What have I missed at City Hall?

I wrote at length about the brouhaha over Firefighter pensions yesterday, and it was certainly an important issue, but was definitely not the only thing that went on at City Hall. As many will probably already know, a local committee held a contentious hearing on the entrance of ridesharing software/transportation companies Lyft and Uber into the marketplace. Additionally, a protest was held immediately outside the building in opposition to the planned “One bin for All” recycling program. Finally, late last night, the Houston Chronicle put out a damning report on the state of the City’s finances, specifically regarding the long-term pension obligations the city faces.

First things first, the Uber issue. Dug Begley, one of the more talented writers at the Houston Chronicle, has the full story on this hearing, including many of the reactions and initial implications. At its core, the issue revolves around whether or not to change the many regulations facing the transportation industry. Countless taxi drivers flooded the public session of the pertinent committee hearing to voice their opposition. I wrote a fairly lengthy piece a few weeks ago on this subject, basically opposed to changing the rules for Uber. My position has only calcified in recent days as Uber has openly thumbed its nose at the City and ignored the rules set in place. Begley’s piece even notes that Uber has already been busted charging fees to customers, something they unequivocally promised not to do until the regulatory controversy was worked out.

The Houston Chronicle also has an editorial on this subject.  My favorite part is where they insist those opposed to Uber must either be bribed by the taxi lobby or some sort of reactionary Luddite without even bothering to explain what Uber is and what it does.

Call me old fashioned, but I don’t care for being compelled into action under duress. No, those are not my words, they are the words of Christopher Newport, the Chief of Staff of the city’s regulatory department. Long story short, the committee took no major action on the topic. This means the status quo will continue, that is Uber & Lyft operating without charging fees. Not sure how long that will last.

In other news, KUHF reports on a protest that took place yesterday outside of City Hall. Environmentalists galore were all quick to condemn the recent “One Bin for All” plan to increase recycling participation. The protesters argued that the recycling proposal –wherein all consumers would simply throw everything in the garbage to later be sorted out at plants– would inadvertently be harmful because it would contaminate otherwise reusable materials and could actually lead to increased incineration.

In response to these concerns, a local bureaucrat, Don Pagel, confronted protesters with explanations from the program. While it is true that some recyclable material may be contaminated, this would be more than offset by the increase in recycling participation.

I have never been the biggest fan of One Bin for All, as anything more than a last resort measure. Implementing this plan will be significantly more expensive than just providing curbside recycling to everyone in the City. That being said, most studies do point to much higher recycling participation under the One Bin for All system.

Finally, the Houston Chronicle also reports on the continuing firefighter pension crisis at City Hall. An analysis commissioned by Councilmember Stephen Costello, the Chairman of the Budget Committee, painted a bleak picture for the future of the City’s finances.

Currently, Houston is in about $3B hole because of the pension liabilities, notably Firefighters, Police and Municipal Employees. In another ten years, the report predicted the hole would grow to about $5B. Today, the proportion of the payroll going to pension funds exceeds 1/4th, and the 1o-year-out projection predicted that number then exceeding 1/3rd. The report, however, has strong words in support of ending automatic cost-of-living adjustments for the pensions.

It argues therein that such adjustments would reduce the shortfall by over 50% and mitigate the need contribution to the pension system to nearly sustainable levels. Mayor Parker has previously been open to reducing the cost of living adjustments, but it will be sure to be a very painful and long fight.

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