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There won’t be furloughs after all

A slightly confusing bit of good news.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston will not need to furlough roughly 3,000 city employees nor cancel its police cadet classes in the upcoming budget year, Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin announced during a city council budget committee meeting Tuesday.

Instead, the city will use federal coronavirus relief funds to help bridge its projected $169 million shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“No employee in the (City of Houston) will be furloughed,” Martin said.

The administration has updated Mayor Sylvester Turner’s initial budget proposal, eliminating many of the most dire consequences attributed to the revenue gap. The revised budget plan eliminates furloughs and adds back five cadet classes for police, Martin said.

It also adds another fire department cadet class, giving that department four classes. The new proposal also adds $15 million back into the city’s rainy day fund as hurricane season gets underway; Turner’s original spending plan would have exhausted that fund entirely.

The changes comes as the city has weighed how it can spend $404 million in federal funds it received through the CARES Act, part of a stimulus package approved by Congress.

The administration plans to use roughly $19 million of those funds to cover expenses for redeploying city employees from their normal duties to address the coronavirus pandemic, freeing some budgetary space. It is not clear if the city plans to use additional federal funds to cover the remaining costs of the budget revisions.

See here, here, and here for some background. I’ve said all along that the city could avoid all of the issues for this year if it could use that federal money for previously budgeted items. Apparently, they have decided that they can, or at least that there’s enough of the money available to fill other needs to make the math work. I can’t tell from this story what may have changed to go from apocalyptic warnings about layoffs and furloughs to this – maybe the city got clarity from the feds, maybe they came to this conclusion on their own, maybe there was enough wiggle room to allow for budget items to get moved around, who knows? This is the outcome that should have been from the beginning. Remember, a large part of budgeting is determined by the calendar – if these federal dollars had been allocated earlier, there wouldn’t have been so many “previously budgeted items” to worry about. I’m a little worried that someone is going to come along and try to stop the city from doing this, maybe by lawsuit or some other decree, but until then, I’m glad they worked this out. There are plenty of things to worry about going forward, like sales tax revenues, but buying a year’s time before that reckoning allows for another CARES Act or other positive development to occur. Sometimes kicking the can down the road is all you need to do.

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  1. David Fagan says:

    It’s funny to see the city work that way. When they want it to work out, they always seem to work it out, if they didn’t want it to work out, there would just be no funding source and lay people off. I’m glad no one else has to face that reality, because it’s not a pretty one.

    Funding four fire cadet classes is much different than filling them. Even with the 28% raise to attract applicants (which the mayor said was unheard of and impossible), the city got 18, and graduated 16. For a fast track class that usually attracts around 40 cadets, I guess supply and demand is really working, but it’s too late because Houston is already short. It takes two years to get a trained paramedic operating independently. The city has reduced the number of rotating stations, so that’s fewer paramedics on fire engines. Fewer rotating stations shows the lack of personnel. This reduction is also a lower incentive for paramedics, and, ultimately, a lower ability to provide the services Houston demands. So, supply and demand doesn’t look like the system you want to count on when there is an emergency, because it doesn’t react as fast as a trained Firefighter.

  2. C.L. says:

    A hundred years ago I was living a couple blocks from the HFD training facility on the south side of Hobby airport. Got the bug to do something better with my life, so applied to be a Firefighter. Took the written test(s) and passed. Took the p/t class and aced everything but missed the required 1.5 mile run time by <30 secs. They let me take it again a couple weeks later and I aced the p/t test as well as running the 1.5 miles within the allotted time…. so HFD offered me a job, not as a firefighter, but as a paramedic for two years minimum, making less than I was making as a GS-5 government employee (which was already at poverty level) at the time. I politely declined.

    All I wanted to do was fight fires, not be a paramedic at $12-15/yr. Had they let me fight fires, I'd probably still be there…instead of administering/managing a government benefit program since the Reagan Administration.

    18 applicants doesn't sound like much of a success story. The CoH/HFD needs to do better than that.