controller proved today, the mayor’s Proposition B claims cannot be trusted. His math, like his judgment, is driven by an obsession with punishing Houston firefighters,” Lancton said.

[…]

Brown and Turner’s estimates are nearly identical on the projected increase to firefighters’ base salaries and the associated increase in retirement benefits: that roughly 20 percent increase would cost about $65 million per year.

The two estimates differ mostly on various incentives and allowances known as “special pays,” some of which firefighters receive now but which parity would increase, and some of which firefighters would receive for the first time if voters approve the measure.

Not sure how a reduction in the cost estimate from $98 million to $85 million is a vindication of the firefighters’ case, especially when $85 million is still a pretty damn big number and Controller Brown calls it “unsustainable”, but maybe that’s just me. I continue to believe this thing is going to pass so I sure hope the cost estimates we are seeing are overblown, but all things being equal I’d rather not have to find out. Be that as it may, if you don’t know what to make of all this, go attend the not-a-forum and see what you think.

The firefighter pay parity proposal sure seems like it’s going to pass

What are ya gonna do?

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is holding town halls to try to convince voters that the city can’t afford Proposition B, a ballot measure that would tie firefighters’ pay to that of police. It’s turning into an uphill fight.

Mayor Turner argues that full pay parity would cost Houston nearly $300 million, at a time when the city is wrestling with chronic deficits. But Turner is having a hard time getting voters to see this as anything other than attacking the firefighters.

“The default mode is not only to support equity pay but to support it by very big margins,” says Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.

That’s particularly the case if Democrats turn out in larger-than-usual numbers. “You’ll have a lot of voters coming out who are predisposed as Democrats to support equity pay for public employees,” Stein says. “On top of that, the firemen not only have a good campaign message, but they’re going to get national support from national public employee associations and unions to support this equity pay raise.”

I’ve already seen three pro-Prop B signs in my neighborhood. Mayor Turner has been busy holding town halls and writing op-eds, but beyond that I’ve not seen much of a campaign. So yeah, I expect this to pass, quite possibly by a lot. And I’d say Mayor Turner is making the same judgment.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has instituted a hiring freeze across the city government’s roughly 21,400 positions, ordering department directors seeking exceptions to meet with him or his chief of staff in person.

The directive, he wrote in a memo dated Friday, will be reviewed “at a later date this year.” Executive positions are exempt from the freeze, but those already require mayoral approval.

Mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said the order was spurred by Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot. That measure would give firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank and seniority, costing the city an estimated $98 million annually.

“The impact would financially cripple the city and force layoffs and cutbacks to services,” Benton said. “The mayor believes it is not prudent at this time to hire additional city of Houston employees, who would lose their jobs as a result of the election.”

I mean, what did you expect? At this point I’d say the city’s best strategy is to find some plaintiffs for the ballot language lawsuit, and hope to get an injunction preventing it from being implemented while it gets hashed out in court. I wouldn’t bet my own money on that outcome either, but the odds have to be better than beating this thing at the ballot box.

Property tax revenue up, school funding down

Welcome to Texas.

An early projection has Texas decreasing state funding to public education, and largely using local taxes to fill the gap.

In its preliminary budget request ahead of next year’s legislative session, the Texas Education Agency projected a drop in the state’s general revenue for public education by more than $3.5 billion over the next couple of years, in part because the revenue from local property taxes is expected to skyrocket. General revenue only makes up part of the state’s education funding.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath confirmed this projection in front of a state budget panel Wednesday morning as he laid out the state agency’s budget request through 2021.

The Foundation School Program, the main way of distributing state funds to Texas public schools, includes both state general revenue and local property tax revenue. Local property values are expected to grow by about 6.8 percent each year, and existing statute requires the state to use that money first before factoring in state funding.

Just a reminder, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are lots of things that could be done differently, but they all require legislative action, not to mention state leadership. There is one thing we can all do to facilitate this kind of necessary change, and that’s to vote for candidates who want to make that happen. Start with Mike Collier, who has plenty of ideas for how to fix this mess, but don’t stop there. We have a years-long record to tell us what we’re going to get if we have the same old same old in government next year. Vote to do something different or quit complaining when you don’t get it. The Chron editorial board has more.

HFD Chief warns of layoffs

To be fair, this isn’t the first time we have heard this.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña on Tuesday warned of dire consequences — including possible layoffs of more than 800 firefighters and deferred maintenance or upgrades on aging equipment, if voters approve the firefighters’ pay parity initiative on the November ballot.

Peña’s warning came during a City Council Committee on Budget & Fiscal Affairs meeting to provide city leaders with their first look at how the Houston Fire Department might handle the costs of the ballot measure, which proposes to raise firefighter pay to that of their police peers.

In its latest estimate, the Turner administration says approval of the referendum would cost the city $98 million in its first year and would lead to cuts at the fire department as well as in other city agencies.

“A reduction of this size in personnel cannot be accomplished without a major restructuring of the current operations,” said Tantri Emo, director of the city’s finance department. Emo said the city’s $98 million estimate million came from comparing salaries of firefighters and police at similar ranks, and said the city did not yet have estimates that might factor in costs to the city’s pension system.

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton questioned the city’s calculation on how much pay parity would actually cost taxpayers. Lancton repeated past assertions that the city refused to negotiate or work with firefighters on issues ranging from pay to operations to equipment, but he did not provide the union’s cost estimates.

Emphasis mine. We all agree that this referendum will cost the city some money if passed, right? I mean, there’d be literally no point for the HPFFA to push for it if it didn’t mean higher pay for their members. As such, the fact that the union has refused to provide their own number whenever the city has cited one is telling. Obviously, the firefighters are going to argue that the city is exaggerating the cost, and they’re very likely correct about that. But it’s one thing to say “oh, it will only cost $10-20 million”, which the city probably could afford with at most minimal cuts, and another entirely to say “oh, it will only cost $50-60 million”, which the city can’t do without real cuts and starts to sound pretty expensive besides. If the firefighters can’t or won’t provide their own estimate of how much this will cost the city – and let’s be real, they most certainly do have their own estimate – then the city’s number is the one we must accept. And that’s a number that will absolutely lead to job cuts, including among HFD’s ranks.

Will this affect the outcome of the election? Maybe, if the city can get that message out. Holding a few town halls is nice and appreciated, but it’s not going to spread the message far and wide. Remember, nearly 400,000 ballots were cast in the city in 2010, with over 330K votes tallied in the Renew Houston and red light camera elections. You’re not going to reach that many people without significant outreach, and so far all I’ve seen is one pro-firefighter web ad. If there’s a campaign in the works, it’s going to need to get going soon.

We really need to replace our crappy old voting machines

This is embarrassing.

Local election administrators in Texas are eager to replace voting machines purchased more than a decade ago in time for the 2020 presidential election. Increasingly susceptible to malfunctions, upkeep for the aging machines can exceed $300,000 annually in the biggest counties. Election experts have also raised security concerns about the paperless electronic devices used in most of the state.

The little help Congress has offered comes in the form of recent funding that will be used for cyber updates and training, not voting machines. And state leaders have shown no interest in chipping in, even as scrutiny over the security of the country’s election systems ratchets up in the face of Russian attacks.

In 2017, budget writers in the Texas Legislature seemed lukewarm to the idea of replacing aging equipment. Legislation that would have created a state fund for new voting equipment died without getting a committee vote in the House. The bill received a late-session hearing during which one lawmaker on the panel, Representative Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, asked county officials to shorten their testimony because a college basketball championship game had just tipped off.

“I hope we don’t have to wait until a crisis, but we are walking on thin ice when it comes to the integrity of our voting machines,” said state Representative Celia Israel, an Austin Democrat and the sponsor of the 2017 legislation.

More than 200 of Texas’ 254 counties still need to replace their voting machines and it appears unlikely that all will be able to do so in time for the next presidential election. The full price tag, according to election officials, is around $350 million — and local officials are having to find inventive ways to cover the costs. Travis County, for example, is expected to announce the winner of a new voting machine contract this week and plans to sell local bonds to come up with the anticipated $15 million.

