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Houston City Council

Council passes dumb forced tax cut

This is where we are.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

City Council rejected Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposal to leave Houston’s tax rate unchanged from last year Wednesday, instead approving a tiny rate cut to comply with the voter-imposed cap on property tax revenues.

Turner had proposed using Hurricane Harvey to invoke a disaster exception clause in the 13-year-old revenue cap and leave the rate at 58.642 cents per $100 in assessed value. That plan would have let the city collect $7.8 million next year for storm recovery costs in addition to what the cap otherwise would allow, or about $7 next year for the typical homeowner.

It was the same process, Turner stressed, that his administration and former mayor Annise Parker’s administration had followed to collect funding above the revenue cap after floods in each of the last two years – actions that went unnoticed by council members and news media at the time.

The council nonetheless voted 15-2 to approve an amendment from Councilman Mike Knox to lower the rate by 0.221 cents – the rate City Controller Chris Brown had said the revenue cap dictated independent of Harvey-related expenses.

You can read the rest if you want to. I’ve said my piece, and I don’t have anything to add to that. If you need a little more, go read Mayor Turner’s response to Paul Bettencourt, which is exactly what needs to be said to that little toady.

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.

An unsatisfying attempt at projecting turnout

So as we all know, this in an unprecedented election, as there are no city races on the ballot. This has everyone wondering about turnout, because the usual drivers of turnout are a Mayor’s race and/or a big referendum, and we have neither of those. What can we guess from past turnout?

There are two components of interest here, overall turnout in the city and in the districts that have contested races. Those races of interest are in HISD, so my first thought was to look at some past elections to see what we could learn from the ratio of voters in each district to total voters in Houston. If that’s reasonably consistent, then we can make a projection for the districts on the ballot based on what we think the top level is.

HISD Trustee terms are four years, so our points of comparison are the years in which the same districts are up. Here are the citywide numbers from the Harris County Clerk:


Year      Turnout
=================
2001      284,748
2005      189,046
2009      178,777
2013      174,620

Yes, there are city voters outside Harris County, but none of them intersect with HISD, so we can safely ignore them. Now here are the totals for the five HISD districts that are normally on the ballot in these cycles:


Dist   2001 Share    2005 Share    2009 Share    2013 Share
===========================================================
I    12,515  4.40  10,159  5.37   9,823  5.49  10,521  6.03
V    21,761  7.64                14,550  8.14
VI
VII                                            12,394  7.10
IX   17,524  6.15  12,372  6.54  12,299  6.88  11,245  6.44

And right here you can see why I called this an “unsatisfying” attempt at this projection. The County Clerk only shows the results for contested school board races, and Districts V, VI, and VII haven’t had a lot of those in recent years. We do have good data in I and IX, and those numbers are interesting. District IX is very consistent. If you know what overall city turnout was, you can make a pretty good guess as to turnout in IX. District I, on the other hand, shows a steady upward trend. I’d say that’s the result of changes in the district, which encompasses a good chunk of the Heights and surrounding areas that have been gentrifying. As such, I’d consider the 2013 numbers to be a floor for this year.

That leaves us with the question of what citywide turnout might be. We do have a model for guessing turnout in elections with no Mayor’s race. Since 2005, there have been six At Large City Council runoffs with no corresponding Mayor’s runoff, and in 2007 there was a special May election with June runoff for At Large #3. Here are the vote totals in those races:


2005 At Large #2 runoff = 35,922
2007 At Large #3 May    = 33,853
2007 At Large #3 June   = 24,746
2007 At Large #5 runoff = 23,548
2011 At Large #2 runoff = 51,239
2011 At Large #5 runoff = 55,511
2013 At Large #2 runoff = 32,930
2013 At Large #3 runoff = 33,824

Those numbers are pretty consistent with my earlier finding that there are about 36,000 people who voted in every city election from 2003 to 2013. There won’t be a Mayor’s race this year, but the school board candidates are out there campaigning, and I expect they’ll draw a few people to the polls who aren’t in that group. Similarly, there will be a campaign for the bond issues on the ballot, and that should nudge things up a bit as well. I think a reasonable, perhaps slightly optimistic but not outrageous, estimate is about 50,000 votes total. If that’s the case, then my projections for the school board races are as follows:


District I   = 3,000 (6% of the total)
District V   = 4,000 (8%)
District VII = 3,500 (7%)
District IX  = 3,250 (6.5%)

You can adjust up or down based on your opinion of the 50K overall estimate. If these numbers represent the over/under line, I’d be inclined to put a few bucks on the over in each, just because there will be actual campaign activity in them and there won’t be elsewhere. I don’t think that will be a big difference-maker, but it ought to mean a little something. All of this is about as scientific as a SurveyMonkey poll, but it’s a starting point. I’ll be sure to follow up after the election, because we may want to do this again in four years’ time, when the next Mayor-free election could be.

The fire department’s needs

This is a conversation we need to have, but it’s one we need to dig into and work all the way through.

Fire Chief Sam Pena gave City Council a bleak assessment Tuesday of his department’s readiness to respond to significant rainstorms, or even daily fire and medical calls, saying a ramshackle fleet and inadequate training are putting the safety of citizens and firefighters at risk.

The Houston Fire Department must double its annual spending on new engines, ladders and ambulances, the chief said, and must ramp up its purchases of water rescue apparatuses and the training.

The department has a “moral and legal” duty, Pena said, to provide safe and effective vehicles and equipment to its 4,100 firefighters and the residents they serve.

Instead, he said, engines are catching fire on the scene or at stations; one dropped a gas tank en route to a call. Another time, he said, an ambulance broke down while carrying a cardiac patient to a hospital. Reserve vehicles have to stand in for broken-down front-line apparatus 85 percent of the time, he said.

“We haven’t allocated the right resources to ensure we’re preparing our firefighters to do the job we’re asking them to do,” said Pena, who became chief last December. “What Harvey put a spotlight on is the lack of resources that we’ve had, but it’s a reality that we’re living as a department every day. We have to make a decision about what we want our fire department to do and what we’re willing to fund.”

[…]

On Tuesday, he told the council’s public safety committee that HFD had received funding for 20 of the 47 engines it sought in the last three budget cycles. It also got 10 of 19 requested ladder or tower trucks, and 36 of 75 requested ambulances, he said.

The city has budgeted $5.5 million to $5.8 million in each of the next five years to purchase fire vehicles, but Pena said $11 million is needed annually to ensure HFD meets his recommendation of replacing 16 ambulances, nine engines and four ladder or tower trucks each year.

If voters pass the $495 million city bonds on the November ballot, officials said the department will get $10.8 million a year for five years to renew its fleet.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said it has been evident since he took office that HFD – along with police and city trash haulers – have been working with inadequate vehicles.

“Today Chief Pena painted a picture I know well. We are going to meet these needs as much as we can with the limited city revenues we have, hence the importance of the public safety bonds that the voters are asked to approve,” Turner said. “This is just one of the steps we need to take to get us where we need to be.”

See here for some background. The bond issue on the ballot would help the Fire Department replace old equipment, but it would not be enough to also buy more flood-rescue gear or pay for training on it. That will require further spending from the city, including from general revenue, at a time when there’s not a lot of spare change lying around and the city’s revenue stream is hamstrung by the stupid revenue cap. We should, as I have said here and in that earlier post, have a real discussion about what HFD needs and how we’re going to pay for it, and I trust everyone agrees that kicking the can down the road isn’t a great idea. But that discussion needs to include how HFD spends its money now, because as the Chron editorial board reminds us, their track record on fiscal matters is not good.

Tensions between City Hall and Houston firefighters have simmered for years, and things finally boiled over. Firefighters are frustrated because pension reform cut their benefits; they haven’t received a raise in years, and City Hall has failed to spend enough on much-needed high-water vehicles and other equipment.

Those grievances can sound pretty convincing until you look at things from the perspective of a taxpayer.

The firefighter pension system was unsustainable and needed to be reformed. In June, the firefighter union rejected a 9.5 percent pay raise as insufficient. And City Hall has budgeted more than $5 million per year for the next five years to purchase new fire equipment.

Fire Chief Sam Peña told City Council this week he wants double that amount.

Perhaps Peña should first ask his own staff for cash. HFD’s Life Safety Bureau alone racked up $5.6 million in overtime, according to a recent city audit, all while fudging building inspection numbers. And three years ago – under a different chief – a single year of unexpected overtime blew an $8 million hole in the fire department’s finances. Five percent of that budget gap was due solely to firefighters taking off the first weekend of hunting season. (Note to Peña: Deer season opens Nov. 4).

The board renews its call again for a blue ribbon panel to review HFD’s operations from top to bottom, noting that while the department is geared towards fighting a declining number of fires, the vast majority of the calls it receives are for emergency medical services, for which fire trucks are dispatched. I’m prepared to spend more money on HFD to bring them up to speed on the things we need from them, but I want to know that we’re using that money wisely. If we’re not also prepared to answer that question, then I don’t know when we ever will be. The Press has more.

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.

You don’t have to attend those tax rate hearings now

They’re not a thing any more.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday said he would withdraw a proposed property tax rate hike after Gov. Greg Abbott handed him a check for $50 million to help fund the city’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey.

That also likely means few public hearings on the proposed rate hike, which would have been the first from City Hall in two decades.

  • The first was held last Monday, and featured a few fireworks.
  • The second hearing remains scheduled for tonight at 6 p.m., since the governor’s check (which matched the $50 million Turner had intended to collect from raising taxes) was delivered too late to change the meeting time.
  • Council on Wednesday will consider cancelling the third hearing, which had been set for Oct. 11 at 9 a.m.

Turner initially had announced plans to enact an 8.9 percent tax rate hike, noting that a voter-imposed cap on property tax collections allowed him to propose a one-year exemption in the event of a federally declared disaster. Such a hike would produce about $113 million in additional revenue.

