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When a hard rain comes to northeast Houston, Anita Guevara’s mind flashes back to Hurricane Harvey when her sister lost her life and Guevara was trapped in her home for 48 hours before being rescued by the Cajun Navy.

At Guevara’s house on Kellett Street near Halls Bayou, every storm is a reminder of infrastructure work yet to be done.

“I look out at the street to see how high the water is. It’s really nerve-wracking,” she said.

Guevara is one of the founders of an advocacy group that has pitched City Hall in recent weeks for more spending on drainage and sewer projects.

With the city’s budget process set to kick into high gear next month, however, the group could face steep obstacles to the kind of success it had last year when it won an extra $20 million for drainage projects.

From residents frustrated with repeated flooding to municipal workers looking for raises, many groups are angling for a piece of the budget. Houston Police Department employees also are looking ahead to contract negotiations next year.

Mayor John Whitmire’s proposed $1.5 billion settlement with the firefighters’ union could leave little room for other priorities, however. Houston residents will learn more about the mayor’s plans when he unveils his budget proposal May 14.

At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who chairs the council’s budget committee, said she expects there to be little money to spare.

“I think a lot of that is going to be crowded out. The mayor has even said we have to look at requests for funding,” Alcorn said. “I think council members that want to add money somewhere will have to find it from somewhere else in the budget.”

A case of whiplash

Houston residents could be excused for a case of political whiplash over the past few months.

Firefighters from Houston and around the state formally endorsed Senator John Whitmire’s candidacy for Houston mayor at an event on September 30, 2023 at Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local in Houston, Texas.
Firefighters from Houston and around the state formally endorsed Senator John Whitmire’s candidacy for Houston mayor at an event on September 30, 2023 at Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local in Houston, Texas. (Abdelraoufsinno file photo / Meridith Kohut)

In December, former Mayor Sylvester Turner left office boasting about the historic fund balance of more than $400 million he was bequeathing to his successor. In January, Mayor John Whitmire was sworn into office – and almost immediately began talking about how the city was “broke.”

“There are elements of truth in both descriptions,” City Controller Chris Hollins said Monday.

The city does have a historic fund balance, Hollins said. It also has an underlying structural deficit, meaning that it annually spends more than it takes in. Past mayors addressed that problem with one-time budget maneuvers, and Turner relied on pandemic relief funds that finally are running out.

The structural deficit sat at about $160 to $200 million per year before Whitmire reached the proposed settlement with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, Hollins said. In its first year alone, the settlement’s combination of back pay and raises could add $70 million to $80 million to the structural deficit.

“You could continue on the current spending path for another year, but you couldn’t make it two years,” Hollins said. “We should start working toward achieving that balance as soon as possible.”

Next year’s budget could be defined by a trio of unknowns: First, the exact terms of the proposed firefighter settlement, which as of Wednesday had yet to be released to council members. Second, the city’s sales tax revenues in the final weeks of this fiscal year. Third, analyst expectations about interest rates, which could drive up or lower the cost of the back-pay settlement.

Finding the balance

Whitmire’s administration has not put forth a definite plan for funding the settlement and did not make the city’s finance director available for an interview on the budget.

One big question hanging over the process is whether Whitmire will attempt to include new sources of revenue, or whether he will tackle that question after the July 1 budget deadline. The fund balance could give him more time, but some observers warned against it.

“The budget shouldn’t be short term. You need to look long term – eight years, 10 years down the road,” said Michael Adams, a public affairs professor at Texas Southern University. “It’s paramount that the city should be forward-looking, whatever approach they take.”

All the proposals Whitmire has floated so far come with drawbacks.

The mayor has requested non-public safety departments to propose 5 percent budget cuts. Many departments, such as Solid Waste Management, already are short-staffed, and with those exclusions applied, the cuts would have amounted to about $40 million out of the total $2.4 billion in general fund expenses last year.

“It’s not tons. But I do feel like it’s really important that we do some of that,” Alcorn said. “I think it’s really important to the public to see that the city has really taken measures to make the city run more efficiently.”

Meanwhile, the administration also is considering a roughly $20 monthly garbage fee and a “public safety exception” to the city’s revenue cap, the latter of which could generate between $50 and $200 million per year.

Whitmire ran on boosting the size of the Houston police and fire departments and he could paint higher property tax payments as a necessary tool to do so. However, Adams said, residents already burdened with the result of rising property values will be leery of paying more.

Mounting needs

When he ran for office last year, Whitmire received endorsements from the firefighters union, the Houston Organization of Public Employees and the politically powerful Houston Police Officers’ Union.

HOPE began negotiations with the Whitmire administration on Tuesday, with the stated goal of following the firefighters in receiving a favorable new contract. The police union is on deck for negotiations in July 2025.

Doug Griffith, president of the police group, said he believes a property tax hike may be the only way of paying for necessary raises and expenses. He said the city is struggling to attract new police cadets with a starting salary of $42,000.

“The city doesn’t have the money to pay for the firefighters contract as it sits today. So, where that revenue comes from, we don’t know,” Griffith said. “We would hope that the city doesn’t strap itself so bad that it can’t deal with us and the municipal employees.”

There are plenty of others hoping Whitmire takes their advice to heart. Alcorn is pushing for the city to make a substantial down payment on the bonds the Whitmire administration wants to use to cover the firefighter back-pay settlement, to lessen the long-term financial burden to the city.

Guevara and other advocates spoke to City Council on Tuesday asking for a new, $20 million private sewer lateral repair fund, which would address leaks in the lines from residents’ properties to city pipes. Her group, the Northeast Action Collective, also is asking Whitmire to follow through on a campaign promise to spend money dedicated for street and drainage projects on those projects alone.

On a recent tour of Guevara’s neighborhood, organizer Felix Kapoor of the group West Street Recovery pointed out the streets in the Lake Forest Park area that still have yet to receive drainage projects seven years after Hurricane Harvey. Guevara’s street still had standing water at the curb more than 24 hours after a thunderstorm.

“We keep focusing on this area because you see the need. You feel the need,” Kapoor said.

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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...