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Hail to the Chief?

Houston greets its new mayor, Sylvester Turner, with a host of big-city problems.

By February 2016Comments

Photograph by Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle via AP

Inaugurations are a little like weddings: so much happiness on the surface, so many injuries, rivalries, and unfinished business down below. So it was on January 4, a rare sunny day that followed seeming weeks of winter gray, when Sylvester Turner took office as the sixty-second mayor of Houston. The event was fittingly diverse, what with a Vietnamese mistress of ceremonies and an imam and a rabbi sharing the inaugural prayer. The Houston Symphony accompanied the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts Chorus and the Church Without Walls Choir. There was a dance troupe from Acres Homes’ Carver High—not sure about those corsets but maybe that’s just the middle-aged mom in me talking—and a moving recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance from a group of kids with special needs. Grammy winner Yolanda Adams, a graduate of Sterling High School, led the crowd through stirring versions of “God Bless America” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the black national anthem.

That song had to have had special resonance for the 61-year-old Turner, who’d grown up in segregated Houston and longed for this moment for nearly a quarter century. The 27-year veteran of the Legislature had lost two brutal mayoral races, in 1991 and 2003, before squeaking to victory in a runoff this past December, defeating Bill King, a white moderate who ran on a platform devoted almost exclusively to solving Houston’s fiscal problems. Indeed, Turner was overcome with emotion as he began his speech, but he got to the point pretty quickly. “People have said to me, ‘Sylvester, with all the city’s problems, why in the world would you want to be mayor?’  My reply was simply, ‘Yes, Houston faces challenges, but tomorrow will be better than today.’”

Turner got a lot of applause with that line, but it got me thinking about the new mayor, and about Houston. In particular, it seemed to me that the mood at this inauguration was more muted than it was at Annise Parker’s in 2010, when Houston got so many props for electing the first lesbian mayor of a major U.S. city. The pride of Turner’s black supporters was obvious, but absent were many faces belonging to the white downtown/establishment crowd. There was a level of uncertainty that had something to do with Turner and something to do with the state of the city—and, yes, the new combination of the two. Houston likes to love its mayors, and this time I wasn’t feeling it.

Undoubtedly, some of this was a result of the election. Turner’s inauguration represented the end of a long, tortured season in which there was never a clear favorite, in which many felt that “none of the above” was the best choice. The city’s vaunted diversity was well represented by the candidates, who also offered a nice ideological spread, but there was a sense among assorted movers and shakers that no single person had the vision and sophistication to move the nation’s soon-to-be-third-largest city forward during what promises to be a very challenging period. We may be the global capital of the energy business, a supposed economic powerhouse, and a mind-blowing melting pot, but the price of oil is tumbling and some dicey bills are coming due at city hall. There is a pervasive sense that the city’s legendary optimism isn’t going to be enough to pull us through this time.

The problems Houston faces can be summed up neatly. As one city official explained, “It’s potholes, public safety, and pensions.” But they are incredibly complex. Turner touched on these issues in his campaign and on inauguration day, though during both he avoided offering specific plans. He got one of the biggest rounds of applause during his speech when he promised that anyone who properly reported a pothole to the city’s repair line would see it fixed “by the next business day.” “They always say something like that,” the woman sitting next to me groused, and I had to admit I was with her. I appreciated Turner’s desire for the bold stroke, but the actual filling of potholes is the least of our troubles.

A funding switcheroo and the arrival of thousands of new people a month have indeed turned our roads into axle-gnashing, life-threatening byways—that and the fact that former mayor Parker made the courageous decision to rebuild the streets instead of making short-term cosmetic fixes. (Instead of one truck bearing hot asphalt, picture entire roadbeds dug out, with construction consuming whole traffic lanes on busy streets.) But Houston’s larger problem is one of mobility: way back when, former mayor Bob Lanier and Congressman Tom DeLay killed the prospect of any sort of efficient public transportation system for Houston, and subsequent dithering has left us with a legacy of perpetual gridlock. This town may employ a lot of visionaries in the energy, tech, and medical fields, but when it comes to mass transportation, just about everyone in city government has been a highway-loving Luddite.

As for public safety, the Houston Chronicle recently noted that the city’s police force has remained roughly the same size for the past ten years, while the population has grown about 16 percent, from 1.9 million in 2000 to 2.2 million today. Violent crime dropped 2 percent overall last year, but the murder rate is trending upward: in the first half of 2014, 100 people were killed; from January to June 2015, that number reached 144 and was at 162 one month later. A revenue cap currently prevents more spending on public safety, at a time when better training of law enforcement officers in light of recent events, like the death of Sandra Bland, in Waller County, has become paramount. Better recruiting might be a good start: in this minority-majority city, the Houston police department is still 52 percent white, while the white population makes up only 26 percent of the city.

Finally, there is the biggest problem of all: the payout of pensions to police, fire, and city employees, which could bankrupt the city. In the nineties the city had its retirement plans under control, paying reasonable pensions to its employees. Then, in and around 2001, state senator Mario Gallegos, a former firefighter, and then-mayor Lee P. Brown, a former police officer, among others, persuaded the Legislature to raise those benefits. According to a report by the Greater Houston Partnership—switching from cheerleader to Cassandra—retirement contributions to city, police, and fire employees that amounted to around 12 percent of the city’s payroll contributions in 2011 are now at around 20 percent. The city is currently staring down a $5.6 billion pension bill—and it doesn’t have the money. Most likely, this sum will have to be paid from Houston’s general fund, leaving far less to run the place. “Kicked the can down the road” is a description commonly affixed to former mayors when the subject of pension reform comes up.

