Kemah furloughs police officers, terminates city staff as COVID-19 closures predicted to dramatically cut city revenues

By: TJ Aulds
| Published 04/16/2020


With its largest tourist draw the Kemah Boardwalk closed down along with the dozens of restaurants and bars that entertain and feed tourists, the sales-tax dependent city of Kemah city Council on Wednesday made a series of budget cuts that still may not be enough to prevent the city from a crippling deficit.

A huge chunk of the city’s revenues are generated from sales and alcohol taxes collected at the various venues frequented by the 3-plus million visitors the city sees each year.

What was already expected to be a tough budget year because of the construction for the expansion of state Highway 146, took an even bleaker outlook after COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of the Kemah Boardwalk, local bars, slow down of business in general because of area stay-at-home orders and the take-out only at local restaurants.

Even the most optimistic budget outlook didn’t seem so positive when faced with the reality that even when life returns to normal, visitors may not return in droves to Kemah.

In a unanimous vote, the council approved a proposal from Councilman Kyle Burns, that called for the furlough of two police officers as well as leave three patrol positions vacant, terminate the city’s communications and marketing director, eliminate the in house information technology director’s position and outsource the work, let a court clerk go, eliminate positions in public works and transfer $100,000 from the city’s capital improvement projects budget back to the city’s general fund.

The approved proposal also cut the city’s training and travel budget and cut other “low hanging fruit” spending and will leave vacant the city’s fire marshal position.

The council also called for research to determine if it could eliminate the city’s police/fire/ems dispatchers and outsource that responsibility to the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office as neighboring Clear Lake Shores does.

All on council agreed the cuts would hurt but may be necessary to keep the city afloat.

Councilwoman Robin Collins cautioned that even if all emergency orders were lifted soon that there’s no assurances people would feel comfortable with returning to tourist hot spots or places with crowds for fear they could still get ill.

Mayor Terri Gale agreed cuts needed to be made, but sought to keep at least some money for marketing and communications to help promote local businesses that are struggling and expressed a desire to hold off any cuts to the police department.

Gale complained that overspending on the city hall expansion - approved by council and managed by the previous administration before she was elected, drained the city’s reserves which could have been used in what is clearly now an emergency situation.

Burks, admitted that he and others on council “made mistakes” by drawing down on reserve funds to fund capital improvements.

“But we can’t fix the past and can only avoid those mistakes in the future,” he said.

Council is scheduled to meet on the budget again next week.