in Houston, Texas

Houston Mayor Annise Parker predicts more layoffs, other budget fixes in sit-down with Texas Watchdog

Monday, Jan 24, 2011, 10:27AM CST
By Steve Miller
Houston City Hall

Annise Parker has spent most of her first year as mayor of Houston saying no.

 

No to increased spending, no to more hires, no to another year of Frank Wilson as head of Metro, and no to keeping the chief of the Houston Police Department. The chief of the Houston Fire Department also stepped down from the top job under pressure.


The City Council approved her $4.1 billion budget, which was marked by cuts in human services, debt service and general costs. Next year’s budget is already in process, and in an interview, Parker said there are likely to be more layoffs.


There were some yeses, though. She said yes to an increase in water rates that was passed by the council. And she also said yes to mandatory city employee furloughs, which are currently the subject of in-house griping at City Hall.


The first year in office was spent doing some housekeeping, cleaning up city offices that had been plagued by controversy. Residents have approved her work for the most part, with a meager six percent giving her a "poor" grade in a poll released in September.  


When Parker sat down in her office with Texas Watchdog last Friday, she was tired. She had just come from taping a promo for the Chevron Houston Marathon, and she yawned as she waited for her lunch – soup in a cardboard container – and stared fixedly at a paper on her desk. 


It is a politician’s gift, though, to rise to the occasion, and Parker, who has been an elected official since 1998, is by now seasoned. When the red light of a digital recorder came on, the mayor immediately transformed from sleepy to alive, effusive in her recitation of facts and platforms and all things Houston. Here are the high points on a number of subjects.

Annise ParkerPARKER

On Metro: “I think Metro is a righted ship. We have great leadership in place, new board members, a new president and CEO in George Greanias. We had narrowly avoided a complete implosion at the federal level. I’m certainly going to continue to watch them and how they operate, but it’s no longer on my front burner.”

Parker noted that new population figures from the U.S Census Bureau mean two new board positions at Metro that will not be appointed by the city; one will be appointed at the county level and another from one of the smaller cities in Metro’s jurisdiction.


“It means I would not appoint the majority of board members. I understand representative democracy, which is what is being achieved with these new board members.”

 

On Houston and accusations that it is a sanctuary city: “It is a meaningless term. I understand that there are some cities out there that have taken the position that they would never cooperate with the immigration service. That’s not Houston. We regularly communicate with the immigration service, and if you are arrested and taken to city jail, we run your information through Secure Communities, which is a national database. We have the same policy as the Texas Department of Public Safety, which is that you don’t stop someone simply on the basis of wondering if they are here legally. That may be one question we ask, but my police officers don’t make that determination on the street. We want anyone living here to report a crime if they are a witness or a victim. We want them to cooperate with the police, and we understand that this is a hub for narcotrafficking. The best tips we get may be from someone who is here illegally."

 

On the Houston Airport System and its nonprofit arm, the Houston Airport System Development Corporation, which she once said was beset with “systemic problems”: “I believe we have reined in HASDC. We have clarified the different areas of responsibilities for HASDC and how much resources are available for that entity and have limited what HASDC does. My big area of heartburn was that they seemed to be marketing themselves as (the) Houston Airport System when they were intended to be at arm’s length. It’s a situation we will continue to watch because we don’t want it to morph out.”

 

On the voters turning back the red-light cameras: “I was astounded at the jump in red-light running when we announced the cameras were going off. It was like that (snaps fingers). We’re not issuing tickets, but the cameras were still at the intersections, and the released data showing the numbers going straight up.”


On pensions: "It's a complex issue not entirely in my control. I can't afford to do anything that makes a whole bunch of people jump ship. Many are working and almost ready to retire. I think something on the order of half the police department  are eligible to retire. The fundamental question is, 'What is a fair pension for retirees, and what is a fair percentage of payroll for the city to put in?' I'm trying to bring us into a relationship with our pensions for, say, two-to-one ratio. Whatever the employees would put in, we would put twice that in." (Read more about Parker's approach to pensions.)

 

On transparency: “There is more city data available online now, and we are working to get some of the smaller offices to put more financial data online. We are trying to be much more accommodating to [Texas Public Information Act] requests. My feeling has always been, if we can get the request out the same day, let’s do it. We don’t have to wait the required period, the 10 days. Some of this is just changing mindset. It’s something you have to keep on all the time, but all it takes is release of information, and maybe there’s a bad news story, and then the department starts to feel embattled and heads into the bunker. It means refreshing the attitude that the public has the right to know, even if it’s embarrassing.”

 

On cutting costs in the city: “I’m not convinced we have right-sized the city enough. We are continuing with the consolidations right now, wrapping up a consolidation of human resources and the fleet management department, so there are new efficiencies to be squeezed out there. I am working on a budget, and I am going to build in that my fixed costs are $100 million higher than my revenue.”


The mayor added one more idea she has to stabilize the city’s coffers. 


“We need to do a better job of collecting money owed to the city. Right now unpaid tickets add up to $25 million, and there is more in unpaid ambulance fees. There is hundreds of millions owed to the city going back years. By the time I leave, if you owe the city money, you will know you owe the city money.”


Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.


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Photo of Houston City Hall by flickr user quadrant6ix, used via a Creative Commons license.

Comments
Robert
Tuesday, 01/25/2011 - 03:50AM

You must remember that that poll taken in September was prior to the election. No one heard about impending disaster with the City's budget because White was running for governor. One week after the election is when the sky started falling.

Personally, I am not impressed with her. She had the job of Controller for a number of years before she took this job. Her surprise at the state of financial affairs within the city strikes me as disingenuous at best

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