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The Houston City Council on Wednesday approved a $6.2 billion budget that hands a win to advocates who had fought for more spending on drainage in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, while allowing Mayor Sylvester Turner to boast that he left City Hall on firm financial footing.

Councilmembers voted 15-2 in favor of the budget and showed little interest in tapping additional funds for pet projects from a budget that includes a 3 percent raise for all city workers except firefighters, who will receive a 6 percent increase.

At the last minute, the mayor also threw his support behind redirecting $20 million toward maintaining the open ditches that are concentrated in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, cheering the advocates who packed budget hearings last month.

Thanks to higher revenue projections, even after that and other additions to Turner’s initial proposal, the city will still have a projected $404 million fund balance a year from now. Turner said that balance will allow his successor to craft their first budget without resorting to accounting tricks.

“We are moving forward, and the fund balance is strong. I am encouraging everyone to do as much as possible to keep it that way,” said Turner.

Turner’s farewell

Turner began the budget debate with an overview of changes the city has made since he came into office in 2016 to address longstanding financial drags – including the 2017 pension reform package that cut liabilities by $6 billion and changes last year that reduced liabilities for other post-employment benefits by $4.5 billion.

Thanks to those changes, federal pandemic relief funding and to holding the line on new spending, Turner said, the city will have a fund balance at the end of the next fiscal year that should allow the next mayor to balance their first budget without selling city assets or other maneuvers.

Still, next year’s budget includes across-the-board pay raises for city workers. That includes the pay bump for the firefighters who’ve been locked in a contract dispute with Turner since his first term.

The reduction in debt and large fund balance drew cheers from Mayor Pro-Tem Dave Martin, who represents District E.

“Those are benchmarks that should be studied in a Harvard Business case. How does a public entity reduce their debt?” said Martin. “Show me a state or a city that has reduced their debt like we have. I think this council should be applauded.”

The two votes against the budget came from Councilmembers Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh, the latter of whom said he was concerned about the potential cost of the pending arbitration between the city and firefighters over a new contract.

With a swipe at state Sen. John Whitmire, who’s running to succeed Turner and sponsored the recent law that mandated arbitration, the mayor said he had done everything he could to prepare the city for the unexpected.

“Sometimes people demonstrate their management even before they sit in the chairs,” said Turner. “For anybody to say we have disrespected the firefighters over the last five years, that’s a lie.”

Drainage change

In the weeks before the vote, the biggest pushback to Turner’s budget proposal came not from the City Council but from advocates who said far more should be spent on maintaining and upgrading the open drainage ditches that are concentrated in Houston’s minority neighborhoods.

The city in 2001 shifted the responsibility for maintaining those ditches from its shoulders to those of homeowners, an issue highlighted in recent reporting by the Houston Chronicle. Advocates say that Hurricane Harvey – and frequent flooding on regular rainy days – showed that the approach was counterproductive and disproportionately harmed low-income, minority neighborhoods.

Houston City Council approved a budget amendment Wednesday that provides more funding for drainage maintenance projects. (Antranik Tavitian / Abdelraoufsinno)

Last week, after higher-than-expected property tax collections helped boost next year’s beginning fund balance by $18.8 million, Turner proposed directing an extra $20 million beyond his initial proposal to the Storm Water Action Team program that is split evenly between council districts.

That drew mixed reactions from members of the Northeast Action Collective, who said more money should be concentrated where the flooding is worst – often in low-income neighborhoods that rely on open drainage ditches.

On Wednesday, Turner announced a course change that he said was prompted by discussions with Houston Public Works, whose director said that it was already at capacity for the district-based projects.

Instead, Turner said, he was throwing his support behind an amendment from District B Council Member Tarsha Jackson, which would direct the funding toward a separate project to address the most pressing drainage needs citywide.

In addition, Turner said he is preparing an ordinance that will reverse the 2001 policy change putting the onus for ditch maintenance on property owners.

Turner’s announcement drew cheers from council members and thrilled community members who’d feared that their demands would go unheard.

“We’re changing the way we do business in Houston, and this is, I think, historic and monumental. I’m really excited about the justice that’s being supported today,” said at-large Councilmember David Robinson.

City Council member Tarsha Jackson from District B poses with members of the Northeast Action Collective in City Hall after the council voted to pass an amendment which gives an additional $20 million dollars to maintaining storm drainage and open ditches. (Nicole Hopwood for Abdelraoufsinno)

Members of the Northeast Action Collective erupted in applause after the amendment’s passage and embraced Jackson out in the hallway. Northeast Action Collective member Carolyn Rivera, an 80-year-old Settegast resident whose neighborhood often floods during a storm, said the budget shift was a recognition of the group’s relentless pressure on city officials.

“They recognized we were not going to stop,” said Rivera, who added that she was “celebrating with tears, because I can’t stop crying.”

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Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...