www.houstontx.gov > Mayor's Office > Speeches > 2007 State of the City


2007 State of the City Speech (as written, not delivered) - Jan. 22, 2007

Mayor Bill White

Houston just keeps moving forward.

Houston is a safer city today than it was a year ago. The rate of violent crime during the three years of my Administration has declined from the preceding three years. But, as I noted at the beginning of my last state of the city address, by early last year we had seen crime accelerate in some hotspots, especially in certain areas with a high concentration of apartment complexes. Through hard work of the HPD and cooperation of citizens from all backgrounds, Houston has become steadily safer throughout the year.

Thirteen months ago Chief Hurtt and I began the NETT program targeting hotspots. Eight police districts-about a third of the total districts-accounted for most of our violent crimes in December 2005. Last month, December 2006, we had 196 fewer violent crimes and 502 fewer overall crimes. Violent crimes dropped in 7 out of the 8 districts with the highest crime a year ago. And the rate of violent crime dropped by almost 10% from December a year ago compared to last month.

For the full year, citywide the violent crime rate went down 5.3% and non-violent crime even more.

These dramatic reductions in crime have come at a cost. Our police budget grew by $114 million over three years. We have the most professional and productive police department in the nation, as seen by an increase of almost 20% in arrests for serious crimes last year.

To sustain our momentum of making our city safer, both the City and Harris County need prompt action by the state of Texas on sixty million dollars, which has been publicly committed to us in federal funding, administered through Austin. Prompt processing of this request for funds, which have been previously earmarked and received in Austin, should be the highest priority of the business community and all of our neighborhood and citizens groups.

Economic development should continue to be a top priority, offering folks the opportunity for the independence and dignity of work in careers with a future. We can accomplish this without widespread use of tax abatements for newcomers, which discriminate against existing businesses. We know that the real engines of economic growth include an affordable cost of living, an improving quality of life, an open and friendly social and regulatory environment for newcomers, and a commitment to excellence in educational institutions open to all.

During the last several years Houston has enjoyed the highest percentage job growth of any major city in our country. We have removed barriers to growth by increasing our annual investment in neighborhood drainage from fifteen million dollars a year to a quarter of a billion dollars over five years, and increasing the pace of rehabilitation of the water and sewer system. We have developed more parks and libraries and are keeping them open longer. And this year we will increase our attractiveness by enacting a plan to remove huge numbers of unsightly billboards, and providing additional incentives for historic preservation.

Houston's families, our workforce, now have more opportunities for home ownership in previously neglected neighborhoods close to employment centers, through the undertaking we call Houston Hope. And the Apartments to Standard program will provide incentives for rehabilitating affordable apartments. These actions also make all neighborhoods safer by removing magnets for crime.

We have steadily implemented the 42-point mobility plan on which I was originally elected. This plan fulfills the goals of the TRIP 2000 report, organized in large part through the Greater Houston Partnership, which recognized that we could no longer simply build our way out of traffic congestion in a growing, more densely populated urban area. You may remember our 2004 successes with synchronization of thousands of traffic signals and expedited street construction. In 2005 we implemented Safe Clear, reducing freeway congestion and rubbernecking. In 2006, with the cooperation of over 100 employers, we encouraged and implemented the flexible workplace program in major employment centers, with measured and significant reductions in commuting time. And by this summer we will deploy a uniformed, trained new city workforce, the Mobility Response Team, who will be dispatched each morning to the most serious bottlenecks.

You know that both our potential for economic growth and our promise of opportunity depend on improving student performance and making affordable health insurance more accessible. While we understand that both the federal and state governments have some principal responsibilities for these chronic issues, we simply cannot wait for other levels of government to blunt these threats to our families and to our future. This year I will challenge private donors and public and private education providers to help Houston create summer scholarships targeted to give opportunity to students at risk who experience significant drops in reading and math proficiency during the summer vacation. And we will level the playing field for those firms offering health benefits with a "pay or play" standard for those with whom we contract, with a modest contribution by those firms we do business with who do not provide group health insurance. We will ask other large public and private organizations with contracting responsibilities to join, to discourage those who simply shift cost to the taxpayers of the Hospital District, and provide some funds to defray the cost of a more affordable group health insurance plan for those now uninsured. This year we shall take some giant steps to promote more sustainable and affordable growth by using our resources more efficiently, and eliminating waste.

