Mayor Turner discusses current city issues at Texas Tribune ‘Conversation’
Mayor Turner speaks at the State of the City.

The Texas Tribune recently hosted a “Conversation with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner,” where Houston’s CEO discussed current city issues and his plans for his last year in office.

Here are excerpts from that Q&A which was moderated by the Tribune’s editor-in-chief Sewell Chan where Turner focuses on infrastructure, flood plans, public safety and more.

SEWELL CHAN: Earlier this month, Houston voters approved a whole package of bond measures. What impact will these seven measures have on the city?

TURNER: They will be significant. One of them dealt with public safety. That’s the number one priority of any mayor. I’ve got members of city council who are here. They understand the importance of public safety. So that’s important. Parks and libraries always rate very highly. Quite frankly, you can never do and enhance enough parks. And the same thing as it relates to libraries. There was one initiative that dealt with BARC. We have a lot of stray animals in our system. And people want to turn animals in, but we need the capacity. We have a lack of capacity. We need more. That measure was also on the ballot, and it also passed. And then solid waste. People know about electricity, they know about water, and they know about their garbage. And when you drop the ball on any one or all three, you will hear from people and not just on Twitter.

CHAN: In other parts of Texas, a number of bond and road and school construction measures failed. Do you think the need for infrastructure investment is becoming more clear?

TURNER: I think so. This is a growing city. For example, within our water systems, infrastructure is critically important. And just like what happened in the last two days with our water system, we need to simply take a look and see what exactly was the cause for that failure, and whether or not the infrastructure needs to be enhanced. And quite frankly, that’s in every segment of what we do. And the reality is, if we don’t address infrastructure, there will be even more failures. If you don’t make repairs on your home, sooner or later something’s going to break down. So, we need more enhancements on our infrastructure to sustain our growth in terms of population and what’s happening from an economic point of view. That’s why I do want to give a lot of credit to the Biden-Harris administration on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. It will be very beneficial for a city like the city of Houston. It has already been beneficial for a city. The inflation reduction act. Very beneficial. So, when you combine those two, and then the CHIP bill, combine those three, then there are more dollars that are coming into our city to address infrastructure.

CHAN: How do you feel about the county’s flood plan, which was updated a couple of years ago to try to emphasize equity and not just the site of where the worst property damage will be? Do you think the county set the right balance?

TURNER: I think equity is very important. There’s a very big concern of mine that you can continue to overlook communities where there’s been a lack of investments, where there are tremendous needs. So, I do agree with that assessment. What is needed are more resources. Quite frankly, the CDBG mid funding that came from the feds went down to the state; $4.3 billion. Then the state allocated about $2 billion of that. Ultimately, the county ended up getting $750 million. The city didn’t receive anything. Well, we ultimately ended up getting $9 million. That’s not nearly enough. You can’t really do a major infrastructure project with $9 million. So, I agree with the county’s assessment, the social vulnerabilities measures, but we just need a lot more dollars flowing into the city and the county for infrastructure.

CHAN: You were known for having good relationships and abilities to work with people from both parties [while serving in the state legislature]. Has that relationship gotten more strained in recent years?

TURNER: Things are more difficult now than when I started as an elected official, even as a legislator. And even now as mayor, things are a lot more extreme. Those are the realities. Things are more extreme. And it’s not about being conservative. You can be conservative. That’s fine; not a problem. The question is when you become extreme; when you’re operating on the shoulder of the road, and not in the right lane. And right now, we have too many elected officials that are operating on the shoulder. So, it makes it very difficult to reach a consensus or to talk through or work through problems. When I was in the legislature, the biggest issue was urban versus rural. It wasn’t even Democrat versus Republican. And then even when it became more partisan, there were times we could work things through.

I’ll never forget when I was in the legislature, and I had a bill that I was having a hard time getting out of committee. And a friend of mine who was a Republican, came to me and said, “Sylvester, I think that’s a good bill. Do you mind whose name is on it?” I said, “Hell, I just want the bill to pass. I don’t care whose name is on it.” So, he said, “Why don’t we do this? Let me file the same bill and put my name on it, and let’s see what happens.” I said, okay, fine. So, he did my bill; the same bill. Nothing changed. His name was on it. He filed it. It went to the committee. The committee passed it out, got on the floor of the Texas house. And, he was up at the front, and all of a sudden there were like two or three Democrats going to the back mic to challenge him on the bill. I was sitting in my chair. I said, what the hell?

