April 15, 2011
I love this city! Nothing compares to being mayor of your hometown. The opportunity to make decisions that will provide benefits for generations to come is incomparable. I am still excited to go to work everyday…although it is admittedly more fun being mayor when there is money to spend.
This first year in office has been very productive but challenging. There have been successes and setbacks.
Despite the challenges, the state of our city remains strong and financially secure. Houston is still the best city in the country in which to live and work. We remain better off financially than any other big city. We have the best prospects to emerge from this recession closer to the Houston of our dreams.
A year ago I told you that we all would be asked to sacrifice. Unfortunately, the year ahead is tougher yet. The economic downturn impacted city government a year or so after it hit the general business community. As a result, many of you have already faced the same tough decisions we are now making at city hall. Perhaps you reduced your workforce or changed employee benefits, cut the budget or learned to do more with less. You knew your decisions would affect people’s lives. I know the tough decisions we are making are impacting people’s lives – it weighs heavily on me. We have more pain to live through before that brighter tomorrow. The goal for every tough decision we make is that it be fiscally-responsible, with an eye toward that better future.
With this in mind, I want to extend a sincere thank you to the municipal workforce for standing side-by-side with me as we work through these tough economic times. From the beginning I have promised not to ask anything of you that I would not do myself. I want you to know that whether you carry a gun, pull a fire hose, pick up the garbage, help a student with research at the library or make sure infants are immunized, your work is important and your effort outstanding and worthy of our gratitude.
I also want to recognize City Council’s leadership in the making of these tough decisions. The votes have been difficult and the pressure intense, but there is a wealth of talent and experience at the Council table. I look forward to working closely with our council members and Controller Ronald Green as we meet the challenges ahead of us.
My colleagues from other levels of government, many of whom are here today, are helping in their own way. There is a new commitment to work together across jurisdictional lines at the federal, county, state and municipal level that is paying dividends every day.
So, exactly what have we been doing for the last 15 months? We have been implementing that Era of Innovation I spoke of last year. We’ve been fighting crime, improving neighborhoods, growing our economy, creating jobs, planning for the future and saving money. We’ve been reforming, streamlining, modernizing and transforming the way we do business.
Public safety is my number one priority. 1/3 of my general fund budget goes to police and ¼ to fire. We have not laid off a single police officer or fire fighter, although both departments have faced cuts for the first time in decades.
We just finalized a new contract with our police union that forgoes any pay raises for two years, a concession that will not only save the city millions but also reflects an ongoing cooperative partnership with our men and women in blue as Houston’s economy strives to recover.
In that contract for the first time there are incentives to keep our experienced officers on the street. We strengthened field training and added a mentoring program designed to improve officer behavior during the formative stage of their development. This will result in officers who are better trained, better able to be effective crime fighters and better equipped to handle the stress of the job.
In the year since he took over, Police Chief Charles McClelland has put in place a new crime reduction strategy for more efficient and effective deployment of resources to crime hot spots. The proof is in the numbers. Overall violent crime is down 7.3% for the first two months of this year compared to 2010. This is significant when you consider that it comes on top of a 12.1% decrease in violent crime from 2009 to 2010.
The chief has also reorganized the entire department and his command staff, consolidating divisions for efficiency gains. His reforms are getting officers out from behind desks and back on the street. For instance, Safe Clear tow trucks are now dispatched by METRO officers stationed at Transtar – a move that freed up 14 HPD officers to return to police duties. (And an excellent example of the willingness of various government agencies to work together for efficiencies.)
Crack houses and other rundown properties that tend to be magnets for crime are getting more attention. We’ve bulldozed dangerous apartment complexes and our hugely successful Demolition Day resulted in 186 properties coming down all at once. We will take down another 100 dangerous structures during our second demo day coming up in May. This work is key to removing the obstacles that prevent strengthening of the quality of life in our middle class neighborhoods. (I am grateful to the Houston Contractors Association for its volunteer help with this.)
We are also working to reduce graffiti and gang activity through a cooperative agreement with the Greater East End Management District. The district provides the labor and materials for graffiti removal and tracks and reports gang-related tags to the Mayor’s Anti-Gang Office. This innovative arrangement will save the city money while also helping to fight crime.
Our economy is growing stronger, jobs are increasing and the city is known nationally as a dynamic place to do business. Our accolades for 2010 include: the largest five year employment gain, the best city to start a new career and the highest level of entrepreneurial activity of any of the largest metro areas.
There is new help for small businesses through the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses initiative. The initiative comes with a $20 million commitment to provide loans to help Houston small businesses and $5 million in program and capacity-building grants to local partner organizations. Small businesses play a vital role in job creation for our city’s economy. However, due to the lack of a support network, they often struggle more than their larger competitors and lose out on opportunities to grow and create more jobs. The Goldman Sachs initiative will have a real effect on the owners of these businesses, the working Houstonians whose livelihoods depend on them and our overall economy.