[…]

Some council members opposed to the increase said they believed the mayor lacked the votes to pass it. And if it had passed — days before the start of early voting — many at City Hall believe the rate hike could have angered voters enough to threaten the city’s plans to issue $495 million in general obligation bonds in November, in addition to $1 billion in bonds tied to Turner’s landmark pension reform plan.

See here for the background. I wouldn’t get too wrapped up in the claims that the proposed tax rate hike didn’t have the votes to pass. None of that would have mattered until the day Council actually voted on it. Besides, the goal wasn’t raising the rate, that was just a means to an end. The goal was paying the bills that were coming due – trash removal, insurance deductible, and the next insurance premium. Council members would have been welcome to argue against those things, or to propose alternate ways of paying for them, at the meeting when a vote was scheduled, or any time before then. Now they don’t have to. If Mayor Turner is relieved to not have to push this through now, I daresay the Council members who didn’t want to oppose him on it are relieved, too.

Mayor Turner lowers tax rate hike amount

I’m sure we’re all glad to see this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said the temporary property tax rate hike he has proposed would be cut in half after federal officials approved his request to increase reimbursement for the city’s Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts.

Turner earlier this month had pitched an 8.9 percent increase for one year, but said it would not be enough to cover all of the city’s cost of recovering from the unprecedented storm and flooding. It would be the first rate hike in two decades.

On Wednesday, he said that increase could be halved – to an extra $50 next yearfor the owner of a $225,000 home with a standard homestead exemption – thanks to a White House decision to boost reimbursement of many of the city’s recovery costs from 75 to 90 percent.

“We’re going to do everything we can to hold our line. We’re trying to minimize our request,” Turner said. “I understand what people’s concerns are with what they’re going through in their homes, and we don’t want to add to the burden.”

[…]

No tax hike would be necessary, Turner said, if state leaders agree to tap their roughly $10 billion rainy day fund. That suggestion drew support from council members.

“We need it now. It’s raining,” said Councilman Jack Christie, who has spoken against a tax rate hike. “We’re behind you to do that to where we don’t have to raise taxes.”

Several times in recent days, Gov. Greg Abbott has said he expects funds will be tapped to pay for Harvey costs, but said damage estimates must be completed before dollars are withdrawn. The latest tally Wednesday projected $574 million in damage to public infrastructure, including $177 million in Harris County.

“I think most people understand that Texas will be tapping into the rainy day fund,” he said in San Antonio last week. “The important thing, though, is that we address the economic issues appropriately. We need to first understand what obligations we’re going to have, how much they will amount to, and decide upon the best strategies to pay for that.”

See here and here for the background. You know what could eliminate the need for any tax hike whatsoever? If the state of Texas, which has some $10 billion sitting around doing nothing, were to cover the remaining costs that insurance and the feds won’t. I wonder if anyone has briefed Paul Bettencourt about this possibility, since he seems to be so entirely bereft of constructive ideas. To be sure, even Dan Patrick has been talking about using the Rainy Day Fund to help Houston and everywhere else recover from Harvey. That’s both good and necessary. But the city of Houston has to pay for things now, and it has to make sure it has the financial wherewithal to pay for those things now since it is not allowed to carry expenses over from one accounting year to another (this is another way of saying the city must “balance” its budget), so unless there’s a firm commitment in place from the state that the city can rely on, it’s got to make its own plans to pay for any uncovered expenses. If Paul Bettencourt and the usual suspects on City Council don’t like that, they are welcome to direct their concerns to Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick. The Press has more.

Council to hold hearings on proposed tax rate increase

Here’s your chance to be heard.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council set the ball rolling Wednesday on Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed 8.9 percent tax rate hike to help fund Houston’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey, in what would be the first hike from City Hall in more than two decades.

The council voted to schedule three public hearings on the issue, which is expected to reach a formal vote on Oct. 18.

Those hearings will be held at City Hall on:

Sept. 25 at 6 p.m.
Oct. 2 at 6 p.m.
Oct. 11 at 9 a.m.

[…]

The mayor said his staff will work over the next two to three weeks to better estimate what the insurance policies will cover, what the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse, and what the city will be left to pay itself.

After that review, Turner said, the proposed 8.9 percent increase could be reduced.

See here for the background. Campos says he wants specifics. Sounds like we ought to have them by the end of this process. I note in passing that the Harris County GOP has put out a statement opposing this proposal. I say no trash collection for them until all the Harvey debris has been carted off, too.

Mayor seeks one-year tax hike for Harvey cleanup

This stuff isn’t going to pay for itself, you know.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask City Council to approve an 8.9 percent hike in the city’s tax rate this fall to help Houston recover from Tropical Storm Harvey, in what would be the first tax rate hike from City Hall in more than two decades.

The average Houston homeowner would pay $118 more in property taxes next year under the proposal, which will begin a series of public hearings later this month and reach a formal vote in mid-October.

The tax rate would rise from 58.64 cents per $100 of appraised value – the lowest city tax rate since the late 1980s – to 63.87 cents. That was the rate from 2009 through 2013, when a 13-year-old voter-imposed limit on Houston’s property tax collections first began forcing City Council to cut the rate each year to avoid bringing in more revenue than was allowed.

Turner is able to propose an increase beyond the strictures of the revenue cap – allowing the city to collect an extra $113 million for one year – because Harvey placed Houston under a federal disaster declaration.

“If this is not an emergency, I don’t know what is. What we’re able to recoup from one year, the $113 million, will not even be enough to cover the expenses we will have incurred,” Turner said Monday. “What we don’t get from the feds we’ll have to come up with ourselves. I would be not doing my job if I did not advance it.”

Debris removal could cost more than $200 million and will require Houston to foot 10 percent of the bill without being reimbursed. The city also lost 334 vehicles to floodwaters and saw its municipal courts complex, city hall and its adjacent annex and two wastewater treatment plants knocked offline.

[…]

If adopted, the higher rate would take effect only for homeowners’ January 2018 tax bills. Come the following January, the emergency period would end and the city’s tax rate again would be dictated by the voter-imposed cap, which limits the annual growth of Houston’s property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston and key revenue cap proponent, said he wants to speak with the mayor to remind him that homeowners’ assessed values are rising, meaning a tax rate hike would amount to a double increase.

Bettencourt refrained from outright criticism of the proposal and praised much of the mayor’s response to the storm. He urged caution on the tax proposal, however.

“The rate is just one half of the equation. The other half is how much the value has gone up,” he said. “This is a delicate public policy issue because we’ve got Houstonians that are literally flooded out of their homes and many people have been affected so they’re not in a position to pay the bill easily, much less if it increases.”

The average Houstonian in a $225,000 home with a standard homestead exemption sends $1,321 to City Hall annually. Turner’s proposal would see that bill rise by $117.86 next year.

Let’s be clear about a couple of things. Thanks to the revenue cap charter amendment, this can only be a one-year increase. The rate will be what we had from 2008 to 2013, so it’s not like this is some unprecedented assessment. The city can’t run a deficit, and it can’t borrow money without getting authorization from the voters. The property tax rate is basically the only mechanism the city has to raise this kind of money. The city will get some federal funds, but it may not have control over their appropriation, and some of those funds as noted in the story are contingent on the city putting up money as well. Lord only knows what the state will pay for, and the county will do its own thing.

The point here is that the city has some big unexpected bills to pay. It has to pay for a lot of overtime for police officers and firefighters who were rescuing people during the floods and who are dealing with aftereffects like traffic control. It has to pay for a lot of overtime to Solid Waste employees who are working to pick up the enormous piles of trash around the city. Your taxes are going up by a couple hundred bucks to pay for this. If you have a problem with that, I don’t know what to tell you, other than I can’t abide that kind of thinking.

Some people will say that we should find costs to cut instead. I will remind you that the vast majority of the city’s expenses are for personnel, and in this particular case the extra unbudgeted expenses are largely for overtime pay. Unless you think all these people should have worked for free, this argument is nonsense. Every time a government entity faces a budget shortfall, I hear people justify cutting programs and services as “shared sacrifice”. In my experience, most of the people who say that aren’t themselves sacrificing much of anything. The difference between those cuts and this rate increase is that this time the bulk of the sacrifice is being felt by a different crowd. If you don’t like it, maybe keep that in mind for the next time.

To address Sen. Bettencourt’s concern, I’m fine with exempting the people who were flooded out from the rate increase. If you filed a FEMA claim, you get to be assessed at the current rate. As for the Council members quoted in the story who say they can’t go along with this, I say no trash gets collected in their neighborhoods until every last piece of Harvey debris has been carted off. There’s a little shared sacrifice for you. The Press has more.

Federal court bars enforcement if city’s ban on homeless encampments

Score one for the law’s opponents.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A federal court on Tuesday temporarily blocked Houston from enforcing its fledgling ban on public encampments, dealing a blow to city efforts to manage escalating tensions between homeless people and the neighborhoods their camps abut.

The city’s three-month-old law – passed under intense pressure from residents and council members – bars the unauthorized use of temporary structures for “human habitation” and empowers police officers to arrest violators if they refuse medical treatment or social services.

Enforcing that prohibition may, U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt wrote, violate the homeless plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

“The plaintiffs have demonstrated that they are subject to a credible threat of being arrested, booked, prosecuted and jailed for violating the City of Houston’s ban on sheltering in public,” Hoyt said. “The evidence is conclusive that they are involuntarily in public, harmlessly attempting to shelter themselves – an act they cannot realistically forgo, and that is integral to their status as unsheltered homeless individuals.”

[…]

The city ordinance “was not designed to punish homeless people. Rather, it was passed to stop the accumulation of property in these encampments,” Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives, said in an affidavit filed last week.

Hoyt’s order, however, focuses on the law rather than the city’s approach to enforcing it.

