Sunday, December 13, 2009

An agenda for Mayor Parker

Congratulations to Annise Parker on her win last night, becoming, as she pointed out, the first Rice alum to become mayor of Houston ;-). Between her and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the Rice mafia now controls this town. Nerds rule, literally in this case. I'm hoping for my appointment call any day now... (hint, hint)

She faces a difficult financial situation at the city, and obviously her first priority will be getting that under control. In addition to those short-term pressures, there are the long-term financial issues of city employee pensions and Metro's solvency, with rail cost estimates spiraling upward and revenue shrinking. If she does nothing else in the next two years but fix those financial problems and get the city and Metro on a sustainable financial path (without raising taxes), she'll have one of the most accomplished mayoral terms in city history and will more than deserve two follow-on terms.

But that's no reason to limit our ambitions. I went through my highlight posts from the last five years to find some good strategies for the next few years, with an emphasis on low or no-cost ideas:
"The lesson of High Point is that you can reduce crime by making credible threats, without having to lock up so many people. To deter, a punishment must be swift, certain and severe....Mr Kleiman suggests several other promising, non-macho approaches to curbing crime. Raise alcohol taxes. Start school days later to prevent after-school crime. Force probationers to wear GPS tags, thus making probation a tough (and much cheaper) alternative to prison. Americans should experiment with such ideas, he says, and if they are serious about justice, the object should be to cut crime, not to make criminals suffer."
Finally, in the more experimental category, I think there is a real opportunity to truly open up government to enable more engagement by citizens (including innovation and finding much-needed efficiency improvements), in the same way the open source movement works with software on the internet. But that's a topic for a whole 'nother blog...

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14 Comments:

At 11:46 AM, December 13, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

You're asking Parker to implement the urban agenda that Locke ran on and that she ran against.

 
At 2:13 PM, December 13, 2009, Blogger FIREhat said...

With all this Owl dominance I'm half expecting a city-wide D&D tournament to be a priority of the new administration.

 
At 4:21 PM, December 13, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

As most election observers pointed out, the policy differences between the two of them were minimal. They did choose to emphasize different aspects, but their policy perscriptions were very close.

 
At 5:23 PM, December 13, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Didn't Parker oppose the Ashby high-rise, or something?

 
At 9:32 PM, December 13, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

As did Locke. But neither was calling for zoning. Or any heavy land-use controls like Peter Brown.

 
At 11:05 PM, December 13, 2009, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...

Tory,

The first and foremost issue Ms. Parker will have to face is the pension situation. I spent three hours on election day with Bob Lemer, a room full of his fellow CPA's, and a couple of attorneys, trying to figure out how to bring this issue to a head.

I have documentation from the City's own CAFR's (Comprehensive Audited Financial Statements), that from 2003 - 2008, the City paid out a cumulative total of $1.557 billion for pensions for fire fighters, police officers, and municipal employees. Meanwhile, the City actually contributed $914 million towards those three plans, leaving a pension deficit of $643 million.

This issue is a microcosm of what is happening in Washington with Social Security and other entitlements. If Ms. Parker has the political courage to face down the rapidly escalating City employee pension issue, on that alone she will have performed an immense service for her fellow Houstonians.

I wish her well because this right wing Libertarian / Republican voted for her.

Neal

 
At 10:04 PM, December 14, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Agreed. Govt at all levels is abusing defined benefit plans. They should be legally required to switch everything to defined contribution plans. Problem solved.

 
At 1:51 PM, December 15, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Problem solved, except for all the retirees who'd get peanuts if city population growth fails to match projections.

When you have multiple jurisdictions of which all but one are growing very quickly by leeching off the resources of the one slow grower, having each jurisdiction provide for its own pension is just insane. It's a subsidy to people who can move to the Houston suburbs, paid off by future Houstonians.

 
At 12:32 AM, December 16, 2009, Anonymous Keep Houston Houston said...

..which is why it's imperative that Houston KEEP ANNEXING THE CRAP OUT OF ALL THE UNINCORPORATED LAND that's out there!

It's worked extremely well for us for a century and it's something we need to continue to pursue aggressively. I understand that the Woodlands really really wants to be its own city and I'm okay with that. And I understand that expansion to the southeast is somewhat limited by contiguous incorporation in that limit.

