Term limits and a domineering mayor have combined to make the City Council little more than a rubber stamp. And Houston may pay dearly for that down the line.
It was a Wednesday afternoon in December, and the City Council chamber in the lower level of the City Hall Annex echoed with the sound of one man beating his head against the wall.
To a frustrated Ben Reyes, the eight-term councilman from the east side, simple arithmetic suggested that Mayor Bob Lanier was about to make a bad business deal.
Flanked by two staff members comically struggling with an enormous color-coded map, the mayor was urging Council to approve "industrial district" contracts with four petrochemical plants that sit outside the city. Ordinarily, the city would simply annex the companies' land and commence collecting taxes on the property. But Lanier said the contracts would net the debt-laden city some quick cash -- about $30 million of it over the next four years. And because there would be no annexation, the city wouldn't have to provide costly water, sewer and other municipal services.
"It's the very best deal I could negotiate," Lanier insisted.
But Reyes, who has been a Houston city councilman for 16 years, detected an odor as foul as anything the easterly winds could carry in from Highway 225.
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Louisville Cardinals College Football
TicketsThu., Nov. 17, 7:00pm
Rice University Owls Football vs. UTEP Miner Football
TicketsSat., Nov. 19, 11:00am
SWAC Football Championship
TicketsSat., Dec. 3, 3:00pm
TicketsSat., Jan. 7, 7:00pm
For one thing, city staff reports showed that Houston would realize more than $40 million over the four years, plus about $4 million in tax revenue every year thereafter, if it annexed the land. Reyes pointed out that Lanier could use that revenue to grant raises to rank-and-file police officers and other city employees who have been told by the administration, year after year, that there is no money available for pay increases.
"How do we defend giving these folks a special deal that we're not giving the guys that are out there paying [taxes] today?" Reyes asked. "How do you do it?"
"What did you tell them last year?" Lanier parried.
"Well, mayor, what I told them last year was that I was going to raise their taxes, and I voted to do that," Reyes fired back.
Actually, the veteran councilman knew that arguing with the mayor was useless. For sitting out in the audience were omnipresent behind-the-scenes operators Joe B. Allen and Bob Randolph of Vinson & Elkins and Jim Edmonds of the Greater Houston Association business PAC. The influential trio of Lanier backers were hired by the petrochemical companies to lobby City Council for the industrial district contracts as a way to avoid annexation.
And Reyes knew that his colleagues would crater in the face of that kind of political muscle. Sure enough, most councilmembers didn't hang around to hear Reyes' argument. The horseshoe table around which Council sits was full of empty seats as Reyes battled the mayor alone. In the end, the dejected councilman cast the only dissenting vote against the contracts. His final remarks, it was obvious, were directed at his colleagues, who had filed back into the Council chambers to line up behind Lanier.
"I understood these were very, very powerful people," he said. "The easy thing to do was to leave this thing alone. 'You don't want to fight these people,' I said [to myself]. 'You don't even want to ask the questions.'
"I just think we're really making a bad policy decision that's not in the best interest of the taxpayers of the city of Houston."
How, you might ask, is it that of the 14 members of an elected body responsible for raising your taxes last year, just one objected to the city surrendering millions of dollars in future revenues? The answer is that most councilmembers, like many Houstonians, adhere to a basic philosophy: If it's good enough for Bob Lanier, it's good enough for me.
And, as Reyes discovered last December, even if it's not in the best interests of the taxpayer or city, good luck getting eight councilmembers to take a stand against the mayor. Evidence suggests it's hardly worth the effort: Lanier routinely prevails on even the most controversial issues by a 14-0 margin, and has lost just one vote in the past year -- that one on the proposed purchase of an airplane for the Police Department that he had supported.
When the question arises, even some councilmembers will acknowledge that bucking Lanier is a tricky proposition. They cite a variety of reasons: term limits, which resulted in seven new members on the 14-person Council last year; a city charter that grants broad powers to the mayor while limiting Council's power to dissent; and Lanier's popularity, reflected by poll numbers that many councilmembers interpret as a sign that the mayor's agenda constitutes a public mandate.
"There is a perception that this particular Council goes along with the mayor on everything," admits one of Council's few independent voices, Ray Driscoll, who's in his first term representing Sharpstown and other southwest-side neighborhoods. "But to say it's a rubber stamp is an injustice ... It just so happens that he's the first mayor to come along and resolve some of the problems that this city has, and going against that would be going against reason."