In 2010, we recorded $654 million of new economic investment resulting in nearly 11,000 new jobs. Some of this new development required companies to make upfront investments in public infrastructure improvements. In exchange, the city agreed to rebate a portion of the increased tax revenues generated as a result of a project. In the absence of these agreements, developers are likely to move forward with their projects without taking responsibility for the necessary infrastructure that might be needed. The end result can be traffic congestion or other problems for which the city is left holding the bag. If a builder wants to pay for the improvements long before we could afford to pay for them, why wouldn’t we take them up on that offer? It is the most efficient option for not only the city’s pocketbook but also for the neighborhoods impacted by new development projects.
I promised a Hire Houston First policy to encourage the use of local companies and the hiring of local workers on taxpayer-funded projects so that more of our city government tax dollars stay in our local economy. To that end, an executive order awaiting my signature would mandate the selection of the local business when all else in a competitive bid process is equal. If the contract cannot be awarded to a local business, the City shall, to the extent legally permissible, give consideration to the contractor or vendor demonstrating the ability to achieve the highest use of local resources. We are also pursuing legislation in Austin that would take this executive order a step further toward an even stronger local preference policy.
Houston (and that includes the entire region) supports our troops. An executive order I signed on Veterans Day requires veterans be given preference for city jobs when their qualifications are equal to the qualifications of non-veterans competing for the same positions. The men and women who have served in our Armed Forces have demonstrated a selfless commitment to protecting our liberty. What better way to express our gratitude for that service than to assist them in finding gainful employment and in the coordination of support services.
Speaking of economic development and job creation, how about that Dynamo Stadium agreement!? It is a prime example of that new era of intergovernmental cooperation. Thank you to Harris County Commissioners Court and the Dynamo organization for working with us to get this accomplished without the use of any additional city tax dollars. Construction will provide jobs and the finished stadium will be an economic shot in the arm for the area know as EADO. I can’t wait for opening day.
Planning for the future
Planning for the future involves investing in infrastructure. We took a major step forward by securing the financial future of the water and sewer system with a new rate structure that accurately and fairly reflects the cost of providing these services. The old rate structure was not generating enough revenue to maintain the treatment and distribution system. This valuable resource that we need to sustain our community had annual deficits of $100 million. Had we not acted, the system would be facing a $150 million deficit this year. We are now on firm financial footing and moving toward pay-as-you-go funding for more of our future water and sewer improvements.
Equally important is Rebuild Houston, the voter approved Prop. 1 ballot initiative aimed at tackling our crumbling streets and drainage problems. This is about saving lives and neighborhoods. No one should have to worry about being able to get home to loved ones or about water in their home just because it rains. When our work is done the risk of flooding will have been reduced and our streets will be safer for the driving public. Thanks to Rebuild Houston’s mandatory pay-as-you-go funding requirement, these accomplishments will be based on fiscal best practices.
Stabilizing the water and sewer department and implementing a sustainable funding source for drainage improvements have been talked about for years. We are getting it done.
We have also put in place new leadership at METRO that is committed to a long-term transit system that meets the needs of our growing population.
I pledged that we would confront problems head on and tackle the hard things first – not knowing at the time that the hardest would be the budget. But we have dealt with that too, without raising taxes, without resorting again to pension bonds, and without compromising critical city services.
A tight budget is like a corset – it holds things in!
We are changing the way the city manages its finances in favor of a more fiscally responsible approach. We are implementing new and more efficient ways of doing the city’s business by capitalizing on every opportunity to reorganize, consolidate and streamline operations. Most city departments have already been reorganized. Consolidation of our fleet, IT and human resources operations will save millions, once fully implemented. You can follow our progress on the Fiscal Responsibility page of the city website.
And the pay-as-you-go provisions in our two major infrastructure initiatives will reduce our overall debt burden.
Speaking of debt, the city is also building an in-house team to collect the tens of $millions owed to it that apparently no one cared to collect in the past.
There have been many advances in customer service in this last year. We’ve improved operations at BARC and are offering half-price adoptions on Saturdays. The new city website is finished and has been awarded a coveted Sunny Award for its transparency. There is now someone in the mayor’s office specifically assigned to follow up on constituent issues that fall through the cracks at the departmental level. Our public works department is working to be more responsive to service requests.
We’ve even provided you the opportunity to Grade Our Work on a new public works department Facebook page. We always try to get the job done right, but we are human and sometimes we make mistakes. If we didn’t get a sidewalk, pothole or street job done right on your block, please let us know with a post to this page or a call to the 3-1-1 citizens assistance line. We are monitoring it and promise your problem will receive attention.
