State of the City 2010 Address
Mayor Annise Parker
State of the City Address
April 8, 2010
Just a little more than three months ago I was standing on the stage at the Wortham Theater delivering my inaugural address. I was honored to be elected. I am honored to serve you. This is really an amazing job you have given me. There isn’t a day I don’t wake up excited to go to work.
I love this city! I trust that you do as well.
A lot has happened in the last four months. We hit the ground running the day after the election and haven’t stopped, and we won’t stop. I have assembled perhaps the most experienced senior staff ever in Houston city government, and one which will, I hope, prove to be one of the most effective. I have shaken up the leadership in some critical city departments. I have a tight grip on the budgetary reins.
I had help from outside city government as well. I want to personally thank Representative Garnet Coleman, newly confirmed Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia and Nancy Kinder for their invaluable, heroic and exhaustive work as co-chairs of my transition. They quickly assembled diverse teams of experts and community leaders to assess and report to me on our most pressing needs in transportation, housing, neighborhoods and public works.
Every member of the transition teams volunteered his or her expertise and time to make Houston the best it can be. There are too many to name here, but I want to thank them for their service.
When I look back at all that we have accomplished, I am amazed. But, there is much more left to do. I am proud to report that the state of our city is strong. I would rather be Mayor of Houston than any other city in America. That does not mean there aren’t some serious challenges ahead. I’ll talk more about this in a moment.
First, I want to thank former Mayor Bill White for his strong, effective leadership over his six years of service. His vision and hard work made Houston a better, finer, more prosperous city.
But cities are never “finished”. The best continue to grow and change. Our focus now must be on moving Houston forward and preparing for the changes yet to come. I want to enlist the help of every elected official, every community leader, every citizen, everyone in this room to make our city what we want it to be. What it should be.
It’s no surprise that change is coming. Change is a constant in Houston. Houston has always been a city with its eyes on tomorrow. To borrow a phrase: “a city where the future has already arrived.”
Who would have thought a city born on the banks of a muddy bayou and staked on a mosquito infested coastal prairie would grow up to become the 4th largest city in the nation - home to the world renowned Texas Medical Center, the largest foreign tonnage port operation in the country, and the place where manned space flight began and should continue!
Who would have thought Houston would wind up a diverse, open, cosmopolitan city where every ethnicity of the world is represented, an economic and cultural dynamo where we do business with every country on the planet.
Who would have thought the oil and gas capital of the world would be poised to become the alternative energy headquarters of a new world economy.
And, who, unfortunately, would have thought that we’d be facing the toughest economic downturn since the depression?
Good government requires us to face hard facts. Unemployment is high. Housing sales have yet to recover to previous levels. Businesses are hurting.
City government is facing challenges, too – the most serious of which is balancing the next city budget. Sales tax revenues are dropping. Property tax revenues are dropping. There is less in our fund balance than before and I will draw it down to its prudent limit as we prepare for the 2011 budget and the needed $100 million in new revenue or spending cuts for the next fiscal year. I am confident that with prudent fiscal policy we can manage through this.
Everything is on the table, and we will all be asked to sacrifice. I know that is very uncomfortable both for our city employees who deliver quality services and the Houstonians who rely on those services. I feel like a mom planning a family budget. We’re going to make sure we still have plenty of healthy vegetables, but we might have to cut back on dessert for a while.
“What is a budget? A method of worrying before you spend instead of afterward.”
“Most of us find some of our ambitions are nipped in the budget.”
“There is no dignity quite so impressive, and no independence quite so important, as living within your means.” Calvin Coolidge
We don’t know everything that lies ahead. The pressures are immense. The economy and budget constraints may cause fees for some vital and essential services to rise…But I pledge that I will not present a 2011 budget that requires a property tax increase.
When I said we would share the sacrifice, I meant it. I won’t ask city employees to cut their pay without cutting mine. I won’t ask departments to cut their budgets without cutting my own. I am forming budget SWAT teams to scrub this budget for savings. We will leave no stone unturned in search of money to bridge the gap. We will look closely at what we are doing and why.
Adversity also brings opportunity.
I want this to be an Era of Innovation in city government. What can we do better – and more efficiently? Just because we’ve done it one way for a long time, doesn’t mean it is the best way. We must streamline, modernize and reform the core functions of municipal government. We will cut waste, improve services, and ---always---we will welcome imagination and new ideas in City Hall.
Innovation has already begun.
I am taking steps to implement millions of dollars of savings identified in audits I conducted as city controller. And I will partner with Controller Green as he does the same.
We are looking at re-negotiating our existing contracts with vendors to get a better value for taxpayers.
