During his inauguration and since, Mayor Sylvester Turner has repeated the phrase “shared sacrifice” when talking about closing the upcoming budget gap. While the administration is still developing the minute details, we finally have an idea of what form that “shared sacrifice” will take.

  • Employee Layoffs – Arguably the most disputatious of the reforms is employee layoffs. During council, Turner confirmed that it is not a matter of if it is a matter of how many people will be laid off. Though he took police off of the table saying, “I will not lay off a police officer,” the same could not be said for firefighters. Turner said while it is his intention to keep all of the city’s firefighters, he can’t guarantee that.
  • Revenue Cap – Expected to be decided after his transition committees complete their reports, this could come in many ways. Turner can request voters modify or completely remove the cap. He can also ask for voter approval of a specified amount of additional tax revenue as was done in 2006 with the additional $90 million for police.
  • Council Funds – Turner has asked district council members to consider a 75% cut to their Council District Service Funds. These $1 million budgets are allotted to the eleven district council members for in-district projects, additional police patrol, etc. The request is for them to be reduced to $250,000 per district council office.
  • Department Cuts – Each department director has been asked to identify ways to cut up to 7% of their department’s budget.
  • Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones – Turner is meeting with TIRZ boards to find areas they can cut and ways they can assist in functions within their boundaries to reduce the overall burden.
  • Pension Boards – Along with bringing in TIRZ and other business leaders, Turner is working with the pension boards to identify some concessions. As pensions are the major burden on the city, this is the most crucial reform to close this budget gap.
  • Refinancing – Turner is exploring refinancing the city’s debt. This approach worries some who say that while it fixes the problem now payments may be back loaded down the road leading to this same situation.
  • Hiring Slowdown – Turner has implemented a hiring slowdown since taking office. While it is close to a freeze, it isn’t, he is still allowing department’s to hire for critical positions, but he must approve them. He also added that positions that are currently vacant may remain unfilled and possibly eliminated completely.

With the deficit getting more pressing by the day, it’s refreshing to see this administration, unlike the last, taking the initiative to tackle the problem. Reducing the size of government and spending is undoubtedly the way to go, but we urge Turner’s administration to take the revenue cap off of the table as he did with police layoffs. Increasing taxes on Houstonians will encourage more taxpayers to move to the suburbs and unincorporated areas of Harris County.

Taxpayers fuel the city and are ultimately the ones left holding the bag for this problem caused by previous administrations. Let’s not increase their already hefty burden.

Houston’s history is a prototypical example of the pitfalls that come with a dictatorial government that aggregates too much power in the mayor’s office, a dynamic Parker’s reckless administration abused and was unwilling to change.

Although Turner appears to be using this power to tackle several reform areas, it is yet to be seen whether or not he will lead charter reforms that dethrone the mayor and structurally empower the council to better represent the Houstonians who elected them.

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.