Or so it seems. True, Lanier's agenda is hard to resist. He campaigned in 1991 on the promise to reduce crime and restore the city's crumbling infrastructure. And, in fact, Lanier has repaired hundreds of streets and sidewalks, improved drainage, spruced up dozens of parks and hired 1,000 new police officers.
But at what cost to the taxpayer? That will become more apparent this month when Council holds a series of hearings on Lanier's $1.6 billion budget for the 1996 fiscal year, which starts July 1. Based on the budget priorities outlined by the mayor in April, critics say Lanier and his acquiescent Council have placed Houston on a precarious financial footing for the future. They say the mayor's restructuring of the city's bond debt in 1992 has put the city in a fiscal bind that will force Lanier's successor to face the unpalatable choice of either cutting services or raising taxes. And they contend he is destroying Metro by taking more than $200 million of the transit agency's once-healthy surplus to pay for street repairs and free up city funds for policing.
Despite those concerns -- and not to mention last year's 5.5 percent property tax increase -- there are scant signs that if Lanier wanted to put the children of councilmembers to work paving the streets with gold, he would face much of a fight.
Controller George Greanias, the city's chief financial officer, has been the most persistent critic of Lanier's financial strategy. In yet another attempt to warn the city's elected officials that hard decisions are ahead, the controller prepared a response to Lanier's budget blueprint for the perusal of council-members. As usual, it was to little avail: Council unanimously approved the mayor's priorities without so much as noting the controller's point of view.
"Part of the concern to me is the way this Council simply accepts at face value whatever they are told by the administration, whether it's about budget numbers or the facts surrounding a particular issue," says Greanias, who was a councilmember under Lanier's predecessor, Kathy Whitmire. "It is so seldom that they question, you can almost count those episodes on the fingers of one hand."
That's a far cry from the Council under Whitmire, who was mayor from 1982-91. That Council, which had a mostly stable lineup throughout the 1980s, acquired a reputation as an unruly and politically savvy body that, as often as not, charted its own course amid shifting coalitions. The imposition of the so-called 9-5-1 Council structure in 1979, in which five council members would be elected citywide and nine others from districts, had resulted in the election of strong, experienced political personalities like Reyes, Anthony Hall, Eleanor Tinsley, Dale Gorczynski, Jim Greenwood and Greanias.
"Three of the new members had been in the state Legislature and two were school board members," recalls Greenwood, who was elected in 1979 and finished out his Council tenure under Lanier. "They were activists in terms of their experience and orientation, and they expected to be able to play an important role in making decisions."
The result, says political consultant Marc Campos, was "a really cantankerous Council. There was a loyal opposition. Benny [Reyes] was a part of it, [Frank] Mancuso, Dale Gorczynski. There were a lot of 8-6 and 9-5 votes."
That was then.
"Where is the loyal opposition to Lanier?" asks Campos. "Who is it? There's nobody out there."
Lanier can sleep nights knowing that the only alliance formed on any issue is the one that lines up behind him. The core of his support -- second-termer Helen Huey and first-termers Martha Wong, Joe Roach, Felix Fraga, John Kelley and new at-large member John Peavy -- is like money in the bank for the mayor, and constitutes six of the eight votes he needs to win.
Four others -- constituency-minded first-termer Michael Yarbrough, Judson Robinson III and Al Calloway, who are black, and Gracie Saenz, a Hispanic -- are grateful promoters of Lanier's much-hyped inner-city revitalization effort and rarely venture far from the mayoral nest.
Meanwhile, Council's most seasoned members, Reyes and Eleanor Tinsley, have chosen their battles carefully under Lanier and rarely have the impact on policy they once did. Both are winding down their Council careers, being term-limited from seeking re-election this year.
That leaves Ray Driscoll and at-large member Lloyd Kelley (who has launched a bid to succeed Greanias as controller with the support of Lanier's big-money backers). Their occasional stubborn resistance is either ridiculed by Lanier or undermined by the reluctance of the rest of Council to weigh their views.
