Houston's Spending in the Red

The end of the first quarter of the fiscal year came with some bad news for Houston councilmembers. The city has overspent its budget by $9.6 million. City Controller Ron Green says $1.6 million of that is for higher electricity costs. But the remainder is because cost-saving measures that  were written into the budget and scheduled to go into effect this past July still haven't been implemented.

"The good thing is that now I believe the administration and the department directors know that you expect these cost-savings to be realized. I said it yesterday, I will say it again — the longer that we wait to institute any of these measures it makes it just that much harder to realize the savings. Because there will be some lag time before we realize the net effect of this."

Green says if the city doesn't make cuts, the deficit will grow to a projected $60-80 million by next year. Councilmember CO Bradford called on his colleagues to accept responsibility for the gap.

"The answer is straightforward. We're spending too much money. We simply have to reduce spending. And it may be difficult to do, but as has been said, if we were to put the time into this effort as we did into historic preservation and some other things I think we could churn through it."

Bradford says councilmembers can and should exercise their right to vote no on expenditures and fees.

A slew of fee increases have been suggested, for everything from parking meter rates to ambulance services. And for the first time, there's serious talk of employee furloughs, which would save the city an estimated million dollars per furlough day.

But several around the table, including Councilmember Jolanda Jones, said that would amount to balancing the budget on the backs of people least able to defend themselves.

"If we are going to ask to fee people, specifically with the ambulance, why wouldn't we require that the fire department not deploy four apparatuses for a call? People call because their heart hurts or something and you get two fire trucks, a paramedic and a box. And we've got to maintain those apparatuses."

All of the proposed ideas are just that — merely ideas. The only action taken this week was a memo issued by Mayor Annise Parker saying all unfilled positions in the city will be eliminated.

Incidentally, the mayor was absent for the budget discussions. She's at an education summit out of town.

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