“The fact that the governmental entity has not fully enforced the alleged unconstitutional conduct does not bar a suit for injunctive relief where the alleged unconstitutional conduct is imminent or is in process,” he wrote.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the restraining order. It should be noted that in the complaint filed by the plaintiffs, they also asked for an injunction prohibiting “Enforcement of Houston City Code Section 28-46 (Aggressive panhandling) and Section 40-27(b) (Impeding the use of a roadway)”, but that request was not granted. The city had been lightly enforcing the enjoined provision, which suggests there had been concerns about it from the beginning. I get where the Mayor and Council are coming from, but they need to take this as a sign that they chose an unwise path. I do not want to wake up one day and read that the city is shelling out $500 an hour to some fancypants law firm to defend this thing in court. Find a way to fix this in a way that everyone can live with and move on.

Bond issue set for November

Should be pretty straightforward, though I suppose you never know.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

November’s ballot will feature $495 million in public improvement bonds after City Council agreed Wednesday to send the package to Houston voters.

The general bonds, which would not require a tax hike, would fund improvements to libraries and parks, as well as items like new police and fire trucks. They will appear alongside $1 billion in pension obligation bonds.

“Many of our police officers are driving in vehicles that are 10 to 11 years old, if not longer. Same thing for firefighters,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “Solid waste – driving in trucks that are stopping while they’re out collecting trash. So the public safety issue is important.”

In all, the bond package before voters asks for authorization to issue $159 million in public safety bonds, $104 million for parks, $109 million for general government improvements and $123 million for libraries.

[…]

The general bond measure before voters simply would authorize Houston to issue additional bonds. It would not obligate the city to further spending without City Council approval.

If voters agree, the pension obligation bonds set to appear alongside the improvement bonds would complete the mayor’s pension reform deal by infusing Houston’s underfunded police and municipal pensions with $1 billion.

See here for some background. The last bond elections we had in Houston were in 2012. All five passed, four with over 60% of the vote and the fifth with 55%, with turnout in the neighborhood of 400K. Suffice it to say, turnout will be lower this time around. My guess for the baseline is in the 50-75K range, with the possibility of a bit more if the firefighters’ pay parity proposal is on the ballot and there’s a lot of money spent on it one way or the other. I don’t think this lower level of turnout affects the odds of passage in either direction. I do think the type of person who is likely to show up for this kind of issue is also the kind of person who probably supports bond issues; whether that gets us into 2012 range or not I couldn’t say. I also expect to take any polling for this with an enormous amount of salt. What do you think?

Mayor Turner requests study of Confederate statues

From the inbox.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has asked top staff members to study whether statues related to the Confederacy should be removed from city property.

The mayor commented about the statues Tuesday at a City Council meeting after members of the public urged the city to remove the statues from its public spaces because, they said, the statues honor slavery and racism.

Staff members will compile an inventory of the statues and “provide me with recommendations about what steps we need to take,” the mayor said.

“It is my hope that we can, in a very positive and constructive way, move forward,” Mayor Turner added.

No date has been set for action on the issue.

Public comments may be sent by e-mail to cultural.affairs@houstontx.gov

Here’s the Chron story related to this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston residents stirred by racial clashes in Virginia are demanding removal of a Confederate monument that has sat largely unnoticed more than 100 years in a quiet corner of Sam Houston Park.

The downtown monument – titled Spirit of the Confederacy – features a bronze statue of a defiant, winged angel holding a sword and palm leaf.

“To all the heroes of the South who fought for the Principles of States Rights,” reads the inscription.

For Timbergrove resident Christina Gorczynski, it’s time for the monument to go.

Gorczynski joined about a dozen residents at City Hall Tuesday in urging city leaders to take down a symbol they say celebrates slavery and racism.

“As a city, we must demonstrate our commitment to fulfilling the unfulfilled promise of equity for all,” Gorczynski said. “We must demolish the symbols that celebrate an evil institution of slavery – those that through their mere existence reinforce and maintain a culture of white supremacy.”

In response, Mayor Sylvester Turner ordered city staff to assess Houston’s public art collection and recommend future steps in light of the requests for the city to remove Confederate monuments.

“The important thing is that as we move forward, that we recognize history is also what it is,” he said during the City Council’s public session Tuesday. “History has its good. History has its bad. But I do think it’s important for us to review our inventory and then to make the most appropriate decision that’s in the best interest of our city and that does not glorify those things that we shouldn’t be glorifying.”

This is the statue in question. Which, like nearly all statues of its kind, was built decades after the end of the Civil War as a way of demonstrating the restoration of white dominance of political power. It’s the very history of these statues that tells us what they’re about. As a Yankee who has always understood the Confederacy to be a treasonous violent rebellion for the purposes of preserving slavery, I have no problem at all with ashcanning these anachronisms. Put them in a museum where their historic context can be properly documented, or put them in a basement somewhere, I don’t care. If Baltimore can do it, so can Houston. Gray Matters and the Press have more.

EcoHub sues over OneBin failure

All right.

Continuing the saga that has unfolded at City Hall — in which City Council members have said a deal with one company “smelled,” and in which another company, EcoHub, claims Mayor Sylvester Turner snubbed him out of the whole process — EcoHub is now suing the city to find out what happened.

EcoHub had worked for years with former mayor Annise Parker’s administration to set up the One Bin for All Recycling paradigm, and CEO George Gitschel had said he secured millions of dollars in bond funding to build an $800 million facility that would recycle up to 95 percent of all our waste and repurpose it as fuel or other traditional recycling products. But when Turner took over, the deal with Gitschel fell apart — for largely unknown reasons. Turner has refused to provide an explanation beyond the fact that he is “not obligated” to continue with Parker’s vision. The city instead opened up a bidding process for more traditional single-stream recyclers in 2016.

The lawsuit, filed this week, is seeking clarity about how Turner made this decision. Gitschel had hired former KTRK reporter Wayne Dolcefino’s consulting firm to investigate, but in the lawsuit, Gitschel’s attorney says the city has not turned over documents, emails and phone calls that Dolcefino requested under the Texas Public Information Act. The lawsuit asks the court to compel the city to release the documents, and make sure officials are not hiding anything. Gitschel speculates that “improper influence by those who stand to financially benefit the most from the status quo” may have played in a role in why Turner cancelled the One Bin proposal and opened it up instead to traditional single-stream recyclers.

“What we’re hoping to uncover is at least emails between either Turner or folks in his administration and those with whom the city has been corresponding about bids on this contract, just to find out who the mayor’s been supporting and what’s going on at the Solid Waste Department,” said Gitschel’s attorney, Stewart Hoffer. “It just doesn’t make any sense why he would turn down a costless solution in favor of one that will cost a lot of money and has a greater environmental impact than what EcoHub had.”

I guess this is about the recycling contract that’s being rebid, which is whatever. What I’m wondering is how it is that EcoHub thought it had a deal with the city in the first place. As of the end of the Parker administration, there was nothing more than a progress report to show for the project. There was never a contract for City Council to approve. One Bin never came up when the current scaled back deal with Waste Managemend was ratified. One Bin For All was an idea, one that some people thought was great and others thought was ridiculous, it was never anything more than that. Maybe there’s more information to be uncovered in the deal that Mayor Turner tried to get approved. If there is, great, let’s hear it. But even if there is, I’m not sure what EcoHub will do with it.

July 2017 campaign finance reports – City of Houston

Let’s continue our survey of campaign finance reports with reports from the city of Houston.


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Turner     520,430  138,068         0  1,643,519

Stardig     59,470   36,402         0    102,289
Davis        5,500   13,231         0    147,050
Cohen        5,000    8,382         0     63,120
Boykins     93,839   40,547         0     57,358
Martin      20,092    8,221         0    106,427
Le          12,250    1,788    31,823      1,951
Travis      51,751   25,051    76,000     51,109
Cisneros    24,043    5,203         0     25,336
Gallegos    30,600    7,048         0     50,366
Laster      31,650    8,104         0    170,714
Green       17,150   39,770         0     84,627

Knox        21,185   13,373         0     23,149
Robinson    63,850   14,932         0     92,520
Kubosh      26,725   17,388   276,000     30,557
Edwards     73,843   31,295         0    144,198
Christie    33,090   20,323         0     31,458

Brown       59,220   19,494         0     79,101


HHRC        55,000   47,500         0     23,250
HTPR         3,625    1,652         0      3,624

As we now know, there will be no city elections of the non-referendum kind on the ballot this November. That would be one reason why there are no reports from anyone who has not already been a candidate. Only a couple of the reports belong to people who are not current or term-limited officeholders. These are folks like Bill Frazer, and none of them have any cash on hand worth mentioning. Actually, there is one person who may be of interest here, and that’s Helena Brown, who could run again in District A to succeed Brenda Stardig. Brown has $18,911.19 on hand, which would not be a bad start if she were so inclined.

I don’t want to dwell too much on this, but had the State Supreme Court dropped an election on us out of the blue, there was basically nobody outside of the current incumbents who have any resources for it. Usually, at this time of an odd numbered year, there are a lot of non-incumbent candidates, mostly circling around the offices that will be vacant. Whether people didn’t think the Supreme Court would take action, or if we were all just in denial about it, there were no candidates out there raising money. In a world where the Supremes had intervened, incumbents and people who can provide at least startup capital for themselves would have had a sizable advantage.

Now for those incumbents. We all knew Mayor Turner could raise money, right? All Houston Mayors can, it kind of comes with the office. Don’t underestimate the resources he could bring to a campaign over the firefighters’ pay parity proposal.

Despite the advantages for incumbents I talked about, four of the seven biggest cash on hand balances belong to those who can’t run – term-limited CMs Starding, Davis, Laster, and Green. Starding in particular makes me wonder what she was up to, raising all that cash this year. Usually, that makes one think maybe she’s looking at her next opportunity to run for something. I have no idea what that might be, but feel free to speculate wildly in the comments. Mike Laster has been mentioned as a county candidate once his time on Council ends. Maybe County Commissioner in Precinct 3 in 2020? I can speculate wildly too, you know.

