Mayor Turner rolls out budget plan touted as way to close $160M gap

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Mayor Sylvester Turner unveiled his preliminary General Fund budget today. His office says it closes a $160 million budget gap. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)

The mayor's office says he is putting forth his budget proposal one month ahead of the normal schedule to send a strong message about City budget management to the public and the credit rating agencies.

"This budget demonstrates our good faith to every employee in the city -- police, fire, and municipal employees -- that we value your contribution, that we want you to stay here at the City of Houston," said the Mayor.

The budget totals $2.3 billion. The mayor's office notes that's about $82 million less in spending than the current FY2016 appropriation.

The mayor's office says the decrease was accomplished while still meeting $60 million of contractual and mandated cost increases for FY2017.

"This was the largest fiscal challenge the city has faced since before the Great Recession," Turner said. "By bringing all parties to the table to engage in shared sacrifice, we have closed the budget gap and started addressing the long-standing structural imbalance between available revenues and spending. Each city department, the employee unions, the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones (TIRZ), City Council and various other parties have worked together to identify cost savings and efficiencies while preserving a healthy fund balance, minimizing employee layoffs and maintaining the city services our residents rely on and deserve."

The city's tax increment reinvestment zones will send $19.6 million back to the city to help cover increased operating costs citywide. The rest of the budget gap was closed, the mayor's office says, by utilizing a combination of savings from debt restructuring, spending reductions, revenue from anticipated land sales and a small contribution from the City's fund balance.

The Downtown TIRZ says it doesn't have the exact figure of how much it will contribute back to the city, but it is ready to do so.

"It may push some of our projects back a year or two, but it's worth it to help solve the problems," said Ryan Leach of the TIRZ. Leach says the fund contributions may delay a planned park for the southern edge of downtown, but would not affect any of the group's plans for Super Bowl.

Another TIRZ that operates in the Upper Kirby area told Eyewitness News that its contribution is expected to be somewhere around three million dollars. If that is the reality, the Upper Kirby TIRZ will most likely delay reconstruction of a section of Shepherd Avenue by 12-18 months.

Even with this fund balance contribution, the mayor's office concludes, "the city's savings account will remain well above the threshold necessary to satisfy the credit rating agencies."

The budget includes the elimination of 54 vacant positions and 30 to 40 layoffs, most of which the mayor hopes to accomplish through attrition.

Turner noted repeatedly in the press conference about the budget that there are no significant reductions to park and library operations, which have been hit hard in the past and there will be no layoffs of police officers or firefighters. There is funding included for an additional police cadet class, for a total of five classes and the mayor continues to look for ways to streamline operations to get more officers back on the street, Turner's office says.
Turner's office says the budget was balanced using both recurring and non-recurring initiatives. Turner says if non-recurring items had been taken off the table, there would have been drastic cuts in city services and another 1,235 City employees would have lost their jobs.

A release from the Turner's office explains, "The recurring initiatives mark the start of institutionalizing a new way of running City government. The elimination of redundancies and increased efficiency in operations has generated $36.2 million in recurring annual savings. In addition, the TIRZs will continue to contribute at least $19.6 million in subsequent years. Yet to come is a new approach for the City's pension liabilities. Productive discussions are underway with stakeholders and I am committed to having an agreement ready to take to the legislature by the end of this year. "

At the press conference today, Turner said, "I strongly urge City Council to resist the urge to tinker with this budget. Even one small change will upset the delicate balance we've achieved as a result of shared sacrifice and put the City at risk for a credit rating downgrade. This plan prepares us for the additional fiscal challenges anticipated in FY18 while also improving public safety, increasing employment opportunities and meeting the critical needs of the less fortunate in our city."

City Council is scheduled to vote on the budget May 25, 2016, nearly a month ahead of last year. The new fiscal year begins July 1, 2016.
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