Collaboration will power Houston’s progress
By Mayor Sylvester Turner
Published in the Houston Chronicle on May 26, 2016
When I arrived in the mayor’s office five short months ago, the city was facing a projected budget shortfall of $126 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1. In the weeks that followed, the shortfall grew to $160 million. Cost increases, a voter-imposed cap on our revenue growth, a broken property appraisal system and the economic downturn combined to create the worst financial challenge the city has faced since the Great Recession, when more than 700 city workers had to be laid off in 2011 and services were cut.
The budget approved by City Council on Wednesday is balanced. Thanks in part to an executive order put in place last January that helped identify targeted departmental cuts and savings, the shortfall has been eliminated and there is a plan in place to continue the positive progress into the future. We have even cut overall spending in this budget by $82 million, in comparison to the current budget.
This was accomplished not by putting hundreds of hard-working city employees in the unemployment line or by cutting critical services that Houstonians rely on and deserve. Instead, it was done with shared sacrifice and attention to fiscal management.
As a signal to the credit rating agencies that have an eagle’s eye on the city’s finances, and to assure Houstonians that we are keeping an eye on the things that matter most, it was also done a month earlier than usual, a feat no one can recall happening in more than 20 years, if ever.
Each city department, the employee unions, City Council and various other parties worked together to identify cost savings and efficiencies while also preserving the city’s healthy savings account, minimizing employee layoffs and maintaining critical city services.
We did not balance the budget on the backs of our library and park users. Nor did we balance it by laying off police and firefighters. In fact, this new budget includes funding for an additional police cadet class, for a total of five classes, the most in recent memory. In addition, I am working with the police chief to find ways to streamline operations to get more officers back on the street. For the first time in years, the number of police officers at HPD is starting to inch up. This is good news for neighborhoods, some of which are understandably unsure about their safety these days. I want no one to feel unsafe.
Passing the new budget occurs on one day, but the impact of that day is felt for the next year and beyond. With this budget, we have put in place a foundation that will support us for the next several years as we continue to make progress in other areas that impact our pocketbook.
We will attack the problems that lie ahead with the same aggressive approach we took in balancing the budget. Again, everyone will need to be at the table sharing the work. This is imperative because if we fail, there will be dramatic cuts in city services, hundreds of employees will have to be laid off, and our credit rating will likely suffer.
City government is functioning in ways we have not seen in modern memory. The “pothole crisis” is in the rearview mirror. Likewise, the administration and City Council – Democrats and Republicans alike – agreed to share the sacrifice and passed a balanced budget in record time. Everyone is in the boat and rowing in the same direction. It’s a model that is working well today and can continue to work well tomorrow.
Keeping a promise to fill potholes by the next business day was not easy, but we did it. Closing a $160 million budget gap was not easy, but we did that too. I know solving our other problems will not be easy, either. But I am confident we will get there if we utilize the same collaborative approach that has gotten us this far. Just watch us!