New challenges include a looming budget shortfall and a monthly television show
by Annise D. Parker
Several weeks ago, I joined a small group of city officials who brainstormed with Mayor Bill White about Topic 1—the budget. More precisely, the looming $75–$150 million budget shortfall and how to pay for a billion dollars in storm drainage improvements. These were two of the most intense hours I’ve ever spent as an elected official.
As a new at-large City Council member six years ago, I had to assimilate vast amounts of new information as fast as I could. But the city budget was not as tight, and no one could have predicted this uncertain post-9/11 world. More things seemed possible. This new intensity/anxiety challenges us to think far outside the box so we can continue to provide city services at current levels.
In my six years on council, I developed an excellent understanding of the city controller’s office and a good relationship with the deputy controllers. That is never the same as doing the job, though. This has been a busy two months as the new city controller. Meeting everyone on the 80-member staff and trying to learn exactly what role each plays. Getting updated in great detail on the work of the city’s fiscal watchdogs. Even updating the controller’s website. I’m fortunate to have an experienced and dedicated staff.
There will be no volunteer community liaisons—including one from the GLBT community—for this busy, hands-on mayor. That’s the word from the administration. I think it might be a good decision. Mayor White is confident he can reach out. He’s confident that if anyone has problems, they will let him know. He and his staff are fairly open and accessible.
I would like to take this opportunity to once again applaud the work of community liaison Janine Brunjes. She did an outstanding job as the GLBT community representative to the office of Mayor Lee P. Brown. Could there be a political office in her future?
The mayor’s deputy chief of staff, Richard Lapin, is openly gay. And, as many of you know, the mayor has an openly gay brother, Robert Avalon, a pianist-composer who has discussed his brother’s openness and commitment to diversity in the GLBT press. Houston’s diverse communities are well represented in this administration and on this diverse city council. The mayor also has made an impressive effort to bring private citizens into City Hall, assigning them to investigate a range of issues.
Money Matters, my monthly Municipal Channel show, was scheduled to debut Monday, February 23, at 2 and 8 p.m. Our first show explores the history of the controller’s office and introduces you to dedicated employees who take city finances very seriously.
Money Matters will try to simplify complex financial topics. We will go to work early with the city’s investment specialists and find out where the city gets money besides property taxes. We’ll look at how stadiums and the new Hilton were financed (not with local property tax dollars). We’ll also explore topics like debt, the CIP, and more general topics.
Money Matters can be seen on the Municipal Channel, broadcast on TimeWarner Cable 16, Kingwood Cable 14, TCI 16, Phonoscope 2, and TvMax 20. The monthly show is repeated throughout the month.
By this time every year we usually have a schedule for the City Council district budget/CIP (Capital Improvement Plan) hearings. At press time, we were still waiting. As you may recall, council (including me) passed a drainage fee and took other measures to pay for much-needed drainage work. Council rescinded the fee at the last meeting of the year. That scuttled much of the existing CIP, several months of operations and maintenance, and the proposed drainage enhancement projects.
When the budget/CIP hearings are announced in your council district, please try to attend. Given the budget and drainage challenges, this year’s meetings should be interesting. It’s also a great way to meet people who care about your neighborhood. You’ll find out what improvement projects (street reconstruction, new facilities) are planned in your area and have a chance to present your ideas or requests for city capital projects.
One of the easiest ways for Houston taxpayers to help the city is to use the Fraud Hotline.
The controller’s office is committed to eliminating fraud and waste in city government. If you’re aware of fraudulent activities being committed by government employees or officials, or by citizens or businesses defrauding the city, you can help save taxpayer money by contacting my office. Just call the Fraud Hotline at 713/437-6254 or visit the city website, www.cityofhouston.gov, and follow the links to the city controller’s website: www.ci.houston.tx.us/citygovt/controller/.
Annise Parker is city controller and the highest-ranking openly GLBT elected official in any of the 10 largest U.S. cities. She has contributed a monthly column to the magazine since June 2002. To receive her newsletter, send an e-mail to [email protected]