A few practical ways for the City of Houston to increase revenue, decrease the budget shortfall, and make everyone’s lives a whole lot easier by adapting to 15-year-old technology.
By Omar Afra
Illustration by Tim Dorsey
Despite Houston’s relative resilience to the recession and actual job growth, our municipal government is pretty much up shit’s creek when it comes to fiscal responsibility. With an accumulated deficit of 2.5 billion dollars and an annual budget deficit of 130 million dollars, it is critical that the city both finds efficiencies and raises revenue.
Mayor Parker has launched a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’-type website, www.houstonbudgetbalancer.com, that allows users to give and take from different city expenditures and come up with their own models in order to balance the budget. It is a cutesy site yet only offers one field to increase revenue: raise the property tax rate. Obviously, this is not a popular option. Aren’t there creative solutions that rely on technology and efficiency, which get more loot into the city budget? Me thinks so. It is high time that Houston follows the example of other cities and adapts to available technologies, which could increase revenue, decrease administrative costs, and make Houstonians lives a little bit easier.
Buck the police
Let’s face it: A primary function of the Houston Police Department is to raise money for city government. Despite the burdensome tasks of keeping our city safe from criminals, enforcing our laws, and tazing members of Two Gallants, the lion’s share of HPD’s workload consists of writing tickets and citations. In 2011, more than 18 million dollars were collected in moving violations alone. But a lot more revenue is missing because of the monumental pain in the ass it is to go to court and pay your fine. Imagine the thousands of people who do not pay their traffic tickets because they refuse to stand in line for 2 hours for a 30 second transaction. Now imagine this: You get pulled over and get a speeding violation. Instead of taking the day off of work, losing the money you would make at your job, standing in line after line, sitting through hours in a courtroom where reading is against the rules, and having a generally shit day as a result of inefficiencies in city government, you have the option to pay the officer directly. Surely it takes less time for an officer to swipe your card than to issue the ticket and schedule a court date. Also, every year thousands of people who are pulled over go to jail for unpaid fines for as little as 80 bux. Rather than have people miss work, be away from their families, and overload our city jails, why not give them the option to pay these fines right then and there? This could be as simple as a dongle on a smart phone or a mobile credit card processor. Let’s own up to fact that much of the job of local law enforcement is to raise money on behalf of the city and actually give them the tools to do so.
First of the month
The largest source of revenue for the city by far is property tax. The city’s share of property tax paid by home and landowners makes up a whopping 43.64% of our entire budget. Problem is that this tax is collected yearly. What do they say; a bird in the hand is worth its weight in birds of the same feather? Whatever it is, cash flow is critical when you have the huge and rapidly expanding public safety needs of our municipal government. Now, most folks pay their property taxes every month to their mortgage company who then puts them in escrow and makes money off of the interest. Why not let the city make that loot and invest it in our infrastructure? Why not create an online payment center where taxpayers can automate these payments directly to the city as opposed to some bank in Delaware? The city would get more cash flow and would make money on the interest. Though the amount made per account is nominal, the cumulative total of such a high volume of accounts would be well worth it. Added bonus: you would have less people defaulting when there are periodic, smaller payments due rather then this massive payment in January. Why shouldn’t our city get the dividends on the money we pay to improve our city? Seems like a no-brainer. Sure, it will take some homework on the part of accounting, IT, etc., but will be totally fucking worth it.
Paid in full
Back to the absurdly long and frustrating lines at the city courthouse. Why can’t this be as easy as an electronic check-in at the airport? Why do all payments need to be made in cash? Often times, cash is the biggest pain in the butt; not to mention the fact that you can only get a few hundred bucks out of an ATM after bank hours yet fines might well exceed 1,000 dollars. The city needs a legion of kiosks where you can pay via credit card, debit, or even PayPal. Fuck it; put these kiosks in corner store parking lots like Red Box! If you increase the availability to make payments, then more people will pay.
Park it like it’s hot
According to Christopher Newport of Houston’s Administration & Regulatory Affairs Department, adding an online payment option has dramatically shortened the pay cycle for parking violations. That news is a good thing because there is no doubt that Houston needed the added convenience since parking violations are handed out in this city like nothing. Problem is we live in a city with no zoning yet high parking standards for businesses when determining occupancy. So a boiler plate problem has arisen throughout the city: Popular restaurant, bar, or retail store which is incidentally placed in residential areas as a result of no zoning is bringing a large influx of customers to its area who in turn park on public streets once the respective business’s parking lot is full. This happens on a regular basis, neighbors complain about traffic and trash, and the utterly predictable tug of war ensues. Often times the neighbors seek permit only street parking if they can galvanize the support. More often than not, the conflict persists and detente is ever found. Neighbors say, “Control how your customers park, drive, and handle their trash,” whereas businesses say, “I can’t control these people and you can’t prove that they are my customers.” This is a standard-issue problem throughout the city. How about this: install those new-fangled solar-powered parking meters on these problem streets for evening businesses, split the revenue between the city and the neighborhood and have the latter’s share go towards cleaning and beautification. As far as I can see it, people don’t mind paying to park when it is reasonable when they commute to go to eat dinner, see a show, or have drinks. The city has tussled with this issue for some time and no creative solutions have been offered.
Bring the noise
We have beat this issue to death, but the city’s new sound ordinance is not based on objective, verifiable criteria but rather an officer’s arbitrary notion of what is too loud. Their argument is that bass, which is the root of many complaints, cannot be measured with a decibel meter. This is correct but you can measure it with a low frequency meter. But these meters are cost prohibitive so says the city, so they have thrown the notion of scientific standard for one that is completely ambiguous. Why not download the free iPhone app? Heck, while you are at it, use said iPhone to process credit card payments for traffic violations the same as every damn touring band does with their merch. Having a set, verifiable threshold will allow bands and venues to follow a firm guideline and allow neighbors to know when either an actual violation has occurred or when to properly insulate their home to help mitigate the sound inside. Yes, there is some responsibility on their part, too.