Good economy or bad, we simply cannot lose the dream of exploring our solar system and squander the investment of American taxpayers in human spaceflight at NASA/JSC. Many of you know I was in Washington last month to meet with White House and administration officials about cancellation of the Constellation program at NASA. I went there with one, tough, overriding message: Don’t take away our dream of space…And don’t change a program that has benefited America tremendously. I also had an invitation for the president: Come to Houston. Let us show you how important the work at JSC is to our way of life, our economy, and our scientific future. And let us show you what we have to offer NASA through the medical and research infrastructure of the Texas Medical Center, our great research universities and the scientific and engineering expertise gathered here.
One of my highest priorities is to keep and create jobs in Houston. It’s not just my duty as mayor – it’s personal.
I know what it is like for someone to suddenly lose a job and not know how they are going to make ends meet. I know the impact of an accident, or a serious illness that isn’t covered by insurance, and what it can do to family finances. I know how an indifferent government can add to a citizen’s burdens.
It happened to my own family. During the campaign I spoke regularly about how both my parents worked and even about my dad’s paper route.
Here’s the next part of that story. Even while he juggled jobs, they saved. My dad wanted to be his own boss. When I was about 12, my father invested all his savings to buy a fishing camp. He moved us to Biloxi, Mississippi. It was a success, going great…then one day a runaway barge knocked down the only bridge to the peninsula where we were located. Through no fault of his own, overnight he lost 80% of his customers. He struggled for months to keep things going, waiting for the state to step in and complete repairs. Ultimately, the wait depleted all our savings. We lost the business. We lost our home. He lost his dream.
My parents did not give up. They did not walk away from their responsibilities. We moved into a tiny rent house. He took the only job he could find, as a night watchman. He and my mom contacted their creditors and worked out a payment plan. It took a very long time, but they ultimately paid back every dime they owed and restored their credit.
This story is part of me. I share it only because it helped form my world views and is central to how I approach the financial challenges facing our city:
I know that circumstances beyond our control can suddenly and irrevocably change life as we know it.
I know to work hard, accept responsibility and always put something aside for emergencies.
I know that government must meet its obligations too.
I know that you face problems head on and do not avoid the hard decisions.
But I also know that if you do those things, you can succeed, and you can build a new dream.
Today in Houston, and all around our country, there are too many hard working families whose livelihoods have been suddenly taken away. There are too many of our neighbors who are desperate for a good job, but who can’t find one.
I want Houstonians to know that I get it. And I want you to know that in the first 100 days of this administration we’ve already started to work on our economic problems.
And that’s why I am proud to renew my commitment to Hire Houston First, a policy to encourage the use of local companies – and the hiring of local workers – on taxpayer-funded projects.
Houston city government is a powerful economic engine. It spends billions of dollars providing essential services – building and maintaining streets, bridges, water lines, sidewalks. Hire Houston First will make sure we use this engine to the maximum benefit of our own citizens…that more of our city government tax dollars stay in our local economy and put more Houstonians to work.
There is more good news: We've inked a $36 million deal for the consolidation of NRG Texas and Reliant Energy's retail operations in the Houston Pavilions project downtown ensuring more than a thousand jobs stay in Houston with the operations of these two companies.
I spent the first 20 years of my adult life working in the oil and gas industry, and I’m going to spend the next six years making sure that Houston becomes the world headquarters for clean, green, renewable energy.
On a related front, we’ve entered into a new partnership with Nissan and Reliant Energy to introduce and expand the use of electric cars in the Houston area. We are helping to build an American market so these cars can be made in America by American workers. Where better to introduce the next generation of automobiles than in our car-centric city?
I believe there are also opportunities abroad that can help grow our economy. I want to open our doors to the world. To that end, I have made it a priority to meet personally with international dignitaries. I am also working with the Greater Houston Partnership to identify trade mission opportunities. We need to continue our strong relationships with our giant trading partners such as China, Canada and Mexico, and the oil-rich Middle East, but we also need to look at enhancing our ties with Brazil, Russia, India and others.
We have also, in these first few months achieved significant progress in other vital areas. One of the most important is this: there’s going to be a new day at Houston Metro.
We are moving forward with building the next five lines of light rail, one of the largest public works projects undertaken in Houston in many years. While in Washington, I was able to sit side by side with Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood and commit personally to him that we are not going to drop a stitch in our effort to complete this project – that we are expecting to receive the $900 million committed in the president’s budget. The jobs created by this project will support Houston families and keep Houston moving.
If you’ve paid attention to the news lately, you’ve noticed that we are cleaning house at METRO to make sure that taxpayers know exactly what they are getting for their tax dollars and are getting the value they deserve.