The situation has grown dire. Some counties are using equipment that’s no longer manufactured. Machine failures are growing more common and it’s becoming harder to find replacement parts. County workers often have to scour eBay and Amazon to locate bygone tech relics such as as Zip disks and flash drives compatible with older machines.

Yeah, ZIP drives. Remember them, from the 90s? If you are relying on this kind of technology today, You Are Doing It Wrong. There’s no excuse for this – even if one thinks the counties should pay for the upgrades themselves, the cost cited in that penultimate paragraph is something like 0.3% of the state’s annual expenditures. It would be super easy to solve this if we gave a shit, but clearly our Republican leaders do not. But hey, I’m sure nothing bad will ever happen.

Council discusses firefighter pay parity proposal

It will cost some money if it passes.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said Thursday that his firefighters deserve raises, but he would be hard-pressed to maintain his department budget without reducing his ranks if voters approve a measure granting firefighters “pay parity” with police.

“This is not a scare tactic,” Peña told a city council committee. “They’re simple numbers. In order to deliver the expected service this community wants we’re going to have to do restructuring. Even at that, I won’t be able to meet the entire gap.”

Peña’s comments were in response to questions during a city council committee meeting Thursday in regard to a proposed “pay parity” measure the Houston firefighters union wants to appear on the November ballot.

Others, including city officials, business leaders and police union members, told the committee that passage of the parity measure would force the city to cut services and lay off workers and could risk a credit downgrade for City Hall.

[…]

The firefighters union wants the referendum on the November ballot, but Turner said he will let the council choose the election date at its Aug. 8 meeting. The deadline for getting something on the November ballot is Aug. 20.

Turner this week said the committee hearing was intended to be informational.

“When you’re talking to your constituents and they ask you approximately how much this will cost, I’d like to think you’ll want to have an answer,” he told the council Wednesday.

See here for some background, and here for an earlier story about the Council meeting, which was not the very special meeting that failed to reach a quorum. The firefighters are correct that Council has a duty to out the measure on the ballot, and to do it any later than this November would justifiably be seen as another stall for time. Their complaints about Council discussing the price tag rings hollow to me, given 1) the lack of clarity of how a pay parity proposal would be implemented; 2) the experience of other cities that have done this; 3) the potential impact on pension costs; and 4) the city’s overall financial picture. You know how I feel about this, and let me note again the certainty that someone will file suit over the ballot language no matter how the vote goes. I agree with Campos that the fight over this issue will be contentious, with the police department and the Greater Houston Partnership siding with the city against the firefighters. It’s not great to contemplate, but it’s pretty much baked in at this point. We’ll see what Council does on August 8.

HISD approves its budget

In the end, they took what they initially rejected.

Houston ISD trustees unanimously passed a $2 billion budget Monday that is nearly identical to the one they narrowly rejected two weeks ago, signing off on significant cuts and agreeing to draw as much as $17 million from the district’s rainy-day fund.

At an hourlong early-morning meeting, trustees said they wanted to pass balanced budgets after back-to-back years of dipping into reserves, but they ultimately approved the spending plan ahead of a June 30 deadline.

[…]

The approved budget calls for about $83 million in spending cuts, which will result in hundreds of layoffs of support service staff. Hundreds of teaching positions also will be eliminated, but HISD administrators said they expect the vast majority of those jobs will be cut through attrition.

The budget includes about $17 million in new spending on dyslexia services, special education, the district’s plan for low-performing campuses and a comprehensive outside performance review. Trustees shaved about $1.5 million off the projected shortfall in recent days by choosing to use the state’s Legislative Budget Board for the performance review instead of a third-party vendor.

Trustees approved a budget last year that used $106 million in reserves to cover a shortfall and pay for raises ranging from 2 to 4 percent for many staff members, though they ultimately used less rainy-day money than expected.

At the June 14 budget meeting, several trustees said they were reluctant to tap reserves again, even on a smaller scale.

Glenn Reed, HISD’s general manager of budgeting and financial planning, said the district likely will not spend as much as is currently budgeted, and it could receive more tax revenue than was projected. As a result, Reed said: “I don’t expect to dip into our reserves next year.”

Administrators built the plan assuming a 1 percent increase in property values, but the Harris County Appraisal District expects HISD to see a 2 percent increase. Concerns about property appraisal appeals related to Hurricane Harvey led to the conservative projection.

HISD is expected to have about $275 million in reserves at the end of June, equal to about a month and a half of operating expenses. District officials have recommended keeping at least 3 months’ worth of operating expenses in reserve to cover emergency costs.

See here for the background. They could have done this last week, but it was definitely more exciting this way. In all seriousness, I get the urge to not want to dip into the reserve fund again, but 1) given the justifiably conservative revenue estimates that the district will almost certainly exceed, they probably won’t need to, and 2) sometimes the alternatives are worse. This was one of those times, so good call on taking the original path. The Press has more.

HISD Board will need a budget do-over

It’s never boring over there.

Houston ISD trustees narrowly rejected the district’s proposed $2 billion budget, did not move forward with making Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan the district’s permanent leader and voted to end the employment of acclaimed Furr High School Principal Bertie Simmons during an eventful meeting Thursday.

In a surprising split, board members voted 5-4 to reject the budget proposal after several trustees expressed concern about using $19 million from HISD’s rainy-day fund to cover a shortfall. Trustees had voiced little public opposition to the budget until Thursday’s meeting.

Trustees now have until June 30 to comply with state law and pass a budget for 2018-19. HISD administrators are expected to present a revised budget proposal in the coming days. A date has not been set for the next board meeting.

HISD’s budget has been subject to intense scrutiny since January, when district administrators forecasted a deficit of about $200 million. Administrators revised their projections after receiving a sunnier revenue outlook in recent months, cutting the expected deficit in half. They proposed slashing about $83 million in spending — which would result in hundreds of layoffs — and using $19 million from the rainy-day fund to cover the remaining shortfall.

Until Thursday, much of the discussion surrounding HISD’s proposed budget had centered on the distribution of cuts. At several public budget meetings in recent months, trustees gave no indication that they would reject the proposed budget because it used rainy-day funds.

But several trustees on Thursday said HISD needs to stop using reserves to balance its budget. Last year, board members voted 8-1 to take $106 million from the district’s rainy-day fund to cover its deficit.

The proposed budget already contained a lot of cuts, as this earlier Chron story details. If the concern is about using $19 million from the reserve fund, then either they’ll have to find money elsewhere or cut some more. That doesn’t sound great, but I’m not sure how they can accomplish the former, so options – and time – are limited. The Press has more.

Council approves Mayor’s budget

The annual ritual is observed.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council adopted Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $4.9 billion budget by a vote of 13-4 Wednesday, ending three hours of otherwise amiable debate with an impassioned speech from Councilman Jack Christie that concluded with the councilman resigning his post as budget committee chair and voting no.

Christie was joined in opposing the budget by council members Mike Knox, Greg Travis and Michael Kubosh, who said they wanted the mayor to make more of an effort to cut spending.

“I can keep playing politics, go along to get along, or start fighting vigorously for our tax-paying citizens and not waste their money,” Christie said, listing his past ideas for constraining costs or forming commissions to study cost-cutting that were not implemented. “As a political body, we are failing the people of Houston.”

Turner rejected the criticism. He said the budget is “sound,” and noted that Kubosh’s lone amendment would have given each council member an additional $100,000 for staff salaries. Knox submitted no amendments, and Travis submitted amendments that sought cost-cutting recommendations from the administration but listed no specific cuts.

Christie also submitted no cost-reduction amendments, and, in fact, twice admitted one of his items — earmarking $150,000 to fund an external study on the emissions of the city’s vehicle fleet — was “a waste of money” because he already knows a shift to alternative fuels is the right move.

“It’s so easy to just say to the administration, ‘Mayor, you didn’t cut enough,’” Turner said after the meeting. “Every individual that voted ‘no’ put forth no ideas, no amendment to reduce the cost. Not one. Not that they offered it and we voted them down — they didn’t offer any. To the contrary, they put forth amendments that would increase the amount that we were going to have to expend.”

[…]

The general fund budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is $2.5 billion. That fund is supported primarily by property and sales taxes and funds most core services, such as the police and fire departments, parks, libraries and trash pickup.