"Many people take the road of least resistance," Driscoll admits with a shrug. "That is, 'This particular thing is not doing any damage to me, so I'll let it ride.' A lot of [councilmembers] aren't experienced business people, so they will go along with whatever sounds reasonable."
This is an added advantage Lanier doesn't need. The city charter gives Houston's mayor almost complete control over Council, as well as carte blanche to set the agenda, appoint the committee members and make the rules under which they will operate.
But the charter also allows for a certain amount of autonomy by councilmembers, such as the right to obtain information from city departments on their own, to set their own committee agendas and create ad hoc panels independent of the administration. And by virtue of its numbers, Council is designed as a check and balance to the mayor's power.
Yet, the current City Council willingly allows itself to be almost totally dominated by Lanier. An example is Lanier's recent attempts to gain control of Council committees. Three months ago, the mayor reduced to three the number of committee members required for a quorum. The obvious breach of Robert's Rules of Order went unchallenged.
Last month, the mayor tried to take it further. In a terse letter from the office of Lanier's agenda director, Dan Jones, committee chairmen were notified that committee agendas were to be routed through Jones' office. After review by Lanier, the "approved agendas" would be posted. Just one councilmember -- Driscoll -- objected. He managed to get the order withdrawn with a strongly worded response to Lanier.
But most councilmembers seem to simply resign themselves to the fact that they have no authority.
A case in point is the Lanier administration's reworking of the city's Minority Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program. In the normal committee process, the revised ordinance would have gone from the mayor's office to the Council's MWDBE committee for additional input before being presented to the whole Council. But committee members voted against reviewing it and sent it directly from Lanier's office to the Council table. It was an obvious move to appease the mayor, who faced opposition to the new program from black councilmembers. The new ordinance won unanimous Council approval, with Yarbrough, Calloway and Lloyd Kelley -- who were known to be displeased with the new ordinance, for various reasons -- choosing to skip the vote rather than publicly register their dissent.
"Democracy," observed one City Hall staffer, "is a real irritant to the mayor."
In many ways, Lanier's dominance of Council hearkens back to pre-Whitmire days -- which is exactly where Lanier's primary backers, the business community elite, wanted to be when they raised $3 million for his 1991 campaign. Though Lanier had never held elected office before becoming mayor, he has contributed cigar smoke to enough backrooms to know how things really get done.
Lanier supporters insist the mayor encourages debate on the issues. But invariably such discussions are held behind the scenes among a group of advisors that includes Joe B. Allen, Metro chairman and developer Billy Burge and mayoral co-chiefs of staff Dave Walden and Jimmie Schindewolf.
"It's not nefarious, but the [public] debate is not there," says Bob Stein, a Rice University political scientist. "It's kind of a throwback. Hang around City Hall and you see the Burges and the Schindewolfs. None of them are elected, but they are defining the agenda."
They are also quite influential in making or breaking councilmembers' future political aspirations -- which, on the current body, run high. It's no secret that three of Lanier's most obsequious backers on Council -- Huey, Roach and Saenz -- have higher office in mind: Huey's and Roach's names have been mentioned as future mayoral candidates, and Roach is seeking to ascend to an at-large post in this November's election; Saenz may have her eye on Gene Green's congressional seat. And Peavy, who filled the at-large position vacated by Sheila Jackson Lee's departure to Congress earlier this year, owes his election in February to the money and political guidance of Lanier's backers.
"Money is the organized support in Houston politics," says Bill Simon, a Rice University sociologist and former head of the school's now-defunct Institute for Urban Studies. "As a result, they're all cozying up to the Greater Houston Partnership ... Without their backing, you're in deep trouble. And you get their backing by displaying that you are a good soldier."
Somehow, one suspects this is not exactly what proponents of term limits envisioned when they pushed through the 1991 ordinance capping the tenure of the city's elected officials at two three-year terms in any one office. Term-limit advocates such as investor Clymer Wright, who was instrumental in the passage of the ordinance and the later closing of the "loophole" that allowed term-limited officials to petition their way on to the ballot, insist that councilmembers will become more independent if they know they can't make a career out of the position.
But the inevitable election of novices with no political resources and experience can only strengthen the mayor's hand.
"The district members' whole reason for being is constituent services," says one former Council aide. "They're hypersensitive to getting things done. And the only way to get things done is to go through the mayor. He completely controls the department heads, and they know they had better respond to his favorites on Council."