For 2007 let's put Houston on the path to national leadership in energy efficiency. We began this process by cutting the City's energy consumption, and tested whether we could cut electrical power usage when we offered to retrofit all houses in a larger, older neighborhood. Most residents in that neighborhood, Pleasantville, decided to participate in the program and enjoyed a 20% reduction in electricity consumed. The average household experienced a $335 drop in energy bills during the summer and fall.

Let's now extend this program to neighborhoods accounting for 10% of all owner-occupied houses in our city within 5 years, using various funding streams we have identified. At the expected rate of voluntary participation, we can cut energy costs for over 30,000 households, and revitalize older neighborhoods.

Let's set and achieve a goal of cutting per capita residential power consumption by 5% in 5 years, regardless of our region's growth in income.

In three years we should eliminate all growth in commercial power consumption-the power used by most businesses in office or retail space-even if the economy continues to grow. We should do so with education, incentives, and new standards for new construction. And after that we should actually reduce the total electricity consumed by commercial establishments every year, regardless of our growth rate.

We should reform utility regulation to provide our transmission and distribution utility-Centerpoint-strong economic incentives to maintain a reliable power system even if the total demand is shrinking.

These changes in our electricity use through the deployment of technology will make our economic growth more affordable and sustainable. We can increase substantially the accessibility of home ownership for our citizens by reducing the cost of occupancy. Census data shows that Houston and Phoenix are enjoying the nation's most affordable housing costs, and it is not a coincidence that the two of us have led the nation also in percentage job growth and new housing starts. We can eliminate both the cost and emissions of new coal-fired electrical plants, which will become even more costly when we inevitably limit emissions of carbon dioxide to reduce the risks of global warming.

And our energy efficiency goals should not end with power consumption. In five years we should cut Houston's consumption of motor fuels by 5%, regardless of total miles traveled. Our state should embrace the auto mileage standards adopted by the nation's other two largest states, which would allow even more dramatic reductions in fuel consumption and related costs in a decade. These actions will strengthen our economy for the long run, by increasing income available to consumers, after energy costs; lowering transportation costs borne by business; and easing our compliance with Clean Air standards, which otherwise could threaten all of federal transportation funding.

We should work with the Texas Department of Transportation and our legislative delegation to provide a stable and adequate source of funding to allow for the needed maintenance and investment in transportation. Funding historically has been directly related to fuel consumed, rather than to use or needed capacity. That scheme of funding no longer makes sense.

Finally, this year we should both establish and fund a five-year plan to sharply reduce the amount of solid waste-garbage-that we send to waste disposal sites. Our progress this year in increasing curbside recycling must continue and accelerate. And we should find alternatives to the expensive and wasteful practice of disposing of massive volumes of branches, leaves, weeds and grass through the use of scarce waste disposal sites.

Investing in conservation and waste reduction can result in long run competitive advantages. If you doubt it, just take the case of Wal-Mart, which employs well over a million people. That firm's senior management has described to me its own goals: 20% reduction in power consumed and solid waste generated at each store in 5 years, and a 50% improvement in consumption of motor fuels in the same time period. Wal-Mart and others understand that reducing power consumption and waste generated not only benefits the community but also its operating margins.

We understand that reaching these goals in a market-oriented fashion requires broad and detailed plans, and specific, realistic, and ambitious metrics and incentives. We'll need your participation, your ideas, your help.

In September we shall host a regional summit of citizens and working groups to pull together and finalize all plans developed between now and then. But we will not wait to continue the giant strides that City government has made to improve energy efficiency of both our own operators and the residential initiatives begun last year in Pleasantville and in the standards we have set for private affordable housing built with public grants. We need your help.