That is $83 million, or 3.5 percent, more than the current budget. The increase largely is driven by a $42 million increase in debt service, related mostly to the issuance last year of $1 billion in pension obligation bonds as part of the mayor’s pension reform package.

Also driving the increase is $14 million in previously-agreed-to raises for police that take effect July 1. About 57 percent of the general fund, or $1.4 billion, goes to public safety — the police and fire departments, the municipal courts and emergency operations.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. The story also notes the $17 million the city may wind up being short thanks to an unfriendly Census estimate and the stupid revenue cap; it’s not clear to me if that would apply to this year or next if the city’s appeal fails. I’m not surprised there were no cost-cutting amendments of any substance. Turns out that’s a hard thing to do, especially in a budget that’s mostly about public safety, trash pickup, parks, and libraries. You know, basic things that people want and need. Good thing talking about it remains free.

The revenue cap is stupid and harmful

Reason #4,739:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

In posting a sluggish population growth estimate for Houston, the U.S. Census Bureau blew a $17 million hole in the city budget.

City officials had expected the count would show Houston had added about 30,400 people by January from the year prior. The Census Bureau on Thursday, however, estimated the city grew by just 9,200 between July 2016 and last summer.

Because the revenue cap voters approved in 2004 limits the city’s annual increase in property tax collections to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, that means Mayor Sylvester Turner must adjust his proposed $2.5 billion general fund budget.

Or he will, if he is unsuccessful in challenging the Census estimate. The city’s estimates, he said, are more up to date and are “based on greater familiarity with local indicators.”

To challenge the estimate, Houston can submit data on topics such as residential building and demolition permits, mobile home placements, household sizes and apartment occupancy rates.

Houston successfully challenged its formal count in the 2010 Census, and also added 3 percent to its population estimate via an appeal in 2006, and a little more than 1 percent to its 2008 count, according to the Census website.

The city’s press release is here. Neither the rate of inflation nor the rate of population growth have anything to do with the city’s needs or its financial capacity. It also as you can see puts an awful lot of power in the hands of unelected federal bureaucrats. Who I’m sure are fine people, but they’re not accountable to the voters of Houston. I mean seriously, who thinks this makes sense? The whole stupid thing needs to be repealed.

Turner’s 2019 budget

Here’s the plan for making ends meet for next fiscal year.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts in July would close a shortfall of $114 million without employee layoffs by drawing down the city’s reserves, transferring money from special accounts to the general fund and cutting spending.

In a proposal unveiled Tuesday, Turner plans to spend $2.5 billion from the general fund, which is supported primarily by property and sales taxes and funds most core services, such as the police and fire departments, parks, libraries and trash pickup.

That is $83 million, or 3.5 percent, more than the current budget. The increase chiefly is driven by a $42 million increase in debt service, related mostly to the issuance last year of $1 billion in pension obligation bonds as part of the mayor’s pension reform package. Also driving the increase is $14 million in previously agreed to raises for police.

“This is a very, very tight budget,” Turner said. “I have scrubbed this budget, every line item that exists. I invite anyone to take a look underneath the hood. Because there are two departments that will always drive this budget: Police and fire.”

About 57 percent of the general fund, or $1.4 billion, goes to public safety – the police and fire departments, the municipal courts and emergency operations. Another $400 million goes to debt service. Parks, libraries, health services, trash pickup and most other city functions get the rest, about $672 million.

[…]

Turner acknowledged two key developments helped prevent layoffs in the proposed budget, providing most of the $84 million the mayor intends to pull from the city’s reserves to spend in the upcoming budget.

First, the city settled a lawsuit it had filed against Towers Watson, an actuarial firm it blamed for contributing to the city’s pension crisis, saying city officials’ reliance on the firm’s advice led them to boost benefits in 2001 and saddle taxpayers with unaffordable pensions costs. That settlement, which was approved by city council last month, injected $29 million into the general fund.

The city also, as it routinely does, conservatively estimated the sales tax revenues it would receive in the current budget year. As a result, the city collected an “extra” $28 million that will be available for the upcoming budget year.

Yeah, that pension projection lawsuit settlement sure came in handy. I don’t know what rabbits there will be to pull out of next year’s hat, however. We’ll see what Council makes of this when it comes to them for a vote.

The revenue cap and the police

It’s something. Not what I want, but something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner used his third State of the City speech to call — again — for the city to be able to collect more revenue than allowed by the property tax cap voters imposed 14 years ago, this time floating the idea of collecting extra dollars specifically for public safety.

Turner had taken a similar line during the 2015 campaign, then moved to advocating for a full repeal of the cap during much of his first two years in office. He backed away from placing such a request on last November’s ballot, however, fearing it would imperil the $1 billion bond referendum that was needed to secure the landmark pension reform package he shepherded through the Legislature last year.

The mayor on Tuesday instead highlighted the need to increase staffing in the Houston Police Department, and he suggested the idea of following former Mayor Bill White’s playbook from 2006, when White got voters’ permission to let the city collect $90 million more than the cap otherwise would have allowed for spending on public safety.

It took Houston eight years to exhaust that breathing room and run into the cap for the first time. Amid rising property values, the City Council has been forced to cut the property tax rate every fall since to avoid collecting more revenue than the cap allows. Council cut the tax rate to 58.42 cents per $100 of assessed value last September, the lowest rate since 1988.

The revenue cap limits the annual growth in city property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of inflation and population growth, whichever is lower.

Turner did not commit to White’s approach, to a dollar amount, or to placing an item before voters this November, saying he intends to force a conversation on the need to invest in more officers and in ancillary areas such as cybersecurity protections, adding “the current model is not sustainable.”

“I’m just simply sounding the alarm. We cannot continue to cut and cut and cut and add 500 to 600 more police to our force,” Turner said after his speech to a luncheon hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership. “I did not want to throw out a number because people then tag onto that number and we don’t have a robust conversation on the need and then how we should meet that need.”

Tweets from his official Twitter account, however, were more definitive about taking the matter to voters: “I will move to put an item on the ballot on (sic) this November to make sure Houston continues to be resilient and strong when it comes to protecting innocent people.” said one. Another said, “Our city sorely needs revenue to increase staffing & resources for first responders at Police & Fire Dpartments. But we’re constrained by the #revenuecap. That’s why it’s time to ask voters to lift the cap solely for strengthening public safety & city services.”

[…]

What makes Turner’s Tuesday comments different, said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, is that he is focusing solely on public safety.

“There does not exist a strong public appetite for lifting the revenue cap unconditionally,” Jones said. “The only way to really sell it is via public safety. That’s probably the only winning method.”

Turner seemed to acknowledged as much Tuesday, saying in part, “It’s quite clear, it seems to me, people want to maintain the revenue cap. OK, fine. What I’m simply saying is, we need to find a way to generate some additional dollars on top of that revenue cap.”

It’s depressing to me that people have come to believe the BS about this stupid policy, which was imposed on Houston and basically noplace else by the usual gang of governmental nihilists, but propaganda does work. I’d love to see an all-out assault on the revenue cap, marshaling all the arguments about how it undercuts the city’s ability to prosper from economic growth and how it forces budget priorities on us whether we want them or not, but I recognize that this would be a tough fight against a wealthy and motivated opponent, which we could lose. It’s a fight we can engage another day, perhaps when the climate has changed enough. In the meantime, we all know that budgets can be flexible, and money is often fungible. Even earmarking extra revenue in this fashion makes the budget more manageable. If it’s the best we can do, then let’s do it.

Many more school districts are feeling the pinch

Not just HISD. Not by a long shot.

For eight-straight years, Cypress-Fairbanks and Conroe ISDs earned the Texas Smart Schools Award, bestowed on school districts with prudent financial practices and high academic achievement.

Now, Cypress-Fairbanks faces a $50 million deficit next school year, and Conroe is projected to face its first deficit in nearly a decade in the next two to four years.

They are not alone.

As the Texas Legislature studies potential changes to the state’s school funding mechanisms, the majority of large Houston-area school districts are facing budget shortfalls they say stem from a lack of state aid. Of the 10 largest Houston-area school districts, all but three approved budgets last summer that included deficits of more than $1 million, according to a Chronicle review. At least nine say they may have to dip into reserve funds within the next three to five years if revenues do not increase.

