The Houston region is anticipating significant challenges over the next few years. With a new administration taking office, a restructuring of Houston’s governing structure, and primary elections on the horizon, there’s a lot to focus on.

As Mayor Sylvester Turner wrapped up his eighth and final year, he spent a lot of time talking about his “legacy,” much of which surrounds overseeing seven federally declared disasters in eight years. But despite the mayor’s claim of leaving the city on better footing than it ever has been, his administration has not been without issues. 

On paper, Houston has a $470 million budgetary surplus this year and the mayor points to, what he calls, fiscal discipline for making that happen. The reality is that while Houston is in the black on paper, when one considers hundreds of millions owed to the firefighters for failing to negotiate a contract for the past seven years, a growing budget gap possibly topping $244 million by 2028, $3 billion in deferred maintenance on roads, $1.14 billion to rehabilitate the city’s water purification plant, and $594 million in deferred facilities maintenance, that surplus becomes a deficit in the blink of an eye. Years of structurally imbalanced budgets made whole through one-time funding sources like land sales and federal aid have allowed the city to coast, but that runway is coming to an end.

Not only that, but issues with crime and understaffing of the Houston Police Department and a, now dwindling, backlog at the Houston Forensic Science Center have captivated headlines in 2023. 

All of these issues will be ones for Mayor-elect John Whitmire, the new City Controller, and the new City Council to take on once they are sworn in in January. 

Whitmire takes leadership of the city following a long-fought election season where he bested seventeen other candidates, among them Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, whose campaign never caught the steam she intended it to.

During that election voters also approved a charter amendment that would take power from the mayor by allowing three or more city council members to place items on the city’s weekly agenda, a power that until recently only the mayor had. The new makeup of the city council, coupled with their newfound authority, will make for an interesting combination in years to come. 

Harris County wasn’t without its issues, either.

The year started off with a tornado ripping through parts of Harris County while newly reelected Judge Lina Hidalgo was on an extended vacation, nowhere to be found. A few months following her return, Hidalgo announced she’d be taking a leave of absence to seek in-patient mental health treatment. Returning the same as always, she has now expressed interest in seeking higher office. 

2023 also brought issues with the Harris County jail. Several local lawsuits, a federal lawsuit, 19 in-custody deaths this year, and repeated criticisms from the Commission on Jail Standards have the county on notice, but not much urgency has been seen from the Democratic majority on the Commissioners Court to address the problems plaguing the jail. 

As the March primary election nears, the court’s most senior member—Commissioner Rodney Ellis—is seeking reelection. He has rolled out a guaranteed basic income program that he has long championed. Through the 18-month pilot program, he plans to give almost 2,000 families in the county a $500 per month stipend to offset their cost of living. 

This program comes after another one of his brainchildren, the Office of Elections Administrator, was shuttered by Republicans in the state legislature after a series of locally botched elections. Legislation passed in the 88th legislative session ended the practice of having an Election Administrator in Harris County and returned the duties to the Harris County Clerk and the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector. The first election overseen by Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth went off without a complaint.

2023 was a complicated year for the Houston region and it will continue to face significant challenges in 2024. From budget crises to crime and public safety, citizens should be monitoring what their new and returning crop of elected officials are doing and make sure that the actions they take represent citizens’ best interests. 

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.