Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner reflects on his time leading the city as he prepares to leave office

“The goal has been to build a stronger, more resilient, more sustainable setting so we’ve been successful at doing that,” said Turner. “Now, I’ll never claim mission accomplished because we still have a number of things we need to do. But, we are moving in the right direction, we are more prepared than when we started.”

By Ashley Brown, Houston Public MediaDecember 22, 2023 9:30 am, ,

From Houston Public Media:

Mayor Sylvester Turner served eight years as Houston’s mayor. Before that, he served 27 years in the Texas House of Representatives, but the title for mayor had not crossed his mind.

“My connections into the city of Houston are very, very deep,” said Turner. “When I was growing up, I didn’t envision myself becoming mayor. I wanted to be a lawyer.”

A vision that seemed out of reach for a young man coming out of Acres Homes, a historic African-American community, and even more so when he took office in 2016 as Houston’s 62nd mayor.

Turner set goals to address Houston’s potholes, infrastructure, public safety, flooding and more. And just into his first term, the new mayor showed how ready he was to tackle what Houston had to offer. The tax day flood hit Houston in April of 2016, nearly overflowing the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs in West Houston.

“That’s really when I discovered that we really didn’t have a lot of assets to get people out of harm’s way,” said Turner. “We didn’t have enough rescue boats or apparatus. We didn’t have let’s say firefighters, for example, that were trained to go and rescue people from flooding waters at the numbers that we needed.”

Dave Fehling

Construction underway on $75 million project at Barker and Addicks Dams.

The flooding didn’t stop there. The following year, Hurricane Harvey hit, dropping more than 50 inches of rain throughout some parts of Houston and Harris County, causing billions of dollars in damages. Six years later, Houston is still recovering after ongoing funding issues with the State of Texas.

“In the end, we only received about $9.5 million out of $4.3 billion. The county ended up getting about $750 million. But either way, that’s far from even half of that 4.3 billion.”

In 2018, Congress allocated $4.3 billion to Texas to recover from Harvey, but initially, Houston and Harris County were awarded zero dollars. Earlier this year, both entities were given a six-month extension by the General Land Office (GLO) to catch up on Hurricane Harvey recovery projects.

To better prepare Houston for future weather-related issues and climate change, the city adopted a Climate Action Plan and a Resilient Houston Plan.

“The goal has been to build a stronger, more resilient, more sustainable setting so we’ve been successful at doing that,” said Turner. “Now, I’ll never claim mission accomplished because we still have a number of things we need to do. But, we are moving in the right direction, we are more prepared than when we started.”

Houstonians continued to be faced with events like Winter Storm Uri, which caused the state’s power grid to partially collapse, and the boil water notice that affected more than two million residents for several days. Turner’s administration was blamed for not communicating with residents in a timely manner. Some city council members like Amy Peck, even expressed their frustrations with not being notified during a meeting.

“A lot of people didn’t know about the boil water notice until that text message went out at like 10:30 the night of the ball water notice,” she said. “Unless you were signed up for Alert Houston, you didn’t know either. Something like this to me maybe needs to be sent out through the wireless emergency alert system.”

David J. Phillip / AP

A flooded section of Interstate 610 in Houston after Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.

Another controversial issue was Turner’s firing of the city’s former Housing director, who accused him of trying to direct millions of federal Hurricane Harvey Relief funds to a favored developer. Tom McCasland, spoke out during a housing committee meeting in 2021 after the Huntington at Bay Area development was selected to receive $15 million. According to a Houston Chronicle article, the development was attached to another company run by Turner’s former law partner.

Dr. Michael Adams, a political science professor at TSU said one ongoing issue that Turner will leave for the incoming mayor-elect John Whitmire is the city’s unfunded pension liabilities and the city budget.

“The COVID relief money certainly helped the coffers of the treasury of the city of Houston. So now those funds are no longer there,” said Adams. “And so what we’re seeing with the outgoing controller is some frustration about what the city finances will look like.”

Houston officials approved a $6.2 billion budget this summer that Turner has said is in better shape than when he first took office and he’s leaving the next mayor with a healthy fund balance. Turner put forth a pension reform in 2016, which he said had not been addressed for more than 20 years.

“As I get ready to leave,” he said, “instead of there being $8.2 billion unfunded liabilities, that number is $2.2 billion and going down.”

The City of Houston relied on federal relief funds to help critical city services stay afloat during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Outgoing city Controller Chris Brown has said if the city doesn’t cut back on its spending, it will face a budget crisis by 2025.

It was also a time when Houston saw a major spike in crime and Turner put forth his One Safe Houston Initiative, a plan that involves gun buybacks which some say is not as effective in a state with liberal gun laws and high gun ownership.

Office of Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis

FILE: More than 800 guns were collected during a gun buyback event held at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, 3826 Wheeler Ave. Some have said gun buybacks were ineffective in curbing gun violence. But Turner held several events throughout the year, in partnership with Harris County.

“The gun buyback was designed to basically address the gun violence issue to make sure that there’s not easy access to guns. On the other hand, you have the Texas State Legislature, the ban against Red Flag laws, and some people shouldn’t have guns and these kinds of things.”

Affordable housing was one of Turner’s priorities. Houston gained national recognition for reducing its homeless population, moving more than 25,000 people off the street since 2012. Turner said his administration was not only focused on providing more housing but making them affordable.

“There are multiple tools that can help to make this product more affordable, but one of the best ways to keep prices low, Is that you got a build, build, build, build and that was the goal.”

Turner said although he came up short on providing 3,000 single-family homes, he exceeded in building more than 7,000 multifamily units.

“Disappointing on that front. But the groundwork has been laid. It is important, for example, to build single-family homes as well as multifamily units.”

During Turner’s time as mayor, the city made a name for itself in energy transition, as a top city for technology and innovative startups, and for hosting high-profile conventions and sporting events.

As Turner leaves office, a poll conducted by Houston Public Media, Houston Chronicle and the University of Houston in November revealed 49% of people had a strongly favorable or somewhat favorable opinion of him.

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