For some, it is more dire. If nothing changes at the state or local level, district officials say Spring Branch ISD in west Houston will be financially insolvent in three years. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD will use up all its reserve funds in four or five years. Pasadena ISD only avoided a $20 million shortfall for the next school year by passing a tax hike referendum, and multiple districts are considering similar measures to keep their schools afloat.

That pain is felt in large and small districts across the state. North East ISD in San Antonio expects to cut $12 million from its budget next year, likely leading to teacher layoffs, according to the San Antonio Express-News. By 2020, budget documents in Ysleta ISD near El Paso show the district likely will draw down its reserve funds by $12 million. Friendswood ISD, which educates roughly 6,000 students in a sliver of southeast Greater Houston, is facing a $1.9 million budget shortfall next year.

“If we’ve been one of the most efficient districts in the state, and we’re facing this crisis, imagine what other districts are dealing with,” Cy-Fair ISD Chief Financial Officer Stuart Snow said.

[…]

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who sits on the Commission of Public Education Funding, said districts should expand their revenue streams to include sources other than local property taxes and the state. He pointed to Dallas ISD, which pulls in about $10 million annually from philanthropy. United Airlines also staffed one of DISD’s schools with 25 full-time employees, a partnership Bettencourt said should inspire districts elsewhere.

“It’s not going to be one-size fits all — there are many, many ways to do it right,” Bettencourt said. “At end of the day, we want the education system to get students the best educations they can get for best deals taxpayers can support. But we need to look for all the ways we can do it right.”

First of all, to Paul Bettencourt: You cannot be serious. Philanthropy? Are you kidding me? Dallas ISD’s 2017-2018 general revenue expenditures were over $1.4 billion. That $10 million represents 0.7% of the total. You gonna suggest everyone search their couch cushions, too? Oh, and I don’t know about you, but I’m old enough to remember when two of the biggest philanthropic entities in Houston were Enron and Continental Airlines. Good thing HISD didn’t make itself dependent on them, you know?

This is entirely the Legislature’s responsibility. We are here because they refuse to adequately fund schools, and because they use the increases in property valuations to fund the rest of the budget, while blaming local officials for their shortfalls and tax hikes. As with everything else in this state, nothing will change until the people we elect change. If you live in one of these districts, don’t take your frustrations out on your school board trustees. Take it out on the State Reps and State Senators who skimp on school finance, and the Governor and Lt. Governor who push them to keep doing it.

HISD will not change its funding mechanism

Not this year, at least.

Houston ISD officials have abandoned plans to overhaul the way the district funds its schools, opting to keep HISD’s long-standing financing system as they work to fill a $115 million budget deficit.

Schools will continue to receive an allotment of money based on their enrollments next school year, but the amount campuses receive will shrink by nearly $200 per student.

The announcement walked back proposals made by former Superintendent Richard Carranza in January to centralize some staffing and budgeting decisions now made by principals.

Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the district needs to do more outreach and study its funding mechanisms before changing the way schools are allotted money. The district will create a committee in the coming months to study resource allocation.

“We wanted to pause and take a step back and give some proposals to the board about how do we engage the community about the funding allocation,” Lathan said. “What does it look like for HISD and our community?”

See here and here for some background. I was in full-on primary mode when the original plan was announced and I never quite had the brain space to pay close attention to it, and now it looks like I won’t have to. The plan now is the old-fashioned easier-to-understand one of cutting back a little bit here, there, and everywhere. It may be simpler, but I hope HISD will do outreach to make sure everyone has a chance to know what to expect. The Press has more.

From the “Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash” files

Same song, second verse.

If budget writers don’t come up with money to address a state employee pension shortfall and mounting needs for public schools, health care and transportation, credit agencies are likely to downgrade Texas’ AAA rating in the near future.

That was the warning Comptroller Glenn Hegar gave lawmakers at a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Finance Committee in Austin. Though the Texas economy is growing at a healthy pace, Hegar said, the state’s budget is riddled with enough unfunded liabilities to worry credit rating agencies such as Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s.

“We’re not at a crisis,” Hegar said, but “we’re going in the wrong direction.”

A downgrading of Texas’ credit rating would make it more expensive for the state to borrow money — and perhaps damage state leaders’ credibility when advertising Texas as “open for business.”

“I want to avoid that, because I think that’s a black eye on the state of Texas,” Hegar said.

Rebounding oil prices, natural growth and migration to Texas have led to an increase in tax collections, according to the comptroller’s office. But much of that new revenue is already dedicated to historically underfunded programs such as the state highway fund, meaning that Texas lawmakers likely won’t have more money at their disposal in 2019 when crafting the next two-year budget.

At the same time, lawmakers will need to plug holes in the pension system for state employees, and they’ll face pressure to make solvent a health insurance program for retired teachers. On top of that, big bills coming due for Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled that is perennially underfunded by the Legislature, could put the state budget $2.5 billion in the red before lawmakers even convene in 2019. (The state’s current two-year budget is about $217 billion.)

In addition, state leaders will have to tackle the bills from Hurricane Harvey recovery.

I’ll just say again here what I said in January: The vast majority of these issues are the result of deliberate choices made by our Governor, our Lieutenant Governor, and our Republican-controlled Legislature. Instead of seriously addressing the needs of the state, current and future, our Republican leaders have been obsessed with trivia, from bathrooms to plastic bags to trees. We have gotten by and done all right because times have been good, but we are in a far more precarious position for when the economy goes south than we should be. In the meantime, we are squandering this opportunity to ensure a better future for all of us by making such cavalier and ill-advised fiscal choices. Every Democratic candidate running for state office needs to internalize and articulate that message going forward.

HISD’s budget deficit is a little smaller

A bit of good news.

Houston ISD administrators do not expect to cut magnet programs or re-open the magnet application process ahead of the 2018-19 school year, an announcement likely to ease fears among parents who send their children to choice schools.

Houston ISD leaders said Monday they are lowering the district’s projected budget deficit from about $209 million to $115 million, which would dramatically reduce the level of potential staff and program cuts.

The two announcements reflect the shifting nature of Houston ISD’s plans for major changes throughout the district, which have provoked anxiety among many parents and staff members. District leaders are proposing changes to the district’s magnet and funding systems — with the goal of providing more resources and programs to students in lower-income neighborhoods while facing a significant budget deficit largely brought on by the state’s school finance law.

Administrators are considering whether to phase out some magnet programs that have relatively little student interest or no consistent programming throughout a feeder pattern. District leaders want to better align magnets so students follow the same program from elementary through high school.

Administrators do not expect to cut many magnet programs, but any changes would not be made until 2019-20. Chief School Support Officer Mark Smith said the district did not want to rush any reductions that would force parents to immediately seek new options for their children.

See here for the background. What drove the sunnier budget estimate? Here’s the explanation.

When HISD first began budgeting for the 2018-2019 school year, it was in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Using a worst-case scenario, the district’s financial team projected a $208 million deficit based on four dynamic factors: the Local Optional Homestead Exemption (LOHE) lawsuit, a recapture payment to the state, a potential property tax value decreaseand an anticipated student enrollment decline. Taking direction from HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones, district administrators crafted a revised budget outlook for the 2018-19 school year.

The district’s legal team feels strongly that the state will prevail in the LOHE lawsuit. For HISD, this means a reduction in its recapture payment because the TEA will recognize half of the 20 percent local homestead exemption given to homeowners. A decision in the lawsuit could come after a hearing this spring. A win would reduce HISD’s recapture payment by $51 million.

Under the Texas Education Code, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has the authority to adjust property values. Based on the damage sustained from Hurricane Harvey and the lasting impact of the storm on our students and staff, we anticipate the commissioner will adjust property values, which in turn, would reduce our recapture payment. Governor Greg Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, and other state leaders have publicly stated their support for this action. Click here to review a September 2017 press release from Lt. Governor Dan Patrick that confirms his support for schools districts in Region IV impacted by Hurricane Harvey, which includes HISD. In addition, Commissioner Morath surveyed school districts after the hurricane to gather projections on their property tax collections post-Harvey. HISD estimates a $42 million adjustment for property value loss associated with Hurricane Harvey.

