Texas Campaign for the Environment: News
Houston Chronicle, June 13, 2012 By Chris Moran
"Pole tax," longer terms, plastic bag ban proposed in city
Houston City Council members on Wednesday proposed a fee on strip clubs to fund speedier testing of a backlog of rape evidence, extension of their terms from two years to four, and phasing out the use of plastic bags in grocery stores.
Amendments to the mayor's proposed $4 billion budget plan for the year that starts July 1 included: default on the city's $200 million-a-year pension obligations; hand over the city's $370 million annual ambulance service to a private company; and consider tempering the mayor's power by studying the possibility of hiring a city manager.
Council members proposed 105 amendments at the annual meeting, at which the mayor's budget first appears on the agenda for a possible vote and is then festooned with pet projects, reforms, fees and money transfers. A vote was delayed until next Wednesday while council members digest the proposals. Those that do not receive the mayor's support rarely get the nine-vote majority needed to become law. Parker plans to issue yea or nay positions on the proposals late this week or early next week.
Councilwoman Helena Brown appears to have introduced the package of proposals least likely to become city law. In addition to her pension, ambulance and city manager proposals, Brown's amendments would shut down the city's Housing Department; outsource the Parks Department to the county and private sector; hand over jails and crime investigations to the county sheriff; and consider requiring new police officers and firefighters to live within the city limits. She also proposes a 20-percent decrease in the city's water rate and increasing the property tax exemption for seniors to $80,000.
Fees for rape kit testing
Council members Stephen Costello and Wanda Adams both call for giving $160,000 to the Houston Food Bank to help it enroll more people in SNAP, the federal program formerly known as food stamps.
One of Councilman Mike Sullivan's amendments would eliminate funding for affirmative action monitoring on city contracts. Councilman Larry Green proposes increasing it.
From Councilman Jack Christie came a fill-it-or-kill-it plan that would have Council consider eliminating any position that remains vacant for three months.
First-term Councilwoman Ellen Cohen proposed a Houston version of the so-called "pole tax" she shepherded into law as a state legislator. The state law imposed a $5 per customer fee on strip clubs to raise money for sexual assault victims.
Cohen's local version of the $5 fee would apply to an estimated 30 businesses across the city that serve alcohol and have nude or semi-nude dancers perform. Cohen estimates that, if approved, the fee would raise $3 million a year, which would be earmarked to reduce the backlog of more than 6,000 untested rape kits.
"Thousands of people are afraid to leave their homes, afraid of being raped again. The perpetrator hasn't been caught. They're living every night in terror of what they went through," said Cohen, who for 18 years was executive director at the Houston Area Women's Center, which runs a shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. "We have thousands and thousands of survivors who are waiting for their kits to be tested and this is a way of dealing with it."
No more plastic
Two members called for a November election to amend the city's term limits law, which forces council members, the mayor and controller from office after three two-year terms. Adams proposes two four-year terms; Councilman Andrew Burks proposes three four-year terms.
Councilman Ed Gonzalez has proposed a ban on plastic bags in Houston. Specifically, his amendment calls for the city to draw up an ordinance within a year that would phase out the use of the bags. Brownsville has banned the bags, and a ban goes into effect in Austin next year.
"We have a number of bayous, and they're littered with plastic bottles and plastic bags," which conservation groups spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year removing, Gonzalez said. He referred to trees on the banks of bayous with bags snagged in their boughs as "urban Christmas trees." He said he does not envision the city offering businesses a financial incentive to abandon plastic bags.