I have a couple of PAC reports in there. HHRC is the Houston Heights Restaurant Coalition, gearing up for the next Heights alcohol referendum. HTPR is the Houston Taxpayers for Pension Reform, with Bill King as its Treasurer. Maybe that was for a vote on forcing a switch to defined-contribution system that is not in the works? They didn’t have much activity, and most of their expenditures went to an outfit called PinkCilantro for advertising. Other PACs of note with reports are Campaign for Houston, which I believe was an anti-HERO group from 2015 and have a $50,000 outstanding loan, and Citizens to Keep Houston Strong, which belongs to Bill White and which has $56,734.11 on hand.

Finally, two reports from former officeholders. Anne Clutterbuck, who was last a candidate in 2009, filed a final report, to dispose of the remaining funds in her account. She donated the balance – $5,094.55 – to the Hermann Park Conservancy. Last but not least is former Mayor Annise Parker, whose account still has $126,013.31 on hand. She may or may not run for County Judge next year – she has talked about it but so far has taken no action – and if she does that’s her starter’s kit. I’ll have more reports in the coming days.

There will be no city elections this November

Here’s the early version of the story. I’ll add a link to the full story in the morning.

The Texas Supreme Court on Monday denied plantiffs’ attempts to expedite their case challenging the [2015 term limits referendum] ballot language that lengthened city officials’ terms two years ago, making it unlikely the matter will be resolved before the state’s August 21 deadline to order a fall election.

Instead, the case is positioned to return to trial court for a hearing on whether the wording of the city’s proposition authorizing two four-year terms, instead of three two-year terms, was too obscure.

“There’s no way,” Austin election lawyer Buck Wood said. “I don’t see any way that they’re going to get any final order in time for the filing deadline.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Eric Dick conceded the timing makes a November mayoral election “unlikely.”

“But I don’t think it’s impossible,” Dick added, saying he plans to ask the high court to reconsider its decision.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the court’s order, which actually came down on Monday. We were getting dangerously close to what I figured would be the functional deadline for a ruling on the mandamus, in order to ensure enough time for people to file for office if they needed to. This doesn’t mean that we won’t get another election until 2019 – I’ve heard many people speculate about a special election next May, which I suppose could happen – but barring anything unexpected at this point, the case will plod on through the appeals process, which suggests that the people who were elected in 2015 will get to serve out most if not all of that four-year term.

UPDATE: Interestingly, there doesn’t appear to be a fuller version of this story on the website, and there was nothing I could find in the print edition this morning. Maybe tomorrow.

Rebidding reycling

Do-over!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Pummeled by procurement concerns on a 20-year curbside recycling contract, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Friday he will seek a new round of proposals from the four final bidders.

Turner had met with small groups of City Council members Thursday to get a better sense of the concerns they repeatedly have raised since the proposal first was rolled out in late June, and announced his decision early Friday.

“This action is designed to put to rest the concerns raised by members of council, which must approve the contract before it takes effect,” Turner said. “Whatever the result, my only allegiance is to this city and I will always seek what is in its best interest.”

[…]

The four firms that will be invited to submit a new round of final bids are FCC Environmental, Republic Services, Waste Management and Independent Texas Recyclers.

The mayor did not specify how much time the firms would have to submit their proposals or how quickly they would be evaluated.

See here and here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. I don’t know what went wrong in this process, but clearly something had gone off the rails. I’m glad to see this happen, but let’s do review how we got here and figure out how to do it better next time, OK?

Meanwhile, Gray Matters returns to the One Bin For All question with a few words from Roseanne Barone, the Houston Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment.

The national Paper Recycling Coalition, Steel Recycling Institute, Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries and others knew that when used materials, food and pet waste are all combined together, it is also known as another name — “trash” — and so they wrote letters to then-Mayor Annise Parker advising her against this policy.

Thankfully, when Mayor Turner took office in 2016, he knew the best practice for Houston is to keep recyclable materials separate and clean so they can be sold to commodity markets and generate revenue for the City.

[…]

According to the Houston-Galveston Area Council, when we include composters, hard-plastics reclaimers, electronics processors, construction- and demolition-debris recyclers and manufacturers of goods made from recycled items, we have 21,550 recycling jobs in our region and an industrial output of $4.5 billion per year.

Who knew recycling was so vital for Houston’s economy? Additionally, throwing all discards into landfills supports a disposable, wasteful culture while doing real damage to our environment. There are 56 leaking landfills in the state of Texas, four in Harris County and one in Fort Bend County. Landfills are also more often than not located in low-income neighborhoods, so trashing valuable materials also perpetuates environmental injustice.

Barone, like her predecessor Melanie Scruggs, advocates for a zero waste policy. At the very least, bringing curbside recycling to apartments and businesses would make a difference. Let’s get the recycling deal done and go from there. The Press has more.

Recycling deal gets a rough reception at Council

Feisty.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council members blasted a proposed 20-year recycling deal Tuesday, questioning the $48 million price tag, the process by which the winning bidder was chosen and Turner administration officials’ reluctance to share information about the deal.

The proposal on the council’s Wednesday agenda would have Houston send all 65,000 tons of bottles, cans and boxes its citizens recycle annually to a new processing facility to be built in northeast Houston by Spanish firm FCC Environmental.

In the city’s request for recycling proposals, documents repeatedly envisioned the contract term as running 10 years, with up to two five-year extensions. FCC, however, was the sole vendor allowed to submit a proposal using a 15-year initial term, with one five-year option; competing vendors said they would have submitted 15-year bids if they had known their proposals would not be rejected.

Some council members also questioned why FCC’s prices had been evaluated favorably when its per-ton fee for processing the city’s recyclables was the second-highest figure among the four responsive bidders. Those concerns were heightened when one of the losing bidders, Dean Gorby of Independent Texas Recyclers, said he had proposed a $63-per-ton fee and had no idea why the city had represented his bid as $76 per ton to the council.

“It just doesn’t smell right,” Councilman Dave Martin told administration officials at a Tuesday committee hearing. “If I were you, I’d go back to square one.”

See here for the background, and either this story or that post for more details about the deal. I’ll be honest, I can’t quite figure it out myself. I don’t understand the price structure or the reason why this one company is being offered something other than a ten-year deal, and I’d like to know more about the other companies’ complaints. I very much want to get a new deal done and it will be nice to be able to put glass out with the green bins again, but I want to be sure it’s a good deal.

Meanwhile, Gray Matters revisits the retreat into oblivion of the One Bin For All proposal, with a link to and commentary on this recent Press story on the matter. Mayor Turner basically had no interest in One Bin – indeed, none of the 2015 Mayoral candidates expressed any commitment to it, and I asked them all about it during interviews. You can read all I’ve had to say on One Bin here. After all this time, I still don’t know what to make of it. It sounded cool and it could have been cool, but the amount of contradictory information I got from its supporters and detractors made my head spin. At this point, I’d just like to see us take recycling more seriously.

UPDATE: The vote has been tagged for a week.

More on the firefighters’ pay parity proposal

Here’s that full Chron story I mentioned yesterday:

Houston firefighters delivered over 32,000 signatures to City Hall on Monday in support of asking voters in November to mandate parity in pay between firefighter and police officer ranks, a maneuver that could threaten the city’s plans to sell $1 billion in bonds as part of its pension reform plan.

While the two measures are unrelated, both are tied to firefighters’ displeasure with the Turner administration.

As such, a unified voting bloc of firefighters during what is expected to be a low-turnout election in November could spell trouble for Mayor Sylvester Turner’s signature pension reform plan, and potentially thrust the city back into the fiscal quagmire Turner spent his first year in office trying to escape.

“If one issue is a five-alarm fire, both together are a 10-alarm fire,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

[…]

The union originally sought a 21 percent pay raise over three years, according to Turner, but lowered that request to 17 percent. The city, meanwhile, offered 9.5 percent over three years, which Turner said would stretch the city’s financial capabilities.

Houston firefighters have been without a contract for three years. The “evergreen” terms that had governed their employment during that time lapsed last month, reverting to state law and local ordinance. City Council made the terms in that local ordinance less favorable in a unanimous vote on the same morning the union filed its lawsuit.

“This petition drive was necessary because Houston firefighters are at a breaking point,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association at a press conference Monday. “We now are asking the voters to help Houston firefighters because the city refuses to do so.”

The petition seeks to amend the city’s charter to mandate equal pay and benefits between firefighters and police-officers of similar status, but not necessarily title, accounting for varied rank structures between the two departments.

See here for the background. I have a basic question to ask here: Who is going to support the firefighters in this effort? Who will their allies be in this fight? Because I’m having a hard time seeing who is on their side right now.

As noted, Council voted unanimously to impose those less favorable “evergreen” terms under which they now grudgingly labor, and Council approved the pension reform plan on a 16-1 vote, with the only No coming from CM Knox, who wanted to see a bill get filed first. Who on Council is going to endorse the pay parity effort?

If the thinking is that the firefighters might try to tank the pension obligation bonds as payback or leverage as part of this, then please note that the House passed the pension reform bill 103-43, and the Senate passed it 25-5. Of the Harris County contingent, Sen. Sylvia Garcia was a “present, not voting”, while Reps. Jessican Farrar and Briscoe Cain (a pairing I’d never expected to see) were No votes. Everyone else voted Yes. I don’t see Sen. Garcia and Rep. Farrar crossing swords with Mayor Turner on this, and Rep. Cain represents Baytown. Who in the Lege will stand with the firefighters? Maybe Sen. Paul Bettencourt, because he’s a little weasel who likes to stick it to Houston, but he was the one who put the provision in to require a vote on the bonds.

Of the establishment groups that tend to get involved in city politics, the Greater Houston Partnership is all in on pension reform and spending restraint. I can’t see the Realtors opposing the Mayor on this, nor the GLBT Political Caucus, nor any Democratic-aligned groups. The one possible exception is labor, but this proposal would be bad for the police and the city workers. It’s not about a rising tide, it’s just shifting money to the firefighters from the rest of the city employees. Maybe labor backs this, maybe they don’t. The Chronicle will surely endorse a No vote. Who among the big endorsers will be with the firefighters?

