Bill King, who was a potential candidate for mayor of Houston before deciding not to make the race, has been sounding the alarm about the city’s financial condition. He sent out an e-mail today that refers to an article by Chronicle business writer Loren Steffy. King writes:
Steffy paints a pretty bleak picture. But, if anything, he has understated the problem. It appears that the City will end FY2009-2010 near the minimum set by State law in its general fund. However, the situation in FY2010-2011 will be much worse. Most of the City’s revenues lag the general economic activity. So even if there is a recovery next year the City’s revenue will likely not see much growth. The problem is that there are built-in increases for salaries, pension payments and health insurance costs. With these increases and flat revenues, it appears that next year’s budget deficit will be $200 million or more with reserves already at the State minimum.
Despite the conventional wisdom that the City’s financial problems are due to current economic downturn that is not the case. Since 2002 the City has been running structural deficits primarily relating to the escalating costs of the pension and retirement health insurance plans. Since 2002 the City’s contributions to these plans have been growing at over 14% per year, while general fund revenues have only grown at about 4%. These two trend lines have been inexorably on a collision course for the last decade. The current economic downturn just got us to the scene of the accident a little earlier.
But here is the really bad news. The contributions that the City has been making to these plans are not sufficient to fully fund the promised benefits and over the last five years the City has been forced to borrow 30-year bond money just to have the cash to make the plan contributions the City has made. So far, the City has borrowed over $200 million on these “pension bonds” that has been used to make its current contributions. (About another $400 million has been borrowed to make back payments.) How is this for sobering? The City will end this year with significantly less than $200 million in reserves. In other words, had the City not been borrowing to make its plan contributions for the last five years, the general fund would now be completely depleted. Now that is ugly.
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A couple of points in Steffy’s article that are worth mentioning:
1. Houston’s rainy day fund was depleted by Hurricane Ike
2. Houston is not in danger of not being able to pay its bills
3. Every big city in the country is in the same situation
If Perry attempts to blame White for Houston’s fiscal woes, he may find himself playing defense against a counterattack on the state’s deteriorating fiscal condition (a likely $17 billion hole in the next biennium, in part due to property tax cuts that create a structural deficit) and a business tax whose disappointing revenue-raising performance was made worse by exempting 40,000 more businesses.