In less than a week, Houstonians will once again head to the polls to select their next mayor and chart the city’s course over the next few years. But before voters decide on which direction the city ought to go, they should first understand where it is.
To get a sense of things, voters can look to the city’s budget, spending habits, and debt.
The one thing to know about Houston’s budget is that it’s big. Earlier this year, city hall adopted a $5.1 billion budget, at about a $175 million jump compared to the previous year’s adopted budget. On a per capita basis, Houston’s budget will spend roughly $2,200 per resident.
Houston’s budget isn’t just big, though. It’s also growing fast. Over the last 10 years, the city’s budget has grown by almost 50 percent. True, some of this growth may have been necessary to pay for needs arising from growth—but even there, spending is soaring in comparison to population growth. Since 2011, the city’s population has only grown by about 10 percent.
Knowing these things, it’s appropriate to ask: Is the city spending all of this money well? Some recent controversies suggest not.
The Houston Chronicle recently uncovered some alarming information about how much some city officials get paid, including the fact that some “take home more than $10,000 every two weeks.” Another media outlet, KPRC, broke the story that the city hired an intern at a cost of $95,000 a year and spent tens of thousands of dollars sending him all over the globe.
On the bright side, the Houston Film Commission—funded by parking fees and hotel taxes—was finally halted after four years of failure at meeting its goal to bring notable movies and televisions shows to the city to be filmed. The Commission had a representative in Los Angeles who received a stipend for her LA condominium, in addition to her $175,000 yearly salary. But it may not be all good news. Even after using up $800,000 of public money, the executive director of the Commission hinted that the failed project was not “necessarily dead.”
The city’s poor spending habits, in part, help to explain why its debt has gotten so out of hand.
As of mid-2018, the city reported a staggering $22 billion in total debt, which equals over $9,600 of debt per resident. It’s worth noting that well over 30 percent of Houston’s budget for the 2020 fiscal year is dedicated to principal and interest payments toward the city’s long-term debt. Of course, none of this includes the billions in pension debt the city owes too.
By most objective measures, voters can see that there’s room for improvement at City Hall. To help get the city on a more sustainable path, the next mayor should strongly consider conducting a third-party independent audit of all city operations and spending. Because while the public and the media can call attention to some of the more egregious instances of waste, fraud, and abuse, the next mayor should have a complete and thorough understanding of where all the problem areas are—and then set about aggressively solving them.
Voters need to consider carefully whom they’ll select as the next mayor. The city’s budget, spending practices, and debt all suggest that the status quo needs correction and that big, bold reforms are needed now, lest the Bayou City become the Bankrupt City.