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InsideOut at City Hall: In Control

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by Annise d. Parker

MayorAnniseParker“I will be a fiscal watchdog, not an attack or lap dog.”

In the December 6 municipal runoff election, Annise Parker received 62 percent of the vote over opponent Bruce Tatro to win the post of city controller. Parker also just concluded three terms on Houston City Council, where she was the first openly gay person to serve. Beginning in June 2002, she contributed a monthly column OutSmart magazine, which she has agreed to continue as controller.

Every six years at City Hall, we get a chance to start over—new mayor, new staff, new council. For better, for worse, term limits rule City Hall until the public says otherwise.

I am honored and excited to be part of what could be one of the best management teams in the city’s history. As someone said in a television commercial during the campaign, “I think Bill White will be a great mayor.”

One of the many challenges will be restoring people’s confidence in city government, often an investigative reporter’s easiest target.

The controller’s office is extremely well run. The city has been blessed with outstanding controllers: Leonel Castillo, Kathy Whitmire, George Greanias, Sylvia Garcia, and Judy Gray Johnson [the chief deputy controller appointed controller by City Council in December 2002 to fill Garcia’s unexpired term after her election to Harris County commissioner].

These controllers have made the office and the city more efficient. I will aggressively uphold that tradition. The more savings we find, the more funds are freed up for city services, such as police, health, libraries, and parks.

As I said during the campaign, I will be a fiscal watchdog, not an attack or lap dog. Although it’s the second-highest city position, the controller’s office may be the least understood choice on the ballot.

According to the city charter, the controller’s first duties are to “superintend and supervise the fiscal affairs of the city.” The office employs about 80 people, slightly more than half with financial backgrounds (including 10 certified public accountants).

Basic duties include:

• keeping the city’s books;

• preparing financial reports, such as the monthly statement of the preceding month’s expenses and an annual report;

• performing audits to ensure that city assets are safeguarded;

• certifying that the city has the funds to pay its bills and processing payments in a timely manner;

• managing city investments;

• administering the debt portfolio and supporting new debt issuance;

• reviewing contracts to make sure work is actually performed.

Performance Audits

The controller’s office has always been responsible for auditing city accounts. Does the special parks fund or the Houston Police Department petty cash fund, for instance, actually have the funds reflected in the budget? Are the proper controls in place?

Perhaps the HPD crime lab wouldn’t have become such a disaster if the controller’s office had been granted the authority to do independent, periodic performance audits—not setting priorities or defining goals, but evaluating whether goals are reached. I believe the city charter already gives the controller this authority. However, I have already requested that City Council place a charter amendment on the ballot that specifically grants the controller this power.

Controller’s Revenue Estimates

An upbeat economy means higher sales taxes for financially strapped cities. Houston actually may break even this fiscal year. Last year was another story. Like many cities, Houston had a revenue shortfall—in our case, $59 million. The controller’s office estimated the shortfall more accurately than the mayor’s office.

Unfortunately, the mayor and City Council are only required to use the controller’s more conservative numbers in the spring when the controller must certify actual available funds. The rest of the year the administration is free to use its own revenue estimates.

In hard times, the temptation to use optimistic numbers can be overwhelming. I will lobby council to recommend a charter amendment that would force the mayor to use revenue projections from the controller’s office.

Rainy Day Fund

I plan to be an attentive watchdog to make sure future councils don’t whittle away at the substantial emergency fund I helped establish. This fund doesn’t just cover emergencies, such as Tropical Storm Allison. Bond rating agencies consider the size of city’s reserves in setting all-important bond ratings that determine city interest rates.

Those are just a few of the items on my plate. As controller, I will continue to write my monthly column, which I began when I served on City Council. It will focus on city finances, including the financial impact of some City Council decisions.

Annise Parker will be inaugurated as city controller on January 2. Her city website is www.ci.houston.tx.us/electedofficials/citycontroller.html.

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Annise Parker

Annise Parker is president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund.  
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