So, I got up out of my seat, and I walked to the back, Mike, and I said to the Democrats that were at the back mic, asking him questions. I said, um, you know, this is a good bill. And they said, uh, Sebastian, you familiar with it? You read it? I said, oh, yeah; <laughs> I read this bill. This is a good bill. I support this bill. And, they said, well, hey, if you’re familiar with it, because you know, we see who’s carrying it. I said, yeah, isn’t, that’s something. He’s up there carrying this bill, but it happens to be a good bill. I don’t know why in the hell he’s carrying it, but it’s a good bill. And so, they sat down, the bill passed unanimously and he then walks to me, shakes my hand, and said, “Let’s get together for lunch.” That was in that day. Yeah, things have changed since then.

But relationships matter. I don’t care who you are. I would tell anybody, relationships matter. And you have to find ways of being able to reach people, even when initially, politically or philosophically, they may appear to be so far apart. And even as mayor, you still have to find ways to relate and to establish some sort of meaningful engagement with people.

CHAN: The Kinder Institute’s annual poll of Houstonians this year found that only about half of respondents, the lowest level recorded and a drop from 65% in 2017, said they think they’ll be better off in the next few years. So, 50% isn’t as high as what it once was. What do you think are the causes of that?

TURNER: I think when you’re bombarded with such negativity, I think people kind of incorporate that into their own thinking. And we have been bombarded with so many negative things. I mean, people are attacking people from all different directions. And even when they are good ideas, people find ways to attack them. When things happen, people find ways to start blaming folk. Even when things, just in a natural course of events, they will happen. So, when you are bombarded by negative things on a constant basis, then people start thinking things are bad. From my framework, for example, my mom always said, “Tomorrow will be better than today.” I still subscribe to that theory. Things happen. You just have to work through it.

The cost of living may be high. You just keep working, and hopefully, things will start to trend in a better direction… When I came into office as mayor seven years ago, pensions were the number one financial issue. Pensions, pensions, pensions; $8.2 billion fund liability. Well, as of the end of last year, December, that had gone down to $1.49 billion; substantially different. We faced several disasters in the last seven years. But we’ve been resilient. We were talking to the chairman of Houston First, David Berg. This particular building was underwater from Hurricane Harvey. Today, we are sitting here with your box lunches, and having this particular event. So, a lot of good, positive things have happened. And I think it’s important to focus on the good and to recognize that tomorrow will be better. But if you allow all this negativity to get into your head, and you just assume that things are just bad and nobody is any good, then it just becomes a part of your own thinking. So, hopefully, people in the city of Houston will feel much, much better.

CHAN: Let’s talk about public safety for a moment. When I interviewed three police chiefs, the chiefs in San Antonio, Austin and Houston, at our Texas Tribune Festival a couple months back, one thing I clearly heard from them was a sense that the police do not always feel that the prosecutors are working in alignment with them. Is that a problem here in Houston?

TURNER: See, now you’re trying to drag me into <laughs>. Let me just say this. The city of Houston, city council members, we support our police, I can tell you without question. And we have funded our police in every single budget, in every single year, since I’ve been mayor. With this council, the budget has gone up and up and up. We try to be very focused and intentional on where we give our dollars. Where there’s a need for overtime, we’ve done that. So, from the city’s perspective, we do support our police. But police can’t do it alone. It’s a collaborative effort. The community has to participate. Your prosecutorial wing has to participate, as well. There are a number of people out here {that] have committed some heinous crimes.

You’ve got to send them through the system. You’ve got to get them prosecuted. Judges have to do their part in making sure that they’re not rotating them out. The state has to do its part. There are way too many guns on the street for these criminals to get. And, and the state has made it very easy and accessible for guns. So, it’s very frustrating. I tell everybody, for cities and counties, we are on the lower end. Water runs downhill. And if you create an environment where 16-year-olds and others can have guns without any training, without any licensing, when you start allowing 18-year-olds to have automatic weapons, then you’ve created an environment that’s conducive to more crime. And water flows downhill. And now it’s up to people who live in these cities, people who live in these counties, police officers and prosecutors, to then fend off these persons that you’ve made it much easier for them to have guns than they should have them.

