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William-Paul Thomas

This is bad. The question is how much worse might it be.

William-Paul Thomas, the mayor’s council liaison, was offered more than $13,000 by a local bar owner to help him pass a building inspection and fast-track a new permit to reopen a bar as a restaurant, newly unsealed court documents show.

Thomas contacted the “relevant” fire official to ensure the unnamed business owner passed the inspection in May 2020, prosecutors wrote, and then he used his position in the mayor’s office to “pressure other officials” to approve the permit in July, as well. He was paid an undisclosed amount of money for his efforts.

Thomas pleaded guilty on July 25 to one federal count of conspiracy to accept a bribe. He will appear for sentencing before U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen on Nov. 28. His lawyer, Monique Chantelle Sparks, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The documents were sealed until Wednesday morning at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s office. The Chronicle published an article about the allegations Tuesday night. Thomas’ plea deal, however, remains sealed.

It is unclear whether federal investigators are looking into the unnamed city officials Thomas allegedly worked with to get the certificate and permit approved, or if they are conducting a broader inquiry into City Hall affairs.

Sean Buckley, a legal expert on federal judicial procedures, said Thomas’ quick guilty plea and his willingness to forgo a probable cause hearing before a grand jury means he likely agreed they had strong information against him. It also suggests Thomas may be part of a wider investigation by the Justice Department.

Thomas abruptly resigned from his City Hall position last Wednesday, one day after pleading guilty. He told the mayor in an 11:30 p.m. email he was retiring due to health reasons.

[…]

City Attorney Arturo Michel said later Wednesday the office of the inspector general is opening its own investigation, based on the document’s charges that Thomas worked with officials in the fire department and permitting office to approve the requests.

Prosecutors say the bar owner — whom they did not name — needed to pass a city fire inspection to get a temporary certificate of occupancy in May 2020. He turned to Thomas for help.

“Thomas, in his official capacity, placed calls to the relevant Houston Fire Department official to ensure that COMPANY 1 would pass its fire inspection and be issued its TCO,” the charging document says. The owner then paid Thomas an undisclosed amount of money after he got the certificate.

It is not clear which fire department official Thomas contacted. Fire Chief Samuel Peña said it difficult to identify the person without the name of the business.

The business owner reached out again in June 2020, after his bar — a separate business — was shut down by the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission. COVID-19 restrictions around that time ordered bars to close but allowed restaurants to continue operating with limited capacity.

“On July 6, 2020, BUSINESSMAN 1 offered THOMAS up to $13,0000 to have the necessary permit issued quickly so that COMPANY 2 could reopen,” the document says. “THOMAS agreed to use his official position to pressure other officials to issue the permit quickly, all in exchange for money.”

Thomas then used his position to “pressure other officials” to grant the necessary permit, and the owner was allowed to open as a restaurant. It is not clear which specific permit the owner was seeking from the city; the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission was responsible for classifying bars and restaurants based on the percentage of sales that came from alcohol.

Buckley, a federal defense lawyer who represented former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman and authored a book on federal criminal rules and codes used by trial attorneys across the country, reviewed the court documents at the request of the Houston Chronicle. He is not involved in the case.

“He’s obviously cooperating because no one who is a target in a federal investigation would ever agree to plea to a criminal information unless there have been extensive discussions between the target, his lawyer and the government leading up to that decision,” Buckley said.

“Either the government lawyers showed him what they had or he knew what they had. He knew he had everything to gain by cooperating and agreeing to plead guilty without forcing the government to get an indictment from the grand jury, and much to lose by not cooperating.”

Buckley said it also clear the investigation, by prosecutors from the public corruption unit, has been going on for months and there likely is a wider-ranging investigation underway involving multiple defendants.

“My read on this is that this person has something of value to the government,” Buckley said.

He said the documents also indicate “there is an environment in the city of Houston that allows this type of thing to take place.”

I will say up front that I am acquainted with William-Paul. As is the case in this kind of situation, I’m shocked to see the story. I don’t know him well enough to say more than that, but as I have met him and talked to him, I wanted to say so.

I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have no experience in these matters, but it seems to me unlikely that there would be only one such transgression like this. If nothing else, I would think the FBI wouldn’t prioritize a case with one crime of this nature. I’d expect that the bribe payer and whoever was involved with the Fire Department and permitting office will be implicated next. The big question is then whether it goes beyond that, and if so how far. There is certainly the potential for this to be big, but we won’t know until the FBI tells us, and as we know from other experiences that may take a long time. In the meantime, I wouldn’t want to be BUSINESSMAN 1 or anyone else who might be implicated. Don’t take or give bribes, y’all.

Bitcoin and the firefighters’ pension fund

Okay.

When the Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund bought $25 million in cryptocurrencies, with the fund’s chief investment officer touting their potential, retired fire Capt. Russell Harris was concerned.

Harris, 62, has attended the funerals of 34 firefighters killed in the line of duty. He was already worried about his pension after an overhaul by state and city officials cut payments as they grappled with the ability to pay out benefits. He didn’t see crypto, unproven in his eyes, as an answer.

“I don’t like it,” Harris said. “There’s too many pyramid schemes that everybody gets wrapped up in. That’s the way I see this cryptocurrency at this time. … There might be a place for it, but it’s still new and nobody understands it.”

The plunge in prices for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in recent weeks provides a cautionary tale for the handful of public pension funds that have dipped their toes in the crypto pool over the past few years. Most have done it indirectly through stocks or investment funds that serve as proxies for the larger crypto market. A lack of transparency makes it difficult to tell whether they’ve made or lost money, let alone how much, and for the most part fund officials won’t say.

But the recent crypto meltdown has prompted a larger question: For pension funds that ensure teachers, firefighters, police and other public workers receive guaranteed benefits in retirement after public service, is any amount of crypto investment too risky?

[…]

The U.S. Department of Labor urges “extreme care” in crypto investments because of the high risks. The recent plunge in crypto prices has caused Washington to more closely scrutinize the freewheeling industry. After the collapse of $40 billion crypto asset known as Terra, senators in both parties have proposed legislation that would regulate crypto for the first time, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has called for more oversight of crypto ventures.

The Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund’s cryptocurrency investment wasn’t very big — just $15 million in what was then a $5.5 billion portfolio.

It’s not clear how that panned out in the cryptocurrency market slide this year. Officials from fund and the union didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. But the fund bought in when bitcoin prices were close to their peak of nearly $67,000, and they’ve been on the decline since then, dipping below $20,000 in June.

The fund’s chairman, Brett Besselman, said in a first-quarter report that it was healthy with an overall rate of return of 33.7% in 2021. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said earlier this year that the 2017 overhaul is working well and, thanks to strong returns in 2021, has put his city’s pension funds well ahead of schedule toward eliminating their unfunded liabilities.

Houston’s experiment, which fund managers touted as the first announced direct purchase of digital assets by a U.S. pension plan, followed a series of bigger but indirect investments by two pension funds for Fairfax County of Virginia. They put over $120 million into funds that seek opportunities in the crypto world, such as blockchain technology, digital tokens and cryptocurrency derivatives. As in Houston, the Virginia investments are a tiny share of the funds’ $7.2 billion in assets.

Since 2018, the Fairfax County Employees’ Retirement System and Fairfax County Police Officers Retirement System have put money into venture capital funds that invest in blockchain and a hedge fund that seeks to harness some of the volatility inherent in the space, said Jeffrey Weiler, executive director of Fairfax County Retirement Systems. He said the goal was to invest in infrastructure that underlies blockchain technology, which managers continue to view as a high-growth area.

I’m not a finance guy, and while I’m very skeptical of cryptocurrency it’s not my place to critique the investing decisions that the HFRRF wishes to make. Until such time as they threaten to put us taxpayers on the hook for their decisions, which they have not done here. I agree with the exhortation that pension funds in particular be extremely careful about making these investments, and I would like to see tight regulation about how much investing in crypto these funds can make. In the meantime, I thought this was worth taking note of.

City passes its budget

Not too much drama.

Houston’s $5.7 billion budget for the next fiscal year includes a big jump in revenue from water bills, raises for all city employees and the largest unspent reserves in years.

City Council voted 15-2 to adopt Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget Wednesday after working through more than 100 amendments pitched by council members. Councilmembers Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh were the lone no votes. The budget takes effect when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Dozens of amendments were ruled out of order after the mayor cracked down on proposals he said dealt with matters outside the budget. Only 16 amendments won approval, and just four actually moved money or enacted a practical change. The rest merely directed departments or the city to “study” or “explore” or “assess the opportunity” of new ideas, with no requirement to adopt or implement them.

“Over the last few years I’ve been very lenient. When I see that leniency being abused, I exercise my authority,” Turner said at the beginning of the meeting. “Now, I’m calling it as it should have been called…. I’m not going to be here all night on non-budgetary amendments.”

The approved budget relies on $130 million in federal COVID-19 relief money and a $100 million spike in sales tax revenue to close deficits and help the city pay for previously announced pay raises. It also reserves $311 million for the future, when the city may face larger deficits as the federal funding runs out.

The most notable consequence for residents will stem from water bill rate hikes previously passed by council last year. Revenue from water and wastewater bills increased by 9 and 20 percent from a September hike, and again by 7.5 and 11 percent from an increase in April.

The rates vary by customer type, meter size and usage, but the bill for a customer who uses 3,000 gallons of water went from $27.39 before the hikes to $37.18 after the April increase. The rates will continue to rise every April through 2026.

As a result, the budget passed Wednesday included a 23 percent increase in water revenue, from $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. That $280 million accounts for much of the $487 million increase in this year’s overall budget. The bulk of Public Works’ budget comes from that water revenue, a so-called “dedicated fund” where the money must be spent on water infrastructure and service.

The $3 billion general fund, which is supported by property taxes and other fees and supports most core city services, marks a $240 million increase, or 9 percent, over last year. Most of that increase pays for raises for firefighters (6 percent), police officers (4 percent) and municipal employees (3 percent).

More than half of the general fund supports public safety, with the $989 million police budget taking the largest share of resources. The fire department’s budget is $559 million.

The budget does not include a property tax rate increase. Turner has said he also plans to increase the exemption for seniors and disabled residents, although such a measure has not yet reached City Council.

See here for the background. In regard to the water rates, I will remind you that the city is as of last year under a federal consent decree to “spend an estimated $2 billion over the next 15 years to upgrade its troubled sanitary sewer system”. The story doesn’t mention this, but the money is for that purpose, and if it’s not used for that purpose we’ll be dragged back into court. As for the rest, I’m glad we’re building the reserve back up, I suspect we will be needing it again soon.

It’s city of Houston budget time again

That federal COVID relief money continues to be very nice.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Once again relying on federal money, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed $5.7 billion budget for next year would pay for raises for all city employees, offer tax relief to seniors and disabled residents, and sock away the largest reserves in years for savings, according to an outline Turner shared Tuesday at City Hall.

