It’s budget cut proposal time

A familiar ritual.

Mayor John Whitmire

Facing a projected budget shortfall and costly settlement with the firefighters union, Mayor John Whitmire has directed most city departments to identify potential 5% budget cuts for the coming fiscal year.

Finance Director Melissa Dubowski said Wednesday that the city is set to face a budgetary gap of $160 million in the fiscal year that starts this July. This projection does not factor in any additional expenses from a tentatively reached agreement with the firefighters union aimed at settling a longstanding pay dispute.

To address the looming financial challenge, Dubowski, appointed by Whitmire in January to steer the department, said the city has set a 5% budget reduction target for all departments, excluding police and fire. The police and fire departments combined currently make up about half of the city’s operating budget.

Dubowski acknowledged that the final outcomes might differ based on the specific needs within each department.

“We sent a communication out to get a starting point, to start collaborating and working with departments, and then we’ll evaluate those ideas that the departments come back with to figure out which ones are least impactful to constituents, to services,” Dubowski said during a Wednesday report to City Council.

Whitmire told the Chronicle that implementing a blanket budget cut is far from the ideal solution. He admitted that it will likely require some departments to downsize staff and slash services already strapped for resources. The policy, however, is necessary due to the financial challenges long ignored by previous Houston mayors, he said.

“I don’t like across the board cuts. I think it rewards inefficient operations, departments that kind of ratholed some money or didn’t need all they asked for in the first place, and it punishes those responsible departments,” Whitmire told reporters on Wednesday. “But it’s a place to start a conversation, one to let the council members also know we can’t continue to come up with items that we like. We have to get back to things we’ve got to have.”


Meanwhile, the administration is also exploring other potential measures, such as eliminating duplicate services across departments, cutting some vacant staff positions, adjusting certain fees and pushing for a voter referendum to exempt public safety operations from the city’s property revenue cap, according to Dubowski.

District C Council Member Abbie Kamin voiced support for making an exception to the revenue cap to boost public safety efforts. Houstonians approved a similar policy in 2006, allowing an additional $90 million to be collected annually for public safety spending.

Kamin also referenced a 2017 10-year plan on improving Houston’s fiscal sustainability, highlighting that many of the cost-saving recommendations were never implemented.

At-Large Council Member Sallie Alcorn, for instance, proposed then the creation of a service-sharing working group to explore how to consolidate operations with other governments, including Harris County. The initiative was estimated by the report to have a high fiscal impact, potentially saving over $10 million.

I appreciate the Mayor’s distaste for across-the-board cuts, which I share. I hope that gets refined in the actual budget, and I note that there’s no dollar amount attached to that proposal. I’m going to guess it’s a fairly modest amount. Mayor Whitmire couldn’t propose cutting the police budget even if he wanted to, as that is now verboten according to state law.

All the other stuff will need to be done as well. The main problem there is that we’ve been doing a lot of those things all along, and the big ticket items are mostly already accomplished. But there is still room for more, and there’s still the stupid revenue cap. We’re not going to cut our way out of this.

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One Response to It’s budget cut proposal time

  1. While Whitmire can’t cut the overall HPD budget, he can redirect how HPD internally spends those funds and assigns its’ personnel (prioritization). For instance, HPD supposedly didn’t have the manpower to investigate any of those 260,000 cases – until they did (media pressure). An external group of police experts should be brought in to help make sure HPD’s existing resources are being properly utilized so we get the most crime-fighting bang for our law enforcement bucks. I know HPD is short-staffed, which makes prioritization even more essential to maximize existing HPD staff.

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