April 08, 2007
The Mayor talks about the Center

Mayor White has an op-ed in the Chron about the current unpleasantness surrounding the Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation. I haven't done a word-for-word comparison, but I believe it's the same as the memo he sent to City Council on Friday, which was excerpted in the City Hall blog. While it's clear that there's a lot of public relations ground to make up, the Mayor's case basically boils down to this:

During this administration, we have tried to improve management of our real estate. Historically, Houston maintained surplus real estate with no planned use, or permitted nonprofit and occasionally for-profit entities to lease city real estate for little or no value.

There are two problems with handling public assets, whether it be cash or real estate, without formal standards: first, we lose the opportunity to maximize the use of our assets in the public interest; and second, we fail to account annually for the value of grants or gifts to various organizations, and to subject them to open annual debate in our budget process.

As noted by Matt Stiles, the genesis of this policy appears to have been a KHOU investigation of city-managed leases, which demonstrated that nobody had given them any thought in many a year, which led to some properties (all the ones cited in the KHOU piece were for-profit businesses) having extremely cheap rents. Far and away the best bit in the piece is the following:

"If you had told me that happened and not shown me, I wouldn't have believed it," City Councilman Michael Berry said.


"It borders on criminal that the taxpayer could be cheated that badly," he said.

Who could have ever foreseen such a reaction from the conservative wing? Different Council member, but the script is pretty much dead on. Color me unsurprised.

Seeing that story answers a question that has been bugging me: Why had the city gone so far as to bring up the subject of selling the Center's land when it was clear that negotiations for a new lease had not progressed very far? My guess at this point is that once the city's real estate division did a review of all its leases, they were prioritized by value, which naturally would have put the Center at or near the top. That neither excuses nor explains the heavyhanded approach the city took in that letter to the Center - indeed, it speaks of ignorance about the Center, which I'm told Mayor White has not visited and whose name he got wrong in his article (though as a commenter on the City Hall blog notes, he may be using a previous name for it) - but it at least gives a reason why this happened at this time.

There's another question that needs to be answered. From the companion op-ed that chastised the city for its approach to the Center:

The city of Houston and the Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation entered into a written contract in 1963. The city of Houston recently announced that it would terminate the contract.

Why shouldn't the city have the right to seek the termination of a contract that is apparently invalid? An earlier City Hall blog post asks the question why these leases were created in the first place. Alas, we can't ask Mayor Cutrer - perhaps there's still someone from his staff around who can answer that - but if you accept that a 99-year lease is forbidden by the city charter, then why should Mayor White be required to honor it? What if it were Brennan's or Bubba's Burger Shack (two of the businesses noted in that KHOU story) in possession of this lease?

Well, the Center is a nonprofit that delivers a vital service to the city. That's true, and they do deserve to be treated differently than a for-profit business. No question about that. But do they deserve to be treated differently than other nonprofits that deliver vital services to the city? Should all nonprofits get the same deal the Center has, or should the Center get a deal that's more in line with what its peer institutions get? The latter is clearly the Mayor's position, and if you accept it, then we're just dickering over the price. (If you don't accept it, then by all means please elucidate.)

The good news is that nobody has done anything yet that can't be taken back. I continue to believe that we'll see a deal soon. Frankly, the longer this drags out, the more pressure the Mayor will come under to give in, so it's very much in his interest to get this resolved. We'll see how it goes.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 08, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston

The mayor's response would have been much more believable if he cut the tired cliché about society being judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens.

The mayor should have instead responded more along the lines of recounting his own personal story of living through the agony of trying to care for a family member who, through no fault of anyone, demanded more resources than his family could provide and how that stress was so great that it destroyed his family.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on April 8, 2007 9:37 PM