The city often faces nine-figure budget deficits, forcing it to sell off land and defer costs to close gaps. For the third consecutive year, though, the city will rely on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money to avoid a budget hole and free up other revenue for the mayor’s priorities.

The city is set to receive more than $300 million this year from the most recent stimulus package approved by Congress, and Turner has proposed using $160 million in the budget. The city has received more than $1 billion in such assistance over the last three years.

City Council is expected to propose amendments and vote to adopt the spending plan next month. The budget will take effect on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

With about $311 million in reserves, Turner is establishing the healthiest fund balance the city has seen in decades, which he called necessary given the uncertainty of rising inflation, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The city budgeted $205 million in reserves last year, the first time it exceeded $200 million in reserves since 2009. The city’s financial policy calls for an unassigned reserve worth 7.5 percent of the general fund; this year’s amount is nearly double that, 13.5 percent.

That money also will help the next mayor and council confront budgets when the federal assistance runs dry and the city must fend for itself, Turner said. The relief funds must be obligated by 2024 and spent by 2026.

“I think what we all recognize is that some of the major cost-drivers will be driving this budget for the next several years… I don’t want to put future mayors and council members in a worse position,” Turner said. “As the city weans itself eventually off the (federal) funds, you’re going to be back with the fund balance.”

You can see a list of things in the proposed budget herer. HPD, HFD, Solid Waste, and Parks and Rec all get increases. We’ll see how spicy the amendments process is.

How’s that city push to get its employees vaccinated going?

Not bad, actually.

Nearly three months after Mayor Sylvester Turner signed an executive order requiring Houston’s 21,000 city employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, receive a medical or religious exemption, or submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks, compliance with the order varies widely among departments.

Just over 60% of Houston firefighters had either been vaccinated, submitted test results or received an exemption as of Nov. 15 — the lowest rate of any city department.

That’s according to city data released to Houston Public Media, which also revealed Houston police, waste management and health staff at the bottom of the list of those who have complied with Turner’s order.

Just 74% of police officers were in compliance with the mandate, along with 74% of Solid Waste Management employees and 74% of Health and Human Services employees.

The city secretary’s office, which has just seven employees, is 100% compliant with the mayor’s order. The legal department with 185 employees and the city I.T. department’s 180 are next on the list with about 98% compliance each as of Nov. 15.

The mayor’s own office is 90% compliant with his executive order as of Nov. 15, 13th on the list of 25 departments.

[…]

The city’s Nov. 15 compliance data was the most recent available. Houston Public Media has requested a more recent report, which was not available as of Thursday afternoon.

On Sept. 8, the date Turner issued his order, 342 city employees had active cases of COVID-19, including 129 police officers.

Fourteen city employees have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the mayor’s office.

Turner had previously mandated face coverings for all city employees in August, after Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local governments from such mandates. Abbott then banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates statewide on Oct. 11, preventing any employer from requiring vaccination. That order is still making its way through state courts, but his mandate ban could nonetheless stymie the mayor’s efforts.

But Turner’s executive order doesn’t require workers to get vaccinated. Instead, it offers unvaccinated employees two alternatives: Either submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks or file a medical or religious exemption.

Under the order, employees were required to submit test results on the first and 15th of each month, beginning on Oct. 15. Employees who don’t comply could be subject to “corrective action up to and including indefinite suspension or termination,” the order states.

“A failure to adhere to the policy will result in disciplinary action and could even cost you your job,” Turner told city council at a meeting where he announced the order.

In a statement Thursday, the mayor’s office didn’t specify how Turner plans to address employees who aren’t complying with the order, but said the city’s Human Resources department is continuing to educate employees on the requirements.

“By implementing the executive order, our goal is save more lives, prevent illness throughout city departments and reduce costs for everyone,” the mayor’s office wrote. “The City intends to enforce the Executive Order and follow the steps outlined to ensure compliance.”

See here for the background. There’s a table in the story showing compliance rates for each department, though it should be noted that the actual numbers may be higher for at least some of them. The president of the Houston Police Officers Union was quoted saying their numbers are better than what was represented, for one. Even without that, the city’s efforts have nudged the vax numbers upward, which is exactly what you want. I thought at the time that Abbott and Paxton would not stand for this workaround on the city’s part, and I’m delighted to be proven wrong. Now let’s see what enforcement there is for the holdouts. No excuses at this point, get on board or say goodbye.

Some more AstroWorld stuff

Firefighter logs from the event tell the story of early chaos and continued problems.

Houston firefighters arrived at a small command post parked on the far-flung Orange Lot, about a mile from the festival grounds. They spent the day listening to radio dispatches from some of the hundreds of Houston police officers inside and outside the park, or using cellphones to call the concert organizers’ privately hired medical providers. They added notable updates to the 11-page log.

After the early breach of the entry, firefighters wrote just after 10 a.m.: “Venue fences damaged. No control of participants.”

In the initial rush on the gates, four concertgoers were injured, the logs show. Revved-up concertgoers would rush gates at least nine other times Friday, fire officials wrote.

At about 11 a.m. Friday, firefighters noted that a crowd of about 100 people were headed toward the Fiesta. Eighteen minutes later, they noted another 200 people approaching the park’s Gate 10.

“Participants are now dismantling barricades,” firefighters wrote.

[…]

Shortly after 5 p.m., the place was already about two-thirds full, according to the logs. The number of concert crashers appears to have grown significantly as well, with one entry showing that officials estimated as many as 5,000 people had not been scanned entering the park.

Police continued to respond to calls of people pushing down fencing at 5:50 p.m. and an hour later. They reported a “mob” at Main Street at 7:15 p.m., and a crowd of some 250 people rushing a pedestrian bridge nine minutes later.

Half an hour later, police had another 13 people in custody.

At 8 p.m., they reported a Houston police officer suffering from a hand injury;

By 9 p.m. — about the time that Travis Scott began performing — the crowd at NRG park had grown to 55,000, according to the logs.

As the concert progressed, hundreds of festivalgoers continued to pour over fencing.

But if the security breaches were the first signs of trouble, the most significant signs of danger began to appear shortly after 9:15 p.m.

“Individual with crush injury, breathing difficulty,” firefighters noted, at 9:18 p.m. “(ParaDocs) en route.”

“This is when it all got real,” they wrote, at 9:28 p.m.

There’s more if you want to keep reading. I suspect we’re going to learn a lot from these logs, and from what the firefighters who wrote them have to say about it now.

Another source of information about this disaster will be all the litigation.

Attorneys representing more than 200 people claiming they were injured in last week’s Astroworld Festival stampede in Houston said on Friday that they are filing another 90 lawsuits against the promoters of the event in which at least nine people died.

The announcement marked the latest legal action to follow last Friday’s concert by Grammy Award-nominated rapper Travis Scott before a crowd of 50,000 at NRG Stadium that got out of control when fans surged toward the stage.

“We represent more than 200 victims who were injured mentally, physically and psychologically at the Astroworld Festival,” civil rights Attorney Ben Crump announced at a news conference in Houston.

At least 50 other suits have been brought against producer Live Nation Entertainment Inc and Scott over the deaths and injuries related to the Astroworld Festival that was intended to signal the resurgence of Scott’s hometown.

A ninth person succumbed to her injuries on Wednesday, raising the death toll to nine. It occurs to me that the families of the deceased have not yet filed any lawsuits. I have to imagine those will come later. We will be re-living this experience for a long time.

And in the end, I hope we learn from this terrible experience.

The Danish city of Roskilde shares little with Houston other than a proximity to a waterway and a music festival tragedy in which nine people died.

The Roskilde Festival, which typically draws more than twice as many music fans as the town’s population of around 50,000, made only celebratory news until its 30th year, when nine fans were crushed in a mosh pit during a Pearl Jam performance there on June 30, 2000.

One year later, the festival returned with Bob Dylan headlining.

Carlos Chirinos, a music and global health professor at New York University, studies music-related crowds and behaviors. He worked with Roskilde Festival organizers in 2005.

“I was impressed with how they stepped up security in the pit,” he said. “I had an opportunity to be close with security and saw how closely they worked with stage management. They tried to achieve total control.

“And they haven’t had any incidents since then.”

[…]

In the meantime, experts say large-scale changes to how the music industry conducts its events are unlikely to take place. Those advocating for the end of general-admission music festivals with tens of thousands of concert-goers may get a short-term reprieve: the festival season largely hibernates for the winter.

But by next spring and summer, music festivals will likely return in full fervor.

“It’s not cynical, but just an observation, that some of the most heartbreaking tragedies at mass gatherings in the United States have not yielded a lot of change,” said Steve Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance. The non-profit organization was formed following a 2011 concert event that was to feature the band Sugarland at the Indiana State Fair. Severe winds knocked down supports for a temporary roof, killing seven fans and injuring dozens of others.

“What are the likely long-term changes after the tragedy at Astroworld? You can find people asking if it will be the end of GA shows, and commenters saying that will happen. I don’t think that’s likely at all,” Adelman said. “If for no other reason than the economic model for the music industry has changed. No one is selling records. So the industry sells live music, food, beverages and merchandise. That’s just the model. It’s economics.”

Of course, those that organize and promote these events have to be able to get insurance for them. The lawsuits may make that more difficult for them, or at least force them to make some changes. But yeah, it’s probably best not to bet on anything truly game-changing. Attend at your own risk, hopefully with the knowledge of what can go wrong.

Mayor Turner orders unvaxxed city employees to get tested twice a week

So maybe get vaccinated, and avoid all the hassle.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Unvaccinated city workers must get tested for COVID-19 twice a month and report their results to the human resources department, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Wednesday.

Turner signed an executive order implementing the policy,which takes effect Oct 8. It will allow some exemptions for religious and medical reasons.

The plans come as the city regularly has had more than 300 active cases of the virus among its workforce, Turner said. The latest numbers showed 342 workers with the virus, including 129 police, 161 municipal and 52 fire department employees.

Those cases hamper city operations, the mayor said.

“When you have 129 police officers with COVID, they’re not able to perform their jobs. Same thing with municipal workers, and, for example, permitting, that slows things down,” Turner said. “Simply don’t want them to get sick and don’t want anybody, anybody to die.”

[…]

The policy will apply to all police, fire and municipal staff who have not been fully vaccinated. It will not apply to elected officials or appointed members to the city’s boards and commissions.

The fire, police and municipal workers unions did not respond to requests for comment on Turner’s plan.

Turner said staff will face disciplinary action if they do not comply.

“It could even cost you your job,” the mayor said.

The mayor in recent weeks had teased a policy to encourage vaccinations, saying many city workers have not gotten their shots.

