Houston Furloughs and Fees

The City of Houston continues to grapple with ways to balance the budget shortfall. Now councilmembers have given the mayor authority to enact mandatory furloughs for city employees. They're also considering a litany of fee increases to help close the 26-million dollar gap. Laurie Johnson reports.

Last week, Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced voluntary furloughs for city employees. This week, council authorized her to make those furloughs mandatory, if the need arises. The mayor says she'll make that decision by December 31st.

"We'll know whether we have to institute furloughs, and again, I intend to if we do — and I suspect that we might — we're going to do it in January and we're not going to wait until the hair's on fire at the end to make those decisions."

The city finance department has suggested six mandatory furlough days, one in each remaining month of the fiscal year. But Parker says she's not ready to commit to that many at this point.

The city is prohibited by law from ending the fiscal year in a deficit. Right now, Houston is about $26 million dollars in the red. But $16 million of that will likely be recovered through a number of real estate sales that are still pending.

That leaves $10 million for Parker to come up with.

"I fully acknowledge that we are spending more than we are taking in, as the city has for a number of years. We have been drawing down fund balance. We balanced this budget with $54 million of savings. What we have left is the shortfall because we overestimated what the cost of service recovery was. We overestimated how fast we could go out and collect the tens of millions of dollars that people owe us."

The council is also poised to approve a long list of fee increases. Literally dozens of increases would be levied for everything from swimming pool inspections to dance hall permits.

Councilmember Stephen Costello says many of the fee rates have not changed since the 1980s.

"But if our services are being provided and we're paying today's dollar rate, then the fees should be reflective of what our cost of services is. And what we're doing here is we're changing fees to match cost of service. We're not changing fees to match inflation, because if it was matching inflation, these fees might be two or three times larger."

Councilmembers will vote on the new fee structure next week. The mayor says she's not trying to balance the budget using fee increases, but rather make it revenue neutral for the city to provide services such as inspections and permitting.

Parker is also drafting an ordinance to authorize layoffs, although she says she doesn't think she'll have to lay people off to balance the budget.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...