Houston may furlough all employees except police, fire to help make up $200 million budget shortfall, mayor pro tem says

Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin, who also chairs the city's budget and fiscal affairs committee, said the city will likely furlough all employees who are not in the police or fire departments to make up an expected $200 million budget shortfall.

At a May 4 meeting with Bay Area Houston Transportation Partnership, Martin spoke about how the city is adjusting to the coronavirus pandemic, including with its budget, which has a projected shortfall of about $200 million. With 85% of the city's budget going to payroll for over 20,000 employees, there is no way to reduce millions in spending without furloughs, Martin said.

Unlike the federal government, Houston cannot print money to make up a shortfall, he said. Legally, the city has to pass a balanced budget, Martin said.

Martin's chief of staff, Jessica Beemer, confirmed Martin's comments.

"The city is in a very tough spot right now," she said.

According to previous Community Impact Newspaper reports, Houston could lose $100 million in tax revenue in its upcoming fiscal year and, in a worst-case scenario, see a budget shortfall of $294 million.

To help make up the deficit, the city is considering a $1 annual garbage bin fee, Martin said.

Houston City Controller Chris Brown said that even if all non-public safety employees were furloughed for two days per month for an entire year, the city would save about $13 million to $15 million.

"In a nutshell, furloughs are not going to be enough to bridge the gap," he said.

Furloughs were a part of a broader strategy after the Great Recession, Brown said, beginning with a hiring freeze, elimination of vacant positions, budget reductions across all departments, deferment of police and fire cadet classes, department restructuring and eventually layoffs, if necessary.

Despite the grim outlook, Brown said the city may soon find a way to use the $404 million in CARES Act funding it received April 29 to offset some payroll expenses although information from federal officials about what the funding can be authorized is still evolving.

Martin offered optimism, noting Houston has "flattened the curve" to the point where intensive care units are well below 50% occupancy.

City officials talk daily with local hospitals, which have indicated they have started to do elective surgeries again, getting health care professionals back to work, Martin said.

"We think that curve has been flattened as of April 27," he said. "We think we’re in pretty good shape.”

Other coronavirus effects

Martin spoke during the meeting about how COVID-19 is affecting the city in other ways.

So far, 3,908 residents have contracted the coronavirus, but there have been 69 deaths, which Martin called a "minor miracle." It is because Houston acted quickly and made restaurants to-go only as early as March 17 that the number of deaths is not higher, Martin said.

Those numbers do not include Harris County, which has seen 2,930 cases and 64 deaths, or a mortality rate of 2.18%.

In Galveston County, which did not close restaurants until several days after Houston did, has seen 28 deaths of its 636 cases. That is a 4.04% mortality rate compared to Houston's 1.77%. Martin said it is because of Galveston County's "inactions" that it could be seeing a higher mortality rate.

Zach Davidson, communications director for Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, said Galveston County has seen several outbreaks among nursing homes and senior living facilities, potentially leading to a higher mortality rate.

Of the 69 who died, only two did not have underlying conditions, such as asthma, heart problems or cancer. Those with such conditions need to be cautious, as do the elderly, Martin said.

"If you’re over the age of 65, you need to be very careful," he said.

Houston is continuing to ramp up testing even though there has been a decrease in residents who want to be tested. Martin hopes by May 6 the city will announce additional testing sites near Ellington Airport, Beltway 8 and the Clear Lake area, especially near senior-living facilities, he said.

"Starting Wednesday, we’re gonna go into the communities even more," Martin said.

Additionally, at 8 a.m. May 8, Martin's office will host a second free mask distribution at the Freeman Library, 16616 Diana Lane, Houston. During the first distribution, over 1,400 masks had been distributed by 9 a.m., Martin said.

This story was updated at 3:20 p.m. May 4 with input from Galveston County and Houston City Controller Chris Brown.
By Jake Magee
Jake Magee has been a print journalist for several years, covering numerous beats including city government, education, business and more. Starting off at a daily newspaper in southern Wisconsin, Magee covered two small cities before being promoted to covering city government in the heart of newspaper's coverage area. He moved to Houston in mid-2018 to be the editor for and launch the Bay Area edition of Community Impact Newspaper.



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