Mayor Turner implemented a mask mandate for city employees in early August. As far as I know, that executive order has not been involved in any of the lawsuits over mandates and Greg Abbott’s ban on them. This is a step up from that – it’s not a vaccine mandate per se, but it’s pretty close and I doubt Greg Abbott or Ken Paxton will split hairs. (They already have a reason to be whipped into a frenzy about this.) Whether or not cities can issue vaccine mandates is on the agenda for the next special session. What I’m saying is, I don’t know how long I expect this policy to last. And that’s before we hear of the inevitable resistance from the police and firefighter unions – police unions around the country have been staunch resisters of vaccine mandates, and we know how well the Mayor and the HPFFA get along. I support what the Mayor is doing here – if anything, I’d want to see the testing be more frequent – I just doubt he’ll be able to fully implement it. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

The charter referendum will be in 2023

So be it.

The organizations and residents who petitioned the city to give City Council members more power will have to wait until 2023 to vote on the measure, after the council declined to put it on this year’s ballot.

Council voted unanimously to set the election in 2023 instead of this November, despite the objections of several council members and the groups that pushed for the charter amendment. An amendment to put it on this year’s ballot failed, 13-4, before the 2023 vote. Councilmembers Amy Peck, Ed Pollard, Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh supported the earlier date.

The measure would give any three council members the power to place an item on the weekly City Hall agenda, a power almost entirely reserved for the mayor under Houston’s strong-mayor format.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who opposes the measure, said pushing off the election was prudent so the city could include other pending charter amendments, which would lower the cost by hosting one election instead of several. He also argued an off-cycle election would have low turnout.

“If any of you have problems getting something on the agenda, I’d like to hear that,” Turner told council members. “So, we’re going to spend $1.3 million in a very low-turnout (election) on an issue that doesn’t really pertain to this council?”

[…]

At-Large Councilmember Michael Kubosh likened a delay to voter suppression, a suggestion that irked several of his colleagues. He referred to Democrats in the Legislature who fled to Washington, D.C. to stop a voting restrictions bill.

“If we don’t vote to put this on the ballot, we are doing the same thing (as the Legislature): We are suppressing the vote,” Kubosh said. “I believe voting delayed is voting denied.”

District F Councilmember Tiffany Thomas said he deserved a “Golden Globe for drama,” arguing the later election date would improve access to the polls by encouraging higher turnout.

Kubosh said it does not matter whether officials like the content of the charter amendment; their duty is to put it on the ballot.

I’ve said before that I believe this referendum, as well as the firefighters’ referendum (the petitions have not yet been certified, which is another issue altogether), should be on this November’s ballot. I do think the right thing to do is to be prompt about these things, even though the law allows for the discretion to put the vote on the next city election. But CM Thomas has a point, which is simply that at least twice as many people and maybe more will vote in 2023 than in 2021, and as such having this referendum in 2023 will be closer to a true reflection of the public will. I mean, even with a heavy GOTV effort by the pro- and anti- sides this year, we might be looking at 100K in turnout. Turnout in 2015, the last time we had an open Mayor’s race, was over 270K, and turnout in 2019 was 250K. Turnout in all of Harris County in 2017, with no city of Houston races, was 150K; I can’t calculate the exact city component of that, but based on other years it would have been in the 90-110K range. There’s just no comparison. Is the tradeoff in turnout worth the two-year delay? People can certainly disagree about that, and I sympathize with those who wanted it this year. But putting it in 2023 is legal, and can be justified.

(No, I still have no intention of voting for the “three Council members can put an item on the agenda” referendum. Its proponents may have a point, but their proposition is still a bad idea. I remain undecided on the firefighters’ item.)

Appeals court overturns verdict in firefighter pay parity lawsuit

Wow.

An appeals court on Thursday reversed a ruling that declared Houston firefighters’ pay-parity measure unconstitutional, a major win for the fire union and one that could have far-reaching effects on city finances.

The fire union won approval of a charter amendment, known as Proposition B, in 2018 that would have granted them equal pay with police officers of similar rank and seniority. The city and the police officers’ union quickly sued, though, and in 2019 a trial court ruled the referendum unconstitutional because it contradicted state law that governs how cities engage with police officers and firefighters. The voter-approved charter amendment was never implemented.

In its ruling, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston said that was an error. Justice Meagan Hassan wrote in a 2-1 opinion that the Texas Legislature did not intend to stop cities from enacting such pay measures.

“Preemption is not a conclusion lightly reached — if the Legislature intended to preempt a subject matter normally within a home-rule city’s broad powers, that intent must be evidenced with ‘unmistakable clarity,’” Hassan wrote.

The justices sent the case back to the lower court. Both the city and the police union said they plan to appeal the ruling.

It was not immediately clear when the city would have to implement the pay parity measure.

[…]

Controller Chris Brown, the city’s independently elected fiscal watchdog, said the ruling was disappointing and concerning from a financial perspective. He said the administration and union need to iron out a collective bargaining agreement so the city knows how much it will have to pay if Prop B is upheld and back wages are owed. It could be in the ballpark of $250 million to $350 million, he said, adding the city and union could agree to pay that money over several years instead of all at once.

“We need to have certainty on the ultimate financial impact to the city,” he said. “I have a concern because ultimately, the taxpayers are going to foot this bill… If we do have a big, one-time payment, where’s that money going to come from?”

Good question. See here for the background here for the majority ruling, and here for the dissent. I would imagine this will be put on hold pending appeal to the Supreme Court, so we’re probably looking at another two years or so before this is resolved. It’s possible that the Mayor and the firefighters could hammer out a collective bargaining agreement that would moot this, or perhaps the next Mayor could, if the Supreme Court decides to wait till after the 2023 election to hand down a ruling. I wouldn’t bet on that, but it is theoretically possible.

Council will decide when charter amendment votes will be

Fine, but they should be this year.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday promised to bring a charter amendment petition to City Council before a key August deadline to order an election for this year.

A diverse coalition of groups, including the Houston Professional Firefighters Association Local 341 and the Harris County Republican Party, delivered the petition in April, and the city secretary confirmed the signatures earlier this month. The measure would allow any three council members to place an item on the council agenda, a power almost entirely reserved for the mayor under the city’s strong-mayor format.

The council can put the charter amendment on the ballot this November or during the next city elections, which are in November 2023. Turner said he was not sure the city would order an election this year, prompting concern among petition organizers and supporters, who have sought an election in November. The last day to order an election for this year is Aug. 16.

“It will come before you, and this council will decide whether it goes on this year’s ballot or on the next city ballot,” Turner told his colleagues at the City Council meeting Wednesday. “I won’t be making that decision, we will be making that decision.”

The fire union is pushing a separate charter petition, which it delivered to City Hall last week, that would make binding arbitration the automatic resolution to contract impasses. The city and union have been in a deadlock since 2017, and have contested the contract talks in court battles.

[…]

The mayor said the city has to decide if it is going to take each charter petition individually, or if it would be smarter to lump them together in a single election, “which, from a cost perspective, would be quite wise,” he said.

“What we will have to decide is whether or not you do these one at a time, and every time you put it out there it’s a cost to the city (to run the election),” Turner said. “Now, there’s another one that was just delivered to the city secretary (last) week… Let’s say that gets the requisite signatures, do we do another election on that one?”

The fate of the most recent petition from the fire union is less clear. Turner said it takes the city secretary an average of three months to count the signatures, even with added personnel the mayor says he has approved for their office. That would mean workers likely will not finish verifying them before the Aug. 16 deadline to order an election.

The union has alleged the city is slow-walking the count for the second petition. The Texas Election Code allows the city to use statistical sampling to verify the signatures, instead of vetting them individually, as the city is doing now.

See here and here for the background. Sampling has been used before, in 2003 for a different firefighter initiative, but I don’t think it is commonly used. Not sure what the objections are to that. I say do them both in the same election, and it should be this election. I’d rather just get them done, if only from a cost perspective.

Charter amendment referendum likely #2 on its way

Pending signature verification.

The Houston firefighters’ union says it has collected enough signatures on a petition to make it easier to bring contract talks with the city to binding arbitration.

The city secretary now must verify at least 20,000 signatures, the minimum threshold for getting a petition-driven initiative on the ballot. The petition drive is one of two the Houston Professional Fire Fighters is pushing for this November, along with one that would give council members more power to place items on the City Council agenda.

The city secretary verified signatures for the first petition, filed in April, last week. A broader coalition is advocating for that proposal, as well.

The union has said it hopes to place both items on the November ballot, although Mayor Sylvester Turner has signaled the city may not comply with those wishes. The mayor said last week a required council vote to place the items on the ballot may not happen this year.

“There is no obligation, I think, on our part to put anything on the ballot for this year,” Turner said then.

State law does not lay out a specific timeline for when council must take that vote, though it does require it to do so. The last day to order an election for November would be Aug. 16.

When the council does vote, it has two options for selecting the date: the next uniform election date, which would be November 2021; or the next municipal or presidential election, whichever is earlier. That would be the November 2023 in this case.

Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341, said it does not matter whether the city is allowed to push off the election; it should respect the will of the petitioners and place the initiative on the November ballot. He said the union is prepared to go to court to get the charter amendments on the ballot this year.

See here for more about the other charter amendment referendum. I’m inclined to support this one, but I haven’t paid much attention to it yet so I’ll want to hear more before I make a final decision.

As for when to have the referendum, I’ll just say this much: Baseline turnout in 2021, a non-municipal election year, where the only items that will be on everyone’s ballot are the constitutional amendments (none of which are exactly well known at this point) and only some people will have actual candidates to vote for, is about 50K. Baseline turnout in 2023, when there will be an open seat Mayoral race, is at least 200K, probably at least 250K. Turnout in 2015, with HERO repeal also on the ballot, was over 270K, and in 2019, with the Metro referendum also on there, it was over 250K.

Point being, in 2021 you start with the hardcore voters, who have probably heard something about your issue and whose support you hope to earn, and seek to get lesser-engaged folks who agree with you to show up. In 2023, you have to put a lot more effort into persuasion, just because so many more people will be casting ballots, and many of them will start out knowing nothing about the issue. A lot of those less-engaged voters from scenario #1 are more likely to show up because of the Mayor’s race. Your message here is one part about introducing them to your issue, and one part about voting all the way down the ballot, because the charter amendments are at the bottom and you want to make sure they don’t miss them.

Given that, it’s a reasonable question to ask which environment you’d rather be in for the purpose of passing your referendum. It’s not clear that one is inherently more advantageous than the other, but the strategy for each is different. Needless to say, the 2023 scenario is more expensive, though a sufficiently funded referendum effort can have a significant effect on turnout, even in a 2023-type situation. The platonic ideal is for higher turnout since that is a truer reflection of the will of the people, but you want your item to pass, and you play the hand you’re dealt.