It was prudent to budget under the worst-case assumption, and it makes sense to adjust on the reasonable expectation that he reality is better. HISD still has a big hole to fill, and changes to the magnet programs will be difficult and disruptive, though long overdue. I confess that I haven’t been following all this very closely – sorry, all the election stuff has taken over my brain – but I will get back into it as the process begins.

The latest report on city finances

A little light reading for you.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Even after Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark pension reforms, the city of Houston is on pace to spend $1 billion more than it will take in over the coming decade, and must cut spending and raise revenue bring its annual budget into balance, according to an exhaustive new report.

Failing to do so, the authors state, risks letting the city inch toward insolvency with all the symptoms that accompany such a fiscal crisis: Worker layoffs, an erosion in police staffing, fewer library hours, decaying parks facilities, a hollowing out of the city as the suburbs boom.

The analysts from Philadelphia-based consulting firm PFM did not shy away from controversial recommendations, including some that would dramatically restructure city government.

Among dozens of other reforms, the authors suggest Houston should:

  • break up its mammoth Houston Public Works department and consolidate its finance, procurement, human resources, and information technology staff;
  • cut the $9.5 million annual subsidy to the Houston Zoo roughly in half;
  • shrink the Houston Fire Department by up to 845 positions through attrition and lengthen firefighters’ work weeks; reduce the number of fire stations; hire civilians to do fire inspections and take 911 calls; and raise ambulance fees;
  • hire civilians for the Houston Police Department to enable cops now doing administrative tasks to get back on patrol; free up officers’ time by arresting fewer low-level offenders and writing more tickets; use civilians to conduct crash investigations and issue non-moving traffic tickets; consolidate with Metro’s police staff, and, perhaps, local school districts’ too;
  • cut health benefits for active and retired city workers; and
  • submit trash pickup, building maintenance and street repairs to “managed competition,” giving all or part of each task to city departments or to private companies, whichever submits the most efficient proposal.
  • City Council hired PFM for $565,000 in 2016, Turner’s first year in office, to craft a 10-year financial plan. Turner made clear in comments last week, however, that he views some of the recommendations as impractical.

“When you talk about structural changes, just because it’s identified doesn’t mean it’s easily done. It’s not about taking a report and just implementing it,” he said. “There are some things that, from my vantage point, yes, we will accept. There are some things that are going to require additional study. There are some things that will be more long term. And then there are some things that we’ll never get there.”

The report is here; it’s quite long, but the executive summary is only 16 pages, so read that if you want a feel for it. At first glance, a lot of it sounds reasonable and even doable. I appreciate the fact that they recognize that revenue is part of the equation and that removing the stupid revenue cap would go a long way towards alleviating the problem. Some actions could be done by Mayoral fiat, some by Council action, and some will require negotiations with third parties and/or legislative approval. It’s always possible that a report like this becomes little more than a doorstop, but I think we’ll see at least some of it happen.

Looking to hire more cops for Houston

We’ll see about this.

The head of the Houston police union announced Wednesday that city leaders had pledged to grow the Houston Police Department ranks by 500 officers over the next five years, far fewer than the city’s police chief said he needs.

“It’s no secret the Houston Police Department has been doing more with less, for far too long,” HPOU President Joseph Gamaldi said Wednesday afternoon at a crowded news conference at union headquarters.

The influx of officers would still be a fraction of the 2,000 new officers Chief Art Acevedo has said he believes the department needs to deal with the city’s growth, but comes as Houston has struggled for years to meaningfully increase the staffing in the department.

Gamaldi’s initiative, which the union is calling the “Drive for 500,” came after union officials visited all of the city’s council members, as well as Mayor Sylvester Turner, and asked them to pledge their support to increase the department that has nearly 5,200 officers on the job.

[…]

Currently, the HPD operates on a yearly budget of $827 million, and it costs the department around $3 million to run each class of recruits through its in-house academy.

The call for more officers comes as the city management last year had to close a $130 million budget shortfall.

The staffing proposal follows a concerted campaign last year to reform the city’s pension system, which officials warned was underfunded and threatened the city’s long-term financial health.

Meanwhile, Chief Acevedo and Gamaldi have stepped up calls for an large infusion of new officers into the department, saying it is dangerously understaffed, particularly compared to other large cities around the country.

Though Houston has fewer police officers per resident than other large cities, I remain unconvinced that we need to go on a hiring spree. At the very least, I’d like to understand what the plan is for a larger force. HPD’s solve rate isn’t so hot, so if the idea is to staff up on investigators with the goal of closing out more cases, then I can be on board with that. If it’s more like hire now and figure it out later, I’ll take a pass.

As the story suggests, hiring more cops would likely be part of the argument to alter or lift the revenue cap. Not my preferred approach, but I admit I’m not representative on this. I am ready for this argument to be fully rolled out, in anticipation of a vote this year.

From the “Nothin’ but good times ahead” department

Given the good economic conditions in Texas right now, you’d think the budget outlook would be better than it is.

The Texas economy is growing healthily, but that doesn’t mean state budget writers will have more money at their disposal next year, state officials said Tuesday.

In fact, though unemployment is low and tax revenue is on the rise, big bills coming due for the state’s highways and health care programs are giving Texas lawmakers reason for concern.

“I would like to offer a few words of caution for reading too much into the positive recent economic numbers,” Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar told lawmakers at a Senate Finance Committee hearing.

As they often do, state budget writers last year underfunded Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for the poor and disabled, which, alongside public education, makes up one of the largest shares of the state’s $217 billion two-year budget.

Then, during a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott over the summer, state lawmakers shifted another $500 million away from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to pay for public education programs.

As a result, lawmakers could face a $2.5 billion Medicaid bill shortly after they reconvene in Austin in 2019. Then there are the additional drains on Texas coffers from Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts, Hegar said.

That’s bad news for lawmakers given the comptroller’s prediction that the state will only have a $94 million “beginning balance” when lawmakers convene in 2019. By comparison, lawmakers had an $880 million beginning balance in 2017, which was ultimately a tight year for the state budget. Two years before that, lawmakers enjoyed a $7.3 billion beginning balance.

[…]

Another source of heartburn for budget writers is the ravenous state highway fund. In 2015, amid complaints of a highway system in disrepair, Texans voted to amend the state Constitution to require that up to $2.5 billion in sales tax revenue be dedicated to the highway fund.

That means that even as Texas collects more money from sales taxes — Hegar testified that sales tax revenue grew by an average of 10.3 percent over the last three months — the rest of the state budget will not benefit from that revenue since it is earmarked for the highway fund.

That was also an issue for budget writers in 2017. Last year, in order to free up some of that money for other purposes, Senate lawmakers pushed for an accounting trick that delayed a payment to the state highway fund into the next two-year budget cycle. That freed up about $1.6 billion for lawmakers last year, but it means there will be another bill to pay in 2019.

“In short, despite a strong economy and positive outlook for revenue growth in this biennium, it seems likely the next budget will be much like the one crafted in 2017, having to contend with restricted revenue relative to the spending trends of the state,” Hegar said.

Just a reminder: Underfunding Medicaid was a choice. Shifting money away from HHSC was a choice. The amendment to require all that highway spending was ratified by the voters, but it was there to be ratified because the Lege chose to put it there. Deferring that payment to the highway fund was a choice. And though the story doesn’t include it in its litany, spending nearly a billion dollars on boondoggle “border security” stunts was a choice, too.

We’ll probably be fine in the 2019 session, though the potential for shenanigans is always high. But remember, winter is coming, because it always does. When it does, we’re going to have a mess to clean up, one that was caused by the Republicans in charge of our state, one that could have been mitigated in many ways. I hope we’re ready for it.

(Note: This is the inspiration for the post title.)

HISD faces major changes

This is a very big story, but a key component to it is not discussed here.

Houston ISD officials said Saturday the district will need to cut about $200 million from its 2018-19 budget to bring spending in line with an increasingly gloomy financial outlook.