Even supporters of term limits, like Lloyd Kelley, say that by the time councilmembers become savvy and confident enough to go beyond merely ensuring their constituents' garbage is picked up, they're out of office. Meanwhile, the new mayor can use the inherent powers of the office to get the new Council under his or her thumb.
"What happens when the next mayor gets anointed with that much power, and no one wants him to have it?" Kelley says. "We love those who do good and want to give them all the power to go forth. But the power to do good is the same power to do evil, and Houston, I think, one day will wake up and say, 'Oh my God, I need two aspirin. This is awful.'"
But can it really get any worse than this? Consider the Council "pop-off" session conducted the same week late last year that Reyes mounted his fruitless challenge to Lanier's industrial districts proposal. Pop-off is the weekly Tuesday gabfest when each councilmember is allowed to expound about whatever is on his or her mind. At one time, pop-off was a lively forum for debate, complaints and occasional teeth-baring. Arguments were joined; news was made. Nowadays, it's more of a showcase for how little most of the current Council actually has on its collective mind.
That week's eye-glazing exercise in groveling began when Councilwoman Martha Wong, a former school principal and onetime civic club president, dragged Lanier up to the public podium in front of the Council horseshoe. There, Wong unveiled a framed proclamation honoring Weingarten Realty Management Corporation which, it seems, had launched a program to promote "safer shopping habits."
While the recipients appeared pleased, Wong's windy speech was more of an ill-disguised paean to Lanier, lingering as it did on how such otherwise meaningless gestures promote the public-private partnerships that swell the mayor's heart.
The mayoral platitudes were offered more directly by Michael Yarbrough. He popped off on a news report about a recently rehabilitated low-income housing project -- the kind of heartwarming story that Lanier often complains is missing from the media's coverage of the city. Although he had nothing to complain about, Yarbrough wasn't to be outdone by Wong. He puckered right up and bestowed a big, wet one on Lanier:
"They did not give you credit, mayor," the councilman said with something resembling indignation. "Well, we know all about that. I'd like to give you credit. [The news report] did not mention you at all."
Having contributed mightily to the mayor's considerable ego, but absolutely nothing to the sum of human knowledge, Council segued from pop-off to its public session. A group of women construction contractors had reserved time to protest a suggestion that they be cut from the city's affirmative action program. One of the meatier issues facing Council, it nonetheless provoked little interest. Lanier sparred a bit with a few women bearing statistics; most everyone else doodled on their notepads, yakked on the phone or disappeared backstage for a cup of coffee.
But not John Kelley. Another freshman councilmember, Kelley switched on his microphone and revealed that prior to his election in 1993 he was unfamiliar with the concept of affirmative action.
He then proceeded to illustrate his point.
"I don't know who you want to call a minority, a woman or a Hispanic or a black," Kelley ruminated. "But I guess whoever has the least number of people in a thing are a minority and whoever has the most is the majority."
Such is the nature of the deep thinkers who return each Wednesday morning to consider the actual Council agenda. Most weeks, the length of the Wednesday sessions can be determined by multiplying the number of agenda items by the three seconds it takes Lanier to say, "Discussion? Favoring? Opposed? Carried." Which is to say that before lunch, several million dollars' worth of city business is dispatched with a virtual wave of the hand.
But there is the rare occasion when the swift-moving affair becomes bogged in dissent. While such unpleasantness is usually tamped out before things get out of hand, there are moments when Lanier actually has to exert himself to rein things in.
The Lanier treatment is classic Texas hardball. It begins with a big gap-toothed grin and a generous helping of his rube-like charm. If you haven't hopped on board after that, the mayor's booted feet come off the desk and you're suddenly awash in a blizzard of figures, financial mumbo jumbo and what suddenly sounds like the best idea you've heard all day.
But hesitate again, and all the subtleties disappear. In his long career as a developer and banker, Lanier made and lost more money than most members of City Council combined. He suffers no fool lightly, and if his intellect fails to sway you, it falls to his razor-sharp tongue, practiced in the art of belittlement and bolstered by his towering 6-foot-4-inch presence, to finish the job.
At those moments, says one Council observer, Lanier "becomes almost tyrannical in the way he rules over Council. He just totally emasculates them."
