Houston mayoral hopefuls swapped plans to shore up the city's finances at a forum Thursday, pledging everything from pension reform to scrapping the city's crime lab.
The event drew little in the way of political fireworks, with the rival candidates largely sticking to their own talking points at the University of Houston student center. More than 200 people were in attendance.
I wasn't one of them, and neither was Ben Hall. Twitter coverage was also skimpy, and non-existent after the first 30 minutes or so. Reading the story at the Chron made me sleepy. I'll have to assume that the affair put everybody's feet to sleep, save the wonkiest of those present. Here's a sampling of statements by the six in attendance without ellipses.
City Councilman Steve Costello, who chairs the city's budget and fiscal affairs committee, focused almost exclusively on taming the city's pension costs, calling it a "looming crisis" and promising to achieve reform. "So here's what happens if we don't get pension reform," Costello said. "We won't be able to do things like after school programs we won't be able to do summer jobs, we won't be able to district service accounts. These are this issues that we have."
Former congressman and City Councilman Chris Bell acknowledged the city's current pension costs are not "sustainable" but he pushed for a broader approach.
Bell called the city's revenue cap, which limits the property taxes the city can collect, a "bad policy." He said he would support considering an exception to the cap for public safety spending, a change that would need voter approval.
"I happen to feel that it's disingenuous though to try to lead voters to believe that as the next mayor you can simply cram a solution down the throats of the Houston firefighters," Bell said.
State Rep. Sylvester Turner, too, said he would support a possible carve-out for public safety spending under the city's revenue cap.
"For a growing city the revenue cap works against our interests," Turner said.
Turner authored a bill during this year's legislative session aimed at lowering Houston's pension payments by $77 million over three years, but it never made it to the House floor. The effort drew praise from some corners but critics called it a short-term solution.
Turner said the budget conversation needs to be broader than just pension reform.
"You have to bring everything to the table," Turner said. "Be very careful when you're talking about pensions.
Former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia touted his management and budget experience, saying he thinks the city needs to "match up our core services to our available revenue stream." On the pension front, Garcia also said he would work to restore "desperately needed local control."
Former mayor of Kemah Bill King said the city's budget woes are "not a revenue problem."
He said he would push for more cost-saving partnerships with the county, particularly merging the city's independent crime lab with the county's lab.
"I cannot for the life of me figure out why the city is still in the crime lab business," King said. "I think we've pretty thoroughly demonstrated this is not one of the city's core competencies."
Businessman Marty McVey largely skirted the pension and revenue cap issues, instead focusing on expanding the city's property tax base.
"I think the reality is this: we cannot cut our way to prosperity," McVey said. "We have to look for ways to increase our tax base, we have to go out and recruit new businesses."
So (IMHO) Costello, Bell, and Turner remain at the head of the class in terms of understanding the issues and communicating their solutions effectively. King's got the grouchy Republican vote cornered, Garcia brags about something he shouldn't be, and McVey still thinks Rick Perry's business initiatives are a good idea.
This is all going according to my plan.