Cutbacks considered as Houston faces fiscal crisis

Mayor Annise Parker Wednesday discussed more ideas about what action the city might have to take in a coming financial crisis.

HOUSTON -- With Houston's city government headed toward a budget crunch that officials warn could trigger layoffs, Mayor Annise Parker Wednesday discussed more ideas about what action the city might have to take in a coming financial crisis.

"We're one of the few major cities in America that still responds to vehicle accidents where both cars are driveable," Parker said. "We discourage you from calling us, but we will still come out. We could discontinue that."

Another option, Parker said, would be discontinuing police calls to homes and businesses with alarm systems. Houston police officials have complained for decades that the overwhelming majority of those calls are false alarms that distract officers from real law enforcement duties.

"If 98 percent of the alarms are false alarms – I mean, we have fees for false alarms – but again, it's a lot of wear and tear on personnel," Parker said. "Maybe we stop responding to those."

Those ideas are among the possibilities kicking around City Hall as the mayor's financial staff looks ahead toward a looming crisis that grew even larger with new projections issued this week. The mayor's financial director, Kelly Dowe, warned city council members of a projected $144 million funding gap during the next fiscal year. Even repealing the revenue cap imposed by voters a decade ago wouldn't resolve the city's coming budget problems, Dowe said.

The biggest driver of the city's increased expenses is Houston's growing pension obligations, expected to increase $68 million in the next fiscal year. The city also expects to pay $33 million in additional interest on its debts.

No single move will solve the problem. The answer, Dowe said, lies with a combination of cutting programs or services, cutting health insurance costs, controlling rising pension expenses, looking for new ways to raise money without raising taxes and modifying or lifting those revenue caps.

City officials are already considering a number of options, including adopting a garbage collection fee that would probably cost homeowners $3.76 a month.

The mayor also raised the prospect of civilianizing more police and fire department jobs.

"One of the things I'm doing is a work demands analysis in the fire department to say, 'Where should we better deploy our personnel,'" Parker said. "And maybe they'll say it's time to civilianize some of the aspects of what we do over there."

Union leaders for police officers were skeptical.

"I don't see how hiring civilians is going to save anything," said Ray Hunt, the president of the Houston Police Officers Union. "We have about 1,500 officers short that we need and if you add civilians in that you're probably looking at close to 2,000 people. So if you're looking at money saving ideas, that's really not a way to save money."


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