Now having said all that, I think if the petition signatures are collected and certified in time for the item to be on the next ballot, that’s when it should be voted on. I don’t know what Mayor Turner’s motivation may be for preferring to wait until 2023, which he is allowed to do. I just think we should have the votes this year.

City appeals firefighter collective bargaining case to Supreme Court

Here we go.

The city of Houston on Monday asked the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on a recent appellate court ruling that rejected Mayor Sylvester Turner’s attempt to strike down a key provision of state law governing how firefighters negotiate their wages and benefits.

The case stems from a 2017 lawsuit filed by the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, which claims Turner’s administration did not negotiate in good faith during failed contract talks between the city and fire union that year.

As part of that lawsuit, the firefighters invoked a provision of state law that allows a state district judge to set their pay after Turner declined to enter contract arbitration. The city responded by arguing it was unconstitutional for judges to determine the pay of firefighters and police officers without firmer guidelines for doing so.

In an appeal filed Monday, attorneys representing the city asked Texas’ highest civil court to reverse a ruling last month by Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals, in which a panel of justices found the provision challenged by the city does not run afoul of the Texas Constitution’s separation of powers clause, which prohibits one branch of government — the judiciary, in this case — from exercising power that belongs to another branch.

Under state law, public employers must provide firefighters and police officers with “compensation and other conditions of employment” that are “substantially the same” as those of “comparable private sector employment.”

In the Supreme Court filing, the city contended that provision does not provide specific enough guidelines for courts to determine firefighter pay, an argument that was rejected by the appeals court in May. Still, city attorneys wrote in the latest filing that the law governing police and firefighter compensation has “existed under a legal cloud with respect to the unconstitutional delegation of legislative power accomplished by this judicial enforcement mechanism.”

See here and here for the background. This is too technical for me to have an opinion about the merits, but as I said before it would not have bothered me if the city had accepted the ruling and gone ahead with the judge setting the firefighters’ pay. I recognize that the downside risk of this for the city is getting a number they would not like, and if nothing else the appeal buys them some time. We’ll see how long it takes SCOTX to handle this.

One more thing:

Meanwhile, firefighters are collecting signatures for a charter amendment that would make it easier to bring contract talks with the city to binding arbitration. Union officials say they are aiming to place the measure on this year’s November ballot.

Insert your favorite GIF of someone shrugging their shoulders here.

City’s budget passes

There was a little bit of drama, but nothing too big.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s City Council voted Wednesday to approve a $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year that relies heavily on a massive infusion of federal aid to close a $201 million budget hole and give firefighters their biggest raise in years.

Council members also banded together to rebuke the mayor by increasing the money given to district offices to spend on neighborhood projects for their constituents.

The council voted 16-1 to approve the spending plan after a lengthy meeting in which council members proposed nearly 100 amendments to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s budget.

At-Large Councilmember Mike Knox voted against the budget. At-Large Councilmember Letitia Plummer later said she intended to vote no and tried to get the council to reconsider the vote, but her motion failed.

The body met in person for the first time in a year, with the members — most of whom are vaccinated — discussing the budget unmasked around the dais in City Hall chambers.

[…]

Most district council members joined forces to raise the amount their offices receive in a program that lets them spend money on neighborhood priorities. The 11 districts currently receive $750,000, and the council voted to hike that to $1 million each, at a total cost of $2.75 million. District J Councilmember Edward Pollard proposed the amendment, ultimately using money from the city’s reserve funds, prompting visible disappointment from the mayor.

The amendment passed, 10-7, with the mayor opposed. Turner said it could take money from city services like Solid Waste and risked depleting reserves ahead of an uncertain year.

“I was going to insist on a roll call vote, because you’re going to have to justify it,” Turner said before members cast their votes. Those supporting the amendment were Pollard, Amy Peck (District A), Tarsha Jackson (District B), Abbie Kamin (District C), Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District D), Tiffany Thomas (District F), Greg Travis (District G), Robert Gallegos (District I), Martha Castex-Tatum (District K), and Michael Kubosh (At-Large).

It is exceedingly rare in Houston’s strong mayor form of government for the mayor to lose a vote, though Wednesday’s motion marked the third time in seven years council members have aligned themselves to expand the district funds during a budget vote.

See here for the background. The “Council members add money to their budgets” thing has been done before, though as the story notes it may not actually result in that money going to them. This is money that is already being spent, it was just a matter of shifting it from one line item to another. I’d actually be in favor of Council members having some more funds at their discretion, though there’s not likely to be room for that most years. A chunk of the federal money available for this year’s budget was set aside for now, pending fuller guidance from the feds as to what it can and can’t be used on. Not much else to say here.

In related news, from earlier in the week:

People caught illegally dumping in Houston now will face a steeper fine, after City Council approved a measure doubling the penalty.

The council unanimously approved hiking the fine to $4,000, the maximum amount allowed under the law.

“This is to make people pay for illegally dumping,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “It makes things far, far worse, it’s unattractive, it’s not safe. It’s a public health problem.”

Turner, who characterized the city’s efforts against illegal dumping as an “all-out attack,” also encouraged judges to enforce the law sternly.

Illegal dumping can range from a Class C misdemeanor — akin to a parking ticket — to a state jail felony, depending on the weight of the trash and whether the person previously has been caught dumping. Most cases involve Class B misdemeanors, or between five and 500 pounds. Enforcement is somewhat rare as it is difficult to identify perpetrators if they are not caught on camera.

The measure received wide acclaim from council members, who have noted anecdotal increases in dumping of late.

“It should be more,” Councilmember Tarsha Jackson said of the fine hike.

Illegal dumpers are scum who deserve to be fined heavily, no doubt about it. The problem is catching them in the act, because that’s about the only way this ever gets enforced. The city has deployed more cameras at frequent dump sites and that has helped some, but there’s a lot more of it going on. We have a ways to go to really make a dent in this.

Here comes our boring budget

Save the drama for the budget amendments.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Sylvester Turner painted a dire picture of the city’s finances as he laid out his plan to balance last year’s $5 billion city budget.

Like other cities across the country, Houston’s sales tax revenue had plunged as the public stayed home, and Turner was proposing to make up the loss by furloughing 3,000 municipal workers, deferring police cadet classes, cutting the library budget and draining the city’s emergency reserves.

“These are financially difficult times, and it’s simply unavoidable,” Turner said of the cuts.

One year later, the city is emerging from the worst of the pandemic with its finances largely unscathed. Thanks to a payout of more than $1 billion in federal aid, Turner and city finance officials avoided the projected furloughs, reinstated the police cadet classes and are heading into the next fiscal year with replenished emergency reserves and a rare budget surplus.

Still, as City Council prepares to consider Turner’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan Wednesday, not everyone agrees on how the city should use its newfound wealth. Since prior mayoral administrations, city officials have passed annual budgets that spend more than the city takes in through recurring revenue, such as taxes. They have made up the difference by selling city-owned land, deferring hundreds of millions of dollars in maintenance on city buildings, dipping into cash reserves and using other one-time fixes. Turner has attributed much of the budgetary struggles to the city’s revenue cap, which limits annual growth in property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of inflation and population, whichever is lower.

City Controller Chris Brown and a number of council members have urged the mayor to use the relief money to address the long-standing budget issues, warning that added costs will leave the city in a precarious position when the federal money runs out. Eventually, the thinking goes, the city will run out of land to sell, while city infrastructure will continue to deteriorate and demand for city services will keep rising faster than the revenue used to fund them.

“The challenge is when that money runs out, if we add too many of the wrong things, i.e. recurring expenditures, it’s only going to exacerbate this structural imbalance in the future and make it that much worse,” Brown said.

Houston received a $304 million haul this year from the federal stimulus package approved by Congress in March, and it is set to receive the same amount in 2022, on top of a $400 million allotment it received last year from the first round of COVID aid. Turner is asking city council on Wednesday to approve a spending plan that uses $188 million of the aid to close most of the city’s projected budget deficit, and a chunk of the remaining funds to increase pay for Houston firefighters by 6 percent when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

See here for the previous entry. I tend to lean towards what Controller Brown is saying, but we’ll see what the details of this budget are, and go from there. I know that my calls to trim the police budget while we still can went unheeded, but I’d welcome an amendment to that effect from one or more Council members. We have two years to make good use of these federal funds. Let’s do what we can to get the most out of them and put the city on a stronger financial footing going forward.

Houston gets to have a boring budget

Thanks, President Biden and all you voters in Georgia!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to use an influx of federal cash to give firefighters a “raise the city can afford,” expand the Houston Police Department and replace lost revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the mayor’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan.

Turner’s budget proposal relies on roughly $304 million in federal relief money that was set to be deposited into the city’s coffers this week. The administration would use $188 million of that money to close most of the city’s projected $201 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year, while fully replenishing the $20 million rainy day fund ahead of hurricane season.

“Without this flexibility, the city would be facing catastrophic cuts across all services,” Turner said, a nod to the city’s estimated $178 million in lost revenue during the pandemic, mostly driven by sales tax.

The proposed spending plan largely would leave the city’s $214 million in reserves, which officials have relied on in recent years to help balance the annual budget, untouched. Turner also did not account for $112 million of the city’s stimulus funds in his initial spending plan, leaving the door open for other initiatives that he declined to detail Tuesday.

A portion of the extra federal aid likely will cover the firefighter raises, which Turner did not include in the budget as proposed Tuesday. The mayor declined to reveal the size of the firefighter pay increase, saying only that he plans to implement raises over three years, starting July 1, when the 2022 fiscal year begins.

[…]

Without the firefighter raises, Turner’s spending plan represents a 4.7 percent increase from last year’s budget. The tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for core city services, would total $2.58 billion next year, up 3.9 percent. The largest increase would come from the police department, which would see its budget rise to $984 million, about $33 million more than city officials expect to spend this year.

The additional police spending would fund six cadet classes instead of the usual five, and cover a 2 percent raise for officers. The city’s contract with police officers has expired and the two sides have not agreed on a new one, but an evergreen clause in that deal secured the raise. The raise accounts for $11.7 million of the added funds.

The Houston Fire Department also would see a modest budget increase, with funding for four cadet classes. The initial $515 million HFD budget includes funding for 3,648 classified firefighters, according to city finance officials, about 76 fewer than the current budget.

For now, the two public safety departments account for roughly a quarter of the mayor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year and half the general fund costs.

Controller Chris Brown said the federal stimulus money bailed the city out of a truly dire scenario — Houston’s worst-ever deficit, which could have resulted in as many as 2,500 layoffs.

“I’d breath a sigh of relief and look at the fact that the city really dodged a bullet this budget cycle,” Brown said, adding that his biggest concern is the city’s continuing structural imbalance. Its recurring expenditures outweigh revenues, meaning the city usually has to employ stop-gap measures such as land sales and deferrals to balance its books.

