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June 10th, 2020:

Budget amendments and a fight over police reform

That’s your City Council agenda for today.

City council members have authored more than four dozen amendments to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget to trim spending, create new sources of revenue and expand police accountability measures.

Council members will take up the proposals Wednesday when they consider the mayor’s $5.1 billion budget plan, which is coming forward at an especially fraught moment. The city’s usual budget challenges have been aggravated by the economic crisis tied to COVID-19, while activists are gaining traction around the country in their calls to defund or scale back police departments after the death of Houston native George Floyd.

Many of the 50 budget amendments are a direct response to those topics, including one from Councilwoman Amy Peck that would establish a group to audit all city departments and programs, then recommend whether they should be continued with certain changes, folded into another program or dissolved altogether.

The process would in some ways parallel the zero-based budgeting process used for Turner’s spending plan, which required department heads to analyze every function and justify each dollar spent rather than adding to existing budgets. Peck said Turner’s administration never showed council members the detailed results of zero-based budgeting — and her so-called sunset review commission has a broader scope.

“With the sunset review, it’s looking at every line item, but it goes past that,” she said. “It involves citizens and stakeholders and really gets into whether (the program is) serving the constituents, whether there are ways to consolidate, if there are technology advances to make. There could be some program within a department that’s just not needed anymore.”

Other cost-cutting amendments include Councilwoman Sallie Alcorn’s proposal to study where Houston and Harris County can join forces instead of providing duplicate services, and a program suggested by Peck and Councilman Robert Gallegos that would allow city workers to voluntarily take unpaid time off. Councilman Greg Travis also proposed letting private firms compete with city departments for certain contracts, or studying whether it would save money to do so.

[…]

The mayor has expressed opposition, meanwhile, to a sweeping police reform amendment introduced by Councilwoman Letitia Plummer that would eliminate nearly 200 vacant positions in the Houston Police Department. The funds saved by getting rid of the positions and a cadet class would go toward beefing up de-escalation training and the police oversight board, among other proposals sought by those pushing for police department reform around the country.

Turner repeatedly said during last year’s mayoral campaign that he wants to grow the police department by several hundred officers, and he rejected the idea of reducing the police department’s budget during an appearance on CNN last week.

With a budget of over $900 million that is devoted almost entirely to personnel, HPD is by far the city’s largest department and would have little room to cut spending without diminishing the police force. The police union previously negotiated a 3 percent pay bump from July 1 through the end of the year, accounting for much of the department’s proposed budget increase.

On Monday, five black Houston council members released a series of proposed HPD reforms that include many of the measures contained in Plummer’s plan, but without the spending cuts. The letter included every black member of council — Martha Castex-Tatum, Jerry Davis, Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, Edward Pollard and Tiffany Thomas — except Plummer.

In a statement, Plummer said, “After reading my colleagues’ open letter, it appears we all want the same things. I look forward to having their support for my amendments on Wednesday.”

See here for some background, and here for the five Council members’ proposals. Here it must be noted that the police union was a big supporter of Mayor Turner, and they were the instigators of the lawsuit that killed the firefighter pay parity referendum. He campaigned on hiring more police, and that’s where he is. That said, nine votes on Council can pass a budget amendment, and in addition to those six black Council members there are five other Democrats – Abbie Kamin, Robert Gallegos, Karla Cisneros, David Robinson, and Sallie Alcorn – who should be open to persuasion on this matter. Maybe some of the Republican Council members might be willing to trim some budget as well – CM Dave Martin received no money from the HPOU PAC in 2019, for instance. Point being, there’s plenty of room to get at least the group of five amendments passed, if not the Plummer amendment. There’s a rally this morning at City Hall to build support for that. There won’t be any better opportunities anytime soon.

Executive action on police reform

It’s a start.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday announced he would sign an executive order to enact some immediate reforms aimed at curtailing police violence, including requiring Houston officers to give verbal warning and exhaust all other options before firing their weapons.

Turner outlined his order, which embraces proposals from the #8cantwait campaign, at the funeral for George Floyd, the former Houston resident whose May 25 death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked international protests and widespread calls for reform. Turner said he would sign the order Tuesday evening, but that was canceled at the last moment; a spokeswoman said the mayor planned to sign the order Wednesday, but did not explain the delay.

The mayor’s announcement came shortly before dozens of Houstonians urged City Council to reject Turner’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, unless millions of dollars are diverted from the police department to other areas.

[…]

Though the actual text of Turner’s executive order was not available Tuesday, it will include a ban on chokeholds, require de-escalation, comprehensive use-of-force reporting, mandate that officers intervene when they witness misconduct, “and more,” Turner said on Twitter.

It was not clear whether the order would embrace the remaining recommendations from the #8cantwait project, which claims that departments who adopt the eight measures have fewer uses of force.

HPD already enforces some of those measures. The department’s use-of-force policy from 2015 includes a duty-to-intervene clause and a ban on shooting at moving vehicles, unless the driver is immediately threatening someone’s safety.

The Houston Police Officers’ Union said the department has had a ban on chokeholds for four decades and possibly never used them. It was not immediately clear, however, whether that prohibition is codified in writing.

Joe Gamaldi, president of the union, said he was waiting to comment on Turner’s executive order until the text is released.