I’m sure the firefighters will have some allies. My point is that as I see it, the Mayor already has a lot more. Which brings me to the next point, which is where will the firefighters get the money to run their pro-pay parity campaign? It helps to have allies, who can not only make donations themselves but also hold fundraisers, solicit contributions from their networks, and eventually participate in campaign activities. I think we all agree that Mayor Turner is a good fundraiser, and he can assemble a pretty good get out the vote campaign. While this is certainly likely to be a low turnout election, at least compared to a normal city election, turnout is in part determined by how many people are aware there is something or someone for them to vote on. Who do you think is going to have more resources and a bigger microphone for getting out a message about the need to vote? And bear in mind, even if the firefighters are good at raising money, that in itself can be used against them. I mean, here they are claiming poverty, holding up signs saying they can’t afford to live in the city, but they can spend a bunch of money on a campaign? Yes, I know, the one doesn’t really have anything to do with the other, but do you want to have to explain that to people?

What I think it comes down to is this: Sure, people like firefighters, and they think they should be adequately compensated. In the abstract, their proposal sounds reasonable, and there are probably a lot of people who would feel good about paying our firefighters more. But this isn’t an abstract choice, and there are lots of consequences to making it. The firefighters are asking for something for themselves, something that doesn’t benefit anyone else and which potentially has a large cost attached to it that everyone will pay. They’re doing all this while at the same time spitting on an offer from the city to give them a ten percent raise. Now how positively will people feel about their proposal? That’s what we’ll find out. Campos has more.

Firefighters turn in their petitions

Good for them, but boy is this thing a train wreck.

Houston firefighters delivered over 32,000 signatures to City Hall Monday in support of putting a ballot initiative on the November election mandating parity in pay between firefighter and police-officer ranks.

[…]

“This petition drive was necessary because Houston firefighters are at a breaking point,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association at a press conference Monday morning. “We now are asking the voters to help Houston fire fighters because the city refuses to do so.”

Former Houston City Attorney Dave Feldman, who is advising the petition effort, said a formal cost estimate of the initiative if approved in November has not been determined.

Using average figures for the cost of police and fire personnel without regard to rank, increasing fire base pay to match that of police would cost roughly $40 million in the current fiscal year. The city finance department projects annual budget deficits of more than $100 million for the next five years.

See here for the background, and a long comment thread. I mean look, this isn’t a proposal right now, it’s an idea. There are literally no details. If one were to run for office on this idea, one would expect to be questioned about basic things, like how much will this cost, and how will the city match job titles across two differently-structured departments. Anyone who provided the answers the firefighters are giving now would not be taken seriously, to put it mildly. In addition, while a candidate for office would have until November to come up with satisfying responses, the firefighters have until the end of August, at which time referendum language would have to be written and approved by City Council.

And what do you think that referendum language might say, based on what we know so far? Think of the recent history of ballot referenda and all the ensuing litigation over said language, and ask yourself if there is any possible wording that will satisfy both the proponents and opponents of this idea. The ballot language lawsuit practically writes itself – it will just be a matter of finding the right taxpayers to serve as plaintiffs. If it is written with sufficient detail to explain how it will be done it will be attacked as too complicated for anyone to understand, and if it is stated simply it will be derided as vague to the point of meaninglessness. This is a bad idea on so many levels, and you can take it to the bank that it will be tied up in court for years to come. The Press has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the full Chron story. I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

Here come the LGBT candidates

Keep your eyes on these folks.

Fran Watson

At least four Houstonians are among the numerous LGBTQ Texans eyeing campaigns in 2018 and 2019. One of the Houston candidates has formally announced, and three others are strongly considering runs.

“People are fed up, and they want a better Texas,” said Fran Watson, who’s considering running as a Democrat in Texas Senate District 17, which covers parts of Harris, Brazoria, and Fort Bend counties. That district is currently represented by Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston).

“Texans deserve leaders who have the everyday issues of Texans in mind, rather than focusing on who uses what bathroom,” said Watson, an attorney who serves as president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. Huffman voted in favor of Senate Bill 6, the anti-transgender “bathroom bill.”

“There are people in the district who are hurting, and I know how to identify with these people,” Watson said. “I also have the skill set to draft legislation to help them.”

[…]

Other potential LGBTQ candidates are eyeing Houston City Council races in 2019. Ashton Woods, the founder of Black Lives Matter: Houston, said he may run for either the District K or an at-large seat. District K is represented by Council Member Larry Green, who will be term-limited in 2019.

“We have to stand up and fight back,” Woods said. “People are being left behind and treated as nonexistent. People have basic human needs—if they are missing a meal, they can’t think about fighting back. We had Donald Trumps before there was a President Trump. They are in our backyards and in elected offices. We need to fight the Trumps in our backyards.”

Nelvin Adriatico, who owns a Sugar Land real-estate firm, is considering a run for the District J seat held by openly gay Council Member Mike Laster, who is also term-limited.

Adriatico has been involved with the highly successful back-to-school backpack program in District J. He said he wants to focus on education, small business, and combatting domestic violence.

“If you have a voice, it can be magnified by serving in an elected office,” Adriatico said, adding that he watches the news every day and is troubled by what Trump is doing.

“I have friends who are minorities and immigrants,” said Adriatico, who would be among the first openly LGBT Asian-Americans elected to public office in Texas. “We’ve got to raise our voices and make a change.”

Watson is no longer the President of the Houston LGBT Political Caucus; she stepped down a few days ago, presumably in advance of announcing her candidacy. I could try to summarize the things she has done in recent years, but better for you to read this OutSmart profile and this Girls Like You And Me interview with her to see just how impressive she is. I know of at least one other person looking at this race, but Watson would be a formidable candidate if she does run.

As for Woods and Adriatico, I hope they have to wait till 2019 to actually run for Council, but I’m glad they’re thinking about it now, just in case. Let’s just say there’s more than a bit of anxiety about the possibility of a mad sprint for candidates this November. The other person mentioned in the story, the one who is already a candidate, is Jerry Simoneaux, who is among the Democratic judicial hopefuls. He’s running for Harris County Probate Court #1, and has a primary opponent. He also happens to be Watson’s law partner. There are a few non-Houston LGBT candidates in there as well. We’ll need to revisit the topic after the filing deadline.

Firefighters petition for a raise

Whatever.

Houston firefighters are launching a campaign to place on item on the November ballot asking voters to mandate parity in pay between corresponding firefighter and police-officer ranks.

The petition drive to amend the city charter, slated to launch Saturday morning, follows the fire union’s decision last month to sue the city over stalled contract talks, alleging Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration failed to negotiate in good faith.

“I don’t know what else to do. We’re trying to find a fair and reasonable solution that affects 4,100 members and their families,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. “Let’s let the voters decide what’s fair and we’ll see.”

[…]

A 1975 City Council motion did set the goal of achieving parity in the base pay of equivalent ranks in the public safety departments, and the topic spurred regular fights throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Typically, firefighters and their supporters on council were in the position of working to ensure their salaries kept pace with police pay, though they were not always successful.

Parity was regularly mentioned into the mid-2000s, but the late 1998 contract negotiated by the newly recognized police union began to dismantle that system, recalled Mark Clark, executive director of the Houston Police Officers Union.

That police contract, Clark said, began adjusting HPD’s personnel structure so that the city could grant raises to, for example, 38 police captains without having to also boost the salaries of more than 120 fire personnel of corresponding rank.

“I know they’re desperate and they’re my friends, but this is a non-starter,” Clark said of the firefighters’ petition drive. “They’ve got an important job, but police and firefighters do not have the same job, and their rank structures are completely different. Just to come in and say, ‘We want what they’ve got’ – certainly I understand asking, but where in the world would the city of Houston come up with the kind of money that it would take?”

Apparently, something like $40 million per year, according to the story. This is an easy No vote for me, if it comes to one. We elect representatives to make these decisions, and it is generally my preference for that system to be allowed to do its thing. There’s a place for letting the voters decide on things, but this is not one of them. The cost, the difficulty in setting up a system to match job ranks, the fact that this is an obvious retaliatory move for the recent political setbacks the firefighters have experienced, those are also factors. I have no idea what happens from here, but if this does get on the ballot it will be interesting to see how a campaign plays out. The potential for it to get ugly is very high.

Mayor will take revenue cap referendum off the 2017 ballot

Not gonna lie, I’m disappointed by this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner abruptly reversed course Wednesday on his plan to ask voters to repeal Houston’s revenue cap this fall, saying it now is “unlikely” he will ask for its removal.

The politically cautious move would leave the city fiscally shackled in the hope that a lighter November ballot improves the chances voters sign off on hundreds of millions in general improvement bonds and $1 billion in pension obligation bonds, a crucial piece of the mayor’s landmark pension reform package.

“Do I believe that the needs are as much there to remove it as they were when I came into office? Absolutely,” Turner said. “Do I want to run the risk of losing the reforms that we’ve made to our pension system…? No.”

Lifting Houston’s voter-imposed cap on property tax collections had been a pillar of the mayor’s agenda, and he regularly discusses how the restriction constrains Houston’s budget, preventing the city from hiring more police officers, replacing its aging fleet and maintaining other city services, such as street repair.

Turner’s about-face came during a City Council discussion of how the cap, which has cost the city an estimated $220 million in revenue since 2014, likely will force the city to scale back the street and drainage projects budgeted in its five-year Capital Improvement Plan, or CIP.

The CIP slated for council approval later this month accounts for the revenue cap this fiscal year but was written assuming voters would remove the restriction by the start of fiscal 2019.

The finance department estimated the cap will reduce revenue for ReBuild Houston, the city’s street and drainage repair fund, by roughly $201 million in fiscal years 2019-2022, delaying roughly 16 of 90 ReBuild projects planned for the next five years.

[…]

The mayor’s new plan was met with understanding around the council table.

“It’s a strategic decision,” Councilman Larry Green said. “It probably doesn’t make sense to put (the revenue cap) on the ballot, especially when we’re trying to get pension bonds passed and we’re also putting out general revenue bonds.”