See here and here for the background. It’s hard to remember now, but a year ago things were looking really bad. The CARES Act helped, but the American Rescue Plan provided more money with fewer strings attached. It also provided money for the next fiscal year, by which time hopefully the city’s sales tax revenue will have bounced back. Not having this money would have made the next budget so much worse than it was in 2010. We still have challenges ahead, but at least the hole didn’t get exponentially bigger.

(As for the increase to the police budget, well, I didn’t expect anything different. Here’s hoping the Lege fails to carry that ball across the goal line.

Firefighters score a win in court

I confess, I had forgotten about this.

A panel of appellate court judges on Thursday rejected the city’s attempt to strike down a key provision of state law that governs how police and firefighters negotiate their wages and benefits, dealing a blow to Mayor Sylvester Turner in his long-running dispute with the Houston fire union.

Barring a city appeal, the ruling clears the way for a judge to set Houston firefighters’ pay for up to a year and compensate them for “past losses.”

Firefighters have received raises of just 3 percent since 2011, after rejecting offers they say included too many concessions. Voters in 2018 approved a ballot measure granting firefighters pay “parity” to police of similar rank and seniority, but a district judge ruled the measure unconstitutional.

Thursday’s ruling came in a case that arose in June 2017 after Turner and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association failed to agree on a new contract through collective bargaining.

The union sued the city, claiming Turner’s administration failed to negotiate in good faith. As part of that lawsuit, the firefighters invoked a provision of state law that allows a state district judge to set their pay after Turner declined to enter contract arbitration. The city responded by arguing it was unconstitutional for judges to determine the pay of firefighters and police officers.

Justices Ken Wise, Charles A. Spain and Meagan Hassan of Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals sided against the city, ruling the provision does not run afoul of the Texas Constitution separation of powers clause that prohibits one branch of government — the judiciary, in this case — from exercising power that belongs to another branch.

The justices also rejected the city’s argument that state lawmakers did not set specific enough guidelines for courts to determine firefighters’ compensation. Texas law requires public employers to give firefighters pay that is “substantially equal” to “comparable employment in the private sector.”

“The Legislature chose sufficiently detailed but not too confining language to account for the many different circumstances affecting compensation and other conditions of employment,” the justices wrote in their opinion, in which they also ordered the city to cover the fire union’s legal fees.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. In the story, the city said it hadn’t decided whether or not to appeal this ruling. It would be fine by me if the next step were for the city and the firefighters to try the bargaining table again. Or I guess they could roll the dice and let a judge decide the firefighters’ salaries, as they had tried to make happen. Who knows how that might turn out?

Next in line for the vaccine

Attention will shift to more vulnerable populations.

Texans who are 65 years old and older, and those who are at least 16 with certain chronic medical conditions will be next in line for the COVID-19 vaccine, the Texas Department of State Health Services announced Monday.

“The focus on people who are age 65 and older or who have comorbidities will protect the most vulnerable populations,” said Imelda Garcia, chair of the state Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel and DSHS associate commissioner for laboratory and infectious diseases. “This approach ensures that Texans at the most severe risk from COVID-19 can be protected across races and ethnicities and regardless of where they work.”

The vaccine, which arrived in Texas on Dec. 14, has been available so far only to front-line health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. There are nearly 1.9 million Texans in that group, so it will likely take a few weeks before the state transitions to the next phase, state health officials said.

The state expects to receive 1.4 million vaccine doses by the end of the month. Eligible facilities under the current phase include hospitals, pharmacies, nursing homes and Texas Department of Criminal Justices facilities.

The city of Houston will also receive 6,000 doses that are ticketed for firefighters and health care workers, so that’s good. A list of comorbidities that would get you onto the eligible list for the vaccine is in the article, so click over and check it out if you think this may apply to you or someone you know. But do keep in mind that bit about it taking a few weeks to transition into that next phase, because it will take awhile to get through the first phase. We need to continue to practice prevention so as not to sicken and kill many more people needlessly.

Indeed, for those of us in Houston, the next few weeks are looking rough.

The spread of COVID-19, steadily increasing in Houston and Texas since the beginning of November, is expected to accelerate in coming weeks, according to the latest modeling, a trajectory that could make the city and state one of the nation’s next hot spots.

The models project COVID-19 numbers — cases, hospitalizations, deaths — to continue rising in Houston and many other parts of Texas before likely peaking sometime in January. Parts of the state at crisis levels the past month have peaked.

“There’s a lot of concern about the Houston area as we enter the Christmas season,” said David Rubin, a pediatrician and director of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s PolicyLab, which produces one of the models. “If I were to say what areas in the country still have the potential to surge, the Houston area definitely would be one of them.”

Rubin and others urged everyone to hunker down over the coming holiday period in an attempt to limit the damage from the coronavirus’ seeming last onslought before gradually deployed vaccines can begin to shut down the pandemic. He noted widespread deployment won’t be in time to affect Houston’s winter peak.

[…]

“What’s concerning is that so many regions of Texas look to be hit about the same time,” said Spencer Fox, associate director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. “It’s a sad trend at a time when the vaccines are almost within reach.”

The Houston-area trends are worrisome in two of the models. Fox’s group projects 2,121 COVID-19 hospitalizations in the area on Jan. 15, for instance, an increase of 36 percent over the 1,561 such admissions for Dec. 17.

In addition, the CHOP PolicyLab modeling shows the number of Harris County COVID-19 cases should nearly double by the end of the first week of January. The model projects 2,919 cases on Jan. 7, up from 1,478 on Dec. 14.

A third forecast, by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), projects the number of deaths in Texas will peak Jan. 5 at 292. The model, the only one of the three that projects more than a few weeks out, says daily deaths would total 280 on that date assuming universal mask wearing but reach 345 by late January if mandates are eased.

Thanks partly to the vaccines, the IHME model projects the number of daily Texas deaths will decrease dramatically after the Jan. 5 peak — 138 on Feb. 1, 55 on March 1 and 17 on April 1. The vaccine’s most immediate effect is expected to be more of reducing severe illness and deaths than cases.

The IHME model does not project past April.

In all, 28,134 COVID-19 Texas deaths are expected as of Dec. 31, according to the IHME model. All but 2,700 of those came after June 30.

“That’s a devastating loss of lives in just a six-month period,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a Baylor College of Medicine infectious disease specialist and vaccine scientist. “Has Texas ever lost so many lives in such a short time?”

The CHOP PolicyLab foresaw the June/July spike, though they were more alarmist than the situation turned out to be. But between the holidays and the colder weather that makes outdoor dining less feasible, the conditions are certainly there for an uptick. We all know what to do about this, it’s just on us to actually do it.

Pension reform law partially blocked

I have to admit, I have no idea what this may mean.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state district judge on Wednesday struck down a key portion of Houston’s landmark pension reform package that applies to firefighters, a move that likely would upend the system — and the city’s finances — if upheld.

In an order siding with the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund, state District Judge Beau Miller wrote that the legislation passed in 2017 to overhaul the city’s troubled pension system prevents the firefighters’ pension board from determining “sound actuarial assumptions.”

Pension fund officials argued in court filings that the plan’s 7 percent assumed rate of return on investment strips them of their ability to control the fund’s cost projections. By codifying the rate in state law, they argued, city officials gained a role in that process when the Texas Constitution says only the pension fund should be able to set the assumed rate of return.

The argument mirrors one used in a prior legal challenge that was struck down in June 2019 by Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals. Pension fund officials refiled the new lawsuit the following month, tweaking their argument but still challenging the constitutionality of the pension reform package.

It is unclear what the financial hit to the city would be if the portion of the law governing firefighter pensions is thrown out, but it could be significant. In the first fiscal year after the reforms took effect, the city paid $83 million into the fire pension fund, down from $93 million the year before.

At the time, the fire pension fund argued the city should have paid $148 million, an additional $65 million, equivalent to the current annual budget of the city parks department.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, a key architect of the reform plan, said the city would appeal the ruling. He predicted the lawsuit would fail, but warned that an unsuccessful appeal would lead to “the destruction of pension reform with devastating financial impacts for taxpayers, city employees, and the city.”

The mayor said in a statement that pension board officials had convinced Miller “the board’s powers exceed that of the State of Texas and that the firefighters are above any law and cannot be governed by anyone else, even the Texas Legislature.”

Miller stipulated his ruling would take effect Nov. 15 and ordered the city to “allocate funding in accordance with” the part of the Texas Constitution challenged by the pension fund, though he did not elaborate. He also issued a permanent injunction prohibiting city officials from “taking action under SB 2190.”

I’ll be honest, I did not realize there was still active litigation over this. I don’t have anything to add at this time, but I will keep an eye out on the appeal. My guess is the city will try to get this ruling stayed, so we’ll see what happens with that.

The hidden toll

Another reason why the reported death count from COVID-19 is too low: People who didn’t know they were infected and die at home may never be tested or counted.

As coronavirus cases surge, inundating hospitals and leading to testing shortages, a rapidly growing number of Houston area residents are dying at home, according to an NBC News and ProPublica review of Houston Fire Department data. An increasing number of these at-home deaths have been confirmed to be the result of COVID-19, Harris County medical examiner data shows.

The previously unreported jump in people dying at home is the latest indicator of a mounting crisis in a region beset by one of the nation’s worst and fastest-growing coronavirus outbreaks. On Tuesday, a record 3,851 people were hospitalized for the coronavirus in the Houston region, exceeding normal intensive care capacity and sending some hospitals scrambling to find additional staff and space.

The uptick in the number of people dying before they can even reach a hospital in Houston draws parallels to what happened in New York City in March and April, when there was a spike in the number of times firefighters responded to medical calls, only to discover that the person in need of help had already died. These increases also echo those reported during outbreaks in Detroit and Boston, when the number of people dying at home jumped as coronavirus cases surged.

While far more people died of COVID-19 in those cities than have died so far in Houston, researchers and paramedics say that the trend of sudden at-home deaths in Texas’ largest city is concerning because it shows that the virus’s toll may be deeper than what appears in official death tallies and daily hospitalization reports.

Many people who die at home are not tested for COVID-19, said Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. In New York City, for example, only 16 percent of the 11,475 at-home deaths between February and June have been attributed to COVID-19, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There’s no reflexive testing,” Faust said, noting that medical examiners are selective about the cases they take. “There’s no pressure to call it a COVID death.”

The rise in at-home deaths may also reflect people who are afraid to go to the hospital because of COVID-19, and who die of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and other conditions not tied to the coronavirus, Faust said.

Ultimately, Faust said, public health experts trying to assess the toll from COVID will need to study how many excess deaths there are in a particular region and whether the demographics of those who died are different from what one might expect. “If there’s a huge spike in at-home deaths but no real spike in overall deaths, it’s just sort of rearranging deck chairs.”