But there is NO REASON why Houston cannot and should not expand to the very limits of sprawl in the southerly, westerly, and northerly directions. We should encompass Tomball! We should render Sugar Land an enclave! Hell, we should have a long-term plan to swallow up Rosenberg, Fulshear, and Brookshire.

 
At 8:22 AM, December 16, 2009, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...

Agreed KHH,

The problem with annexation as a solution to city finances is that the State of Texas was roped in the Voting Rights Act in 1970. The effect of this was that southern states (including Texas) could not annex anything without having the annexation go through the federal Justice Department approval.

Part of the the rationale behind this was that there was suburban white flight from the inner cities (which has now being joined, to some degree by minorities), ergo cities could not go on an annexation spree because that would dilute minority voting power. The effect of this is that Houston's previously aggressive annexation actions were kneecapped. The city's physical size has hardly changed in the past 30 years.

Since that time, there have been few annexations, and those that were have been huge fights - Clear Lake and Kingwood come to mind, along with a much quieter shopping mall being picked off here or there. But notice that the Woodlands managed to escape that fate.

In short, annexation has been effectively swiped away as a means of getting out of the City's financial woes.

Neal

 
At 1:27 PM, December 16, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Neal, it's weird that the courts weakened annexation procedures. In the North, the standard form of segregation is that the white middle class moves to the suburbs and then fights off annexation, and the black underclass stays in the inner city, without much of a tax base for schools.

This suggests that a lawsuit charging that annexation restrictions serve no civil rights purpose anymore could be successful.

 
At 3:46 PM, December 17, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Even if annexation was an easy and painless process, it would not be wise for the City to move in that direction.

Much of the annexation would only be residential which in the end will be net loss of revenue for the city. Essentially the property tax revenue they gain will quickly disappear with the services they need to provide (that's just police and fire/ambulance). On top of that, the city will have to inherit whatever problems the MUD district it annexes in comes with including debts. The water systems aren't too big of problem with the creation of the water authorities to bring the MUDs under a single surface water source instead of ground water. The sanitary sewer maintenance would be a nightmare because each system for each MUD has it's own environmental compliance as long as the city doesn't connect it to it's central systems (which is an extremely big engineering and cost problem). The accounting of all these systems would bring many more costs whether they were managed within City Hall or subbed out.

This is why the City has stuck to limited special purpose annexations. This way the City just makes agreements with MUDs that are primarily commercial property to split sales tax revenue. This way the City gets revenue without providing any service. The MUD gets sales tax which it couldn't legally due before the agreement with the City.

The City has agreements like this all along I-45 from north of Greenspoint to the county line. On FM1960 from Lake Houston to US 290 then SH 6 down to I-10. Then much of I-10 from Barker-Cypress to the Katy City limits. Also, don't forget Houston Ship Channel is all special limited annexations and does not reside in the City limits. All of these areas get to bring in nice amounts of revenue to the city without the taxpayers shelling out a dime to provide services to these areas. If the city does provide a service such as water or sewer, a cost agreement is worked out and the City will profit from it.

The city can do all the special limited purpose annexations it wants without ever even dabbling in the ridiculous voting rights act.

 
At 2:25 AM, December 19, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Greenfield suburbs tend to be big tax donors - there's barely any infrastructure to maintain there, and the people tend to be richer than average.

 
At 1:29 PM, December 23, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alon,

This was true when MUD's adjacent to Houston were created with the intent to be annexed. The concept of the the MUD's were to finance the infrastructure, then the MUD will dissolve into the city.

Eventually some MUD's didn't want annexation, then the state laws changed especially after the Kingwood and Clear Lake debacles. Houston stepped away from annexation of MUD's for a while, then many MUD's that were never intended to last a long time had to adjust how they operate. Many MUD's (particularly successful ones) are now essentially just cities without providing police and fire protection.

Unsuccessful MUD's want to be annexed to relieve some of there debt load. Successful MUD's dont' want anything to do with being annexed. The successful ones are the the city wants since they have positive revenue flow and little maintenance nightmares.

 

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