It is fit that the topic of more sustainable energy use takes center stage on our region's and nation's agenda shortly after the passing of former President Ford. As a young energy expert, I sat on Capitol Hill when he delivered his State of the Union Address in 1975. He attempted to rally the nation to put special interest and ideology aside, and improve our economy and national security by sharp reduction in energy consumption and more diversified energy supply.

That year, 32 years ago, I worked as part of a small, bipartisan group who worked within Congress and the Administration to pass sweeping energy legislation that created new standards for electrical appliances; a strategic petroleum reserve to discourage embargoes; greater incentives for exploration for domestic oil and gas; and auto fuel economy standards which in the next decade sharply reduced the consumption of automotive fuels.

Since then, as memories of the oil embargo and shortages of natural gas faded, various federal administrations of both parties have undertaken energy initiatives, as will President Bush in his State of the Union address tomorrow. Each of our Presidents understood that better energy efficiency could protect struggling consumers; improve American competitiveness; strengthen the dollar; and insulate the American economy from shocks imposed by external events such as instability in the oil-exporting countries or hurricanes or sharply higher production costs for raw materials or refined products.

Too often energy conservation goals have been frustrated by lagging public interest or special interests that resisted change. But we can overcome that with leadership and civic commitment.

So let's make Houston the leader in showing the rest of the country how we can become more energy efficient. Houston has been a long-time leader in the world's energy supply. Increasingly our companies are leaders in renewable forms of energy as well as hydrocarbons. Today I call on a wide range of energy businesses to form a local regional coalition who can help the public and business leadership reduce energy consumption even as our economy grows. Our valuable refining and petrochemical businesses have an enormous stake in better fuel economy in the transportation sector, so that so much of the load of reducing emissions does not fall on industry. Those who explore and transport and process domestic natural gas have a tremendous incentive to improve the market through some kind of ceiling on carbon emissions, which allows the cleaner premium nature of natural gas to be fully recognized by the market. Thoughtful leaders of integrated energy companies will understand that developing core competence in technologies increasing the productivity of both consumption and supply, as GE has done, would provide an opportunity for corporate growth even as higher prices and resource scarcity stabilize or decrease the volumes sold of energy and power from traditional sources.

Now, I know there will be skeptics who understand the need to make more efficient use of our resources but who doubt we can obtain these goals. To those skeptics I want to remind you of what all has been accomplished in the last three years in Houston, overcoming barriers that frustrated progress for decades. Today Houston acts when others talk. Consider what we've done.