In an equally momentous move, Houston ISD officials also proposed far-reaching changes to how the district operates its magnet and school choice systems, some of the boldest moves to date by second-year Superintendent Richard Carranza.

Still reeling from Hurricane Harvey, Houston Independent School District officials revealed at a board meeting Saturday that the district is facing a double whammy: A multimillion-dollar, state-mandated “recapture” payment requiring districts with high property values to “share the wealth,” and an expected drop in enrollment and tax revenue because of the devastating storm, which severely damaged schools and delayed the start of classes by two weeks.

The proposed cuts come at an inopportune time, with the district battling to stave off a potential state takeover because of 10 chronically under-performing schools.

Although the measures outlined Saturday are preliminary and could change significantly before HISD’s board votes on them, officials acknowledged that the district is entering an uncertain time.

“It’s a sea change for HISD,” said Rene Barajas, the district’s chief financial officer. “But at the end of the day, from a budgetary perspective, we’re still going to get the job done. It’s just going to be harder.”

There’s a lot more and there’s too much to adequately summarize, so go read the rest. We know about the recapture payments, which even though they have been reduced due to Harvey are still significant. We know HISD has been talking about revamping its magnet programs for some time, and there’s a cost-savings component to that as well. We know that property values and enrollment have been affected by Harvey, and we know how daily attendance determines the amount of money the district gets from the state. So none of this is a surprise, though having to deal with all of it at once is a big shock.

What’s missing from this article is any mention of what the state could and should do to help ameliorate this blow. I think everyone agrees that if a school building is destroyed by a catastrophic weather event, it should be rebuilt via a combination of funding sources, mostly private insurance and emergency allocations from the state. Why shouldn’t that also apply to the secondary effects of that same catastrophe? It’s not HISD’s fault that its revenues, both from taxes and from state appropriations, will be down. There needs to be a mechanism to at least soften, if not remove, this burden. Bear in mind that one reason why the drop in property values is such a hit is because the state has shoved more and more of the responsibility for school finance on local districts. If Harvey had happened even a decade ago, the appraisal loss would still be felt, but not by as much. That’s not HISD’s doing, it’s the Legislature’s and the Governor’s and the Lieutenant Governor’s, all with the approval of the Supreme Court.

But what can be done can be undone. With little to no pain on its part, the Lege could tap into the Rainy Day Fund to get HISD past the worst of this, or it could recognize that the nearly one billion it appropriated last session for “border security” is little more than macho posturing, an endless boondoggle for a handful of sheriffs, and an sharp increase in traffic citations, and redirect some of that money to HISD and any other district in similar straits. There are other things the Lege could do, but all of it starts with the basic principle that the Lege should do something to help out here. When are we going to talk about that?

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Harvey aid

Your Republican Congress, ladies and gentlemen.

Republican lawmakers were hammering out a stop-gap deal Wednesday to avert a weekend government shutdown of the federal government this weekend, setting aside a long-sought disaster aid package for the victims of Hurricane Harvey and other natural disasters.

Frustrations are rising among officials in Houston and Austin over the inaction. As Texas officials feared, an $81 billion storm relief bill passed by the House in December continues to languish amid congressional brinkmanship over a wider budget agreement, with Republicans insisting on funding President Donald Trump’s border wall and Democrats holding out for a deal to protect young immigrants from deportation.

A spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called the standoff a disappointment.

“The governor has been in frequent contact with leaders in Congress and the administration advocating the necessity for funding to rebuild Texas,” said the spokeswoman, Ciara Matthews. “He has received assurance after assurance. Yet every day that goes by without funding is another day that Texans who have been upended by Hurricane Harvey go without the resources needed to rebuild their lives.”

With time running out on a midnight Friday deadline to keep the lights on in Washington — the third since last September — GOP leaders unveiled a plan Tuesday night to pass another stop-gap funding measure until February 16.

With most Democrats expected to reject the plan, GOP leaders were whipping up support Wednesday to pass the funding extension with Republican votes alone. It remained uncertain, though, whether the plan could win the support of conservative Freedom Caucus members and defense hawks pushing for a full year of military spending.

Freedom Caucus Leader Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, sounded a skeptical note Tuesday night, telling Capitol Hill reporters, “There’s not enough support to pass it with GOP-only votes in the House.”

The Republicans don’t need any Democratic help to pass a bill to keep the government funded, as they have the majority in both houses of Congress. Except they do need Democratic help because they’re a bunch of dysfunctional lunatics who can’t tie their own shoes without help. Enough members of their caucus won’t vote for anything non-destructive to prevent them from being able to get stuff done. You know what you’d get with a Democratic Congress? Not this. Being functional and keeping the lights on is what Democrats do. Oh, and providing disaster aid in a timely fashion, they do that too. It’s something they believe in, you know? Just something to keep in mind.

The Harvey effect on the state budget

You know what the solution to this is, right?

Senate leaders warned Tuesday that Hurricane Harvey could put a billion-dollar hole in Texas’ budget, an ever-growing number that could affect how much money is available for other state programs.

Only $20 million remains in the state disaster-assistance fund, Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson said at a public hearing Tuesday on the status of hurricane recovery efforts.

“Our state costs are escalating,” said Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “We need to be judicious. … If we, God forbid, had another disaster in the next 18 months, where would we get the money?”

The Legislature will not convene in a regular session until January 2019.

The state has spent more than $1.7 billion so far in state funds, along with billions in federal assistance, according to updated numbers provided to the committee on Tuesday. Legislative Budget Board officials said as much as $2 billion in additional state funds may be needed in 2019 to cover hurricane-related school costs.

[…]

[Land Commissioner George P.] Bush said that $1 billion in immediate state funding would allow temporary housing assistance to be speeded up. Those funds could be fully reimbursed later by the federal government, he said.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, suggested those funds could be borrowed quickly from the state’s Rainy Day Fund – a savings account – to expedite the housing recovery for thousands of Texans, some of whom are living in tents.

“We’d need to have a special session” to approve that borrowing, West said, drawing silence from other committee members.

Yes, that is what the Rainy Day fund is for. Not specifically for disaster recovery – that was the bogus justification invented by Rick Perry in 2011 as an excuse for not alleviating cuts to the public education budget – but to help cover budget shortfalls in bad times. The choice is pretty simple, either we draw money from the Rainy Day fund to help the thousands of people who remain displaced by Harvey, or we decide they’re not worth our time and compassion. No wonder Sen. West got no response when he brought it up.

Houston’s health care costs

Because dealing with pensions wasn’t enough.

Taxpayers also face a $2.1 billion liability for retiree health care costs in the coming decades, and Houston – like many state and local governments – has not set aside a penny to pay for those promises.

This burden is the city’s “next major long-term fiscal challenge,” according to PFM, a financial analysis firm Houston has hired to recommend ways to shore up its long-shaky books.

Turner said any financial hurdle concerns him, but the far-larger pension problem took precedence, as the city’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey will do now.

“That’s one of many issues that we have to address, but I am very much aware of it,” Turner said. “Let’s just say we tackled the biggest item and then we’ll tackle the other ones as we go. One step at a time.”

These costs for what are known as “Other Post-Employment Benefits” – OPEB for short – have become a growing issue for local governments, thanks to rising health care expenses and an aging population and public workforce. In Houston, retirees comprised a third of all the city’s health care beneficiaries in 2012, up from 18 percent in 1994.

A shift in accounting rules also has played a key role. In 2008, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board began requiring governments to report their retiree health care costs, not as an annual operating expense, but in the same manner as pensions: Trust funds fed by payments from the city and workers on which investment earnings accumulate to pay for benefits over the next few decades.

Houston and many of its peers have never stopped treating the expense as simply an annual bill to be paid, however.

I know nothing about accounting, so I don’t understand the reasoning behind that 2008 change in standards. Be that as it may, the city has a lot more flexibility here in that the Mayor can order changes in the health insurance system. Mayor Parker did exactly that a few years ago, raising premiums and ordering retired employees to enroll in Medicare at age 65. That cut costs by quite a bit at the time, but they have since climbed back up, as health care costs are wont to do. Ultimately, of course, this is a problem that is too big for Houston to solve. Any solution to control health care costs necessarily involves controlling how much doctors and hospitals get paid. In the meantime, entities like Houston will do what they can to manage their own costs, but they’re going to need help in the long run.

