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InsideOut At City Hall: For Art’s Sake

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Our first-class city deserves first-class management.

Annise216By Annise D. Parker

Houston is blessed with a great arts community. Whether you prefer the performing or visual arts—art museums and galleries, theater, ballet, opera, symphony—you’ll find it here. We have the big professional companies and the small amateur ones. They all contribute to a dynamic and innovative synergy of cutting-edge work.  

 I have always been an avid supporter of the local performing and visual arts. I served two terms on the board of the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum, was a member of groups including DiverseWorks and the MFA, and was an annual subscriber to several of the performing arts groups.   (Of course, most of this was prior to my time in public service and motherhood, when I found I could never make performances.)

You may have seen a recent Wayne Dolcefino Channel 13 undercover report about the Houston Arts Alliance (HAA). In the multi-part series I made some highly critical comments about that group’s track record as a city contractor. My job is to ensure financial accountability in the spending of city funds. Please don’t mistake the comments I expressed in the 13 Undercover investigative series as reflecting opposition to the local arts community, its wonderful work, or its artists.

 As a council member, I worked to raise the amount of arts funding received from the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) and also helped craft and pass the city’s Percent for Art program, where we set aside a set percent of capitol project dollars for acquisition and conservation of civic art. It is these two funds that HAA oversees.

HOT funds are restricted to performance and arts programs that can potentially attract tourists. The percent for art increment enhances our built environment by purchasing and maintaining art works and by including design-based enhancements in city construction projects, such as those beautiful Victorian light posts on some bridges.  

 HAA is an organization on the cusp of great things. They have a strong and dedicated board. They have a dynamic director. I simply believe HAA can do a better job of managing the civic art program. My main concern is that there has been just one civic art project completed in two years. During this same time, HAA’s budget has grown dramatically.

 In short, there was more art being produced for far less prior to HAA taking over the program. In addition, HAA was unable to respond to repeated requests for basic financial data on its civic art expenditures.

 It is not about the art. It’s simply about making sure the program is administered as effectively and efficiently as possible. I am continuing to work with staff within the city and at HAA to iron out these problems so that Houston can have the best civic art program possible. I appreciate director Jonathan Glus, who inherited some of these problems, for working closely with me to address them.

 Great cities provide inviting public spaces where people of all ages can experience a variety of artistic and cultural offerings. Discovery Green and Hermann Park are excellent examples.

   Bank on Houston Launches

 Too many Houstonians don’t have access to mainstream banking services. It may be a factor of culture, a perceived lack of sufficient income, or simply unfamiliarity with the process. Low-income Houstonians and others without bank accounts are starting to pocket more of their hard-earned money as they begin opening checking accounts through the Bank on Houston program.

 In addition to saving high check-cashing and bill-paying fees, Bank on Houston will also make financial literacy classes available.

 As you may have read in this column a few months ago, Bank on Houston is a collaborative effort of the City of Houston, the FDIC, the National League of Cities, the Federal Reserve, and participating banks and credit unions designed to bring the city’s unbanked individuals into the financial mainstream. My office launched the initiative, which is modeled after the highly successful San Francisco program.

 Bank on Houston is also designed to raise awareness of the staggering economic impact of being unbanked and to work to find solutions. For instance, the city’s 195 non-bank check cashers cashed checks last year valued at $450 million. Fees charged: $11.2 million. Bank on Houston will put some of that money back in citizens’ pockets.

 Although the program targets low-income Houstonians, it also provides anyone who has had trouble with opening or maintaining a bank account a fresh start.

 For more information, contact the City Controllers’ Office at 832/393-3406, e-mail at [email protected], or visit the website at www.bankonhouston.org.

 Annise D. Parker is Houston’s third-term city controller and one of the highest-ranking openly GLBT-elected municipal officials in any of   the 10 largest U.S. cities. Her website is www.houstoncontroller.org. The City Controller’s webpage is www.houstontx.gov/controller/ index.html. To receive the controller’s news- letter, send an e-mail to [email protected]

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Annise Parker

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker is the President & CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund and LGBTQ Victory Institute. A complete list of Victory Fund-endorsed candidates is available at victoryfund.org/ourcandidates. They currently have 16 endorsed candidates running in Texas.

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