I’m not disappointed because I think Mayor Turner did anything wrong, I’m disappointed because I was chomping at the bit to get rid of the stupid and harmful revenue cap, and now I have to wait again. I understand the logic, even if the unmentioned implication of all this is that pro-revenue cap forces would be willing to sabotage both the pension reform plan and the city’s capitol improvement plan in order to keep their travesty in place, I just don’t like it. But it is what it is, and if the revenue cap has to take a back seat to these other needs, that’s politics. Nobody said I had to like it.

So, again modulo any Supreme Court interference, adjust your turnout expectations for this November downward. There will be people who will vote against the various bonds, but I doubt there will be much if any of a campaign to turn out anyone who wasn’t already going to vote. There will be a pro-bond campaign, but again I doubt it will push the numbers up by much. I’m putting the over/under for November in Houston right now at about 75,000, and I could be persuaded to go lower. What I hope is that Mayor Turner has November of 2018 in mind for the revenue cap referendum, as there will be no worries at all about turnout in that environment. Remember, over 330,000 votes were cast in the Renew Houston referendum of 2010, with over 340,000 votes for the red light camera question. He’ll need to sell the idea, which is far from a given, but at least the voters he’d like to see will be there for him in that scenario.

Mayor introduces new recycling deal

There’s some stuff to like in this, and there are also questions to be answered.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The city would send all 65,000 tons of bottles, cans and boxes its citizens recycle each year to a new processing facility to be built in northeast Houston under a 20-year deal Mayor Sylvester Turner will present to City Council next month.

The contract with Spanish firm FCC Environmental, worth up to $57 million, would allow citizens to again put glass in their 96-gallon green bins, along with cardboard, newspaper, steel cans, aluminum and plastic.

Turner, faced with a poor commodities market and rising recycling costs upon entering office last year, negotiated away hard-to-process glass in hammering out a two-year stopgap deal with the city’s current contractor, Waste Management.

Council members raised enough concerns about the new contract’s length and cost and the speed at which it was being considered that Turner canceled a Tuesday committee hearing on the topic minutes before it was to begin and pulled it from Wednesday’s council agenda.

Turner stood firmly behind the deal at a Wednesday news conference, however, saying the proposal would not only return glass to the city’s recycling program but also would require FCC to share in the risk of a crash in the commodities market, ensuring the city never pays more to recycle than it would pay to throw the same materials in a landfill.

“When you take a look at what this offers, let me simply say: state-of-the-art technology, a brand-new facility, including glass, capping the floor of what the city would have to pay should the market turn down,” Turner said. “This is an excellent deal.”

Under the proposed deal, if the revenue generated by selling recycled materials is less than $87.05 per ton, the city would pay FCC the difference, up to a maximum of $25 per ton. If the materials sell for more than $87.05, the city would get a quarter of that excess revenue.

Under the current Waste Management contract, the city’s per-ton processing fee is $92, and there is no cap on the city’s costs. Houston’s per-ton costs have ranged between $20 and $53 per ton under that deal.

Prior to the commodities market crash, the city paid a $65-per-ton processing fee.

The FCC contract also would have the city borrow $2.4 million to add eight new trucks to its aging fleet and repay the loan at a 10 percent interest rate. That is significantly higher than what the city would pay if it borrowed the money itself.

[…]

Councilman Mike Laster, who was to chair the canceled committee hearing on the topic Tuesday, echoed his colleague [CM Jerry Davis].

“There’s still a lot of a lot of questions to be answered,” he said. “That gives me concern, and I look forward to doing all I can to get the best information.”

Texas Campaign for Environment’s Rosanne Barone said the contract’s processing fee and the interest rate on the $2.4 million loan are concerning. A broader worry, she said, is whether the contract leaves the city enough flexibility to capitalize on any improvements in its recycling policies in the future. Her group long has pushed the city to adopt a plan that would help it divert more waste from landfills.

“Using taxpayer money to take out a loan for $2.4 million on eight trucks is not a good use of taxpayers’ money at all,” she said. “But the more important message here is, is this a contract that is going to be functional in the long term?”

That processing fee, which was mentioned several paragraphs after the first section I quoted above and not in any of those paragraphs that discuss current and past processing fees, is $87 per ton. Which is a lot more than the previous deal we had with Waste Management, when they took glass and commodities prices were good, but a bit less than what we’re paying now. Like CM Laster, I’d like to know more before I make any evaluations of this. Having glass included in curbside pickup again is good, and having a price guarantee is good. I don’t quite understand the loan arrangement for buying more trucks, and the length of the contract could be a concern as well. Let’s learn more and see what if any options exist to make changes. The Press has more.

Firefighters sue city over contract negotiations

These are busy days for the HPFFA.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s fire union sued the city Wednesday alleging Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration failed to act in good faith during contract negotiations, exacerbating tensions between firefighters and City Hall.

The lawsuit filed in state district court came just two days before firefighters’ “evergreen” labor agreement with the city expires, at which point local and state law will govern their employment until a new deal is reached.

Those employment terms – unanimously approved by City Council Wednesday morning – are less favorable than those in the evergreen.

Turner said he offered to extend the more generous arrangement another 30 days while negotiations continued, but the fire union preferred to resolve the issue in court.

“When you say no, what do you expect a city to do?” Turner said before council voted to amend local ordinance. “They made their choice.”

A letter provided by the mayor’s office shows the city on May 12 proposed extending the collective bargaining agreement by 15 days. Three days later, firefighters declared an impasse, allowing them to request an arbitrator to settle the contract dispute.

The city declined that option, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said, but agreed to mediation, which began last week.

[…]

South Texas College of Law Houston Professor Richard Carlson said the vagueness of state law makes it difficult to assess firefighters’ chance of success.

“Our law is still very uncertain, and when you throw in the fact that public employees can’t strike anyway, it’s hard to say what the practical outcome in any of these cases is,” Carlson said.

It’s been a busy couple of months for the firefighters, and not in a good way. They lost the fight over the pension reform bill in the Lege, and subsequently filed a lawsuit over it. This fight was over their collective bargaining agreement with the city, which expired three years ago. I’m not exactly sure what they were hoping to accomplish with their negotiating tactics, but it appears they didn’t get what they wanted. I don’t know what will happen with these lawsuits or the contract talks, but I get the sense that the firefighters have lost some goodwill. It’s more than a little incredible that no one on Council voted against the less-favorable employment terms for them. They’re big players in city elections, so either they now have a lot of former friends or they have a problem of image or communications or something that they might want to consider addressing. I don’t know how to advise them other than to say they ought to give this all some thought. The Press has more.

Smarter streets

They’re coming soon to Houston.

Houston City Council on Wednesday will consider a $33.6 million contract – partially funded by a $10 million federal grant – to add hundreds of traffic-tracking devices across the city so officials can receive better up-to-date information, respond by adjusting traffic signals and provide current conditions to drivers more quickly.

Freeways in most major cities have traffic detection, cameras and changeable message signs to warn drivers of tie-ups around the area. Some cities also have used the systems along specific corridors.

Houston is taking that approach citywide, optimistic an integrated system can improve traffic, and show drivers their best route choices via signs and traffic maps.

“The ability to visually verify incidents and alert drivers to travel times on parallel alternate arterial and freeway routes will be a benefit,” said Tony Voigt, a Texas A&M Transportation Institute researcher based in Houston. “The ability to better detect vehicles at signals and use that data for signal timing updates at more frequent intervals – and in real-time, if necessary – will be a benefit.”

Proving that, however, can happen only after the devices are in place.

“We have ‘before’ data and we will get ‘after’ data,” said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of Houston Public Works in charge of traffic operations and maintenance. “No one has really done this on this large of scale. That is part of why the federal government gave us this money.”

Voigt, whose office assisted with some of the research for the grant proposal, agreed.

“Will the benefit be as large as compared to freeway (traffic systems)?,” Voigt said. “I would say maybe not, but the benefits should still be considerable.”

Based on federal data, he noted about half the miles traveled in urban areas happen on local roads – not freeways or major highways – so anything aimed at more accurate data for those roads naturally will benefit drivers.

All of the new technology will be integrated into existing traffic operations controlled by Houston TranStar, which combines resources from the city, Harris County, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

This is all good, and I’m sure it will help. Having more and better realtime data about traffic incidents and tie-ups will improve life for lots of people. It’s just that data can only do so much – it can’t improve capacity, it can just move it around. As long as we’re clear on that and realistic about what this can achieve, it’s fine.

Houston officially gets in the SB4 litigation business

Well done.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council voted Wednesday to sue the state over its new “sanctuary cities” law, joining Texas’ three other largest cities in challenging the controversial measure.

Council voted 10-6 to join San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, El Paso County and several other local governments and nonprofits in a consolidated case challenging the state. Councilman Jack Christie abstained.

A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for Monday.

“This is not an issue of our choosing,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “But when it ends up on your plate, you have to address it.”

Turner, who had shied away from the sanctuary cities issue for months, decided two weeks ago to put a lawsuit to a vote.

He was joined by council members Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Dwight Boykins, Karla Cisneros, Robert Gallegos, Mike Laster, Larry Green, David Robinson and Amanda Edwards in voting for litigation.

Council members Brenda Stardig, Dave Martin, Steve Le, Greg Travis, Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh voted against a lawsuit.

See here and here for the background. No surprises in the Council vote, not that I expected any. One can make the case that a Council vote wasn’t strictly necessary – the Mayor has the authority to direct the City Attorney to get involved – but on procedural and political grounds I think this was the right call. Give everyone the chance to do the right thing, and demonstrate that majority support for this action existed. It’s possible Houston could have gotten involved sooner without this formality, but in a world where we were trying to get a pension reform bill through the Legislature, I think Mayor Turner (or anyone in his place) was going to wait until that was in the bag first. For sure, he’s loosed his tongue now that he’s gotten what he needed from Austin and is now playing defense.

The bottom line is that Houston did the right thing, and did it in time for the Monday court hearing. Better to be right slow than wrong fast, as long as it’s not too slow. The Trib has more.

When might the Supreme Court speak on the Houston term limits lawsuit?