Many other police departments already have adopted the #8cantwait measures with little impact to show for it, said Kevin Buckler, a criminal justice professor at the University of Houston-Downtown.

“They’re already used across the country. Perhaps not by every department, but they’re already utilized, and we still arrived at the current state of affairs that we’re at right now,” Buckler said, adding that the campaign “is a very good marketing strategy, but it’s not evidenced-based at all.”

You can see the tweet here. Much of the rest of the story is a later version of the one I blogged about here. In addition to the proposals from various Council members, we also have that forthcoming task force. Based on Professor Buckler’s comments, I’d say that task force needs to recommend that everything we do is quantifiable and aimed at a specific goal – some number of reductions or increases or changes or what have you, which we track with the idea of adjusting the new guidelines or ordinances as needed to achieve those goals. We want change that actually makes a difference, after all.

The local view of COVID hospitalizations

More numbers.

Three weeks after it stood out as the urban exception to the state’s spiking COVID-19 crisis, the Houston region has begun seeing a significant increase in cases and hospitalizations.

The upturn, which began two weeks ago and accelerated this week, comes a month after Gov. Greg Abbott began allowing businesses to reopen and a week and a half after the Memorial Day weekend, both of which health officials think led people to let their guard down and come into closer contact with others. The hike followed a roughly month-long plateau the area had settled into.

“This is a trend we’re definitely keeping an eye on,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. “If the numbers keep up in this direction, we could be headed to a place where we run out of hospital space, which obviously would be a problem.”

COVID-19 patients have occupied hospital intensive-care units in the nine-county Houston area at higher levels the first three days in June than they did on any single day in May, according to date compiled by the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, a state group that coordinates the region’s emergency response to disasters. In Harris County, hospital admissions have increased at statistically significant levels the past two weeks.

[…]

Despite public health admonitions reminding people of the need to continue practicing social distancing, many didn’t seem to get the message, said public health officials.

“I am afraid the public interprets lifting ‘government-mandated shelter in place” and closure of non-essential business that the pandemic is over and community and individual mitigation measures are no longer necessary,” said Gerald Parker, director of the pandemic and biosecurity policy program at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government Service. “But the virus is still in our communities and can hit the most vulnerable hard.”

Parker, who said “time will tell whether or not the increase in case becomes dangerous,” urged people to still wear masks, limit numbers in gatherings and maintain six feet of separation from others.

See here for the state view. Again, this may wind up being a small and temporary bump, and it may be that we have the capacity to absorb the increase with no problems. (If you don’t consider the larger number of people getting and dying from this virus a problem, I suppose.) But again my question is, what happens if we can’t handle it? What happens if the hospitals do begin to become overwhelmed? What’s our plan at that point? To be more specific, what if it’s just a problem here in Harris County? Will Judge Hidalgo have the authority again to impose a stay-at-home order, or are we all at Greg Abbott’s mercy? (Not to mention the whims of the State Supreme Court.) What we have now looks like hope and not a plan. And I hope I’m wrong about that.

Here comes high school football

Surely you didn’t think that Texas’ favorite sport would stay on the sidelines for long?

More focus will be on instruction, caution and care than nailing the perfect squat rep when University Interscholastic League athletic programs return to in-person strength and conditioning training Monday.

Teams won’t be crawling, walking and then running through coronavirus-altered training this summer. North Shore football coach Jon Kay said “we’re really going to be sitting first, then crawling and then walking and then jogging.”

They have no choice, considering the thorough safety precautions.

The UIL’s outlined requirements for in-person weight training and sport-specific skill instruction include a maximum of 25 percent capacity at indoor workout facilities. It means approximately 36 people — including coaches and athletes — will be allowed in Dickinson’s weight room. Masks and face coverings aren’t required by the UIL but will be by Dickinson ISD inside buildings.

Social-distancing measures of at least 6 feet are required, and workout stations will be at least 10 feet apart. That has required some interior redecoration in places like Cleveland, where football coach Jason Fiacco said he and his staff have spaced out stations inside the current weight room and marked spots where players should stand during workouts.

“It’s going to be unlike any other lifting program anybody has really every devised,” Fiacco said.

The UIL is allowing one staff member per 20 athletes during workouts. Hand-sanitizing and washing stations are required, and every weight and bar will be disinfected before each use.

[…]

Coaches must be strict “because we’ve got to get this right,” Dickinson football coach John Snelson said. Coaches believe football in the fall hangs in the balance, as does, more importantly, the health of the athletes.

Kay mentions the University of Alabama, where reports say at least five football players tested positive for COVID-19 after a player-led workout session last week.

Teams must adapt on the fly because, as Snelson said, “there is no playbook.” What happens if an athlete gets sick or someone a coach has been around is sick? What happens if a coach misses a session? What happens if participation numbers are larger than expected? All UIL teams regardless of sport can open training Monday, but football is usually a behemoth of a production. Snelson expects approximately 250 football players in Monday morning sessions for ninth through 12th grade alone.

The UIL requires participation to be optional. Snelson expects some parents will be eager for their son or daughter to be somewhere other than home. Some parents will be conservative, which is understandable.

I mean, we’re all just taking it on faith that this will be fine. If we had better testing and contact tracing, I’d feel more confidence. Under these circumstances, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be a spike in COVID cases as a result. I just hope – that word I have to keep using since we don’t have a plan – it isn’t as bad as I fear it could be.