I am also happy to tell you we are making progress in finalizing a plan to build the Dynamo Stadium. During my campaign for Mayor I pledged that no new city tax dollars would be used for this project, and we’ve achieved that. In fact, due to Commissioner El Franco Lee’s leadership in moving this project forward, we now anticipate the city’s contribution to the land and infrastructure will be $7.5 million less than originally planned.
We have begun an operational overhaul of public safety services. The first step was the selection of Charles McClelland as our new police chief.
During my campaign I promised we would reorganize public safety services to make them more efficient. We have begun that process. We’ve identified at least 35 officers to be moved from desk jobs at headquarters to patrol cars out in our neighborhoods. We’ve added eight new neighborhood protection inspectors. Soon I’ll announce my selection for fire chief – a chief who will have zero tolerance for racial or sexual harassment in the fire houses – a chief who will work to increase the number of female firefighters.
We are making progress toward a regional crime lab. I am also getting close to naming a new chief judge of our municipal courts and I’ve named a new city attorney and housing director.
As part of my desire to make our neighborhoods safer, I am declaring Demolition Day in Houston. 200 abandoned, dangerous buildings and crack houses located across this city will come down on this day, targeted for May 22nd. This would not be possible without the help of the Houston Contractors Association, which is donating the demolition services for this effort. It’s a win-win-win: good for neighborhoods, good for public safety and good for public health.
At the same time, we are working to preserve our architectural heritage. I have named a working group to draft changes to our Historic Preservation Ordinance that will add real protections to this vulnerable asset.
Up to this point, I’ve been talking about projects. But as you all know, small changes can also have huge impact.
For example, we’ve brought in a staff person whose sole job is to ensure that Houston obtains as much grant funding as possible from government and nonprofit sources. This has the potential to find extra millions for needed city priorities like parks, health and transportation down the road.
We are modernizing and upgrading the city website to make it more user friendly for citizens who want to check up on what city government is doing. My goal is to make city government more accessible and more transparent.
We’ve been saving $100,000 a year using city volunteers. We’re launching a major effort --- the Volunteer Initiatives Program --- that will increase those savings and provide more opportunities for service.
Like Shirley Redwine, who has given hundreds of hours volunteering in the Mayor’s office…
Like Cicely Wynne, who,after leaving her city job, walks dogs at BARC…
I am working to form an IT SWAT team to review city technology services. Some of our local business leaders have already volunteered. But I also want to tap the expertise available at our universities. Our young people are far more advanced at technology than you or I. Why not use this knowledge and ease of operation to improve our IT services.
Good government depends on good relationships. We are working closely with our county commissioners, state representatives, state senators and members of Congress to identify available funds at every level of government. I have personally reached out to other elected officials to begin a new era of local and regional cooperation. I have flown to Washington. I’ve gone to Austin. I’ve visited Harris County offices. I will go anywhere and work with anyone to make sure our city is sound and our people are secure.
It’s not only the right thing to do, and the commonsense thing to do, our current economic circumstances demand it and our residents deserve it.
As I said earlier, this recession an opportunity – an opportunity to change the way we do business at city hall. I care deeply about local government because it can truly change people’s lives. Think about what might happen if city government stopped operating. What if you couldn’t turn the tap water on in your sink? No one picked up the garbage? Or, there were no police or firefighters to respond when you called for help?
City government provides the basic services needed to keep society functioning. We have a responsibility to respond. Must it always be the same response? No. In fact, if we are to evolve, improve and grow, we must be willing to change – to find better, more efficient, more transparent ways to get the job done. Houston is a city of imagination. And we need to welcome imagination at City Hall.
When I was sworn in as Mayor, I asked Houstonians for their prayers, their patience and their persistent commitment – a commitment of time and energy to Houston. I, respectfully, renew that request today. Volunteer for the city. Volunteer for your school, or place of worship, or for a nonprofit organization. Check in on a neighbor who is old or sick. Invite a neighbor without a job over for a home-cooked meal. Make your city what you want it to be for your children. To make it easier, we’ve left a calling card in your seat that contains information on volunteering for the city and receiving information through CitizensNet.
With all the hard work we are doing and all the challenges we are confronting, it’s easy to forget that we’re all in this together. We rise or fall together. We prosper or fail together. We solve our problems, or we don’t – together.
Ours is a city built on dreams…powered by hard work and common sense. A city of opportunity and optimism…
We must imagine what we would have things become. And then create them.
So let’s shake hands with our neighbors and turn our eyes to tomorrow and start to build our future – together.
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Mayor Parker and her family
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