'It's gonna be nasty': Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin discusses budget, storm preparation during pandemic

Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin spoke to the Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce on May 19 about the city's budget, storm preparation, crime and other topics. (Screenshot courtesy Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce)
Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin spoke to the Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce on May 19 about the city's budget, storm preparation, crime and other topics. (Screenshot courtesy Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce)

Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin spoke to the Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce on May 19 about the city's budget, storm preparation, crime and other topics. (Screenshot courtesy Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce)

The city of Houston will likely furlough the more than 3,000 employees who are not part of the police, fire or sanitation departments to make up a budget shortfall that could be $200 million or higher, Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin said during a Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce webinar May 19.

"It's gonna be nasty," Martin said. "It's gonna be tough."

The city does not yet know the full extent of the impact to sales tax revenue since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Martin said. Sales tax data for April, the first full month of stay-at-home orders, will not be available until June, but the city is planning for the worst. The loss of sales tax revenue could range from $180 million to $200 million, he said.

“A lot of folks, quite frankly, haven’t been out running the streets," Martin said to explain the drop in sales tax revenue.

Major conventions that usually bring Houston a lot of revenue have been canceled or postponed for the rest of the year, which is another significant negative impact to the budget, Martin said.

Additionally, fiscal year 2020-21 will be the seventh of the last eight years to have a property tax rate decrease. On top of that, property values will likely remain low due to the pandemic. Both these factors will contribute to a greater decrease in revenue, Martin said.

Typically, the Houston Police Department has five or six cadet classes a year, but there will be none next year to help the city save money.

"The other departments are gonna take a significant hit," Martin said. "I'll be furloughed, but I'll still work."

Originally, the idea was to furlough each employee 10 days. That could change based on the city's budget needs, Martin said.

Police, fire and sanitation employees will not be furloughed because they are vital to the city's operations, he said.

“The minute you draw back on those, all heck breaks loose," Martin said.

As a Republican, Martin said he understands fellow Republicans' desire to get the economy back open. Martin's biggest concern is the bars, which will open at 25% capacity May 22. People who go to bars will not socially distance, and that worries Martin, especially after a single infected person infected many South Koreans when he went to a bar, Martin said.

"The thing that scares us are the bars," he said.

Crime, storms and development

Martin talked during the webinar about other topics related to Houston's efforts during the pandemic, including crime, hurricane season and the Houston Spaceport.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo this week criticized bail and criminal justice reform in Houston after a man who had been arrested over 60 times stabbed and killed an elderly woman leaving a Houston Walgreens. Martin said Houston has a very liberal judicial system that lets prisoners out of jail.

"The police are paying dearly for it right now," Martin said.

Martin said Houston and Harris County need to take a closer look at the judicial system as a whole and the judges in the system.

"I have no empathy for someone who has been arrested 62 times and is still walking the streets of Houston. That’s an embarrassment," he said.

Since the pandemic, there has been an increase in domestic violence as some couples cannot adapt to being so close for so long. Additionally, there have been more robberies of commercial properties because many of them are free of employees.

Martin considers June to be the beginning of hurricane season, and he said he is praying the city is not struck by a tropical storm while in the midst of a pandemic.

There is no playbook for how a city might respond to a storm while maintaining social distance and being cognizant of a global pandemic. However, the city is working on disaster drills to simulate responding to a hurricane emergency during COVID-19, Martin said.

Additionally, Martin said he wants development to consider potential drainage effects.

El Dorado Boulevard is being widened in Clear Lake, and Martin met recently with Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia to discuss the project. Officials are taking precautions to include detention in the project so the nearby Horsepen Bayou and surrounding homes are not flooded during storms due to the widened road, Martin said.

Likewise, the city is taking precautions when developing Phase 1 of the Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport. A 105-acre detention pond was created to hold back water during storms that will run off the developed property, Martin said.

Martin said Houston is the only city in the United States that has been awarded two five-star airports: Bush Intercontinental and Hobby.

"We want [the Houston] Spaceport to be the next five-star [airport]," he said.

The project remains on schedule with Phase 1 set for completion later this year.

Mayor Sylvester Turner reached out recently to SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who last week expressed frustration with California not allowing him to reopen his Tesla factory. Turner hoped he could convince Musk to check out Houston's aerospace industry and potentially relocate to the city, Martin said.
By Jake Magee

Editor, Bay Area & Pearland/Friendswood

Jake 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. Today, he covers everything from aerospace to transportation to flood mitigation.