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HOUSTON After a lengthy discussion about the city s budget problems, the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance Wednesday that would allow Mayor Annise Parker to order mandatory furloughs.

Parker said she would not order the involuntary, unpaid days off right away, but the city controller said Tuesday the city will need at least six furlough days next year for all civilian employees to help balance its budget. Those furlough days would be spaced out over six months.

The mayor said the city s budget gap originally estimated to be between $50 and $80 million was actually closer to $26 million. She said the bulk of that about $16 million was expected to be closed by the sale of capital assets, although the city controller cautioned those receipts had not yet been received.

Last week, Parker announced a voluntary furlough plan that was expected to save the city as much as $1 million in December.

Parker has said that any furloughs would not include police officers or firefighters.

But some Houston City Council members worry civilian employees would bear the brunt of the cuts.

We are not balancing the budget on the backs of our employees, but we re a service organization. Seventy-five percent of what we spend is on our employees. They are going to be impacted, Parker said.

I m telling all employees, just prepare yourselves. Prepare your families. Let them know that we ll have to take off. Most of them are standing with us, because they re saying jobs are No. 1, union president Melvin Hughes said.

Parker is also preparing a layoff ordinance, just in case. But while she s clearly laying the groundwork for some tough decisions ahead, her actions, at this point, are mostly procedural steps.

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