With the first three Houston mayoral debates completed, campaign rhetoric revolving around municipal reforms is heating up. Two ideas in particular warrant a deeper look—one directed at Houston’s crime lab known as the Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC), and another at economic development policy aimed at “growing the local economy.”

From the outside, these reforms would appear beneficial to Houston residents, but the devil is in the details, and we wanted to further analyze the issues.

For over a decade, HFSC has been riddled with complaints and violations. Now, Mayoral candidate Bill King is renewing calls to shut it down, saying he has no idea why Houston is in the crime lab business. The lab has had numerous protocol complaints, some of which were long lasting. The complaints spurred an internal investigation, which revealed that technicians were using shortcuts during evidence testing, ultimately compromising the results and summarily defeating the purpose entirely.

Once referred to by the New York Times as the “Worst Crime Lab in the Country,” Houston’s crime lab now has a budget over $22 million.

It goes without saying that the Houston Police Department needs access to a forensics lab in order to process evidence, but there are alternatives to Houston’s current practice of spending $22 million annually on a crime lab that produces questionable results.

The Department of Public Safety (DPS) labs have higher standards than HFSC, and don’t charge local governments for testing. Houston has the ability to utilize this resource entirely and receive better results while saving city taxpayers millions.

Another option is combining the HFSC with the Harris County Crime Lab. While costs would be split this alternative would still save money and yield better results. Unlike the DPS and Harris County crime labs, HFSC does not have accreditation from ASCLD/LAB who are one of the nations leading laboratory accreditors.

The second reform is aimed at growing Houston’s economy, and has been articulated by Mayoral candidate Marty McVey. McVey has continuously pushed the creation of an Economic Development office, under the mayor’s purview, which would allegedly help city officials bolster a struggling Houston economy. Houston already has an economic development division that deals with 380 agreements, TIRZ, and tax abatements. The office has acted as a resource for Bayou City businesses, but takes heat from some who don’t agree with the city government offering favors to politically-connected businesses.

Mcvey’s plan differs only slightly from the status quo. According to his campaign video, his newly created office would actively seek business development and new revenue from “across the globe.” Giving city officials more autonomy to personally select which businesses receive taxpayer dollars rarely proves prudent. Instead of advocating for Houston’s municipal government to play a larger role in redistributing the local economy, it would be wiser to push for a reduction in burdensome regulations that hinder small business growth.

Houston has already experienced the city’s current economic development division award tax abatements, at the expense of Houstonians, to businesses that offer little in return to the city. Choosing winners and losers is never the right method.

Both reforms, if implemented, would change the City of Houston. One would save millions, and provide reliable forensic testing, while the other would increase the likelihood of insider-deals in the name of “growing the economy.” As the campaigns progress, more detailed “reform” agendas are likely to be advanced. While candidates will state unblinkingly that their ideas will improve Houston, one only needs to take a closer look at the details of their candidates’ agendas.



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.