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Yet another budget in distress

The Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority is $20 million poorer than it expected to be due to missed financial projections.

By this time, after the Christmas shopping season, Metro officials expected the transit agency’s 1-cent sales tax to have generated $175.3 million.

But only $156 million has been collected for this fiscal year, which started Oct. 1. That’s $19.3 million or 11 percent less than what Metro predicted in its 2003 budget.

Despite the numbers, which Metro President Shirley DeLibero called “disappointing,” officials insist there will be no cuts in service. And if necessary, the agency can fall back on $246 million in reserves.

At least they have reserves, which should avoid any nasty cutbacks. Of course, this sort of thing is a clarion call for political opportunists.

[In November,] Metro will ask voters to approve a multibillion-dollar plan to improve mobility that will include rail and other projects.

Financial problems and faulty budget projections could become fodder for transit agency critics long before voters go to the polls. For example, Metro forecast that sales tax revenue would jump 6.1 percent in 2003 — a prediction made in June, well after the economy started its nose dive.

“This was outrageously overforecasted,” said Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt. “There is simply no guess or estimate like this, post-Sept. 11 and during this economic slump, that could be made in good conscience. … I was shocked at the amount of the increase Metro forecasted, and these numbers show there is simply no basis in financial reality for them.”

Bettencourt, a Republican who will decide whether to openly oppose Metro’s plan once it’s released, said the flawed projections will definitely be an issue with voters.

Such miscalculations could be used to argue that Metro is not a good steward of public money, said Bettencourt, who estimated that Metro’s sales tax revenue shortfall could reach $40 million this year.

Hey, Paul, where were you when our state Comptroller fessed up to bigger deficits than she’d originally forecast, forecasts that were derived by wildly optimistic revenue projections? Oh, wait, our Comptroller is a fellow Republican, so no blame attaches there. Move along, nothing to see here.

DeLibero dismisses such talk and said Metro can easily show voters it has been responsible with public money.

DeLibero said she has run the agency like a business. There has been zero-based budgeting every year, costs have been held down and officials have spent about $40 million less than budgeted during the past two fiscal years.

“I think the folks out there ought to have seen that,” she said. “I feel very confident (voters and any potential critics) should feel comfortable with the way Metro operates and how we look at our fiscal year and how we operate our budget.”

To address the sales tax revenue shortfall, DeLibero said the agency will cut administrative costs, such as employee training and enrichment programs and travel. DeLibero has also told administrators to look for other ways to cut their budgets.

Don’t forget to stroke Bettencourt’s ego while you’re at it.

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