Particularly when he knows they are right. Earlier this year, Council debated giving $423,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to the Museum of Fine Arts for an expansion of the Glassell School of Art, which the MFA operates. There was no reason to suspect the mayor didn't have enough votes to get the measure passed. But some councilmembers couldn't help but wonder why they were spending money reserved for the needs of the poor on an institution that's not exactly known for servicing low-income Houstonians -- or in dire need of the money.
One member -- it was Reyes, not surprisingly -- wanted to question the museum's contention that the money would help provide arts opportunities to minorities. How could it guarantee that, when the MFA's board was so overwhelmingly white?
But Reyes was out of town on city business and couldn't attend the meeting at which the grant was to be considered. So he passed along a request that his colleagues delay their vote on the issue until the following week, when he could have his concerns addressed. Lanier, however, was determined to avoid any questioning by Reyes -- perhaps because among the grant's more influential backers were his wife, Elyse, an ex-officio member of the MFA's board, and the wife of Meredith Long, Lanier's finance committee chairman and an MFA board member as well.
"I'd hate to have this bandied about like this," Lanier groused before summoning MFA director Peter Marzio to the podium. After admitting the museum could eventually raise the money itself, Marzio took as much time as he needed to bandy about his side of the argument.
Meanwhile, a couple of councilmembers dared to wonder why the vote couldn't wait until Reyes returned. Lanier would hear none of it. Anyone who criticized the grant, he declared, was "truly mean-spirited."
Lanier's attitude forewarned other councilmembers against raising the issue of the MFA board's ethnicity, and, in fact, they didn't. And neither did they honor their colleague's request for a delay, voting unanimously that day to award the grant.
Then, as if to hide their shame, they launched into an infuriating, self-congratulatory discussion about how wonderful it was that they were able to undertake the debate on diversity they had so diligently ignored.
"They're just so passive," says one frustrated City Hall observer. "It's like, 'It's the mayor's world and we're just living in it.' They're afraid of him."
How afraid was probably never more apparent than during last year's budget debate, when Lanier proposed a 4-cent property tax increase. Early on, a number of councilmembers were vocal critics of Lanier's budget. Among the loudest was Joe Roach, who, though a first-term councilmember, was the Lanier-appointed head of the high-profile Youth Violence and Gang Committee.
Roach's staff had been crafting a plan that included no tax increase and $25 million in spending cuts. But, according to sources, when Lanier's office caught wind that Roach was trying to enlist the support of several councilmembers, the councilman found himself in a "very tense" meeting with Lanier co-chief of staff Dave Walden and Richard Lewis, head of the city's Department of Finance and Administration. The two tore into Roach's budget cuts, insisting there was no way he was going to get enough Council support.
"Two months later, he comes out with this alternative budget," says a City Hall staff member familiar with last year's budget discussions. "How did he talk to the department heads if he wasn't working with Lanier?"
In exchange for killing his own budget plan, Roach got credit for cutting a half-cent off Lanier's proposed tax increase. That gave the ambitious councilman the headlines, not to mention allowing him to retain some of his conservative credentials while voting for Lanier's tax increase.
Lanier hasn't had to resort to such maneuvering with Council's other devout conservative, Helen Huey. No one carries the water for Lanier so religiously as Huey, who reverently nods her head in agreement every time Lanier opens his mouth. At times, Huey, whose motto is "Working together works miracles," acts less like a councilmember than a member of the mayor's staff -- a loyalty for which she has been handsomely rewarded.
The Lanier-appointed chairman of the Fiscal Affairs, Legislative and Neighborhood Protection committees, three of the most powerful Council panels, Huey is the point person for most of Lanier's agenda. Her work on the Comprehensive Urban Rehabilitation and Building Standards ordinance, or CURB, earned her a reputation as a tireless, if occasionally ruthless, workhorse for the mayor's inner-city revitalization program.
And, in fact, no Council district has seen the physical transformation that's taken place in Huey's District A on the northwest side of the city. Thousands of apartment units have been razed to make way for expensive new homes. Road construction, esplanade projects and other neighborhood improvements abound. Huey's district also is in line for another perk from Lanier: a proposed tax-abatement reinvestment zone for an ice-skating rink near Willowbrook Mall. The project will require two variances before it can qualify for the tax break, and it will bring a grand total of eight new full-time jobs to Houston.