So, I don’t point the finger at any one source. Conservatives shouldn’t point fingers at local leaders or Democrats, for example, and say they’re soft on crime. I don’t even know what that means. If you make it conducive for 16-year-olds and 18-year-olds to get guns, what in the hell do you think they’re going to do with the guns? And I will tell you that, age group between 16 and 26, that’s the age group that is driving crime in so many ways. In so many cases. Domestic violence is another example. Red flag laws and mental health funding. And people keep saying, “Mayor, it’s a mental health price crisis.” Okay, let’s assume that to be the case. Then where is the mental health funding? The state of Texas now is sitting on the largest fund balance it has ever sat on in its history: over $27 billion in its fund balance. The question is, since everybody keeps saying violence is related to mental health, how much of that $27 billion is going to be directed to mental health funding, and it should be a substantial transformative amount? If you say that’s the problem, then your checkbook ought to reflect what you say is the problem, and stop putting the blame on everybody else. So, we shall see what happens in this legislative session.

CHAN: I’ve heard discussions about the fund balance, the surplus and other parts of the state where the attitudes are more like, “Well, that isn’t really the state’s money to spend, that’s the taxpayer’s money,” and “Everything should come back in the form of property tax relief.”

TURNER: I don’t even know how to respond to that. Let me say it is all the taxpayers’ money. But as elected leaders, we are the trustees. And the point that I’m making, violence is a serious issue. Public safety is a serious issue. If you say mental health is the cause of many of these crimes, and the state of Texas has always been in that top lower bottom where we fund mental health, community health services; well, if you have all of this surplus funding, I am sure that many of the people in this room, if not most, would say, spend a significant amount on addressing mental health issues. Spend a significant amount on addressing domestic violence and abuse. If you have this type of funding, now you can lower the property taxes. But let me just say to many of these conservatives and others who talk about property taxes, when I was in the legislature, when it comes to education, property taxes that fund education, the state assumes 60% of the cost of education. The local units of government assumed 40%.

Today, it is the reverse. The state of Texas assumes about 39% of the cost of education. They have shifted the cost onto local units of government, and now they are having to assume about 61%. The state’s current leadership made the reversal. They pay less for education, and they’re forcing local governments to pay more. And when you look at your tax bill, let me tell you where the greatest hit is—on school property taxes. But the state is the one who shifted the responsibility. So now that they’re sitting on $27 billion extra. Yes, they are to putting more money into education and into lowering the property taxes, but they also should be putting money on, mental health, domestic violence. And quite frankly, they also need to pass Medicaid expansion so that more people can get more healthcare. Those are things that need to take place and stop trying to shift the blame and working against local units of government.

CHAN: There’s talk in the legislature about charter schools and even vouchers being a key part of the next legislative session. As Houston’s mayor, what would you like to see the legislature do and not do in the coming session?

TURNER: Let me just say this <laughs>. When you’re not fully funding public education in the first place, so now you want to take the taxpayers’ dollars and put it on charter schools? Are you serious? Are you really serious? Let me tell you what that says to me. Most of the kids, nearly five million kids in the state of Texas, are what I call on the cruise ship. They’re on the cruise ship, they’re on the big ship. But the state is not fully funding those kids on the cruise ship. That’s where most of our kids are. Instead of fully funding the kids on the cruise ship at five million, they’re going to take some of the money that they have and put on these speed boats. But you’re not saving the five million kids. You’re now focusing on a small subset. But what about the kids? Most of the kids on this cruise ship, that’s where most of your kids are. What about the kids coming from communities that have been underserved and under-resourced? What about this diverse population of kids and the special [ed] kids? What about them?

So, the state leadership is now talking about charters. But let me tell you who I think will pose as a roadblock to that. For schools in rural Texas, public school systems represent the engine in rural Texas. You close down or work against the public school system in rural Texas, you’ll be hurting rural Texas. I don’t think the Democrat or Republican legislators representing rural Texas are going to go along with that program. Ever since I was a legislator, they have said “No.” And quite frankly, I hope people in urban America don’t assume that is the right course to take.

TURNER: People need to invest in public education. Now, I don’t have any problem with people choosing to go someplace else. If they have the means, that’s fine. But I have seen how people have impacted public education, not invested in public education, not supporting them, and then stepping back and criticizing the end result when they didn’t provide the necessary resources in the first place.