Budget balancing act awaits Houston's next mayor

HOUSTON The exact numbers may have changed a bit, but the problem remains the same. And because its fiscal year ends in June, a new mayor will need to balance the budget.

In her last controller's report to city council, Annise Parker's initiation prediction on the city budget sounded dire.

"We're projecting a revenue shortfall of $106.4 million," she reported.

But the actual gap is up for debate. Once you add in the use of surplus funds, projected revenues and corporate tax payments, some city leaders say the actual gap is around $3 million.

The chair of the council's fiscal affairs committee says the budget gap is a moving number.

"I am not concerned about the differences in opinion of what the gap is," said Houston city Councilmember Anne Clutterbuck. "I think there is a collective recognition that there is a gap."

City leaders say the increase in delinquent property tax payments and a continuing soft economy have contributed to a gap that must be closed by next June.

"Every month, we are taking actions in order to reduce the pace of spending without compromising services," said Houston Mayor Bill White.

The city's considering a lot of different options in raising revenue, including selling surplus property and also doing a better job of collecting fees, including those from parking meters.

Council member Anne Clutterbuck points out that it doesn't matter if Gene Locke or Annise Parker becomes the next mayor. They will have to balance the budget. That could mean delaying some city improvement projects or increasing certain fees, like ambulance transfers. They're tough decisions that a new city council and mayor will have to make sooner rather than later.

"The next mayor that comes on will set forth a plan, and we as a body, as a council need to have the collective will to implement those difficult changes," said Clutterbuck.

It's important to remember that the budget fluctuates month to month. Despite various disagreements over the budget shortfall, most elected officials do agree that for now, Houston's financial problems are not nearly as bad as some other cities around the country.

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