Mayor Annise Parker discusses challenges of first & second terms
Mayor Annise Parker discusses challenges of first & second terms
Houston Mayor Annise Parker began serving her first term in January 2010 and has just been re-elected to serve a second term. Prior to her election as mayor, Parker served as city controller for six years and as a member of city council for six years. She has worked professionally in the field of energy and has owned and managed small businesses. She is a graduate of Rice University and grew up in Houston’s Spring Branch community.
HOUSTON WOMAN: You spent your first term in office dealing with many inherited issues, as well as significant budget challenges due to the national economy. Let’s discuss these challenges.
MAYOR ANNISE PARKER: I did spend the majority of my first-term on fixing problems. I came in with the benefit of having a birds-eye view of financial and organizational problems from my term as Controller. I took office during a recession that had already started. When I was growing up and we had chores to do, we did the hardest one first. When you got tired out, you got to do the easier ones. We focused on the big issues and tried to tackle structural problems in the city. I wanted to make sure I did this with the best possible team.
There have been lots of changes in leadership in the city. We had good people doing good work, and I wanted great people doing outstanding work and with new energy, ideas and a different attitude. I made tackling problems and putting people in place to help prepare the city to move forward my top priority. I came in knowing what I needed to do to fix the problems I knew existed. I knew the city had to conduct redistricting, and I made a plan to do so. The process went smoothly. It did seem, though, as if every time we turned around, we were hit with more bad news. When the Houston Chronicle endorsed me in 2009, it said our next mayor would face a “plague of locusts,” and it has felt like that during the first term.
HW: What were some of those challenges?
PARKER: Let me list them:
- The announcement to end the Shuttle program at NASA and cancellation of the Constellation program;
- BP Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico, which affected Houston’s Energy Industry;
- Merger of our hometown airline Continental with Chicago-based United;
- The economy continued to go down. The city had less revenue as a result, and we had to lay-off employees;
- Chad Holley case involving abuse of a suspect by Houston Police; and
- One of the worst droughts in the city’s history, accompanied by a plague of water main breaks.
Overall, we addressed these unexpected challenges well. Thankfully, we did not have a hurricane.
Two of the issues I struggled with were both citizen initiatives – red-light cameras and Rebuild Houston; I had to manage their implementation.
Rebuild Houston is going to be one of the most significant things this city does while I’m mayor and for the long-term. It is as significant as when we secured water rights for the city and our commitment to the Texas Medical Center. We needed Houstonians to invest in infrastructure. It’s a significant incline to implement it. I had to step up and take responsibility for the promises made on the campaign trail by those who were supporting the issue.
The red-light cameras have also been challenging. I struggled with this because I fundamentally felt the decision was wrong. It offends my sense of what is appropriate for public safety. Still, I followed the will of the voters and turned the cameras off right after the election. We repealed the ordinance. But, we still had a contract with the red-light camera company, and we are in a major dispute over settlement. The camera company claims we owe it $25 million. It’s my responsibility to listen to the voters and do what is in the best interest of the city. There are not always right or easy answers. We will settle the lawsuit and, hopefully, it will not cost the city too much money.
HW: What are some of the highlights of your first term?
PARKER: With all the fiscal challenges, the highest priority on my list was job creation and economic development. We have scratched and clawed to keep jobs and aggressively sought job recruitment. The result is we are the first major city to regain jobs from the recession. We’re back to 2008 levels.
Now is the opportunity for Houston. With the investments of the drainage fee, we will be making aggressive infrastructure improvements. We’ve adopted Hire Houston First, created the Office of Business Opportunity, are using incentives to attract business and are aggressively courting international business ventures. We’ve turned the corner and done it faster than other cities. While we’re in the lead, we want to extend the gap.
Jobs and economic development are our primary focus. We will do all we can as a city to attract business. One of the best things we can do is have a good platform for business to operate. We need to have a good city to sell. And, we do.
We have low barriers to entry, affordable cost of living (especially among major cities), a stable, educated and available workforce, and we have made permitting business-friendly.
We have the lowest crime rate in our city since the 1960s. We have had made major leaps forward in investment in our quality of life with parks and arts funding. We still need to work on education, and I will support that as best as I can. All indicators marking Houston illustrate we are on the upswing.
Hire Houston First is a program to support and grow our own business community and create and maintain local jobs. The city spends $4 billion annually across enterprise and general funds. When we spend those dollars, we need to do what we can to keep them circulating in the local economy. As the recession deepened, national and multi-national companies began competing more aggressively here. This may drive costs down, but the dollars earned go to support salaries and overhead elsewhere. We had to make tweaks in state law to create our approach. Now, with all things being equal, we go with the Houston firm, as long as the bid cost difference is within three to five percent. We can declare the Houston firm as the quality bidder. I encourage the private sector to do the same.
Neighbors doing business with neighbors builds community and ultimately creates synergy to pull the city out of the recession quicker. Creating a mindset that we hire Houston, we buy Houston, we invest back into Houston is important, and I hope the rest of the business community follows suit.
We also created the Office of Business Opportunity led by Carlecia Wright. This had been the Affirmative Action Division for years. We still have minority and women-owned business enterprise contracting goals, disparity studies, and other aspects of that office. But we knew that there are lots of other things we could do to encourage small and minority – owned firms to do business with the city and to grow. I have also directed Ms. Wright to create reciprocal qualification and certification processed with other qualifying entities. This change is not just about creating a department just for certification but creating value, growing business and leading companies to opportunities.
We want this office to create more training and partnerships for small business. We joined in partnership with Goldman Sachs and their 10,000 Small Businesses program. It is a training program for existing small businesses and gives them the tools to grow. It’s similar to a business boot camp. So, many small businesses start something they are passionate about, and it grows faster than their skills. If they successfully complete the program, they may have access to business capital.
