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Houston is a great city to live in and visit; however, financial promises made decades ago, an aging infrastructure and health concerns are testing our city’s patience and pocket book. Are Houstonians ready to take on the many challenges facing our city?
Last month, I was invited to discuss our recently elected city government and the challenges they will face over the next four years on KPFT-AM 90.1’s show, “The Pulse: Heartbeat of a Healthy Houston.” Hosted by Januari Leo, the show regularly explores policy and health issues impacting the Greater Houston region.
Top of mind was the city’s current financial constraints. As reported by the Houston Chronicle in November, our own “city financial experts project an even gloomier budget picture for Houston.”
Newly elected mayor, Sylvester Turner, and the City Council will have to make tough decisions and act rapidly to address our city’s finances. The issue, of course, weighing heavily on City Hall and Houstonians is the city’s growing pension obligations. Although decision-making on that issue largely rests at the State Capitol in Austin, rather than City Hall, Mayor Turner needs to utilize his relationships in the Capitol to bring all stakeholders to the table and begin discussions soon rather than later.
The city’s annual report noted that the city government’s expenses last year were $689 million and unfunded liabilities now estimated at $5.5 billion. The numbers are very concerning, but I am glad Mayor Turner took the first steps last month by signing an Executive Order that allows the city to move to a “performance-based budget” for the upcoming months. This will help determine how the City spends and manages its dollars.
The city will continue to face financial challenges if there is no significant pension reform.
Leo and I also discussed Mayor Turner’s ambitious pothole repair initiative, which seeks to fill potholes reported to the city within 24-hours of being reported. Thus far, Mayor Turner has experienced a 96 percent success rate; however, this is only a short-term fix for a much larger issue. We need to address our aging infrastructure and drainage. Whether we do it through ReBuild Houston, the city’s dedicated pay-as-you-go fund, or through other innovative solutions, Houstonians want their roads fixed and potholes filled.
I am in favor of ReBuild Houston and Mayor Turner’s pothole repair initiative, but I’m hopeful the new administration will find a holistic approach that will not only address our major thoroughfares, but will include our neighborhood streets and sidewalks as part of the longer term solution.
Another major topic of discussion was the dynamic between the new mayor, city controller, and city council. We have a council reflective of the diversity of the city, with four women, four African-Americans, two Latinos and one Asian representing Houstonians. We also have seven conservatives at the dais who will lead a pro-business agenda. They will carry influence, but how significant is yet to be seen.
Rounding out our discussion, Leo and I also addressed the healthcare challenges facing the city today. Food deserts are of particular concern, as there are areas of Houston where affordable, nutritious food is challenging to find. I am optimistic that the new administration will make it a priority to address the many food deserts in our area. Our city needs, and residents deserve, more options when it comes to fresh produce. We cannot allow our low-income and minority neighborhoods to continue to have limited access to healthy food.
Regardless of the numerous challenges facing our city, Houstonians are resilient people—and we gladly accept the challenge!
“If we dare to dream beyond our current conditions and if we work hard and we put aside our individual biases and recognize that no one person can do it by himself, we can be a bigger Houston.” – Mayor Sylvester Turner, City of Houston
Listen to the KPFT interview here:
David Gonzalez is a Senior Account Executive and serves on Pierpont’s Public Affairs team.