The big local political story, besides whatever violence the Legislature commits to Houston and/or Harris County, will be the 2023 Mayor’s race. The incumbent still has a full year to go, though, and he has his plans for what he wants to do with his remaining time in office.
Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to focus his final year in office on moving existing projects across the finish line, with an emphasis on housing, crime, parks and community facilities.
Turner said he wants to accomplish his administration’s goal of helping to build 10,000 new housing units in his second term, while also continuing the city’s progress since 2012 in reducing homelessness. His “One Safe Houston” plan to address violent crime has several elements that are funded through the rest of his tenure, including expanded crisis response teams. And there are renovations underway in 22 community parks that he wants to see through before his term ends in January 2024.
“It’s about finishing up many of the priorities and projects that are currently on the books,” said Turner, who revealed recently that he worked this summer while battling a cancer diagnosis. He now is cancer-free.
Next year, though, could force confrontations with structural issues at City Hall that Turner is satisfied to leave to his successor, such as a potential adjustment to the city’s revenue cap, and the resolution of a yearslong contract stalemate with firefighters that has spanned nearly his full tenure, and which now rests with the Supreme Court.
Turner has said a garbage fee — Houston is the only city in Texas without one — is necessary to sustain Solid Waste operations, though he is not likely to take that on in his final year. He likewise has argued an adjustment to the revenue cap is necessary. The most recent discussion of the cap came in October, after it forced the city’s eighth rate cut in nine years. At-Large Council Member Michael Kubosh wondered aloud how the city could afford its growing police and fire budgets with those restraints. Turner said he would present an adjustment to the cap if council desired it.
Turner said that adjustment proposal still is in the works but acknowledged he is not “100 percent on it.”
“Some of the these things need to be left for the next mayor,” he said, and the ruling in the firefighters dispute could affect his calculus, as well. “A modification of the revenue cap may not be adequate to address it. In that case, I won’t present it. I’ll leave it up to the next mayor to address how he or she, and the people in this city, should deal with it.”
Turner argues he has done his part tackling intractable problems facing the city. The 2017 pension reforms he ushered in have slashed the city’s daunting debt in that arena from a $8 billion liability to about $1.5 billion. The issue that once dominated city government and politics now is mostly an afterthought. The city’s liability for retirement benefits likewise was expected to grow to $9 billion over 30 years, but cuts Turner implemented are expected to reduce that at least in half.
“I can’t fix everything, but we’ve fixed a whole lot,” Turner said.
Turner and other elected leaders in the city long have said the cap strains the city’s finances and hinders its ability to provide adequate resources to residents. It has cost the city about $1.5 billion in revenue since it first hit the cap in 2015. In that time, it has saved the owner of the median Houston home about $946, or about $105 per year.
I’m not sure I have any hope left about raising the revenue cap. If there actually is some action on it, the most likely scenario is what we have done before, which is to carve out a limited exception for public safety spending. That’s more likely to pass a public vote, and less likely to get cracked down on by the Legislature. It’s at best a band-aid, if it even happens, but you know nothing significant will ever happen until we have a different state government, and we know that ain’t happening for at least another four years.
As for the firefighters, there are two issues that need to be resolved by the courts before anything gets left as a mess for the next Mayor, and those are the pay parity lawsuit and the HFD collective bargaining lawsuit, both of which just had hearings before SCOTx. I have no prediction for either – we may or may not get rulings on them before the November election, but if we do there will be a big new issue for the candidates to talk about. Modifying the revenue cap in some form would leave the next Mayor a bit of leeway in how they try to resolve whatever they need to resolve with these issues. I don’t need more reasons to support modifying the stupid revenue cap, but other people do, so there you have it.
As for the long-discussed trash fee, I support the idea as long as the funds are used to really improve solid waste collection in the city. There’s plenty of innovation out there, but just making sure everything gets picked up in a timely fashion, which is a labor and equipment issue at its core, is the first priority. I think this has a better chance of passing this year than in the future just because some number of people who won’t be facing re-election can vote for it, but we’ll see. Just have a productive last year in office, that’s all I ask.