There’s more, so go read the rest. I don’t have anything to add other than the usual disclaimer that none of this had to happen. We could have had a federal government that actually prepared for COVID-19. We could have had a state government that cared about reopening in a safe and scientifically-driven manner. We have neither of those things – yet – and so here we are. Keep that in mind, today and every day, not just through this November, but through November of 2022.

How it’s going at the hospitals

In a word, it’s bad.

At Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital on Sunday, the medical staff ran out of both space for new coronavirus patients and a key drug needed to treat them. With no open beds at the public hospital, a dozen COVID-19 patients who were in need of intensive care were stuck in the emergency room, awaiting transfers to other Houston area hospitals, according to a note sent to the staff and shared with reporters.

A day later, the top physician executive at the Houston Methodist hospital system wrote to staff members warning that its coronavirus caseload was surging: “It has become necessary to consider delaying more surgical services to create further capacity for COVID-19 patients,” Dr. Robert Phillips said in the note, an abrupt turn from three days earlier, when the hospital system sent a note to thousands of patients, inviting them to keep their surgical appointments.

And at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, staff members were alerted recently that the hospital would soon begin taking in cancer patients with COVID-19 from the city’s overburdened public hospital system, a highly unusual move for the specialty hospital.

These internal messages highlight the growing strain that the coronavirus crisis is putting on hospital systems in the Houston region, where the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has nearly quadrupled since Memorial Day. As of Tuesday, more than 3,000 people were hospitalized for the coronavirus in the region, including nearly 800 in intensive care.

“To tell you the truth, what worries me is not this week, where we’re still kind of handling it,” said Roberta Schwartz, Houston Methodist’s chief innovation officer, who’s been helping lead the system’s efforts to expand beds for COVID-19 patents. “I’m really worried about next week.”

What’s happening in Houston draws eerie parallels to New York City in late March, when every day brought steep increases in the number of patients seeking care at overburdened hospitals — though, so far, with far fewer deaths. But as coronavirus cases surge in Texas, state officials here have not reimplemented the same lockdown measures that experts say helped bring New York’s outbreak under control, raising concern among public health officials that Houston won’t be able to flatten the curve.

“The time to act and time to be alarmed is not when you’ve hit capacity, but it’s much earlier when you start to see hospitalizations increase at a very fast rate,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of integrative biology who leads the University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. “It is definitely time to take some kind of action. It is time to be alarmed.”

[…]

Although hospital executives in Houston stress that they have the ability to add additional intensive care beds in the region to meet the growing demand — for a few more weeks, at least — the strain on hospitals is already being felt in other ways.

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña said his paramedics sometimes have to wait for more than an hour while emergency room workers scramble to find beds and staffers to care for patients brought in by ambulance — a bottleneck that’s tying up emergency medical service resources and slowing emergency response times across the region.

Part of the problem, Peña said, is that when his crews arrive at a hospital with a patient suspected of having COVID-19, the hospital may have a physical bed open for them, but not enough nurses or doctors to staff it. That’s a problem that’s likely to deepen as a growing number of medical workers have been testing positive for the virus, according to internal hospital reports. Just as New York hospitals did four months ago, some Houston hospitals have posted on traveling nurse websites seeking nurses for “crisis response jobs.”

“If they don’t have the nursing staff, then you can’t place the patient,” Peña said. “Then our crews have to sit with the patient in the ER until something comes open. It has a huge domino effect.”

There’s more, so read the rest. If you’re thinking that the death rate is low and that that’s a small blessing, that is true, but it’s also a bit illusory. For one thing, the sheer number of deaths will increase as the infection rate rises, not all deaths for which COVID-19 is a factor are recorded as COVID-19 deaths, and it is already the case that people are avoiding going to the hospital now for other reasons because of COVID-19, and that some of them will also die as a result. The official death count numbers have always been underestimated, and there’s no good way to spin it. Even if we were to go into total lockdown right now, we won’t begin to see the positive effects of that for another two weeks. We really need masking and better social distancing to have an effect or it’s going to get much worse. Oh, and the Texas Medical Center is above 100% ICU capacity. So we’ve got that going for us.

And as you ponder all that, ponder also this.

Despite Texas’ surge of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Tuesday evening that he doesn’t need the advice of the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, Anthony Fauci.

“Fauci said today he’s concerned about states like Texas that ‘skipped over’ certain things. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Patrick told Fox News host Laura Ingraham in an interview. “We haven’t skipped over anything. The only thing I’m skipping over is listening to him.”

Patrick also said Fauci has “been wrong every time on every issue,” but did not elaborate on specifics.

Dan Patrick does not care if you live or die. You and everyone you know mean nothing to him.

Here come the furloughs

We said this was gonna be bad, right?

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, facing an economy hammered by the coronavirus pandemic and collapsing oil prices, on Tuesday proposed to close an upcoming budget gap by furloughing about 3,000 municipal workers, deferring all police cadet classes and exhausting the city’s entire $20 million “rainy day” fund.

The proposals are in response to an estimated $169 million revenue shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Emptying the rainy day fund “leaves the city in a precarious state for the upcoming hurricane season,” the mayor acknowledged in a message to city council members that accompanied his budget plan. The account holds money in reserve for emergency situations, such as cash flow shortages and major disasters.

The city had just recently replenished the fund after using all $20 million in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. It will not have that option if a storm hits Houston this year.

“The dollars from the economic stabilization fund are gone,” Turner said. “There is no rainy day fund.”

Under Turner’s plan, the city also would draw $83 million from its cash reserves to balance the budget.

The city’s tax- and fee-supported general fund, which covers most basic city operations, would spend $2.53 billion under Turner’s plan, a decrease of about 1 percent from the current budget. Despite the narrow spending cut, the city would be left with a general fund balance that dips below the amount required by city ordinance.

[…]

The proposed spending plan, which is subject to approval by city council, only says that the city would furlough “thousands of municipal employees.” At a news conference Tuesday, Turner said the number would be around 3,000 of the city’s nearly 21,000 employees. The workers would forego 10 days of pay, saving the city roughly $7 million.

Turner did not specify which departments would be required to send workers home without pay, though he said the city would not place anyone on furlough from the police, fire and solid waste management departments.

The city will not implement any cuts until the new fiscal year begins July 1, Turner said.

See here and here for some background. The story mentions the $404 million Houston received in the first cornavirus stimulus package, which it can’t spend on previously budgeted expenses. Maybe the city will be allowed some leeway in that, and maybe the next relief package, which in its current form includes money for cities and states, will arrive in a timely fashion. Mayor Turner says he’d reinstate the police cadet class and un-furlough the other employees as his first priorities if the funding becomes available. In the meantime, this is our reality. All we can do is hang on and hope for the best.

What can Houston do about hazardous buildings?

It’s a good question, but there’s another question that has to be considered alongside it.

For the first time, Houston City Council members publicly floated proposals Wednesday for how the city can better protect its residents from explosions like the one at Watson Grinding & Manufacturing, which killed two people and damaged hundreds of homes.

Among the ideas: tighter thresholds for reporting chemicals, more inspectors for the fire department, or requiring companies to pay for and submit their own third-party inspections.

The suggestions raised at the Public Safety and Homeland Security hearing marked the start of what Mayor Sylvester Turner has promised will be a long, transparent discussion about how the city can better balance the safety of its neighborhoods with the city’s robust chemical industry. He said last week that he hopes that conversation will produce policy changes by the end of the year.

The region has had six major chemical fires since last March.

“This is only the beginning of a much-needed conversation on the issue of neighborhood safety when it comes to not only manufacturing plants, but the storage of chemicals and other potentially dangerous materials,” said council member Abbie Kamin, the committee’s chair.

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña told the committee that Watson Grinding & Manufacturing, which had a 2,000-gallon tank of the chemical propylene that investigators have said fueled the Jan. 24 blast, was not functioning as a “high hazard” business, according to thresholds laid out by the International Building Code.

The facility fell into other categories, Peña said. They included business, storage and factory designations, according to the IBC standards. The company was also up to date on all permits, he said.

“It doesn’t mean that the other ones are not hazardous, it just doesn’t meet a certain threshold,” he said.

Lowering those thresholds is one possible response, as is tightening disclosure requirements. This is the start of the conversation – CM Kamin says there will be another hearing with the Regulatory and Neighborhoods Affairs Committee on March 26 – so there may be other ideas. This is all well and good and necessary, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough because the city has to be wary about what the Legislature might do if they decide that any tighter regulations on businesses like Watson Grinding are offensive to their doctrine and those of their overlords. Meddling in the affairs of cities is now official policy, so if the Republicans maintain control of the House, you can be sure that a response to any action City Council takes will be on the table. We get the chemical explosions we vote for, and we better not lose sight of that.

Next up for Mayor Turner

A preview of his second term agenda.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he would seek to enact “transformational” changes in his second term, previewing an agenda that will require city leaders to confront politically difficult issues and vastly expand the use of public-private partnerships — a critical step for some of the mayor’s otherwise unfunded signature programs.

Fresh off his re-election victory over Tony Buzbee, Turner also spoke in new detail Sunday about his plans to restructure the fire department, accelerate the city’s permitting process, build a new theme park and intensify efforts to repair damaged streets.

“I said when I came in, in 2015, I wasn’t going to ignore things because they were not politically convenient. That has not changed,” Turner said in an interview with the Chronicle. “If I have to expend political capital to get some things done, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Chief among Turner’s priorities, he said, is to improve Houston’s flood mitigation infrastructure and quicken the pace of recovery from Hurricane Harvey, which has lagged. The key flood control projects, Turner said, are the construction of new gates on the Lake Houston dam, detention basins in Inwood Forest, the North Canal Bypass channel and an underground detention basin south of the Memorial City area.

Three of the projects have received initial funding through a federal grant program that covers a large share of the cost, with only the underground basin awaiting approval.

More immediately, Turner faces a burgeoning flood control challenge in the General Land Office’s cap on how much Houston and other local governments may draw from a $4.3 billion federal mitigation aid package. Since Harvey, Turner has sparred over the recovery process with Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Gov. Greg Abbott, both of whom wield influence over how the resources are dealt.

Turner said he has no interest in “fighting somebody just to be fighting,” but stressed that he would push for Houston to receive a bigger chunk of the aid.

“I want to work with the governor and I want to work with the GLO, but when it comes to making sure that those dollars benefit people in Houston-Harris County that were impacted by Harvey and can be impacted by another storm, how do you justify a disproportionate amount of those dollars going to some other place?” Turner said. “I don’t think you can make that case.”

[…]

Next term, Turner also said he would look to restructure the fire department by switching from a four-shift to a three-shift work schedule, which is generally viewed as more arduous and is opposed by the firefighters union.

Turner affirmed that such a move would involve lobbying the Legislature to raise the baseline at which firefighters begin accruing overtime pay. Under state law, Houston firefighters begin collecting overtime pay when they work for more than an average of 46.7 weekly hours during a 72-day work cycle. Without the added overtime cost, firefighters in other cities often work 53- or 56-hour weeks, with many operating on a three-shift cycle.

