As the City of Houston’s elections get closer, Houston Matters with Craig Cohen is offering listeners a chance to speak directly with candidates. As part of the series, Cohen's first candidate was Chris Hollins, the former Harris County clerk who is running for Houston Controller.
As controller, the elected official acts as the city's chief financial officer. Duties include: certifying the availability of funds before City Council approval of city commitments, processing and monitoring payments exceeding $1 billion annually, investing the city’s funds, conducting internal audits of the city’s departments and federal grant programs, operating and maintaining its financial management system, conducting the sale of public improvement and revenue bonds, and producing an Annual Comprehensive Financial Report.
Hollins is currently up against three other candidates: Houston City Council member Dave Martin, former council member and Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez, and current deputy city controller Shannan Nobles. They are all running to replace outgoing city controller Chris Brown, who is term-limited.
Hollins grew up in southwest Houston and was raised by his parents: his dad was a police officer, and his mother was an administrative assistant. Hollins is a Yale law graduate and has an MBA from Harvard University. Hollins is the first African-American and youngest ever to serve as Harris County Clerk. He spent most of his career as a management consultant where he worked to transform the way government agencies operated to better serve the people they were intended to serve. Hollins was also involved in getting drive-through voting and 24-hour voting during past elections.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Questions from Houston Matters will be in bold. For the full interview, listen to the audio above.
HM: What experience have you had that you would say applies specifically to a job that entails auditing, investment, financial reporting, and projections; essentially accounting?
Accounting is one piece of the job. But listen, as a consultant I’ve worked to formulate multi-billion dollar budgets for government agencies. I’ve also worked with multinational accounting firms to make massive government programs more auditable. And, so you have to have a comfort with numbers, but you don’t need to be a CPA. In fact, nobody in this entire race is a CPA, but you have to be able to understand math. I’m also, you know, a master’s in business from Harvard Business School with a focus on finance. As a small business owner, I run my own business and run our books myself. And that’s a multi-million-dollar business. So you know have had to be incredibly comfortable with numbers. But the other piece outside of financial auditing, that’s really important here... is what’s called performance auditing. The controller is not only making sure that dollars and cents are being sent, you know, through the pipelines … but we’re also supposed to be looking out to make sure that we’re getting bang for our buck. That comes down to city operations. And so you know what I bring in spades is a background of running successful operations. And when things aren’t going so well, having the ability to bring in new ideas and best practices to turn things around for the better.
HM: The job also entails sometimes telling the mayor and City Council that the city does not have the money to spend on something they want to do unless money is pulled from something or somewhere else. Are you prepared to speak that truth to power, even if it means it comes at the expense of something you’d really like to see the city do?
Absolutely. You know, we have some pretty incredible financial challenges ahead. Our current city controller has been ringing the bell saying that ‘Look, when COVID molars from the federal government run out in a year’s time, we are going to be facing what many believe to be a $250 million to $300 million hole in our budget.' And so we’re going to have to address that in one of two ways: either increase revenues or decrease costs. And at a time when many folks are financially strapped, the first thing we have to do is figure out ways to be more efficient. I don’t believe as a first principle that we have to cut, you know, important services, critical services to the people of Houston, but we can figure out ways to deliver at that same level at a lower price point. But you also have to have a backbone and we’ve demonstrated that.
HM: As you noted, the outgoing controller, Chris Brown has noted … the city faces a budgetary challenge going forward. Brown says the city could be in financial crisis if it doesn’t cut spending to the tune of as much as $300 million. So that’s not necessarily an amount that could be resolved just with a little more efficiency. We’re talking about potentially significant layoffs of employees, are we not?
That is a real possibility. And so, you know, I’ve laid out on my website some of the things that we can and should do to both increase revenues and decrease costs on the revenue side. I know that we’re running out of COVID dollars. However, the Biden administration has made an unprecedented, you know, multi-trillion-dollar investment, number one, in infrastructure across the country. Projects that we’re already working on and that Houstonians desperately need, like repairing our roads, and making sure that clean water is flowing through our faucets. And also the Inflation Reduction Act, which is intended to invest in the next generation of energy. And as the city of Houston seeks to maintain its position as the energy capital of the world, we are already moving in that direction. And so hundreds of millions and billions of dollars are available to make the kind of investments in Houston, that we’re already planning to make for ourselves so we can go there and get our fair share of those dollars.
HM: The city of Houston is limited in what it can raise through property taxes by revenue cap, which voters approved and added to the city charter back in 2004. As a result, property tax rates have been cut eight times over the last nine years for the city to remain compliant. Would you like to see that changed?
Yeah, I’m on the record as being in favor of removing the revenue cap. Ultimately, our local officials need to have the ability to solve the problems that we have put in place. And that comes with being well-resourced. We can’t have a laundry list of things that this city needs, and needs in a dire way, but not have the funding mechanism to ultimately be able to achieve that. And with we’ve all experienced the inflation of the last couple of years, the city is not free from those conditions. And so, as prices are going up, we have to deliver these same services that people so desperately need and it’s becoming more and more challenging. And so, one, we should do away with the revenue cap. But in this, in the sense that we can’t do that in the near future, I’m also in favor of a public safety exception to the revenue cap so that we can pay our police officers that we can pay our firefighters without sacrificing all of the other important things that we have to do as a city.
HM: You were a candidate for Houston mayor, but dropped out of that race in April, shortly after Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee entered the race, you said her entry did influence your decision. Then you announced you’d run instead for Controller. That could give the impression to some that you’re not so much interested in this elective office so much as an elective office, and that maybe you see this job as a stepping stone to something else. Is that a false impression?
I’m interested in serving the city of Houston. I love this city. I’m now raising my two kids here in this city with my lovely wife Morgan, and I want them to have more opportunities than I had. I want them to have a better quality of life than I had, and I want our city to continue on the amazing trajectory that we’ve been on for a number of years. But we have some real challenges that we have to face. More guns on our streets than ever before, harder to afford to live in the city of Houston than it’s ever been, and these critical financial challenges downtown. And so I want to serve the city of Houston, plain and simple. And the controller seat is one that I’m excited about because not only do we need that watchdog in place, but we also need new ideas, and a new way of doing business at the city and the controller through the power of the performance audit can bring those ideas to every city department so that we can start doing things in a better way.
Houston Matters' next scheduled candidate interview is next Tuesday, with a candidate for Houston Mayor, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.