I am guessing that if you asked the average Houstonian how they would feel about increasing the number of City employees by 625 positions while cutting back on the number of police officers, almost no one would agree. Yet, the budget proposal Mayor Sylvester Turner has sent to Council proposes to do precisely that.
The budget includes a section called the Citywide Personnel Summary. It shows the actual number of employees at the end of the last fiscal year (June 30, 2019), what the estimated number will likely be at the end of the current fiscal year (June 30, 2020), and the planned number of employees of next year (FY2020-21).
As you can see, the City increased its headcount last year by 171 employees, and now plans to add 625 more employees in the coming year. That is a 3% increase in one year, a year when the City’s population was, at best, flat.
The budget reduces the number of police officers by 28 positions (5,268 vs 5,240). However, the actual number will fall by much more because the budget also cuts all five police cadet classes next year. In an average year, HPD loses 200-250 officers per year to retirement. With no incoming cadets to backfill those retirements, we will more likely be back down to about 5,000 officers by the end of the year.1 This comes at a time that violent crime has been on the rise for the last two years and has recently seen even a larger surge.
The increases are spread across many departments. Public works has the largest increase at 155 positions. The Houston Airport System is planning to add 73 positions, which seems particularly ill-advised considering the current state of the airline industry. There are 42 positions being added to the Building Permitting section, which sorely needs to add some help.
Reducing staff is something no one ever wants to do. But hard times call for difficult decisions. Companies all over the Houston region have been forced to cut back their workforces. The public sector should not be exempt from making those hard choices as well. If a pandemic, collapse in the energy industry and being forced to drain the rainy day fund on the eve of hurricane season does not prompt the City to reduce its workforce, whatever would?
1 The budget does call for 69 new civilian positions to be added to HPD next year. For many years, the City has been reducing HPD’s civilian workforce and taking officers off the street to perform mostly administrative tasks. A reversal of that trend would be a welcome development. According to my sources, Turner is hoping that Congress will allow cities to use the COVID relief money on public safety and then use some of that money to reinstate the cadet classes for next year.