Texas v the feds, disaster recovery funding edition

This would be quite entertaining to watch, if the stakes weren’t so high.

Texas Republicans on Friday panned the White House’s latest disaster aid request, with Gov. Greg Abbott calling it “completely inadequate” for the state’s needs in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

President Donald Trump’s administration was quick to respond, calling on the state to pony up its own dollars to help with the recovery.

Unveiled earlier Friday, the request seeks $44 billion from Congress to assist with the Harvey aftermath, as well as the recoveries from other recent hurricanes in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. While not final, the number is far less than the $61 billion proposal that Abbott had submitted for Texas alone to Congress last month.

“What was offered up by Mick Mulvaney and [his Office of Management and Budget] is completely inadequate for the needs of the state of Texas and I believe does not live up to what the president wants to achieve,” Abbott said at a Texas Capitol news conference called to unveil a $5 billion grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“The president has told me privately what he’s said publicly, and that is that he wants to be the builder president,” Abbott added. “The president has said that he wants this to be the best recovery from a disaster ever.”

In Washington, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the amount in the request — and put the onus on Texas to tap its funds for Harvey recovery.

“Up until this point, Texas has not put any state dollars into this process,” Sanders told reporters. “We feel strongly that they should step up and play a role and work with the federal government in this process. We did a thorough assessment and that was completed and this was the number that we put forward to Congress today.”

See here for the background. I would just note that the Republicans have been working hard at passing a huge tax cut for billionaires, so there hasn’t been much time for small stuff like this. Priorities, you know.

There’s one other thing to consider here, which I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere yet, and that’s that this could turn into a big political liability for the Republicans, from Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz to the various members of Congress. The campaign ads write themselves: “Your party controls the government, and you couldn’t get anything done to help with the recovery. What good are you?” Maybe Abbott can survive that, against a low-profile opponent, but I sure wouldn’t want to be John Culberson or Ted Cruz and have that hanging around my neck. Maybe Trump and Congress get their act together on this and turn this into a positive for their team. They certainly have the incentive for it. They just don’t have the track record, or the ideological impulses. Keep an eye on it, that’s all I’m saying. A statement from Mayor Turner is here, and the Chron has more.

By the way, CHIP is still running out

Just in case you were wondering.

Advocates say Texas will run out of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program sooner than they thought. The program, which Congress failed to reauthorize last month, covers nearly 400,000 children from working-class families in the state.

“It’s expected that Texas will run out of CHIP funding in January,” said Adriana Koehler, a policy associate with the advocacy group Texans Care for Children. “With the holidays coming up in the next few months, we really need Congress to get the job done now.”

Just a few months ago, advocates said it was unclear when the state would run out of CHIP funds. Some advocates expected the state had until next September; others said funds would run out in February.

Carrie Williams, a spokesperson with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said the funding could run out as early as January.

Williams said the agency pushed up the timeline because of reduced income from co-pays. After Hurricane Harvey hit, the federal government waived co-pays and enrollment fees for CHIP recipients. That meant less money was coming into the program than expected.

“So funds may be exhausted a bit sooner than February,” she said.

See here for the background. One might think that such a fanatically and performatively “pro-life” state like Texas would be full of leaders who would care deeply about 400,000 children losing access to health care, but one would have to be deeply naive to believe it. At this time, it looks like the best bet for action will be CHIP reauthorization as a part of a successful government shutdown hostage negotiation. There’s a sentence I hope I never have to type again. Remember when we had a government that was interested in actually, you know, governing? Those were the days, I tell you.

Another property tax rate dustup

I have four things to say about this:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to ask city council on Wednesday to sidestep the voter-imposed revenue cap by approving the same property tax rate as last year.

According to City Controller Chris Brown, the city would need to cut the property tax rate by about one fifth of one cent to comply with the revenue cap. The difference would mean about $7 next year to the average Houston homeowner, but the potential political damage to Turner could be much more.

Council must set the tax rate at its Wednesday meeting, but no specific rate was listed on the council agenda and no explanatory backup material was provided to council members until Monday night. Several council members, informed of Brown’s Monday afternoon memo outlining the mayor’s plan, responded with an incredulous, “What?”

The information angered the mayor’s critics and confused his allies on the council a week before voters begin heading to the polls to consider a crucial $1 billion bond that would cement Turner’s landmark pension reforms and another $495 million in city improvement bonds.

To comply with the revenue cap, Brown said, the council would need to set the tax rate at 58.421 cents per $100 of assessed value, not leave it at last year’s 58.642 cents. The difference to the city general fund, he estimated, is $7.9 million.

“I’d love to think of it as a misunderstanding,” Councilman David Robinson said. “Conspicuously on the agenda today it was not disclosed, so it certainly raised a lot of questions. Call it, what – $8 million? It sounds like a very small amount to have a standoff about.”

[…]

Turner’s spokesman Alan Bernstein said Monday afternoon that the mayor’s proposal to leave the rate flat did not rely on invoking the disaster declaration language, but hours later acknowledged that clause is the basis for keeping the same rate.

“The mayor clearly said at this meeting, the press conference with the governor and everybody, ‘We are not going to be invoking the disaster clause,'” Brown said late Monday. “So, now they’re saying they’re going to do it. OK, they can do that. My opposition is not if they do it or don’t, my opposition is that they do it and nobody knows about it.”

A Monday evening memo from interim finance director Tantri Emo said the charter not only allows the mayor to invoke the disaster clause to collect an extra $7.9 million for Harvey expenses, but also provides no process by which Brown is required to verify the tax rate. Therefore, Bernstein added, it is not relevant that Brown cannot verify the city’s estimated $1.1 billion in general fund damages from Harvey before federal and insurance reimbursements.

“Since he can’t independently validate them, he’s not counting them,” Bernstein said. “Well, we’re counting them, and we feel like he’s not interpreting this all correctly. We’re certainly not busting the tax cap. The mayor disagrees with the controller’s conclusion.”

1. Let’s get one thing straight up front: This is not in any way an “increase”. This is because leaving something the same as it was before is not an increase, in the same way that my remaining the same height does not mean that I have gotten taller even if for some reason I was supposed to shrink. One of the Council members quoted in the story referred to this as an “increase”, and you can be sure others will echo him. Don’t fall for it.

2. I don’t know what was going on in the Mayor’s office with this, in particular with the peculiar lack of communication followed by the about-face on their rationale, but this was handled badly. They should have been up front about the fact that all their calculations were based on leaving the tax rate the same. Which, let’s be clear, in a sane non-revenue-cap world is exactly what would have happened without anyone even noticing that it was a thing that was happening. Bring it up early on, during the (successful) standoff with Greg Abbott, and there would be nothing more to it by now. Like I said, I don’t know what they were thinking, but this is a mess of their own making, and they need to clean it up.

3. More to the point, this was a missed opportunity to drive home the message that the revenue cap is stupid, harmful policy. If we didn’t have a revenue cap forcing this on us, would anyone have proposed a tax rate cut right now? Can you imagine it: “Hey, let’s make a tiny little cut to the tax rate that will have no effect at all on anyone but will cost the city eight million dollars at a time when we’re up to our necks in hurricane recovery expenses”? It’s stupid policy that forces us to make stupid choices. The revenue cap needs to go.

4. All that said, I think CM Robinson has the right answer. If this were the Lege, as Mayor Turner surely knows, they’d have solved this by delaying payment of an invoice or two from this accounting cycle to the next one, thus making the “deficit” disappear in a puff of magic pixie dust. I have to believe that the city can do something similar if it comes down to it.

The lost Harvey tax break

I have mixed feelings about this.

Rep. Sarah Davis

Owners of nearly 300,000 homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey in Texas won’t see any break in their property taxes because of political wrangling this year in the state Legislature over completely unrelated issues – including, one Houston Republican says, the bathroom bill.

A property tax reform bill that would have required all local governments to reappraise damaged homes and businesses and lower the tax bills came within a single round of votes on four different occasions. If the mandatory reappraisal proposal had become law, it would have all but assured that the tens of thousands of homes and businesses damaged or destroyed statewide because of Harvey would have received a reduction in property taxes this year.

