Subscribers to Houston’s email alert service received a curiously titled piece of communication from the mayor’s office this week: “The city will hire a poet who’ll inspire,” the subject line read.

Hire and inspire?

Mayor Sylvester Turner is searching for the city’s next poet laureate. Sure, it gives an opportunity and a platform to an artist in need. But is that the city’s job? And what message does that send to Houstonians?

Like the recent decision to spend $3 million to hire bands to play in Houston’s airports, this move shows just how out of touch Houston’s aristocracy — namely, Turner’s administration — is with the needs of the people they serve.

Now, you might be thinking this is the perfect opportunity for an inner-city student in Houston to showcase their talent. Well, you’d be wrong.

The grant isn’t even available to students — to qualify, you have to be at least 21, not enrolled in school, and have an extensive body of published work.

When I tweeted a screenshot of the email, which explains that the chosen one will receive a $20,000 grant, Turner’s guard dog immediately chimed in and downplayed the job posting.

“Grant’s [sic] funded by the small portion of the hotel occupancy tax set aside for the arts. When you stay in a Houston hotel you contribute,” tweeted Communications Director Alan Bernstein.

Yes, a small portion of Houston’s hotel occupancy tax, which is one of the highest in Texas and acts as a deterrence for would-be tourists.

Here’s the thing: it’s estimated there are at least 18,000 federal workers living in the Houston area; the mayor’s office sending out an email blast saying the city is hiring a poet for $20,000 during the longest government shutdown in history is beyond tone deaf.

Not only that, this is on top of the fact that in 2018 the city passed a property tax hike, the first one in a decade, despite Turner’s promises during his mayoral campaign to never do that. And let’s not forget the upcoming budget deficit and Turner’s claims that there is no money to implement the voter-approved firefighter pay parity measure.

Regardless of where the money is coming from or how much it will cost, Houston’s poet laureate email advertisement is at the very least an exceptionally half-witted move for the mayor’s office. Most Houstonians couldn’t even imagine having $20,000 in their bank accounts.

Turner’s actions beg the question: Who would even approve such a blatantly out-of-touch message from a mayor whose favorite phrase in regards to actual taxpayer needs is “shared sacrifice”?

Just like they could’ve done with the bands in the airport, the city could find a young poet in need of a platform and willing to serve as the city’s poet laureate for free.

But, alas, why do that when your funds have no limitations, and the taxpayers’ pockets are bottomless?

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.


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