July 23, 2018

Budgeting Resiliency

Hurricane Harvey and the extent of its impact on the City of Bellaire remind us that strategic planning is not about predicting the future.  We didn’t have a crystal ball when developing and adopting a budget last year, nor do we have one now.  But thoughtful consideration of our past and current experience, with careful analysis of key metrics and trends, inform the decisions we make moving forward.  The City Manager’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2019 starts by looking back at the events of the past year, and from there prioritizes our ongoing recovery with reference to our established focus areas, emphasizing that Bellaire is still Bellaire.

The proposed budget reflects our serious commitment to flood mitigation, and continued tax rate sensitivity especially as so many have been hit with significant financial burdens from the storm.  Specifically, it would not raise any new property tax revenues from existing property (i.e., it would maintain the effective tax rate).  It also puts on hold the water and sewer rate increases that would otherwise be phasing in this coming year.

It meets our basic needs and is structurally balanced, offsetting the rising costs to maintain service levels with reductions in vehicle replacement and maintenance and by forgoing a supplemental contribution to our pavement management program, all as we did last year.  It does represent somewhat of a setback, hopefully a temporary one, from the progress we’ve made in recent years toward restoring our ending fund balances.  Then again, it’s that same progress that now gives us a little extra cushion to work with in budgeting through the recovery.

The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) is more prominent in this proposed budget, most notably with the allocation of $315,000 for the drainage studies previously identified as the logical next step in our flood control program.  Building upon the City Engineer’s September 2016 report, the primary focus will be the major north/south arterials that collect and carry storm water out of the City.  This work will include an evaluation of various alternatives for upgrading these systems, and provide the necessary basis for us to pursue potential cost participation by other regional entities.

Beyond the engineering and ongoing construction projects to be funded in the upcoming year, the CIP for the following years will remain at the fore as it’s time to start planning another bond program.  While the current Bonds for Better Bellaire 2016 program funds $20 million of street and drainage improvements over three years, the present thinking is to double that pace of work in a successor 2019 bond program.  That approach would fulfill one of the key takeaways coming out of the Flood Hazard Mitigation Task Force, that we should aggressively continue and accelerate improvements to our local drainage systems.  Our projected overall indebtedness would not be affected because the additional $20 million necessary to fund twice as many street and drainage projects would be diverted from the CIP for Evergreen Park, the Library and Public Works building, all of which would be deferred as our greater emphasis is on flooding as our highest priority.

We’ve scheduled a follow-up Council planning session for September that will be dedicated to the contemplated bond program and the CIP generally.  The discussion might also include other flood mitigation ideas recommended by the Task Force for further development.  By that time we expect we’ll have heard back on some of our grant applications, or at least have a better idea of potential funding sources that may be available to us and for which projects.  The Task Force will continue meeting periodically as well.

The budget document itself is more than just numbers and financial projections.  It provides a critically important overview of where things currently stand and our plans for the future, and of the decisions we have to make and the process for how we go about making them.  As the City’s annual work plan, it’s a statement of our overall policy direction and guides day-to-day operations and service delivery, allocates the resources to make that happen, and serves to transparently document all of the foregoing.  I encourage all residents to read through it and let us know what you think.  This year’s budget public hearing will be on August 13 at 6:00 p.m.