But it never passed, and according to the state lawmaker who came up with the idea, it’s because of the bathroom bill. Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, lays the blame on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who she contends was trying to blackball her bills.

“I have little doubt its slow death in the Senate is because of social issues like the bathroom bill,” said Davis, whose district flooded badly during the 2015 Memorial Day storms and the 2016 tax day storms.

Currently, reappraisals after natural disasters are optional for local governments and most are like Harris County and Aransas County in saying they won’t do it because they cannot afford it.

A home in Houston that was valued at $200,000 before the hurricane, but worth just $30,000 after, would have seen a $700 cut just in school taxes, according to the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, which strongly backed the Davis proposal.

“It was really one of my No. 1 priorities,” said Davis, whose original bill would have taken effect Sept. 1.

But that is likely why the bill never cleared the Senate, she said. Davis was a vocal opponent of the so-called bathroom bill that was a top priority in the Texas Senate.

[…]

Texas law already allows counties, cities and other local governments to reappraise properties after a storm, but few ever do because of the lost revenues that it could result in and because of how expensive and time consuming the reappraisal process could be during a time governments are trying to finalize their budgets. If governments do the reappraisals, the full cost is on the local governments.

“It’s not a very workable solution,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican, said about why he has not voluntarily called for the reappraisals in Harris. “It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for people and what they’ve lost.”

He said the problem is the reappraisals would cost $10 million in a county as big and urban as Harris County. Plus the county would lose revenue from tax collections at a time it most needs the money to address the natural disaster recovery.

He added that property owners still will get the benefit of the Jan. 1 appraisals for the next year’s taxes. That almost certainly will result in lower tax bills for homeowners with damaged properties next year.

Similarly, in Aransas County – where Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 and demolished 36 percent of all homes and businesses – there will be no reappraisal. Aransas County Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills Jr. said there isn’t time or money to get it done and said it would only hurt tax revenues at a time when every source of funding the county relies on is in jeopardy.

“All of our income is in the toilet,” Mills said of a county that relies heavily on tourists to generate sales taxes and fill rental properties.

Let’s start with the obvious. Of course the bathroom bill was the reason why this bill never got a vote in the Senate. This is how Dan Patrick operates. You can admire his hard-nosed tactical consistency, or you can bemoan his willingness to sacrifice the greater good in service of his narrow partisan interests, but you can’t deny the premise.

I certainly get the impetus for Rep. Davis’ bill. Though all the activity on this came before Harvey, Davis represents neighborhoods that were hard hit by the floods of 2015 and 2016. Giving people whose houses have been greatly damaged or destroyed a break on their property taxes has a lot of obvious appeal. That said, I agree with Judges Emmett and Mills. The counties – and cities and school districts – that these houses are in will be facing large extra expenses as a result of the disaster in question, and they’ve built their budgets for the year based in part on the original values of those houses. When the houses are reappraised for the next year, everyone can plan their budgets based on the expected lower values. Is the benefit of an extra year’s lower tax bill for affected homeowners worth the cost?

There is, of course, a simple enough way to resolve this: Have the state cover the difference. We agree that homeowners whose houses have been devastated deserve a break. We agree (I hope) that the cost of that break should not be a burden on counties and school districts that are themselves recovering from the damage of the natural disaster. The amount in question would be a relative pittance for the state. Why not let the state budget make the affected local government entities whole? Because that’s not what we do. Dan Patrick and his buddies take from the locals, they don’t give back. They’d be more than willing to take the credit for the cut, but it’ll be a cold day in August before they’d be willing to bear the cost. I appreciate what Rep. Davis was trying to do with her bill, but without this I can’t quite support it.

HFD and disaster preparedness

There’s a lot here to think about, and to do something about.

The Houston Fire Department’s limitations quickly became clear as Harvey’s floodwaters rose.

Just one high-water rescue vehicle. Decades-old evacuation boats. Sparse training for swift-water rescues. And limited staffing after an 11th-hour decision not to call in major reinforcements to face the catastrophic storm.

The department had been warned. Lethal flooding two years ago exposed shortcomings and prompted sweeping recommendations to improve future responses.

And yet, when firefighters rushed fearlessly into Harvey’s currents in late August, they were again hobbled by a lack of resources, old equipment and a shortage of manpower ready to go when the storm hit, according to a Chronicle review of internal reports and emails, and dozens of interviews with firefighters and other officials.

The review found a department – and a city – that failed to follow the hard-earned lessons of previous storms, even as one of the worst in U.S. history descended on the region.

“Civilians had to step up – which was a great thing – but that’s not their job,” one high-ranking fire official said. “It’s our job to protect and serve the public. We couldn’t do that because we didn’t have what we needed.”

Fire Chief Samuel Peña, who stepped in to lead the department in December, defended the response and commended his firefighters, who performed 7,000 rescues and answered more than 15,000 calls for help during the first five days of the storm.

But he acknowledged that Harvey exposed shortcomings in the department’s fleet and training.

“Harvey punched us in the mouth,” Peña said. “No municipality is ever going to have the number of resources to be able to respond to a catastrophic incident the size of Harvey. But we know the anticipated risk in this community. We know that the 500-year flood is going to come again next year … We don’t have the adequate resources to address even the expected risk in this community.”

Critics, however, say the department’s response suffered from more than neglect.

“Anyone with common sense could see with relative certainty there was going to be an enormous rescue effort that was going to be required following the impact of Hurricane Harvey,” said Jim Brinkley, director of occupational health and safety for the International Association of Fire Fighters. “It’s expected a department would allocate enough resources – in terms of staffing alone – to make sure they’re capable of responding.”

There are a lot of reasons why HFD’s ability to deal with mass flooding events isn’t any more advanced now than it was a few years ago, before such things had become annual occurrences. You can come to your own conclusions about who shoulders how much of the responsibility for that. I would just point out that any effective solution to this is going to cost money. Equipment costs money. Training costs money. Firefighters who have better training can earn more money, if not here then elsewhere. We can and should review how HFD uses the resources it has now – as we know, most of the demands on the department are for emergency medical services and not for fire, and HFD has a track record of being profligate with overtime – but there’s only so far you can squeeze before you start displacing things you’d rather keep. If we want HFD to be better at responding to these events, we’re going to have to make an investment in them, and not just a one-time investment. That means we the voters are going to have to come to grips with the need to spend more money, or with the reality that we’re going to keep getting what we’re already paying for. If there are hard choices to be made by our leaders, we have to be prepared for what that means to us.

Harris County considers its budget post-Harvey

They have some choices, and some constraints.

Harris County government departments could see their budgets reduced by up to 5 percent as property taxes take an expected dip due to Hurricane Harvey’s widespread destruction.

The estimate is preliminary, County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said Friday. The extent of an anticipated decrease in property tax revenues will be determined after properties are appraised Jan. 1.

Jackson said the county plans to keep budgets flat, if possible. Most departments have received increases every year since the 2008 recession.

[…]

It is not clear yet how much the storm has affected Harris County’s tax base as the extent of damage to property still is being determined.

Damaged homes will be worth less, and those owners can expect smaller property tax bills. In other cases, repairs to homes or other buildings could bring them back up to their original value. Properties unaffected by floodwaters could see a jump in value.

Jackson said the county’s public contingency fund – roughly $100 million – has helped pay for Harvey-related expenses, such as debris cleanup and overtime for county personnel who worked during and immediately after the storm. Jackson said Harvey-related overtime has totaled some $12 million, so far.

The county still is assessing what is likely to be hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to infrastructure, but most of that will be covered by insurance and some repairs can be reimbursed by the federal government.

Harvey’s impact on the county’s budget likely will come from a dip in property tax revenues, Jackson said. The county relies on property taxes for most of its revenue. Unlike the city, it does not collect a sales tax.

The possible property tax rate hike would come in the event the county does float bonds to rebuild and fortify its flood mitigation infrastructure. For now, the tax rate remains the same. The county also spent some money to buy out 200 homes in the more flood-prone areas. Needless to say, there would need to be a lot more of that to really make a difference, but it’s a start.