Calling the department’s model “archaic” and “not reflective of the current needs,” the mayor contended that these changes would allow HFD to more efficiently handle calls classified as EMS. Those calls make up more than 80 percent of the incidents handled by the fire department, though the fire union has noted that a far lower share of the department’s “man-hours” are spent responding to EMS calls.

There’s a long list, and we didn’t discuss the plan for HERO 2.0, which will surely use some of that capital as well. If there was ever a time to make changes to how the Fire Department operates, it’s now – the firefighters went all in on beating Turner, and they lost. I foresee a rocky road with Harvey recovery money, because it’s more in Greg Abbott and George P. Bush’s political interests to clash with Turner over how the funds are doled out and managed than it is for them to play nice and get things done. For everything else, political capital has a shelf life. We’ll be talking about the next Mayor’s race before you know it. The more the Mayor can get done next year, the better.

The Chron on Boykins and Lovell

Time for more profiles of Mayoral candidates. Here’s the Chron piece on Dwight Boykins.

Dwight Boykins

“My goal is to use this position as mayor to let people know that there is hope,” [CM Dwight Boykins] said. “I’m trying to help the least and the last.”

His run was rumored long before he announced it in June after he had broken with Mayor Sylvester Turner, repeatedly criticizing and questioning his one-time ally’s ongoing feud with firefighters over pay parity issues. That outspokenness has won Boykins the union’s backing, and thousands of dollars in donations.

With Election Day less than a month away, Boykins does not pose a serious threat to Turner, who according to a recent poll leads his closest challenger, Houston lawyer Tony Buzbee, by 17 points. Boykins came in at fourth in the 12-person field, with 3.5 percent of the share of likely voters.

His “speak my mind” personality also has brought backlash: In July, he was criticized for telling teenage girls in a group of students at a youth advocacy summit to “keep their legs closed.” Boykins said he had been asked to “speak frankly” about the pitfalls for youth, including teen pregnancy.

In recent debates, though, Boykins’ voice largely has been drowned out as Buzbee, businessman Bill King and Turner increasingly trade barbs.

[…]

As mayor, Boykins wants to divert more money to parks and neighborhood programs, partner with outside groups for after-school tutoring programs, and increase police presence in the neighborhoods.

He also has promised to negotiate a contract between the city and its fire union within the first 60 days of his election, which he said would be financed in part by scrutinizing spending in other departments.

Yeah, I’m sure he’d like to do those things. Good luck figuring out how to pay for them, and as someone who’s been a part of multiple budget votes, I’m sure he knows that one can “scrutinize spending” all one wants, there won’t be any easy or significant savings to be found. Budget math aside, I said a long time ago that I would never support a candidate who opposed HERO, and Dwight Boykins voted against HERO on City Council. There’s not much else for me to say.

Next up is Sue Lovell.

Sue Lovell

Sue Lovell says Mayor Sylvester Turner got her fired by her largest consulting client, but that is not why she is running against him.

“I always wanted to run for mayor,” the former three-term at-large councilwoman said.

Lovell said she nearly ran in 2015, after then-mayor Annise Parker left office, but ultimately decided to pass.

This time around, she made the jump, saying she brings more credible experience at City Hall than any other candidate in the race.

During her six years on council, Lovell, 69, burnished a reputation as a candid and well-versed presence at City Hall, with a knack for gritty details and the bare knuckles to hold her own in a political fight. She forged those skills as an early and formative organizer with the Houston GLBT Political Caucus.

Those City Hall and progressive bona fides, perhaps, could have made Lovell a formidable challenge to Turner’s reelection chances. After a late entry into the race, however, Lovell is fighting for relevance in a contest that also features the 2015 runner-up, a self-funded lawyer spending millions on the campaign and an incumbent council member.

The only independent poll of likely voters last month found Lovell languishing with less than 1 percent of the vote. Her fundraising numbers similarly were dwarfed by the top four hopefuls, which has convinced debate hosts recently to leave her off the stage. She also has failed to garner the support of influential organizations with whom she has ties, including the Houston GLBT Political Caucus she once headed.

I have nothing but respect for Sue Lovell as a Council member, and unlike Boykins she’s on the right side of HERO. I can’t help but feel – and this is true of Boykins as well – that if it weren’t for the ridiculous firefighter pay parity fight, neither of them would be running for Mayor now. I can understand supporting Prop B, even if someone has carefully explained to you that there was no mechanism to pay for it, but that doesn’t mean I want such a person to be Mayor. Again, I’m not sure what else there is to say.

The Chron’s overview of the Mayor

It’s a fair picture.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner hugged his way through three dozen staff and supporters, reached the podium, and smiled.

It was May 2017, and Turner’s landmark pension reform bill had just passed the Legislature, validating his decision to devote the first 17 months of his term almost exclusively to the city’s top fiscal challenge.

The longtime legislator finally had won the job on his third try, fulfilling a dream more than two decades in the making. His tenure had not been perfect — there was the Tax Day Flood, the tanking recycling market, two huge budget deficits.

This day, though, things were good.

“Let me just tell you,” Turner said, “this is one of those moments where you want to just kind of take it in and not let it pass too quickly.”

The moment would prove to be one of the last Turner — the first Houston mayor elected to a four-year term — could relish, unburdened by crisis.

Within four months, the mayor found his agenda dominated by catastrophic flooding wrought by the worst rainstorm in continental United States history, as well as a man-made crisis — a bitter fight over firefighters’ pay that led to a lopsided loss at the polls and, later, a win at the courthouse.

Those challenges, and Turner’s tendency to keep a tight grip on the reins of government and immerse himself in the details of decision-making, constrained what the mayor — and the allies who helped elect him to office — had hoped he would accomplish.

Most political observers expect Turner — who held a 17 percent lead over his nearest rival in a recent poll — to retain enough support to earn a second term. The mayor, however, has drawn plenty of detractors and underwhelmed some supporters, putting him in a less secure position than one might expect of an incumbent Democrat in a blue city.

You know I’m supporting Mayor Turner for re-election. I believe he’s generally done a good job, and I find his leading opponents to be somewhere between disingenuous, dishonest, and delusional in their alternate proposals. I wish he’d made more progress on some of the issues discussed in this story, but flooding and the firefighter saga have taken priority, and that’s just how it goes. The only one of his opponents that I’d trust to value those same priorities is Sue Lovell, and I have more faith in Turner to move them forward. Statements in the story about Turner’s control over the ordinance process have been made about every previous Mayor, and will continue to be made about future Mayors. We’re fine with Mayor Turner. I don’t feel fine about the alternatives. Sometimes it’s just as simple as that.

(There was a Chron profile of Bill King a couple of says earlier. I fell asleep each time I tried to read it.)

Do you believe in magical thinking?

I did not read this long profile of Tony Buzbee, because life is short and we all have better things to do. I did briefly scan the print version a bit, and in doing so I noticed the following paragraph, which tells you everything you need to know about Tony Buzbee, Loudmouth Rich Guy Who Wants To Be Mayor:

Buzbee opposes the idea of lifting Houston’s property tax revenue cap. Instead, he wants to enact budget cuts he says will fund his proposals, such as hiring 2,000 police officers in eight years — which would spike the department’s budget by almost 40 percent — and granting firefighters pay parity with police.

This is impossible. It literally cannot be done. Do you remember when Mayor Annise Parker was faced with a big deficit in 2010 following the economic crash, which caused property tax revenues to plummet? She ran on a promise of balancing the budget without making any cuts to the police or fire departments, and she achieved that in large part by laying off over 700 municipal employees. Someone with a more detailed knowledge of the current budget would have to run the numbers to check this, but to hire that many new police officers and give the firefighters a raise of that magnitude, I would question whether there are enough municipal employees left to lay off to pay for it. I mean, if we don’t want trash collection or a permitting department or building inspectors or anyone working in the parks and libraries – and maybe if we also defaulted on our bonds – you could make it work. I guarantee you, Tony Buzbee has not done the math to show how he could make it work.

On a side note, let me refer you to this:

Houston Police Officers’ Union President Joe Gamaldi questioned whether the department would even have enough cars, uniforms and equipment to handle the increased headcount.

“We would love to see that type of growth,” Gamaldi said. “But realistically, we’ve never hired more than 375 people in a fiscal year, so we would really need to look to see if HPD’s infrastructure can even handle that.”

Note that this story has Buzbee hiring those two thousand cops over his first four years. I mean, when the president of the police officers’ union says that your plan to hire 500 cops a year every year for four years is a bit much…

“No confidence”

The latest from the firefighters.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña will face a “no confidence” vote by members of the city’s fire union over what nearly 100 district chiefs say has been a lack of leadership and a failure to adequately equip or pay firefighters.

The vote, which is expected to take place in the next week, would have no practical effect on Peña’s position. Mayor Sylvester Turner is the only person who can remove Peña from the post he has held since the mayor appointed him in 2016.

The union’s Tuesday announcement marks the latest development in the increasingly fraught relationship between rank-and-file firefighters and the Turner administration.

Peña and Turner separately called the criticisms unfair and said the vote was part of a broader political campaign to discredit the city’s current leadership.

You can see a copy of the letter they sent here. Some of this is about Prop B, some is about the lack of a collective bargaining agreement and the current level of firefighter pay, some of it is about proposals to move from four shifts to three shifts (which is something that has been proposed in the past as well). The vote itself is symbolic – Mayor Turner is not going to fire Chief Peña.

I’m going to make a prediction: A year from now, the firefighters are still going to be unhappy. Very likely, firefighter unhappiness will still be an issue the next time we elect a Mayor in 2023. The firefighters have been unhappy with the Mayor going back to at least Mayor Lee Brown. I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Mediation fails again

Not really a surprise.

A third round of mediation between Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston firefighters union concluded in an apparent impasse Thursday afternoon, ending another attempt to resolve the long-running contract dispute and sending a lawsuit over the matter back to a state appellate court.

The mediation session, ordered by Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals, ended around 2 p.m. at the office of the Baker Botts law firm. After leaving the meeting, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said city officials “walked” and “absolutely decided they were not going to continue” the session.

“It was crystal clear to myself and to our team that this mayor was not interested in resolving this,” Lancton said. “This is a game of politics by this mayor trying to get past the election.”

See here for the background. This I think sums up the situation well:

The story says that the 14th Court of Appeals will likely not render a verdict until after the election. And let’s be clear, if this election was illegal as the lower court ruled, then there really isn’t much basis for mediation. The city’s position can and should be that any negotiations should be done in the context of the normal collective bargaining process, as the firefighters have been operating without a new agreement for a couple of years now. The firefighters have a good argument that some form of pay parity should be the goal of those negotiations, since the people did vote in favor of Prop B. Unless the 14th Court eventually decides that the lower court ruling was wrong, I’m honestly not sure what else there is to talk about at this point.