So as you know there is an ongoing lawsuit over the language used in the 2015 referendum that altered the city’s term limits ordinance. It was filed shortly after the election, with the city winning the first round in district court. Appeals are ongoing, with the most recent ruling coming this past January on a procedural matter. In addition to all this, the plaintiff in the original suit filed a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court on June 2 that asks them to direct the district court judge to vacate his previous order allowing the 2015 result to stand and to require city elections this November. I’m on the plaintiff’s attorney’s email list (for my sins, no doubt) and as he sent out a missive last week urging his followers to contact the Supreme Court and ask them to rule on the writ in time for an election to occur, I figured I ought to bring this up.

So as we are now halfway through June, I have to think that time is rapidly running out for a non-farcical election to be conducted this November. Normally at this time, multiple candidates for a variety of offices, especially the open ones, will have been at work for months. There are always people who pop up to run in July and August, including a few at the filing deadline, but by this point you usually have a pretty good idea of who is out there. Funds have been raised, materials have been printed, websites and social media presences have been built, volunteers have been recruited, etc etc etc. Campaigns require resources, and one of those resources is time. We’re basically four months out from the start of early voting. To get a campaign up and running from scratch, especially for an At Large position, that’s not a whole lot of time. It could be done, but it would greatly favor those who already have some of the other resources, namely money and some amount of name recognition. In other words, incumbents and people who can write a check to get their campaign going quickly.

For what it’s worth, the Supreme Court issued a ruling requiring a vote on HERO on July 24, 2015, which was in response to a writ of mandamus. That was about a referendum and thus didn’t directly involve any candidates, though I’d argue that it had a negative effect on the pro-HERO side, since the antis had been gearing up for a campaign for some time by then. Let’s call that the outer bounds of when a writ mandating city elections for this year may happen, though really I’d say that’s too late. Bear in mind that Council members Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Mike Laster, Larry Green, and Jack Christie are all in their last terms one way or the other, so if those terms wind up ending this year instead of 2019, a whole gaggle of hopefuls are going to have to get up to speed immediately. There’s no question that the Supreme Court has no qualms about meddling in the affairs of the city of Houston, but that doesn’t mean it feels compelled to do so. We ought to know soon enough.

Public testimony on SB4

It was heated, as you might expect.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Scores of residents urged City Council on Tuesday to challenge the state’s “sanctuary cities” ban, speaking during more than five hours of public testimony on the eve of council’s vote on whether to join litigation.

Council chambers overflowed with residents waiting to testify on Senate Bill 4, which allows police to ask people their immigration status if detained.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has asked council to vote Wednesday on joining lawsuits already filed by several Texas cities and advocacy groups.

Democratic state lawmakers kicked off what became at times a heated discussion about the law, which goes into effect Sept. 1.

“This bill is sanctioned hate, and for us to sanction that regime of hate – I think it’s unconscionable,” state Rep. Armando Walle told City Council. “I do not want to have to carry my passport just to show somebody, any law enforcement agency, that I’m a U.S. citizen, just based on the color of my skin.”

Walle was among 14 Houston-area Democratic lawmakers who wrote council members last week urging them to support litigation, something a Chronicle survey earlier this month suggests they are likely to do.

Those who spoke in favor of a lawsuit Tuesday argued SB4 is an unconstitutional, unnecessary and immoral law that would harm public safety, adding that Houston ought to demonstrate leadership on the issue.

“Houston has always prided itself in being a welcoming city, known for our diversity and our rich culture, and our immigrant population is a critical part of our vibrant identity,” said Jane Meyer, a nun with the Dominican Sisters of Houston.

Those against suing spoke to the need to enforce federal immigration law, said Houston should not spend money on joining a legal fight already underway and worried the city could lose state and federal funding by following through with a lawsuit.

See here and here for the background. To briefly address the “we shouldn’t get involved” arguments: Enforcing federal immigration law is the responsibility of the federal government; for HPD to take on that task would significantly affect their ability to fulfill the responsibilities they already have. The lawyering in this case will be done by MALDEF and the ACLU, and if the plaintiffs prevail the state will be on the hook for attorneys’ fees. The best way to ensure the city doesn’t lose funds is to ensure that laws like SB4 get blocked. And, you know, it’s the right thing to do.

I doubt any of the testimony changed anyone’s mind, and on that assumption I expect this vote to pass, though I still expect it won’t happen till next Wednesday. We’ll see if there are any surprises.

Council may vote on joining SB4 litigation tomorrow

It will happen, though perhaps not tomorrow.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council is poised to vote [this] Wednesday on whether to join litigation challenging the constitutionality of Texas’ new “sanctuary cities” law, days before the case’s preliminary hearing in San Antonio.

The city attorney’s office has recommended Houston sue over the law known as Senate Bill 4, saying it authorizes unconstitutional searches, seizures and detentions, violates officials’ First Amendment rights, unlawfully limits local authority and is unconstitutionally vague.

“The office of the city attorney recommends joining the litigation to address the constitutional and civil rights of city elected and appointed officials and Houston residents, as well as to protect the authority of the city to effectively manage and direct the limited public safety resources of the city and protect the public,” the city attorney’s office wrote in a request for council action.

[…]

A Chronicle survey of City Council members last week suggests the city likely will join the legal fight over SB4, which goes into effect Sept. 1.

See here for the background. I say “may vote” only because I expect someone, probably several someones, to tag it for a week. If you’re looking for something to do about this, call your district Council member and the five At Large members and tell them that you want them to support this action. Council members have been hearing from their State Reps, and it would help if they heard from their constituents, too.

Houston will get involved in the SB4 fight later this month

Very good to hear.

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to ask City Council to vote this month on joining lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Texas’ new “sanctuary cities” law, ending months of equivocation on the controversial immigration enforcement measure.

If City Council votes to sue, Houston would join San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and several other local governments already challenging the state or planning to do so.

“I will ask this month City Council to consider and vote to join the lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of SB4,” Turner tweeted Thursday morning, after the Houston Chronicle ran a front page story about his decision to remain on the sidelines of debate over the statute.

Here’s that front page story. You can see what a change of direction this is.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Turner has asked the city attorney’s office to review the law known as Senate Bill 4, which allows police to ask people their immigration status if detained even for a routine traffic stop, but otherwise continues to deflect questions about whether he plans to challenge it.

That has meant carefully sidestepping the term “sanctuary city,” while touting Houston as a diverse, “welcoming city” and assuring residents that Houston police will not violate their constitutional rights.

On Wednesday, the mayor attempted to redirect attention to Austin by urging Houstonians to take up their concerns at the Capitol, even though the law has been signed and the Legislature is not slated to revisit the issue during its July special session.

“The right forum to reconsider Senate Bill 4 before it goes into effect on Sept. 1 is Austin, Texas, and I’d encourage people to write to call to drive or go to Austin,” Turner said. “Go to Austin by the hundreds, by the thousands, and ask those who authored, voted for and signed Senate Bill 4 to repeal Senate Bill 4. Those of us around this table, we cannot repeal Senate Bill 4, as we did not author Senate Bill 4.”

So Houston may follow in the footsteps of San Antonio and Bexar County and Dallas, if Council goes along. According to the full Chron story, it looks like that will happen.

Houston could sue over SB4 without City Council approval, but Turner nonetheless promised a vote. City Council is in recess next week, meaning a vote would come June 21 at the earliest.

As of Thursday, the left-leaning City Council appeared to be breaking along party lines, with Democratic members largely favoring a lawsuit and Republican members generally opposed.

District I Councilman Robert Gallegos, who supports a lawsuit, said he worried the law could tear families apart if it causes more parents to be deported, calling it “an open door for racial profiling.”

District C Councilwoman Ellen Cohen also plans to vote to sue, citing concerns that the law could discourage victims from reporting crimes, echoing law enforcement leaders across the state, including Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo.

“We now have a percentage of the population that, out of fear for their own lives and deportation, won’t report, and it jeopardizes women’s lives and others,” Cohen said.

At-large Councilman Michael Kubosh said he opposes a lawsuit because of the potential cost.

“I don’t want to spend the money on a lawsuit that’s already been well-funded by other cities,” Kubosh said. “It won’t have an effect on the outcome of the case.”

He and others also worried that suing the state could put Houston at risk for losing federal funding.

Two council members, Mike Laster and Brenda Stardig, declined to say how they would vote, and at-large Councilman Jack Christie said he was likely to abstain.

“I’m not in favor of suing people to just show where we stand,” Christie said. “We show where we stand by example.”

There’s a sidebar on the story with a vote count for when this does come before Council (and while it could come as early as June 21, you can bet your bottom dollar someone will tag it for a week). Counting Mayor Turner, there are eight Yeses, five Nos, Christie’s abstention, and three who declined to comment or could not be reached. Of those three, I’d expect two Yeses – Mike Laster, who has since suggested on Twitter that he would likely vote in favor, and Jerry Davis – and one No, Brenda Stardig. You should probably reach out to your Council member and let them know how you feel about this. In the meantime, I agree with Campos, this would not have happened, at least at this time, had not there been pressure from the Texas Organizing Project and the DREAMers. Activism works, y’all. The Press has more.

Do we really have to have a pension bond vote?

So as we know, the Houston pension reform bill that passed contains a provision that requires a vote on the pension obligation bonds that Mayor Turner intends to float as a down payment. Pension obligation bonds have been floated in the past, by Mayor White, without a vote, but for whatever the reason some members of the Senate insisted on it, so here we are. Now it turns out that with interest rates likely to increase later in the year, waiting till after a vote in November to float the bonds will cost the city millions in extra payments. You would think the responsible thing to do would be to float them now while it’s less expensive, and so Mayor Turner has suggested that as a possibility.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner did not rule out Wednesday issuing the $1 billion in bonds that are central to his pension reform deal without a public referendum, a move that would sidestep a hotly debated requirement the Legislature added to ensure passage of the city-negotiated plan.

Turner said he and his staff are proceeding as though there will be a referendum, but the mayor said he may seek to issue the bonds without a vote if he can gain consensus among City Council members, state lawmakers and others that moving more quickly would benefit the city.

