Holy Buckets, Batman! You have a tear in your leotards! That was my first thought when Downtown Houston Pachyderm President Sophia Mafrige introduced the second guest speaker of the day, Gilbert Herrera representing Rebuild Houston. That’s what I get for not paying attention to the weekly email and not coming to the meeting prepared. If I had been prepared, this would have been really, really fun!
So for that, I apologize to you guys. I mean, seriously, having this guy speak at this club is analogous, in terms of current issues in Texas, to having me speak at a club meeting where the members are all parts of the mob that shut down the Texas Senate over the abortion bills and extolling the virtues of the bill. My goodness, what were Sophia and VP Alvin Walker thinking? Heck, I thought I was the only person that liked to rile up the troops once in a while! Awesome – that’s why I like this club so much! Well, that and the cheap lunches. If I’d only been prepared.
Oh well, you do what you can with what you’ve got. What I’ve got is a picture of Mr. Herrera being accosted by members of the club afterward:
Gosh I wish I would have recorded this. Here’s a dude trying to tell a very conservative club that the rain tax was a good thing because “infrastructure” in Houston has been underfunded since former Mayor Bob Lanier’s days to the tune of about $500 million a year. Then he causally mentions that the reason they had to trick voters into voting for the rain tax is because the city has no more borrowing power because it is already $13 BILLION in debt. Which, of course, we still have to pay off, but hey, he’s not on the board that has to figure that one out, he’s one of nine members on the rain tax board. And in case we weren’t aware, those nine members are restricted from involvement in any financial transactions with the rain tax money. Cough. Cough.
So I throw him a softball question: do you think the voters would have approved the “drainage” tax if they knew that the money would be used for bike trails and park employees? And who knows what else? Incredulously, Mr. Herrera claimed not to know about the bike trails and then claimed that they were probably funded from federal funds. I told him to Google “Rebuild Houston bike trails” and get on with the meeting.
I found an old comment from an old partner in blogging, Matt Bramanti that is apropos:
Dedicated funds (and dedicated revenue streams) like this carry double risks — first, they have unique potential abuses. Money is fungible, so the city can reduce its general-fund contributions into the special fund, so that the new revenue stream effectively becomes general-fund money.
Second, such systems get less public oversight and attention than they should, because the idea of a dedicated revenue stream and dedicated fund is an intuitively good idea. It seems more likely to work, so the public can say “hey, it’s a drainage fee, and it all goes to drainage, problem solved.”
Do it in a strong-mayor town with historically weak financial controls, and the problems are just exacerbated.
Municipal functions are pretty screwed up in this town, and I don’t think it’s a left/right, Dem/GOP thing. It’s an inevitable consequence of the public’s failure to supervise its servants.
I doubt that even Matt could have known just how true his statement was. Because when Mr. Herrera was asked “hey, what about Councilman Steven Costello getting $40 million in contracts after pushing this boondoggle through”, he said, and I’m not kidding or exaggerating:
We as a community have tolerated these kinds of conflicts of interest for years. Nobody cares.
And that my friends is a fact. And it is exactly why the City of Houston is out of money. From Mike Morris of the Houston Chronicle:
City’s budget delays paying bills
Houston’s charter requires it to have a balanced budget, and no one jumped up to halt the proceedings last month when City Council unanimously approved a $4.5 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that started Monday.
But is the budget really balanced if the city is putting off bills it ought to pay today? Whether the numbers add up, Mayor Annise Parker acknowledged, is a different question than whether a budget meets all the city’s needs.
“We are dealing with years of underfunding in critical infrastructure,” she said, citing streets and drainage, the water and sewer system, information technology, facilities and vehicles as long-neglected areas.
Councilman Stephen Costello, who chairs the council’s budget committee, has said facilities, fleet and IT get only about a third of the money they need each year.
And despite budgeting a record $289 million for its three employee pensions this fiscal year, the city still is $80 million short of the level that would, over time, fully fund two of the three retirement plans. Under current projections, Finance Department Director Kelly Dowe said, the city’s negotiated annual payment to the police pension likely will not meet the level required to return it to full funding in the foreseeable future.
Parker said pensions are the one “outlier” in the general fund budget, saying she has done what she could to address the problem by giving the police equity in real estate instead of a cash payment and twice trying — and failing — in Austin to force firefighters’ pension leaders to the bargaining table.
The City of Houston is dead broke boys and girls. And yet they send a minion to the Downtown Houston Pachyderm Club to proclaim how great they are. Unfreaking believable.
Are you tired of this tomfoolery and blatant lying about your money? Do you really want a change? Then get up off your ass and do something about it.