Earlier this year, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner came under fire when a local news outlet reported on the city’s mismanagement of a recycling program. But mayoral and city council candidates say the latest scandal is just more evidence of extensive budgetary and management problems at city hall.
Back in April, KHOU news shared a video of a Houston Solid Waste Management truck collecting contents of both standard and recycling containers into the same truck. At that time, Mayor Turner blamed the problem on a “rogue employee,” but just last week, a new report revealed that the city has chronically ignored its own recycling rules and has sent at least 2.6 million pounds of recyclables to the general landfill.
The ongoing recycling issue is drawing greater scrutiny of operations under Mayor Turner, and several candidates have taken the opportunity to highlight flaws in the city’s management and budgeting procedures.
“This whole situation is yet another example of the City’s complete lack of transparency under Mayor Turner,” said mayoral candidate and trial attorney Tony Buzbee.
Buzbee is also calling for the ouster of Harry Hayes, Director of the Houston waste management department.
Businessman Bill King, who is also running for mayor and very narrowly lost to Turner in 2015, defined the problem as a management failure and accused Turner of lying about it.
King told The Texan that his office had received tips from inside city hall at least six months ago on the recycling issue.
“Turner absolutely knew about it and is lying when he says he doesn’t.”
“The reason we have this crisis is two-fold,” King continued. “When Turner took over, we had [garbage truck] fleet readiness of 90 percent, but now that’s dropped to less than 50 percent.”
Due to the inadequate fleet, King says the city has had to subcontract garbage and recycling collection at costs that won’t be known until later this year.
King also notes that under Turner, the city seems to have quietly dropped plans for a transfer station to facilitate the movement of materials to a new recycling plant on the north-east side. Consequently, truck drivers must not only collect but spend additional hours transporting recyclables across the city.
Greg Meyers, one of eleven candidates vying for an open council seat (District C), has also warned about the city’s failure to adopt a strategic schedule for maintenance and replacement of city equipment.
“When you think of the things city government does, it is the local issues that come to mind, such as public safety, the condition of our streets, and just ensuring the trash gets picked up on time,” says Meyers.
“We have seen budget after budget that has not been structurally balanced, and that puts basic city services at risk.”
At-large council member Mike Knox, who is running for re-election in November, spoke to The Texan about the recycling scandal and city budget.
Knox pointed out that recycling presents a huge financial challenge. He says the city pays $25 per ton for regular trash collection and storage, while the processing fees for recyclables are $85 per ton. Although Houston’s contract with FCC Environmental stipulates that the city will receive rebates based on the market value of recycled materials, Knox says there’s little to no market for these materials.
“Recycling is a great idea,” Knox says, “but if there’s no market for the materials, the rebate plan doesn’t work.”
Knox added that while sending recyclables to the general landfill would save city dollars, he could not imagine a city trash collector making that connection and making the decision to ignore recycling rules.
Meyers, a former HISD Board President, joins Knox, Buzbee, and King in calling for Houston to adopt “zero-based” budgeting as opposed to line-item budgeting.
With line-item budgets, city departments ask for year-over-year increases, but zero-based budgeting would require each department head to annually provide penny-by-penny justification for all funds requested.
Knox is one of four council members who voted against the FY2020 budget last month because he says it is “structurally unsound.”
He is not alone in his critique; City Controller Chris Brown, a Democrat, penned an op-ed last month warning that the Houston budget is “not financially sustainable.”
Knox noted that every year for the past few years, Houston has spent “approximately $100 million more than it takes in,” and that in order to present a so-called “balanced budget” the city has been drawing on reserve funds and selling off assets to cover the difference.
The city has launched an internal investigation of the recycling issue, and Mayor Turner has said employees involved could be disciplined or fired.
Turner’s statements drew the ire of Bill King, who said it would be a new low to punish a “bunch of hourly-wage drivers” for following instructions.
“President Truman had a sign on his desk that read “The buck stops here.” Turner is the CEO, and he should take full responsibility.”
Update: Following publication, former Houston city advisor Keith Edgar pointed out that Houston’s contract with FCC guarantees rebates regardless of the market value for recyclables. He stated, “We pay a processing fee of $87 per ton, with a cap of $19 if the materials are not sold for greater than $68 per ton. Edgar adds, “We never pay more to recycle than to landfill.”
This is an explicit discrepancy between what Edgar and Knox are stating. The Texan will continue to monitor this as we move forward.
Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Cypress, Texas. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.