Fix Houston

How to Balance the City Budget

We should be more fiscally responsible.

By Laura Furr Mericas January 30, 2020 Published in the February 2020 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Spending more than you earn is risky—especially when you're a city government with a $5.1 billion annual budget and more than 20,000 employees. Houston has made several steps to shore up its unfunded liabilities—cutting pension balances in half since 2017—but City Controller Chris Brown says City Hall needs to stop plugging holes and start padding savings. “If we had a structurally balanced budget, we would traditionally run surpluses and put that into our savings account,” he says. “Then we could figure out what we want to use that for, whether it’s weathering a recession or hiring more police officers or fixing potholes.” To do that, Brown wants to continue to work to address the city’s unfunded Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) liability during his second term, in much the same way that his and Mayor Sylvester Turner's offices did with the city’s pensions in 2017. More comprehensive audits—over the past four years, the Controller’s Office produced roughly 40 performance audits and reports, creating $10 million in savings—will help, he says, as will the new “zero-based” budgeting policy, which requires departments to justify every expense. In addition, the city needs to find other ways to generate revenue, Brown says, which could be anything from accepting voluntary payments from nonprofits (since these entities don’t pay property taxes) to allowing advertisements on city-owned buildings. “My gut tells me that we’re going to see some of the downturn in 2020,” he says. “So let’s do everything we can to prepare for it.”

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