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Mayor Turner, right, with Houston's new flood czar, Steve Costello.

Image: Janice Evans

Mayor Sylvester Turner focused on flooding, finances and, of course, potholes at his first State of the City address.

He kicked off his speech in front of 1,750 people at the Hilton Americas today with the issue on everyone's minds: the increasingly common flood events plaguing the city. In fact, the event was rescheduled from its original date due to the Tax Day Floods, which the mayor noted damaged 2,000 homes.

Turner's appointed civil engineer and former City Council member Steve Costello as the city's first "Flood Czar," who will be the point person on Houston's flood mitigation efforts. Turner said he's asking Costello to contribute both immediate, short-term fixes and longer-term solutions to the increasing threat of flood damage and destruction.

"Property owners throughout our area have become weary of flooding in the Bayou City, impatient with elected officials who offer explanations with no practical solutions," Turner said, "and some have and others are close to packing up and leaving our city unless we can convince them that we are going to do exponentially more than what they currently see."

Another huge item of business in Turner's address was the budget shortfall. The Mayor's Office has increased its prediction of the potential shortfall to $160 million, up from the initial estimate of $126 million when Turner took office four months ago, a change Turner attributed in part to declining sales tax revenues. As a result, city agencies have implemented pay and hiring freezes, layoffs and overall belt-tightening—except when it comes to cops.

Turner said HPD is doing some shuffling to send 175 officers that are currently behind the desk into patrolling roles, and the city plans to graduate an extra class of cadets this year to increase the number of cops on the street. The budget Turner will present to the City Council next week will reduce overall spending by $82 million; the rest he's hoping to make up for in pension negotiations with city employees that he says are going well.

"This is the largest fiscal challenge the city has faced since the Great Recession," Turner said. "There are certain realities that cannot be ignored—the increasing costs to the city simply cannot be sustained."

Turner also said he'll put a measure to repeal the city's revenue cap up for a vote in November 2017; he called the cap on taxes "arbitrary" and said it, along with the pension turmoil, was a major reason the city's credit rating was downgraded by two leading credit rating agencies. "No other local governmental authority in this state is operating under similar constraints of population and inflation," he said. 

Finally, he hit on the success of the pothole initiative, bringing up 10 Public Works employees to receive a standing ovation from the crowd. He said the agency filled 2,750 potholes that were reported to 311 and an additional 16,500 potholes that weren't reported. 

The budget goes to the City Council on May 10; let's see how much of Turner's agenda will make it through.

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