Houston Voter Guide 2019: City Controller candidates

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Incumbent Chris Brown will be challenged by Orlando Sanchez in the race for Houston City Controller this November. The City Controller monitors city assets as Chief Financial Officer of Houston and serves independently of both City Council and the mayor.

Responses may have been edited for length.

Incumbent: Chris Brown

Website: www.chrisbrownforhouston.com

Occupation/Experience: As City Controller, I have made protecting taxpayer dollars my foremost priority. In my first term, I have worked to be an independent voice for the taxpayer on the city’s most pressing fiscal issues and challenges. Through this work, our office has generated $349 million in savings by refinancing existing city debt and has created more than $10 million in savings via increased efficiencies through our city’s Audit function.

How can the city controller ensure the city maintains a favorable bond rating?
As City Controller, my job is to lead the city into making the financial decisions necessary to preserve the city’s favorable bond ratings. That’s why in my first term I worked to address significant financial challenges like the city’s ballooning unfunded pension liability. Improving the city’s bond ratings will also require the city to address additional financial challenges like the unfunded OPEB liability and eventually achieving a structurally balanced budget. By leading on the big financial issues, the City Controller can play a vital role in building a better financial future for our city and all its residents.

What role can the city controller play in reducing the city’s structural deficit?
As I’ve done in my first term, the City Controller must be a leading voice and advocate on this issue. In order to achieve a structurally balanced budget, the city must end the practice of deferring payments to future fiscal years, avoid selling assets to fill budget holes, explore ways to find new, sustainable revenue streams without placing an additional burden on the taxpayers, and reduce government waste, fraud, and inefficiencies. The city must also curtail the practice of taking large drawdowns on its savings to plug budget holes. As Controller, I’ll continue to advocate for a structurally balanced budget.

How can the city controller improve transparency in city financing?
The City Controller’s Office understands that the taxpayer deserves full insight into the city’s finances. My office is currently in the process of working toward the criteria of the Texas Comptroller’s transparency stars program, which recognizes local governments for going above and beyond in transparency efforts. In addition, our office supported an amendment this past budget cycle that would’ve helped fund an online checkbook platform, which would give taxpayers full access to the city’s finances. Although City Council voted against the amendment, my office intends to fully fund, operate, and manage the platform out of our own budget.

Orlando Sanchez

Website: www.orlandosanchez.com

Occupation/Experience: Orlando Sanchez grew up in southwest Houston, graduated from Bellaire HS in 1976, a US Air Force Veteran, and a cum laude graduate of U of H with a degree in Political Science. His career has been in real estate and primarily public service, including a three-term Houston City Council member and then 12 years as Harris County Treasurer. He was the first Latino immigrant elected to a city-wide position in Houston. Among numerous awards and government board positions, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate Task Force on Hispanic Affairs.

How can the city controller ensure the city maintains a favorable bond rating?
The City of Houston is ranked 7th for Moody’s rankings among the largest 10 US cities and is the only top 10 US city that S&P will not rate. I was able to help Harris County maintain highest ratings with all 3 rating agencies; Fitch, Moody’s and S&P… I will fight hard to bring Houston’s spending in line with available revenues. This will involve increasing operating and information to the Administration and Council Members at weekly Council meeting, not currently provided by the incumbent. I will also make significant improvements in the quality of internal audits.

What role can the city controller play in reducing the city’s structural deficit?
1. Fight hard for real pension reform. In spite of claims to the contrary, Houston did NOT solve the enormous imbalance of its pension obligations. In 2018, according to financial statements issued by the incumbent, the City’s annual pension expense was $947.6 million. Yet the City is only able to contribute less than $400 million.
2. Fight hard for reform of Post-Retirement Health Insurance Benefits. The City’s unfunded obligation to retiring employees has grown to over $2 billion.

I worked hard with Harris County Officials to solve these types of problems and will do the same for Houston.

What role can the city controller play in reducing the city’s structural deficit?
1. Publish annual financial statements 90 days after year end, prior to elections. The incumbent waits until the statutory 180 day period, an abysmal record by modern reporting standards, enabling the administration to hide financial results until after the November election cycle.
2. Attend weekly Council meetings to provide real time financial guidance to Council as they made financial decisions.
3. Perform thorough audits of major departments such as the Police Department.
4. Perform audits of the TIRZs and other agencies that receive City property tax revenue.
5. Release audits unencumbered by approval of the Mayor’s office.

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Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered health care and public education in Austin.
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