  • They told us governments, like many older corporations, could not reform pensions to cut unfunded future liabilities. We tackled the problem with a referendum, and became the first state or local government to both cut future benefits and bolster the assets, cutting unfunded liabilities by over a billion dollars and making future pensions both more affordable and more secure.
  • They told us we couldn't do anything to reduce freeway congestion or improve driver safety because wrecks, towing chaos, and rubbernecking were simply a way of life. But with Safe Clear we decreased freeway crashes by almost 18%-over 2,500 a year-from the levels, which existed before the program.
  • They told us pollution was part of economic progress, even though it hurt our ability to attract new employees and firms. So we told emitters of the most hazardous pollutant-butadiene-that they must cut emissions or we would sue to shut them down. New management made the needed changes, and butadiene levels have been cut by 58% in just two years according to the continuous, real time monitors.
  • They told us the City's typical public-sector personnel practices would not allow us to increase employee productivity, by rewarding performance and eliminating unneeded jobs or poor performers. But we did so with annual performance evaluations, with consequences for all municipal employees.
  • They told us it was too late to create a giant park downtown, that the cost of land and operations would be prohibitive. But with the leadership of the Park Conservancy we shall open Discovery Green next door in 14 months, a $90 million project funded mostly with private contributions.
  • They told us we could not revitalize our most neglected neighborhoods, close to employment centers, with undersized infrastructure, and that attempts to do so would displace existing residents. But for three years we have foreclosed on 2,500 vacant lots and have transferred title to over 900 so far, where new owner-occupied housing for our workforce is being built at an accelerating rate.
  • They told us we couldn't improve public health by opening more neighborhood primary care clinics and reducing exposure to second-hand smoke. The special interests, they said, had frustrated those initiatives for decades. Now Houston has one of the 2 or 3 most comprehensive smoke-free ordinances, and the number of neighborhood non-profit clinics with city support has gone from 0 to 5 in three years.
  • They explained that a divisive debate over rapid transit spanning decades in this City had created a political gridlock preventing new rail lines with federal funding. But, with the support of a unified U.S. House and Senate delegation, METRO will commence construction this year of three new rail lines and a new intermodal transit center, which will allow our city to grow with reduced risk of traffic gridlock.
  • They told us high dropout rates could not be cut. But last year, with our school partners, our program Expectation Graduation brought back over 1,300 dropouts and over 95% finished the school year.
  • They told us it would be too expensive for Houston to attract someone to build a citywide network allowing wireless internet access, since we are far bigger geographically than all other cities that have begun this process combined . But we expect to recommend a vendor this month, approve a contract in February, and have a built out network financed by private investment in 24 months.
  • They told us it would be impossible to handle an influx of over 200,000 of our neighborhoods by putting shelter over their heads, making room for students, and requiring that the able-bodied find jobs here or wherever else they could get on with their lives. Well, I don't need to tell you how hundreds of thousands of Houstonians responded, with unified public and faith-based leadership. At various times we housed most Louisiana evacuees at 5% of the total federal cost that FEMA spent for trailers housing fewer.
  • Finally, voices on the right and left told us that we had to choose between tax discipline and the need for more services. By treating citizens as consumers and running city government on a businesslike basis, we have significantly expanded city services, reduced delays, and lowered our property tax rates and increased the senior exemption by almost 50%. And, in contrast to other levels of government, we have done so without increasing city debt as a share of our citizens' incomes.

So don't let anyone tell Houston that we cannot use the brains and talent in this community to cut the link between growth and energy use. We can and we must.

Later this year I will ask you and other citizens to renew my contract to work for you, and serve a final term. If you do so, and with my wife Andrea's continuing help, this Address shall serve as a mid-point in my public service as Mayor.

I want to thank all members of this great Houston team, beginning with a great Controller and City Council, with diverse views, who work hard to get things done. Our colleagues at Harris County work as our indispensable partners, not rivals. And I'm particularly thankful for over 21,000 City employees, who make a real difference. The tragic death of a Public Works employee, Jerry Hines, last week should remind us all of everyday heroes. He was hit by a motorist while doing his job, making our streets safer.

I've shared with you some accomplishments and work in progress, but I personally also want to stop and think about the spirit, the heart of Houston, which makes this a special place in a troubled world.

On a clear, cool day of my first inauguration three years ago, I challenged Houstonians to participate more in non-profit organizations, and to make an extra effort to reach out to folks from backgrounds that differed from their own. Building a community out of so many diverse newcomers takes real work. And many Houstonians took me up on this challenge.

We need to renew this commitment.

We needn't wait for the next hurricane to contribute our time, our talents, and treasures. Consider the new push by the Greater Houston Partnership, with the able leadership of John Hofmeister, Joel Smith, and Jeff Moseley to improve utilization of minority-owned professional and services firms. Please ask them how you can help. Or consider joining hundreds of citizens who are building bridges between neighbors of varying faith traditions to move our city on higher ground. On January 30, Rice University's Center for Religious Tolerance and Interfaith Ministries have organized over 25 dinners in private homes, with over 200 volunteer participants from diverse religious traditions. Trained facilitators will lead them in discussing openly, with strangers, those values they hold most dear. We hope this will be one of several similar, even larger evenings with that format. To participate, and encourage your friends, neighbors, and employees to do so, go to www.amazingfaithshouston.org.

The State of Houston, America's growing city of opportunity, is good. More importantly, with your help, it will get much better.