Houston police, fire departments propose slight budget increases for 2020-21 amid coronavirus downturn

With staffing taking up the vast majority of public safety budgets, staffing may have to be one area to cut costs, officials said. (Anya Gallant/Community Impact Newspaper)
With staffing taking up the vast majority of public safety budgets, staffing may have to be one area to cut costs, officials said. (Anya Gallant/Community Impact Newspaper)

With staffing taking up the vast majority of public safety budgets, staffing may have to be one area to cut costs, officials said. (Anya Gallant/Community Impact Newspaper)

In the first round of Houston’s budget workshops for fiscal year 2020-21, both Houston fire and police chiefs proposed slight increases to department budgets despite an oncoming economic downturn.

“This was put together prior to COVID-19, and we know there are going to be tough times ahead,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said.

As department heads propose budgets, additional changes to each will be made before the mayor proposes a final budget for City Council consideration in June.

The police department recommended a 3.6% percent increase from the fiscal year 2019-20 approved current budget for a total $944 million FY 2020-21 budget. Of that, about half of the increase is allocated for personnel pay raises.

Meanwhile the fire department anticipates at 1.9% percent increase for a total proposed $517 million budget.

The April 7 presentations show each department spending more than 88%-92% of their budgets on personnel salary and benefits. Another 3%-4% in each department is spent on restricted accounts, which cannot be altered, for expenses such as fuel, electricity and information technology. This leaves behind about 9% for the fire department and 4% for the police department to put toward other bills, medical supplies and gear.

“I’m trying to just get back up to par on a lot of these things—training, technology and administrative support,” Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said. “My focus right now is to make sure I’m not blowing the basics.”

In the police department, overtime costs drove expenditures beyond the adopted FY 2019-20 budget. After Tropical Storm Imelda and in response to anticipated crime waves, the mayor approved a total of $3.2 million in overtime pay. Adding additional patrol officers would not alleviate this budget constraint, Acevedo said, because new officers would require additional benefit payments.

Peña acknowledged that ongoing disputes over the resolution of Proposition B-mandated pay raises hangs over the fire department as well. The proposed budget did not account for potential pay raises.

Acevedo said having overlapping law enforcement jurisdictions in the Greater Houston area including the Houston Police Department, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the Harris County constables creates inefficiencies in the region as a whole. In an effort to address this, in January 2019, Houston and Harris County opened a joint inmate processing center.

Acevedo said, however, it is too soon to tell if the consolidation has had considerable cost-saving effects. For now, he said, most cuts will need to come from personnel.

“If we have to cut, it’s going to be more than likely people,” Acevedo said.

This year’s budget process was the first that Houston department heads underwent a zero-based budget approach, which was written into last year’s budget as a requirement for all FY 2020-21 proposals. Both Peña and Acevedo said the process did not yield significant cost-saving results.

“The end result was the same,” said Rhonda Smith, HPD’s chief financial officer. “We got back to the same result. Everybody did have an input, so it was good in the beginning, but the process is very tedious and very long. ... We’re presenting the same budget we probably would’ve presented.”

The city's budget workshops resume April 9 and are scheduled through May 14.
By Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered public health, education and features for several Austin-area publications. A Boston native, she is a former student athlete and alumna of The University of Texas at Austin.


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