UPDATE: Here’s the longer version of the Chron story.

Mediation 3.0

Third time’s the charm, right?

The Houston firefighters union and Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration will return to mediation Aug. 1 in the hopes of working out a new contract amid a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Proposition B.

The ballot measure, which grants firefighters the same pay as police of similar rank and experience, passed last November but was struck down by a state district judge who ruled it unconstitutional and void. The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association appealed the ruling, sending the case to Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals.

Last month, the appeals court ordered the city and fire union to hold talks within 60 days. The union announced Wednesday the parties had agreed to hold the mediation session Aug. 1, which a spokesperson for the mayor confirmed. The two sides also agreed to have Houston attorney Daryl Bristow serve as mediator.

[…]

Asked Wednesday if there was any reason to expect a deal on the third mediation attempt, Turner repeated his claim that the firefighters deserve a pay raise “the city can afford” and said he would seek to reach a deal.

“The resolution has to be one that’s good for the people of the city of Houston,” Turner said.

See here for the background, and my thoughts on this process, which doesn’t seem any more likely to resolve things now than before, but you never know. They have a different mediator this time, for whatever that’s worth. I don’t know what timeline they may have, but most likely they will either come to an agreement or declare that it’s hopeless in a fairly short period of time.

Sue Lovell announces for Mayor

Sure, why not?

Sue Lovell

Former Houston city councilwoman Sue Lovell announced Monday she is running for mayor, becoming the fourth major candidate aiming to deny Mayor Sylvester Turner a second term in November.

Lovell made the announcement in a news release posted on her campaign website. She joins a field that includes District D Councilman Dwight Boykins, trial lawyer Tony Buzbee, businessman Bill King and at least five lesser-known candidates.

In her announcement, Lovell emphasized her tenure as chair of the city council transportation committee and advocacy for LGBTQ rights. She served three terms on council from 2006 to 2012, including a stint as vice mayor pro-tem.

“Now, more than ever, our citizens trust that public safety will be a priority, that the services they pay for will be delivered efficiently and on time, and that there will be an investment in the city’s infrastructure and their quality of life,” Lovell said in a statement. “I will honor that trust and deliver on those commitments.”

Speculation had abounded for months that Lovell would join the race, representing a challenge to Turner from his left. Lovell also has established herself as an ally to the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, working for a political action committee that supported Proposition B during last year’s midterm election.

That’s what this is about. It makes me wonder if the firefighters, who had previously endorsed Dwight Boykins before he stepped in it over the weekend, might reconsider their options. Or maybe the two of them will split the pool of pro-firefighter/anti-Turner Democrat voters. I don’t know.

Though Lovell’s name last appeared on the city ballot in 2009, she has remained visible in the community for the last decade and likely maintains some recognition among voters, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“She’s been out office for awhile, but there are still a lot of people that know and respect her,” Rottinghaus said.

Lovell is likely to cut into the mayor’s progressive base, said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. Before Lovell joined the race, Jones said, “Turner was going to be the preferred choice of most liberal Anglos.” Those voters are more likely to support Lovell than King, Buzbee or Boykins, Jones said.

Yeah, but she was always an underperformer at the ballot box. In 2007, running for her first re-election, she failed to crack 53% against perennial candidate Griff Griffin. In 2009, she was forced into a runoff against perennial candidate Andrew Burks. I happen to think Lovell was a fine Council member and a master of policy details, but she tends to burn bridges and accumulate enemies. I’ll be very interested to see what kind of endorsements she gets, and what her fundraising is; we won’t know that till the 30 day reports, as that is the advantage of announcing one’s candidacy on July 1.

Appeals court rejects firefighters pension reform lawsuit

This is not related to Prop B. I know, it’s hard to keep all of this straight.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals on Thursday sided with the city of Houston in a lawsuit over Mayor Sylvester Turner’s pension reform plan, which the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund alleged violates the state constitution.

The firefighters’ pension fund sued Turner and other city officials in May 2017, shortly after the Legislature passed — and Gov. Greg Abbott signed — Senate Bill 2190, the legislation overhauling Houston’s pension systems. Firefighters opposed the measure, while Turner and other officials said it resolved a fiscal crisis that could threaten the city’s fiscal solvency.

In the lawsuit, the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund argued the pension reform law strips its right under the Texas Constitution to “select legal counsel and an actuary and adopt sound actuarial assumptions.”

The pension fund contended the reform plan’s 7 percent assumed rate of return on investment, now codified in state law, gives the city and its actuaries a role in determining the fund’s cost projections, which the fund’s board of trustees said it alone should control.

See here and here for the background. The suit was dismissed by a district court judge, and the appeals court was basically ruling on whether that judge was correct to dismiss or not. You can read the opinion here, but it’s pretty dense and technical, and my eyes glazed over almost immediately. In short, the appellate court said the trial court judge’s decision was fine. The firefighters’ pension fund, who filed the suit and the appeal, will appeal again, to the Supreme Court. So we’re not quite finished with this yet.

By the way, City Council passed the budget

In the end, this was pretty boring. Which is a good thing.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston city council approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year with little commotion Wednesday, authorizing a spending plan that was scrambled at the last minute by developments at the Legislature and a judge’s ruling that the voter-approved Proposition B is unconstitutional.

The council voted 12-4 in favor of Turner’s budget after approving a series of amendments during a nearly seven-hour session. The budget covers city spending for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

About half the spending — $2.53 billion — will come out of the city’s tax- and-fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day core operations, including public safety, trash pickup, parks and libraries. The city is set to spend about 1.9 percent more than it is projected to spend during the current fiscal year.

The remaining spending will come out of “enterprise” funds, which are supported by fees, including the Houston Airport System, and city utilities, which run on residents’ water bills.

[…]

Also complicating the budget was a bill passed by the Legislature that limits the fees telecommunication and cable companies pay cities to use their rights of way. That opened a spending gap of more than $16 million, according to city budget officials.

Wednesday’s budget approval followed consideration of more than 30 amendments proposed by council members.

Among the amendments approved were proposals to create new finance transparency requirements, change how the city sets its next budget and commission studies that could change how the city’s fleet management and solid waste departments operate.

In the end, there were no layoffs thanks to Prop B getting tossed by the courts. That could still get reversed on appeal so it’s not a settled matter, but for now it’s where we are. A respite from that drama, no matter how brief, is welcome.

Back to mediation

Give it another sixty days. Maybe it’ll be different this time.

A Texas appeals court Thursday ordered the Houston firefighters union and Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration back to mediation in the hope the two sides will agree to a new pay contract and sidestep the contentious fight over Proposition B.

The order by the 14th Court of Appeals, which requires the parties to hold talks within 60 days, comes a month after a state district judge declared Prop B unconstitutional, marking the latest twist in a years-long battle between the city and firefighters over pay.

The latest order cranks up pressure on Turner and the firefighters to work together to resolve the issues, said Josh Blackman, an associate professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston.

“Maybe they were hoping the court would bail them out, but the courts aren’t going to assist in this negotiation,” he said. “Why would the court want to get involved in this? It’s such a disaster.”

[…]

State District Judge Tanya Garrison’s ruling that Prop B was unconstitutional changes the dynamics of the negotiations, said Wanda McKee Fowler, a former appellate judge who spent more than 13 years on the 14th Court of Appeals.

“Sometimes it takes more than one mediation for a case to settle,” she said. “There’s benefit in having parties that are going to have a continuing relationship resolve it themselves, rather than have the law to resolve it.”

See here for the background, and here for the court’s order. What this means is that the appeal of the question about whether Prop B is unconstitutional is on hold for the next sixty days. If everyone involved can come to some kind of agreement – remember, the Houston Police Officers Union filed the lawsuit alleging Prop B was illegal, so they are a party to all this as well – then the appeal will be dropped and everyone will go on with their lives. If mediation fails again, then the court gets to decide whether the original ruling that Prop B is illegal was correct. You have to read the order to figure that out (or at least, I had to read it to figure that out), but that’s what this all means.

For that reason, I disagree with Josh Blackmon. This fight isn’t about being bailed out, it’s about who’s right and who’s wrong. Remember, it was the HPOU who filed the lawsuit, in the belief that Prop B would harm them. In a sense, Judge Garrison’s ruling did bail everyone out, in that the city’s financial position improved, no firefighters got laid off, and nothing prevented them from going back to the collective bargaining process. The question at issue here is “Is Prop B legal?” The court’s order is a fancy way of saying “Are you sure you want to ask me that question, or would you rather go off on your own and solve your own problems and leave me out of it?” Frankly, it’s not the court bailing anyone out. From the court’s perspective, they want the litigants to bail them out from having to get involved. KUHF has more.

Prop B layoffs rescinded

No Prop B, no need for layoffs. Funny how that works.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council on Wednesday formally reversed the 220 firefighter layoffs and hundreds of demotions it approved earlier this year, making official Mayor Sylvester Turner’s pledge not to lay off or demote any firefighters in the aftermath of a judge’s ruling that Proposition B is unconstitutional.

Before a state district judge threw out Prop B, the voter-approved charter amendment granted firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority. Turner warned that Prop B would require layoffs to offset the cost of the raises, a point hotly disputed by the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. City council voted in April to send firefighters 60-day layoff notices, which the panel unanimously rescinded Wednesday.

The council also voted to reverse more than 400 demotions within the Houston Fire Department. The layoff notices had gone to the lowest-ranking firefighters, initially requiring the city to fill in those positions from the top down through demotions.

“This puts everything back the way it existed prior to that vote,” Turner said.

The city also had sent layoff notices to 47 municipal employees, but Turner already had rescinded those unilaterally because those layoffs did not require council approval.

Councilman Dwight Boykins asked Turner if the layoff reversal would impact Fire Chief Sam Peña’s proposed department restructuring, which would move HFD from a four-shift to three-shift model — a move the union opposes. Turner confirmed that Wednesday’s vote has no bearing on the proposed shift change.

Councilwoman Brenda Stardig also asked Turner if the city plans to recoup back pay granted to firefighters before Prop B was ruled unconstitutional. Some department employees received raises the week before the judge’s ruling.

Turner said his administration is “addressing how to deal with that issue,” but in the meantime he sees the raises as a “credit on future negotiations.” The mayor said last month that he did not intend to “claw back” funds from any firefighter.

Obviously, this isn’t the end. We’re about to have an election that will re-litigate this whole thing – though don’t expect anyone to give a plausible answer to how they would have handled this all differently – and that court ruling has been appealed to the 14th Court of Appeals. But in a real sense, this is over. Whatever happens next, it will occur in a context of Prop B not having happened. So maybe now, at least for a little while, we can talk about something else.