At Mayor Sylvester Turner's first State of the City address on Wednesday, there were two disasters at the forefront: the aftermath of the flood, and the city's troublesome financial situation. But when Turner took the podium inside the Hilton Grand Ballroom downtown, it was the former that took immediate precedence in his speech, given the gripping effects it's had on Houstonians.
Weighing the devastating impact of the historic April 18 flooding, Turner noted that many Houstonians affected the most have grown “impatient with elected officials who offer explanations with no practical solutions, and some have and others are close to packing up and leaving our city unless we can convince them that we are going to do exponentially more than what they currently see.”
So here’s a new solution Turner offered early in his speech Wednesday: hiring a “flood czar,” who will be responsible for designing ways to mitigate flood risks, such as by revising city ordinances or policies and by working with several state, county and city departments to improve drainage and flood-prevention infrastructure. That person will be Steve Costello, an engineer and former city council member who lost to Turner in the race for mayor last year. Costello apparently accepted the full-time salaried position without even knowing what he will be paid; his first projects are not yet determined.
Costello is likely one of the few people who will be accepting a job from the city anytime soon. Turner, after inviting a dozen or so Public Works employees onstage to commend them for filling some 19,000 potholes, steered attention to the city’s budget problems for the coming fiscal year. The city faces an estimated budget shortfall of $160 million, caused largely by the slowdown in the oil and gas industry, the city’s property tax revenue cap and the city’s debt resulting from massive pension costs.
So as a result, Turner said, the city plans to have “stringent limits” on hiring people, put a freeze on pay increases, eliminate 54 vacant positions and lay off 40 city employees. The only sector that will have more employees is the Houston Police Department, which is exempt from layoffs. Turner is adding another cadet class and will also be moving 175 desk police officers onto the streets for patrol. (He has also cut an investigative unit that focuses on burglaries and assaults to move them to patrol as well, which, as the Houston Chronicle pointed out, has been a controversial move.)
Otherwise, to ensure that the city’s financial woes don’t continue to grow, Turner said he is prioritizing pension reform and will seek to ensure that the city’s pension burden is reduced by year’s end. And if that falls through? “If we do not reach an agreement this year [that is enacted by the Legislature],” Turner said, “city services will be adversely affected, hundreds of employees will be laid off and our credit rating will likely suffer.”
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Turner called attention to the city’s downgraded credit rating from Moody’s and Standard & Poor's multiple times, particularly during a press conference after his speech. Along with the city’s pension problem, the credit agencies have targeted the city’s unusually low property tax revenue cap, which Turner is seeking to remove by November 2017. While that may be great for the city’s credit rating, what that means for Houstonians’ property taxes is not so clear. Turner essentially refused to give a straight answer when asked, multiple times, whether the removal of the property-tax cap would mean higher property taxes for citizens.
Turner said he is “not advocating for a property tax increase,” but simply wants to remove the arbitrary cap. He said he is “asking Houstonians to take heed of what credit rating agencies say.” When pressed for clarification, Turner told the media to “characterize that how you want to characterize that.”
But back in the Hilton Grand Ballroom during his speech, Turner said that he is “under no illusions” that these tasks will be easy, whether it’s solving the pension issue, recovering from the flood, fixing homelessness or restoring Houston’s low-opportunity neighborhoods.
For assurance, he told the room, “My mom said, ‘Tomorrow will be better than today,’ and as mayor of this city, I still believe in what she said.”