February 22, 2006
The mysterious budget

The more we learn about what happened with those unauthorized bonuses to staffers in the Mayor Pro Tem's office, the less we seem to know about how it all happened.

The city office where four employees received unauthorized bonuses saw a 25 percent increase in its budget this fiscal year — an appropriation that city officials haven't fully detailed.

The glare of publicity about the $130,000 incentive payments to workers in the Office of Mayor Pro Tem has drawn attention to the budget, which was included in a larger pool set aside for the 14 City Council members.

The City Council approved an increase from $260,000 to $326,000 for the pro tem office. And that was only half of the $122,000 increase the office requested.

Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, who as mayor pro tem oversees the office, and top members of Mayor Bill White's administration, which produced the council budgets, didn't respond in detail to repeated inquiries about the proposed and actual increases.

"The justification cited was increased costs of services and supplies," said Frank Michel, White's spokesman. "We don't have any written documentation."

Alvarado, whose district office is separate from that of the pro tem, said the extra money was a "restoration" to levels in previous administrations. The pro tem budget remained $260,000 during the past three years, but was more than $300,000 in the past, she said.

She said the increase this year was requested by her mayor pro tem office manager, Rosita Hernandez, one of four employees who received bonuses city officials say were unauthorized. Hernandez's $47,500 in 2005 bonuses boosted her total pay to $125,500, among the highest in city government.

"I'm looking for something in writing that justifies the restoration of funds," Alvarado said. "I wish I had access to those documents."

According to the story, the Houston Police Office of Inspector General and Houston's Finance and Administration Director Judy Gray Johnson are the ones with the documents, and they aren't talking. Which is fine and how it should be in an ongoing investigation. Once they're done, I imagine the District Attorney's office will get involved.

The good news, as far as it goes, is that this is not the kind of malfeasance that enhances one group's political power at the expense of another, so when the facts are out and it's time for the Council to do something about it, whatever solutions get proposed will most likely run into little organized resistance. In other words, nothing like what happens to reform measures, even ones with a majority of the membership as sponsors, in the Texas Legislature. Along those lines, Stace has some suggestions for how to keep this from happening again.

Getting back to the story, Councilmember Alvarado would do well to make like the HPOIG and AD Johnson for a little while:

Alvarado, who has said she can't recall specific details about the increase, said Tuesday she was "frustrated" by the lack of information.

She also was concerned about whether media coverage of such questions might unfairly taint her.

"It's my office. It's my name," she said. "I don't know why this $50,000, or $60,000, is such a big issue."

With all due respect, your office and your name are your problems right now. What matter is figuring out what happened here, and taking the necessary steps to prevent it from happening again. You may or may not come out of this looking good, and how that comes down may or may not be within your control. Them's the breaks.

Also not looking so good:

When asked about the budget, city officials referred to a June presentation to the council's Fiscal Affairs Committee.

The short session included a broad description of the overall City Council budget, with only vague details about the pro tem office. And council members asked few questions.

"I have to tell you, I was stunned that the pro tem office had such a substantial raise this year," Councilwoman Pam Holm said Tuesday, noting that she didn't notice it in the hustle of last year's budget process.

Holm said council members should be accountable for all lines in the budget and suggested a study of whether the pro tem budget is too high.

Did you register your stunned-ness for the record when you voted on last year's budget, or are you just retroactively stunned now? Because the latter isn't helping.

In one sense, Alvarado is right: $130K out of a $3.2 billion budget is 0.004%. And so Holm is also right, in that every Council member should be accountable for each line item. Like I said, once we have all the facts, passing the reforms should be easy enough to do.

UPDATE: Alvarado apologizes to her Council colleagues for the mess.

"I would never do anything to jeopardize the integrity of the position or to compromise the essential services the office provides," she said. "I was shocked to learn of payroll irregularities."


"I have been astonished and disappointed to discover how easy it was for someone to forge my initials and steal both taxpayer dollars and my personal reputation at the same time," she said.

That's a better response. Now let's stay focused on fixing the problem.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 22, 2006 to Local politics | TrackBack