"She's bright and she knows what she's doing, but she has sold her soul to the mayor," says a City Hall staff member. "She is the mayor's office."
Huey's leadership, particularly as a committee chairman, has not always gone over well with her colleagues. Driscoll, for one, has noted an autocratic tendency that mirrors Lanier's, especially when someone is about to offer an opposing viewpoint.
"Many times [at] committees run by Helen Huey, the public doesn't get a chance to speak," Driscoll says. "She cuts them off. In a meeting on budget priorities, George Greanias was there and someone asked him to speak. Helen Huey didn't want to have him speak, and I jumped all over her about that."
But Driscoll's attempt to at least ensure that a dissenting view got a public airing was an anomaly. Perhaps the most telling summation of the Council's attitude toward Lanier's juggling of city finances was offered, unconsciously, by John Kelley. He arose in the middle of the same meeting on the mayor's budget priorities, threw the sheets of budget handouts he had been given into what witnesses say was an empty briefcase, and headed for the door.
"I'll leave the numbers to you, mayor," Kelley said on his way out.
Kelley can be faulted for not bothering to fake an interest in city finances, but his attitude is a common one among councilmembers. Eleanor Tinsley, who's served on Council since 1980, says Lanier has discouraged a strong Council role in the city's budget process. But not many councilmembers would be willing to disagree with the mayor, anyway, she adds.
"We're not doing what we did several years ago, when each of us would choose departments and go into depth and work really hard scrutinizing that particular budget," Tinsley says. "But the mayor has popular support. You can question whether Metro money ought to be spent or some of his other methodology, but the people out there want more police on the street and their neighborhoods fixed up. The mayor's doing what the people want, so therefore he's doing what Council wants."
Blindly granting the mayor a mandate is a hollow excuse to some, who say Council's failure to challenge Lanier on his restructuring of the city's debt and its continued reliance on the Metro subsidy has put the city at great financial risk.
"It's hard to do, because most of the cards are in the mayor's hands," says former councilman Jim Greenwood. "But I think that's one of the most important things a council does, and if you don't monitor the finances, if you don't ask questions, you're not in a position to perform as well."
It has also left the job of opposing Lanier's fiscal strategy to Controller George Greanias, whose stormy relationship with the mayor has made most councilmembers wary of dealing with him.
"Council recognizes that bringing George into their debate will alienate the mayor," says Rice professor Bob Stein. "Their fear is that the mayor controls the departments as well as political patronage and they don't want to mess with him. That's not healthy."
There was a time when Lanier and Greanias engaged in civil discourse on the city's finances. In discussions before the 1991 election, Lanier had agreed with Greanias that costs and revenues needed to be brought into line. But once in office and facing a potential $50 million shortfall, Lanier was reluctant to risk political damage by either cutting services or raising taxes.
So, to fund the key components of his agenda, Lanier needed to get his hands on every dime he could. He did this in three ways:
* Taking a greater share of the percentage of Metro's 1-cent sales tax than approved by voters in 1988 for non-transit needs. Critics -- among the most outspoken are Greanias and state Representative Sylvester Turner, Lanier's 1991 runoff opponent -- are outraged that Lanier would, as they see it, "violate" voters approval of a quarter-cent subsidy for street improvements. In each of the last two years, Lanier has more than doubled that subsidy to pay for street overlays and sidewalks, thus freeing up city money to pay for an expanded police presence.
* Postponing payments on the bond debt authorized by voters in 1991. The result is that in the three-and-a-half years of the Lanier administration, the city's taxpayer-supported debt has increased by $371 million -- more than twice that incurred by Whitmire in ten years.
* Incurring $250 million in additional debt by using unspent bond authorizations left from Whitmire, issuing about $25 million in certificates of obligation and by assuming the debt of areas annexed by the city.
Though stopping payment on one debt while taking on more would seem to be poor financial judgment, Lanier justified it by saying that the money used for infrastructure improvements would increase property values, the city's largest and most stable source of revenue.
But that hasn't happened -- a fact Lanier has been forced to admit this year. His current five-year forecast includes revised projections that show that, by 1998, the city will realize $77.7 million less in property tax revenue than Lanier hoped for in 1992.