Specifically, he referenced the benefit of preempting an anticipated jump in interest rates. Waiting six to nine months to issue the bonds, the city finance department estimates, could cost taxpayers $135 million to $273 million more over the life of the debt.

“I find it highly unlikely that anything is going to take place other than the vote in November, and that’s how we’re proceeding,” Turner said. “If we can all agree on a certain course and it may be able to expedite things, then we’ll do that.

“I’m talking about agreement with everybody. We’ve come this far with everybody, both on the local levels as well as on the state level and my approach is to always move in collaboration with everyone. But if not, then we’ll proceed with the vote.”

[…]

Though much of the rhetoric surrounding the bill during legislative debates referenced that voters would have a chance to weigh in, the mayor’s team simply points to the text of the legislation as proof that they can proceed without a vote.

Current state law requires only that City Council enter into agreements with the pension funds that are to receive the bond proceeds – in this case, the police and municipal workers’ pension funds – in order to issue the bonds. The reform legislation adds the referendum requirement, but also states that the referendum provision applies only to those agreements signed on or after the effective date of the bill, which is July 1.

Turner plans to bring those agreements to council June 21, city officials said. Though adopting them would in no way obligate the city to issue the bonds without a vote, doing so would preserve that option.

Now you’d think the prospect of saving a couple hundred million bucks would appeal to pretty much everyone, but at the mere mention of this, several self-styled fiscal conservatives immediately contracted the vapors – seriously, CM Mike Knox walked out of the committee hearing upon being presented with this – so that would seem to scuttle the “if everyone is on the same page” possibility. And indeed, Mayor Turner has now walked back the idea and reassured everyone that we will indeed have a referendum, whatever the eventual cost may be. I get that not having a vote when everyone thought there was going to be a vote seems bait-and-switch-y, but 1) having a vote was not a requirement until people like Paul Bettencourt made it a requirement, and 2) interest rates are gonna go up, so it’s going to be more expensive to wait. But a deal’s a deal, so here we are. Hope everyone’s happy.

Council passes the 2017-18 budget

With a bit of drama along the way.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

City Council voted to boost funding for a controversial program that helps district council members tackle neighborhood projects Wednesday, even as it approved an annual budget from which one police cadet class and up to 75 employees’ jobs already had been trimmed.

Mayor Sylvester Turner blasted the 10-7 vote to amend his budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 as “irresponsible.” He warned that increasing the 11 district council members’ project funds could imperil the city’s ability in the coming months to find the money to restore a fifth police cadet class, offer a sufficient raise to firefighters or address long-term challenges such as an aging vehicle fleet or accumulated building maintenance.

“They passed that amendment without specifying where the money is coming from, and that’s almost like pulling it out of thin air,” Turner said after the meeting. “Quite frankly that’s not the way I choose to budget.”

Though the day was tense at times, Turner praised the ultimately unanimous vote to pass his $5.2 billion budget, $2.4 billion of which comes from the general fund that is supported mainly by residents’ taxes and funds most basic services like police, fire, trash pickup, parks and libraries.

The general fund budget aims to spend about $35 million more than the current one, due partly to a $51 million rise in debt costs. For the first time in about 15 years, the budget fully funds the city’s pension costs, thanks to the reform bill Turner successfully pushed through Austin and that Gov. Greg Abbott signed Wednesday while the council was in session.

The budget also closed a $123 million deficit with departmental cuts (largely to police and fire overtime) one-time fixes (such as selling city land), deferred payments (such as to the Houston Zoo) and a dip into city reserves.

Though staffers for Turner and for some council members were abuzz late Wednesday with speculation that a long honeymoon period may finally have ended, the mayor seemed to head off such thinking after the meeting.

“Like any marriage, sometimes there’s disagreement,” he said, wearing a modest grin. “I’m going to get some roses and I’ll send it to all 16 of them. We’ve done a lot of great things together.”

See here for the background. Those Council district funds were first added into the budget under Mayor Parker, and it would seem they are here to stay. They don’t change the size of the budget, just how the money is allocated. I get why Mayor Turner is annoyed, but it’s not that big a deal. I seriously doubt this will change how he and Council deal with each other.

The new panhandling ordinance

This happened last week; I didn’t have a chance to really look at it before now.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Residents who impede the use of a Houston roadway, or block a sidewalk or building entrance could be charged with a misdemeanor under an ordinance passed Wednesday by City Council.

The ordinance aimed at curbing panhandling was paired with a ban on unauthorized encampments in public places – an effort to crack down on homeless camps that have drawn resident and council member ire in recent months. The encampment ban is set to take effect in 30 days.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he thinks the new rules help to achieve a “delicate balance” between ensuring safety and helping the homeless.

“The whole notion is to strike a balance between addressing their needs and their concerns and putting them in a better position in their lives, and at the same time the neighborhood concerns in terms of people being in their doorway or blocking the sidewalk,” Turner said.

[…]

Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, warned of potential constitutional violations, also saying she thought the laws would be ineffective.

“This law as written is constitutionally concerning, and I think it’s very vulnerable to legal challenge,” she said of the encampment rules. “To create a punishment for people who are attempting to survive on the street when they have no alternative is a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.”

Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives, said the city has worked with groups like Star of Hope and the Salvation Army to ensure there are sufficient shelter beds for the city’s homeless.

“For individuals who want to go to a shelter, there is a place for them,” Eichenbaum said.

Bauman pointed to those with mental health issues or disabilities who may be unable to go to a shelter.

Turner’s plan to curb homelessness, announced last month, also includes proposals to house 500 chronically homeless people by early September and construct alternative, professionally staffed “low-level” shelters under highway overpasses or on private property.

These outdoor spaces are intended to help accommodate people who are unable or unwilling to go to an indoor shelter.

Here’s an earlier story about what Council had been considering; the proposed ordinance was tagged until last week. As someone who currently works downtown, I can attest that panhandlers are a nuisance, and can sometimes be scary. Houston has made a lot of progress in reducing the number of homeless residents, especially homeless veterans, and part of this program is intended to further that work. There are some details to be filled in, and there are concerns about the legality of this ordinance as well as its likely effectiveness. I’m not sure what to think at this point.

In the meantime, there’s also this.

Phillip Bryant carries tuna cans and water bottles in his car and often spontaneously delivers them to the poor he sees throughout the Houston streets.

However, Bryant, who describes himself as a devout Christian, contends the city’s charitable feeding ordinance prohibits this and also violates his religious rights.

He filed a lawsuit Wednesday night in Harris County court challenging the ordinance, which requires advocates to obtain permission from property owners – public or private – before feeding more than five people. Violation of the ordinance is considered a criminal misdemeanor and is punishable by up to $2,000, according to the lawsuit.

[…]

Although not mandatory, the city encourages those feeding the homeless to register as a food service organization and receive food safety training. The only required step is a person must seek permission from the property owner before feeding more than five people.

I’ll be honest, I’m a little unclear as to what the point of contention is here, but I guess we’ll see what the courts make of it.

Bike plan finally gets approved

Long time coming.

Houston has a bike plan.

Though there’s no clear plan to pay for it and ongoing concerns with exactly where the planned trails and lanes will be located, City Council approved the bike plan on Wednesday morning.

Council members Mike Knox, Steve Le, Michael Kubosh and Greg Travis voted against the plan, citing various concerns with the force with which the city will require bike lanes in some neighborhoods and the cost, estimated at up to $550 million.

Travis said he fears the costs will be much greater, and thus far Houston lacks any way to pay for it.

“You start looking at the cost and it becomes exorbitant,” Travis said.

Even those who approved the plan acknowledged the city must respect neighborhoods that don’t want bike lanes along their streets, be willing to amend the plan and find ways to pay for it that do not reduce road spending.

“The last thing we want to do is develop a plan that pits bicyclists against the motorists,” said District J Councilman Mike Laster.

You can see the bike plan here, and the Mayor’s press release is here. The plan was approved last summer, and was tagged by Council two weeks ago. Here’s a preview story with more about what the plan means.

Developed and modified over nearly 18 months, the plan sets a goal of making Houston a gold-level city based on scoring by the League of American Bicyclists. In Texas, only Austin has been awarded a gold rating by the group, with Houston, San Antonio, El Paso and The Woodlands receiving bronze status, among others.

To improve Houston’s lot, supporters and city planners said the area needs high-comfort bike lanes where people feel safe riding.

The city has an extensive trail system popular with riders but it does not cover large portions of where people live and work in Houston.

The bike plan plots tripling the amount of off-street bike trails from the current 221 miles to 668 miles. Much of that relies on trail connections along bayous and within parks and electrical transmission utility easements. On Tuesday, city and Texas Department of Transportation officials announced construction would start soon on a long-awaited bridge spanning Bray’s Bayou.

“This is a big step in building complete communities,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, noting the crossing helps connect neighborhoods north and south of the bayou on the east side that were often cut off from the city’s trail improvements over the last decade.

The bridge, when completed in about a year, will connect more communities to the Green Line light rail along Harrisburg, too, officials said.

Those connections are key. Without them, advocates said the only people riding – especially in non-ideal conditions – are committed, confident cyclists. Leisure riders and others are left out.

Core riders, meanwhile, said the current network of 495 miles relies heavily on 165 miles of shared space with cars along Houston streets to connect good places to ride. Those shared lanes – such as along Fairview – offer little buffer between cyclists and automobiles.

“It’s like taking your life in your hands,” said Steven Mulligan, 29, who lives in Midtown and rides daily to his job near Loop 610 and Richmond.

Just a reminder, the plan prioritizes different routes, some of which will require little more than paint to designate, and there are various funding sources available for other routes. As far as using Rebuild monies goes, if the roads in question are being redone anyway, I don’t see the problem. Reducing the number of short trips people take during the day alleviates traffic and frees up parking. Making it safer to bike, and making people feel safer while biking, is the key to getting more people to choose that option. I look forward to seeing this work.