Houstonians Balk at Possible Taxes

A billion dollar shortfall and the precarious financial situation of the city's utility system and police department, combined with falling property values and therefore lower tax revenues could mean a tax hike is in the not so distant future for Houstonians.

Gary Blankinship is president of the Houston Police Officers' Union. He says budget issues for the police department alone could force a tax increase.

"We're very restricted. I mean we're almost at the ceiling right now for the taxes. But certainly I think at some point in time council's going to have to entertain that with our shrinking tax dollars coming in on property valuations and things like that. If this recession don't turn around a little bit and our economy don't turn around a little bit I think some folks are going to have to make some tough decisions."

About 50 percent of Houston's police force are eligible for retirement. Incoming rookies from the cadet classes can't even keep up with attrition. But a KUHF-11 News survey shows crime is the number one concern on voters' minds. Rice University Political Scientist Bob Stein says 27 percent think it's the most important problem facing the city.

"We asked voters the kinds of things that they would be willing to raise taxes for. Raising city taxes to fund additional neighborhood policing gets a bare plurality — 49 percent support this, 41 percent oppose it, ten percent are not sure. But we don't find any other issue on which voters are willing to spend money."

In fact, 60 percent of respondants are opposed to spending more money on water and sewer fees. Although the city's utility system faces a $100 million shortfall, Stein thinks elected officials will balk at raising water rates.

"I wouldn't be shocked to see that the council is unwilling to do that without taking it to referenda, and if that's the case that would be extraordinary. Extraordinary because now you'd be moving out of the legislative arena, but that's going to be a very hard vote."

According to our survey, Houstonians aren't in the economic mood for higher taxes. And even though taxes don't come into play, they also aren't too keen on the construction of a new Dynamo stadium.

Dynamo President Oliver Luck says public money won't pay for the construction, but he's not surprised that two-thirds of people surveyed oppose a new sports stadium.

"I think the thing is people lump everything together and they think well this is another public boondoggle and we're going to have to spend $500 million like the public did for Reliant Stadium, when in reality that's nowhere near the case. It's an $80 million stadium, we're planning to spend $60 million. We've asked the city and the county for $10 million each, that's the simplest way to explain it."

Tonight on 11 News at 10 the race for Houston controller is up for grabs and dozens of people are vying for spots on city council, but most of the candidates are virtually unknown. What could that mean for the next administration? To learn more, visit the 11 News website.

Laurie Johnson. KUHF-Houston Public Radio News.

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