"Basically, it's a real-estate deal that hasn't worked," Greanias says of Lanier's over-optimistic projections. "It's like somebody said to you, 'Why not invest with me in this property on the corner of such and such and so and so, and if we put in $5 million, in five years it'll be worth $20 million and we can sell it.'
"But five years down the road it ain't worth $5 million. It's worth less than you put into. That's what happened here."
Greanias says the Lanier administration knew as early as last year's budget debate that enhanced property values weren't going to bail the city out. But when the controller tried to point that out to the Fiscal Affairs Committee and later in his monthly report to Council, he says Fiscal Affairs chairman Helen Huey tried to squelch his testimony.
"She told me I was out of order, that it wasn't part of this month's financial report and therefore I couldn't bring it up," Greanias says. "It's kinda funny. I guess if this month I know that we're going to go in the tank on sales tax six months from now, I can't talk about it because it hasn't happened this month."
Lanier's present budget blueprint, while predictably optimistic, reflects other troubling financial trends. His 1996 budget allows for the same level of city services as this last year. But to accomplish that, Lanier plans take at least $8 million from the city's fund balance -- a pool of cash set aside for emergencies -- to balance his budget. Moreover, after postponing debt payments in 1992, Lanier will be forced to increase those payments over the next couple of years. The result, according to Greanias, is that there will be an actual decrease in money available for services beginning in the 1997 budget year.
But perhaps the real effect of Lanier's fiscal strategy will not be felt until he's out of office. Lanier's projections show a leveling off of debt payments beginning in fiscal year 1999. That means there are no plans to call for a bond election to authorize additional debt -- even though Lanier promises a continuation of the kinds of revitalization projects on which his mayoral legacy rests. Instead, he has said he will initiate a "pay as you go" plan.
But his blueprint gives no indication where the budget surpluses and "other available funds" to pay as you go will come from. That leaves the next administration with essentially the same options Lanier had: cut city services or raise taxes -- or once again restructure the city's debt to free up money for services.
Much to the frustration of the controller -- and others -- these arguments are rarely heard outside newspaper and radio reports and Greanias' occasional speaking engagements. Greanias says his blackballing by the Lanier administration amounts to the city's chief financial officer being "systematically excluded" from budget discussions.
"I think it's their job, whether they agree with me or not," says Greanias, who laments the fact that few councilmembers have come to him to talk about Lanier's 1996 budget. "If they don't agree with me, it shouldn't be because the mayor's told them I'm wrong. It's because they sat down, looked at the numbers and said, 'I think you're wrong' or 'I see your point, but I think the mayor is philosophically where I am.'
"I expect that as a citizen. I expect that of the elected officials I put in office."
But recently, something happened that suggests Council may be evolving into more than a rubber stamp for Lanier. It started with an idea that emanated from outside the mayor's office, and ended with two councilmembers marshaling a coalition of their own and bringing a reluctant Lanier along.
For much of the past year, Martha Wong, chairman of Council's Competitive Services Committee, and Ray Driscoll have been working on a plan that would put selected city services out for bid. Their first proposal was a five-year, $13.7 million trash-collection contract with Sanifill Hauling.
Driscoll and Wong argued that the contract would save about $2 million. But it was unclear how much support it had from Council -- apparently because Lanier, never a fan of privatization, wasn't convinced it was a worthwhile deal.
There was also the strong opposition of Helen Huey, in whose district Sanifill is building a waste transfer station. Huey had succeeded in delaying a vote for a week while continuing to lobby Council for the eight votes she needed to defeat the contract.
At the Council's May 17 meeting, Huey planned a final emotional appeal to scuttle the contract. But before she could deliver it, Wong made a motion to end the debate.
And in what is perhaps a subtle indication of a shift in Council politics -- or at least an admission of fiscal realities -- Lanier turned on his favorite councilmember and called for a vote.
"This is a blatant exercise in raw political power," hissed Huey, who has tried on many occasions to undermine councilmembers' opposition to Lanier.
"I am hurt and Iam outraged," she added, glaring at both Lanier and Wong."
Maybe she should have been impressed. Or flattered.
After all, Wong and Driscoll had pulled together enough support, including that of the skeptical Lanier, to win by a 9-4 vote --a victory that, for the two councilmembers, may have called to mind Huey's own motto: "Working together does, indeed, work miracles.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.