The first group of companies has completed the program, and their owners were very enthusiastic.
HW: A Long Range Financial Management Task Force has been working to assess Houston finances over the next 25 to 30 years. What are your thoughts on the recommendations made to date? Also, please talk about the city’s budget.
PARKER: I came in knowing the city budget had a structural imbalance, spending more than we take-in. At least one example was that we were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in water/sewer. We have chipped away at that issue and others, and we have overhauled structures.
Some issues are not in control of the City of Houston. We are a service organization. We need to make sure income and expenses match. We built a rainy day fund, and this was our rainy day. And, unlike the state legislature, we used the reserves to bridge a more normal economic environment. We don’t want to slash, burn and kill critical services for something that’s temporary. We had to balance the budget with a scalpel, not a cleaver. We have successfully balanced two budgets. On the city’s main website, we have a link to the fiscal responsibility page and detailed budget information is available at www.houstontx.gov/fiscalresp/index.html). We have consolidated departments, laid-off employees and trimmed spending.
At the end of last year’s budget cycle, the city council wanted to have an outside group of individuals grade our work. It created a task force that would evaluate several questions about our structural issues and cost-drivers and then build a case to better manage them. I remain quite confident it will find we left no money on the table. It is looking at the short term and focusing on long-term fiscal responsibility.
The Long-Term Financial Planning Committee is composed of Council Members Bradford and Costello, former Council Member Clutterbuck, three representatives of the pension funds, three unions and private sector members. Mike Nichols is the chair; he is a retired executive from Sysco. From the very first day, tension existed among the pension and union members who were convinced the committee was an assault on their benefits. The private sector members and the council members just want to fix the problems. There is no way they’ll come up with a consensus document, so let’s not aim for that. They are looking at the short-term. If they find money on the table, we want them to point us to it. They are also focusing on the long-term – five, 10, 20 years out and the financial challenges the city may face. They are winding down their work [now].
We have spent time with them opening the books. Their preliminary conversations show everything presented to committee. They had a brainstorming session, and anyone could go in and share their budget ideas. They threw ideas on the list and then would come back and look at them. They put everything out there and then came back and determined if it was material, long-term or an immediate financial issue. This brainstorming session was monitored by a reporter and reported as recommendations.
It is clear to me that we need to figure out a way to achieve pension security for our employees, for the City of Houston and the taxpayers. There’s a balance. If you look at expenses and income absent pension issues, we’re in great shape. You can see the pension costs rise over time. I’m not taking anyone’s pensions, but we need to have a professional and organized conversation. If you talk about pensions, you must be trying to strip public employees of their benefits. If we can get past the rhetoric, like balancing budget on the backs of firefighters, shared facts will be beneficial.
Three-quarters of the city budget is salary and overhead. The general fund is $4 billion. Two-thirds of the fund goes to public safety. The committee is determining if we are spending our dollars optimally. There are always little wrinkles like the $10 million loss we took when we turned-off the red-light cameras. And yet, through our public safety spending, we’ve achieved the lowest crime rate in decades.
Among other challenges of the last two years, I successfully negotiated three union contracts – police officers, firefighters and municipal employees. As we negotiated, we set time lines so future mayors won’t be faced with managing all three contracts at once. They come up for renewal at three-, four- and five-year intervals. All three organizations agreed to a pay freeze for the first two years of the contract.
HW: Speaking of employee pensions and benefits, they continue to consume significant amounts of revenue. Is this aspect of policy controlled by the city or by the state legislature?
PARKER: I have no control over the firefighter’s pension. It is controlled by the state legislature. I have the ability to negotiate with the police and municipal employees through meet-and-confer. We have to reach agreement and, if we don’t, it defaults to the legislature. I believe Houstonians, our elected officials and unions can work out what is a sustainable pension for Houston rather than legislators from Waco or El Paso. All cities fought hard for meet-and-confer. I give full credit to Mayor White who negotiated significant municipal pension changes. We have a pension presentation on the website, and it reflects the changes. We are all concerned with pension security. I can negotiate with the police pension and am allowed to defer pension payments in order to avoid laying-off police officers. Unfortunately, even if the firefighters and I reach an agreement, it still falls under the legislature. I would prefer more local control.
HW: City Council has added two new seats creating a total of 16 individuals with their own goals and hopes as council members. Seven of them are serving their first term in office. Is that yet another challenge?
PARKER: We created an intensive council member-elect boot camp. We brought the seven new members in and did an orientation so they could be productive from day one. It was a three-day advance training session to bring them up to speed. We’re trying to be responsive and proactive — to have a smooth transition. Having been a council member myself, I’m sympathetic to new members. They run with aggressive agendas. The last person prior to me elected mayor after having served on council was Louie Welch in the 1970s.
HW: Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?
PARKER: I still love my job! I’m still excited to go to work everyday. I’m still excited to interact with Houstonians. To be mayor, you have to love your city. I love Houston. I wish I could bring Houstonians to the same place I am about our city. We are the best advocates for the City of Houston. I want every Houstonian to realize what an interesting, dynamic, international city Houston is, believe it to the core and tell the rest of the world about it. The Houston area is the fastest growing region in population growth. This may be challenging, but it is an opportunity. Houston is still a magnet for people from all over the world. Once people get transferred to our city, they often love it and don’t leave. It’s a cool place. So, let’s talk about it. Tell your friends how much you love this city!
Editor’s Note: Nancy Sims is a senior vice president at Pierpont Communications and manages the public affairs practice. She is a long-time observer of local politics. She has known Mayor Parker for nearly 30 years. She did the interview at our request.
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