Is Houston broke? Mayor John Whitmire to announce the city’s budget proposal, including taxes, fees and cuts

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) —After painting a dire financial picture, Houston Mayor John Whitmire will roll out his first proposed budget.

Budget proposal to be announced

Whitmire didn’t mince words about the city’s finances earlier this year.

“We’re broke,” Whitmire said in March.

On Tuesday, he’ll be looking to change this. Whitmire will unveil his first budget proposal.

It’s a plan that budget committee vice chair Mario Castillo wants to see.

“It’s going to be an interesting few weeks as we go through those numbers and go through those details and come together around next year’s budget,” Castillo said.

What’s at stake?

The city faces a deficit that could be as high as nearly $300 million. Castillo has yet to see Whitmire’s proposal.

However, he believes there won’t be a trash fee this year.

“When you do something like that, there’s going to be time to explore how you do that properly if that’s the case and what that dollar amount would be and how do you handle people who are on a fixed income and senior citizens,” Castillo explained.

He believes Whitmire could look to increase property taxes.

“I’d be interested to see if they’re a part of this,” Castillo said.

Council members have also explored the idea of increasing fees, including extending the parking meter times downtown.

Whitmire asked some city departments to decrease their budgets by 5%. On Monday, Eyewitness News asked them what that could mean.

The departments pointed ABC13 to the mayor’s spokesperson, who sent the following statement:

“The request to identify 5% was a tool and a starting point for department directors to review staffing, savings, and efficiencies. The mayor recognizes they are not all the same, and some departments, including Solid Waste and Parks, are understaffed and cannot afford to cut personnel and continue to provide efficient and timely services to the public. The mayor will make additional comments tomorrow at the news conference.”

Houston Fire Department could be greatly impacted

One department that could see a large increase is the fire department. The mayor struck a contract deal earlier this year to give raises and back pay.

The city attorney said the plan is to use a loan and pay it back over time. He said it could cost taxpayers more than $1 billion over several years.

In addition to back pay, the agreement permanently makes the temporary 18 pay increases awarded to firefighters three years ago and gives them a 10% raise in the new budget.

Castillo said council members are still waiting for specifics on how the city will afford the plan.

“The urgency around seeing the documents is high,” Castillo explained. “The sooner we can dig through those details, the better we will have an understanding of what this agreement actually means.”

Drainage fees almost made the budget worse

Last month, the city lost a court case regarding drainage fee use. The city was brought to court over how it’s using a drainage fee, with engineers arguing that the city isn’t spending the money the way voters intended.

According to court documents, the plaintiffs, James Robert Jones and Allen Watson, argued that the city council hadn’t allocated its drainage fund according to the city charter, claiming that the mayor and councilmembers underfunded that budget.

In 2010, voters approved the use of the fee on flood mitigation, drainage, and similar projects.

However, 13 Investigates found that just a small portion of tax revenues were spent on streets and drainage projects. If the city had to change the use of the fee, it could eat up millions in the proposed budget.

RELATED: Court sides with homeowners who claimed ‘ReBuild Houston’ isn’t rebuilding Houston

Despite a court ruling, it doesn’t appear the budget will be impacted because the city is appealing the ruling.

On Monday, the city attorney told ABC13 the legal process is expected to last past the start of the fiscal year.

One of the engineers, Bob Jones, who brought forward the lawsuit, sent ABC13 the following statement about the upcoming budget:

“We’ve been in the legal process for the last 4 1/2 years. We expected the City of Houston to accept the Fourteenth Court of Appeals Judgment and start working to correct its improper diversions to meet the expectations of the Houstonians who voted to approve the program in 2018. Houstonians want their streets and drainage fixed. We’ll have to wait for the courts to act on Houston’s delaying tactics.”

How you can weigh in on the process

The city council will vote on a budget by the end of next month. It’ll take effect on July 1.

Before it does, it wants to hear from Houstonians. Four budget town halls will take place across the city, with the first being Thursday.

“If we know that communities are really interested in or want to see a particular thing continue, that helps us make those decisions,” Castillo explained.

There’s also a survey where neighbors can voice their opinion.

For updates on this story, follow Nick Natario on Facebook, X and Instagram.

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