At the same time, another $3.3 billion in general obligation debt is coming due, most of it before 2021, money Houston borrowed to use for capital expenditures and things like sports facilities (yay, Super Bowl 2017!). In the meantime, oil has dropped to around $30 a barrel, which means more layoffs and more people needing services. None of that falls under the headline of “More Good News.”

In other words, Houston isn’t a young, sprawling boomtown anymore but a maturing city with grown-up problems and less money with which to solve them. It’s also become a city in denial, with our heralded can-do community spirit seemingly MIA. Houston has always been a capital of individualism, but a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center showed that it’s become the most economically segregated city in the country, a finding that suggests that maybe we aren’t all in this together (not to worry: San Antonio and Dallas also made the top ten). The bitter defeat of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance—which was supposed to be about equality and fairness but became a homophobic travesty—was not this famously tolerant city’s finest hour. What’s needed is a leader who can make it clear that despite our myriad differences, we are, well, one when it comes to making Houston the best it can be.

Candidate Turner probably came the closest to meeting that standard. He is a true son of Houston, with a bootstraps bio that validates the city’s any-hard-worker-can-be-a-success story line. He grew up in Acres Homes, a poor, black neighborhood that is now part of his legislative district. Turner’s father, a handyman, died when Turner was thirteen, and his mother raised nine children on her wages as a maid at the old Rice Hotel. Following his mother’s dictum that better days always followed bad ones, Turner must have made her very proud, graduating from Harvard Law School and working at the establishment firm of Fulbright & Jaworski before opening his own law office and then building a career as an influential (for a Democrat) state legislator. He is a progressive—though as noted often during the campaign, he’s shown a consistent ability to work with Republicans. That gift enabled him, for instance, to restore those egregious cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 2005. Overall, Turner has conscientiously represented his poverty-riddled northwest district at a time when few at the Capitol seemed even remotely familiar with the term “income inequality,” much less “compassion.”

And yet. “There’s no excitement at the beginning of the new administration” was an admission that spoke for many people in Houston but happened to have come from a prominent, well-respected member of the black community. That Turner did not receive a clear mandate from the voters is indicative of the ambivalence he inspires.

Some of this ambivalence has to do with true racial diversity coming to the fore: Turner may be Houston’s second black mayor, but he is the first to win without the blessing of the white power structure. Brown, who served from 1998 to 2004, was a career bureaucrat who had been handpicked by Mayor Lanier and his good-old-boy network. Then, too, Lanier defeated Turner way back when with the assistance of a smear campaign that still lingers for some.

How much of the skepticism toward Turner is a result of racism and how much is borne of old political battles with him is up for debate. Turner’s lack of assistance with the pension issue in the Lege—where part of the problem must be solved and where some believe he wanted the endorsement of firefighters more than he wanted to solve the problem—did not win him many supporters among the Greater Houston Partnership. You could say that didn’t matter—there are lots of people who might be happy to see some old power players put out to pasture—except that inclusiveness cuts both ways. There is a larger sense that despite his years in office, Turner has remained somehow unknowable, even to many who have worked with him. He also has a temper that, according to those who have experienced it, comes off like a mash-up of Voldemort and Gollum. All in all, he enters office wearing a cloak of unpredictability not seen in quite a while. Despite Houston’s purported passion for risk, city hall hasn’t been a traditional spot in which to bet the farm.

“If we dare to dream beyond our current city’s conditions, if we work hard, and if we put aside our biases and recognize that no one person can do it by himself, we can be a bigger Houston,” Turner promised.

An anxious city hopes he can show us how.

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  • Localguy

    This article has a number of curious misstatements that need to be corrected. First off, State Senator Gallegos did not pass pension increases in 2001, the elected mayor and city council did that and as is almost always the case, the state legislature agreed to the increases. It is a matter of public record that every conservative councilman at that time wholeheartedly served as cheerleaders for the increases, joining their more liberal counterparts in declaring it was time to catch up to the much better pay and benefits offered by other major cities. Those at the state level warned that with the stock market uncertainties tied to the “dot com crash”, it might not be prudent to go as far as the city did but the warnings were brushed aside. Then in 2004 and 2007, Mayor Bill White not only demanded (and received) huge benefit concessions from police and municipal employees, Mayor Parker then increased the cost of retiree healthcare in excess of 300% as one of her first acts in office, despite promises made.

    But it was the way Mayor White started a timetable for paying yearly pension benefits that truly set this all in motion, paying in far less than the city had paid even in previous years to afford his yearly tax rate cuts, excessive spending on frills, and making sure some of the wealthiest developers would reap the rewards for supporting his campaign. These funding schedules are all public record and show how the municipal and police pensions were funded under 50%, the municipal system set to increase $5 million a year and police $10 million until they caught up. Then when the big crash hit, each system had those rare losses that happen from time to time, even though the average returns were above what was needed. So yes, a problem 15 years in the making is not going to be fixed overnight, even in a city whose total yearly budget is in excess of $5.1 billion dollars, that yearly spending on all sorts of feel good projects now resulting in the expected morning after hangover.

    There have been many opportunities for city leaders to fix city finances and instead, they continued to spend like they wouldn’t be around for the consequences courtesy of term limits, current practices including city council slush funds, art funding, the ever expanding tax increment reinvestment zones pulling in over $150 million a year, expansive plans to expand parks, and those infamous corporate handouts to companies like Walmart to build sidewalks and shuffle existing employees from location to the next, no oversight included, duplicate county services like the crime lab rather than pay the county to use theirs as most area communities do, Pasadena joining that program not long ago to save millions each year. With cheap oil, austerity measures will be needed but suggestions that city spending was strictly about pension benefits, especially given Houston benefits are lower than Harris County and all the other major cities, is a lie oft told until some are gullible enough to believe it.