Mayor Turner gave his fifth State of the City address Thursday, albeit virtually because of the pandemic, of course.
Presented by the Greater Houston Partnership, the organization’s president and CEO Bob Harvey gave the opening remarks, commenting on the lasting economic impact of the coronavirus and the need to stay vigilant over the recently rising case counts before our mayor took it away. It was a quick, sharp—and, whenever possible, positive—appraisement of where things stand in H-Town, as of this strange and eventful year.
On the whole, Turner spent much of his speech, which lasted just under 14 minutes, praising the city. He avoided discussing the oil crisis—in April, oil prices fell to below zero for the first time ever—or the fact that Houston has led the state in Covid-19 cases since the pandemic began, and that cases, in recent weeks, have been back on the rise.
So his speech was short, but it covered plenty of ground. Here are the six main takeaways:
Economic Impact of Covid-19
The city has lost more than $107 million in revenue this year because of the pandemic, Turner announced, which isn't a shocker to anyone who's been paying any attention at all. In March and April, 350,000 employees were laid off. Of those losses, the city has only been able to recoup about 41 percent.
Since March, 196 meetings, conferences and conventions in Houston, including the controversial State GOP Convention, have been cancelled or rescheduled, “which equates to 539,000 hotels rooms.” It’s estimated the city lost $332 million in revenue because of this. Currently, downtown hotel occupancy is less than half the citywide total (44 percent) at 17 percent.
Turner has charged HoustonFirst to reimagine the city’s entertainment industry and seek out alternative revenue sources. They have been able to re-capture much of Houston’s future programs and subsequent contracted hotel bookings in the coming years, Turner said, “yet the impact for 2020 and into 2021 will be significant for our hospitality community.”
The mayor celebrated the city’s reaction to the pandemic in Houston, especially the health department lead by Stephen Williams and Dr. David Persse. “The Houston Health Department has led one of the most remarkable response to the pandemic in the country,” he said listing off accomplishments, such as hiring more than 300 contact tracers and launching a mental health support line (call 713-799-9442 if you need help).
In April, Turner tapped Marvin Odum to lead the city through the pandemic as the recovery czar, a position Odum previously held during the Hurricane Harvey Response. The mayor thanked Odum for all of his work and for his salary of $1.
Also in April, Turner launched the Houston Equity Response (H.E.R.) Task Force “to provide essential resources and educational tools to our city’s vulnerable and at risk populations.”
Other Covid-19 responses he commended were the $35 million in rental assistance and $20 million in small business assistance that Houston and Harris County doled out this year.
The City Budget
“This year we unanimously passed a balanced budget, with an 8-percent fund balance without having to layoff or furlough municipal employees or first responders,” Turner extolled.
In June, the city passed a $5.1-billion budget, after the massive loss of city revenue due to Covid-19 and the oil market crash caused months of worry. Houston was previously expected to start the new fiscal year, which began in July, with a $169 million revenue deficit.
In April, and then again in May, Turner warned that around 3,000 City of Houston employees could be furloughed for up 10 days as part of the city’s proposed budget cuts and five police cadet classes would be cancelled. In early May, he told city council to be prepared to drain Houston’s $20 million budget stabilization (rainy) fund, which the city had just replenished after Hurricane Harvey.
However today, Turner celebrated the new budget, with its $15 million rainy day fund and money for those five police cadet classes. That budget also included a 2-percent increase for the police department, according to the Houston Chronicle. At the time of the budget’s passing, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, there had been widespread calls to defund the police, something Turner has been very vocal against.
“Over the last year, we have made tremendous progress in our goal to transform Houston into #SiliconBayou,” Turner said. This is an effort to bring tech companies to Houston while also ensuring diversity racial and gender diversity in the high tech and Green Collar industries.
The mayor discussed the new Greentown Labs, which is set to open in the spring of 2021, as the city’s first climate tech incubator. The 40,000-square foot space, which will office labs and 200-300 employees in about 50 companies, will be housed in a former Fiesta grocery store in Midtown’s 16-acre innovation district, “a growing epicenter for the city’s growing innovation ecosystem.”
Greentown Houston “will be the showcase for the energy transition,” Turner said. In his opening remarks, Harvey pressed the need for the Bayou City to lead energy transition to a lower-carbon world. “Houston will need to accelerate our work in this arena in order to stay relevant” as the energy capital, Harvey said.
The Complete Communities Initiative
In June, the Complete Communities Initiative, which launched in 2017, expanded to support five additional neighborhoods, Alief-Westwood, Fort Bend Houston, Cashmere Gardens, Magnolia Park-Manchester, and Sunnyside, “where we are working to transform and revitalize Houston’s most under-resourced neighborhood and create a new equitable and prosperous city for all Houstonians,” said Turner.
However, Turner criticized the private sector for not supporting the Initiative fast enough. In August 2018, the city approved an action plan to expand the initiative from its original new Acres Homes, Gulfton, Near Northside, and the Second and Third wards, and Turner reached out to the private sector for financial support.
“It has not been easy,” he said, “and the responses have been way too slow.”
He did thank the Houston Endowment for investing $2.5 million into management and community initiatives of the Complete Communities, “which represents by far the single largest donation.”
Later in his speech, Turner praised his Task Force on Policing Reform, chaired by Larry Payne. On September 30, the task force released a report of 104 reform recommendations. Interestingly, the mayor did not give his 100-percent support of the report. Of the recommendations, “most of them I wholeheartedly support,” he said, including up-to-date police body cameras, restructuring the independent police oversight board, and expanding crisis intervention response teams. He did not list the recommendations he does not “wholeheartedly support.”
Not long after Turner convened the task force late last June, he was met with skepticism for not including members of grass-roots organizations on the 45-person task force and for ignoring similar reports in the past, according to a Houston Chronicle report.
While discussing policing, Turner did not bring up the 11-percent increase in violent crime in Houston since the pandemic began nor the $4.1 million Covid-19-Related Crime Reduction Program, an overtime initiative for the Houston Police Department using CARES Act funds. Launched on October 19, three days before this speech, and running through the end of the year, there will be an additional 110 police officers deployed to six crime hotspots: Midwest, Westside, North Belt, South Gessner, Southeast, and South Central.