Most of you know that I cut my political teeth working on neighborhood issues. It remains a priority as we work to build a solid future for Houston. I have consolidated city resources into a Neighborhood Services group, finally putting Neighborhood Protection, Citizens Assistance and other community response divisions together.
Among our recent progress in this area is the passage of a stronger historic preservation ordinance. We still have some loose ends to tie up on this matter, but I am confident that we’ll be able to celebrate the fact that all of our historic districts will have real protection from the destruction that had been threatening to erase what little architectural history we have.
The work being done by our new office of sustainability will have impacts long beyond my time in the mayor’s office. Per the Environmental Protection Agency’s ranking, we are the #1 municipal purchaser of renewable energy. We are eighth in the nation in the number of LEED certified buildings, with a goal of being number one. The recent launch of our Green Office Challenge and Energy Efficiency Incentive Program, to help green our commercial building stock, will help get us there. If your companies are not participating in these programs, get on board. Information about both of these programs is available at: greenhoustontx.gov.
Fire Station 90 is the first station in the city and one of only a dozen in the country to be LEED Gold Certified. We are making our city buildings energy efficient, with 80 buildings, totaling over 4 million square feet, complete or in progress. And, we have a robust residential energy efficiency and weatherization program, completing nearly 11,000 homes and counting
Later this month, the city will accept delivery of its first electric vehicle, the Nissan Leaf. Our partnerships with Nissan, Reliant Energy, NRG, ECOtality, the Clinton Climate Initiative and the Houston Advanced Research Center have made us a leader in electric vehicle readiness. NRG deserves recognition for investing $10 million in Houston’s public charging station infrastructure. Houston is the first major market with the privately-funded infrastructure needed for successful EV integration and adoption.
And, we have launched sustainable food initiatives, promoting Victory Gardens in the downtown area and successfully expanding opportunities for over 40 micro-businesses by launching the Wednesday farmer’s market outside City Hall. Join us in making Houston greener by starting your own Victory Gardens and buying local food and produce each Wednesday at the farmer’s market.
A year ago I challenged Houstonians to step up and help out through our new Volunteer Initiatives Program. 2,651 volunteers and volunteer groups took that challenge and contributed 149,390 volunteer hours for a total estimated savings of $3,207,403. We are adding “impact volunteering” where multiple volunteers focus their efforts in three areas: citywide CPR training, support services for returning veterans, and after school mentoring.
More of you are also choosing to volunteer as a member of one the city’s 140 boards and commissions. We have made almost 400 new appointments.
Preparing this speech has allowed for a look back at our accomplishments – all the tough decisions made and the comprehensive change management and reform put in place. I am proud of my staff and City Council – we have accomplished more in one year in office than any previous administration accomplished in three years. A year that is setting in place a future that is safe and full of opportunity for us all. I made a promise that no one would work harder and no one would care more. I have discovered that we all keeping that promise.
I intend to keep working hard for you for another five years. There is still much more left to do to achieve that Houston in my dreams. More time is needed to complete the changes we’ve initiated and then institutionalize them.
Step forward with me five years into the future and see what Houston will be like.
We will have completed and see the fruits of the upgrades in the water and sewer system and will be able to measure it in gallons of water saved and improvements in distribution. We will have implemented Rebuild Houston and see the first new drainage and street improvement projects under construction.
We see an inner city with a necklace of parks and greenbelts and hike and bike trails along our bayous, most of it privately funded, including a stunning rebirth of Buffalo Bayou. Our historic neighborhoods are stabilized and experiencing enhanced value. A new cultural tourism center dedicated to the appreciation and preservation of our history stands in our sports district, near the familiar Dynamo Stadium.
We see the Port of Houston as the largest port of any kind in the country and our airport as the largest hub of the world’s largest airline. We see advances in our use of technology. Just imagine taking a photo with your PDA, sending it to our public works department and receiving automatic acknowledgment and a work order number. Just imagine Houston being known as the oil and alternative energy capital of the world. Just imagine our great city emerged from this economic downturn cleaner, safer, thriving and providing jobs.
We are a great city with great potential. We are the city that reinvents itself, constantly moving into the future. We have an entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to be inclusive of cultures and differences that will sustain us through hard times. I know this. You know this.
When I was sworn in as your Mayor, I asked for your prayers, your patience and your persistent commitment – a commitment of time and energy to this great city. As I did at this time last year, I, respectfully, renew that request. For, we’re all in this together. We rise or fall together. We prosper or fail together. We solve our problems, or we don’t – together.
Joins hands with me as we continue to create the Houston we dream of – the Houston that could be, should be, can be and will be.