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Interview with: Whitt Johnson
Interviewed by: Louis Marchiafava
Date: February 12, 1975
Archive Number: OH 084_01
LM:00:22 Mr. Johnson, when did you first—how long have you been living in West University Place?
WJ: I’ve been living here 28 years on the 15th day of July.
LM:How long have you been city manager?
WJ: I’ve been city manager ever since then. I came here on July the 15th, 1947, from Childress, Texas where I was city manager at that time.
LM:What training did you have as city manager? What is required?
WJ: Actually, there are no specific requirements. There were not when I first came, but I’ve had a number of courses. I attended college and I have had some advanced work at the University of Houston. I’ve taken a number of courses from ICMA, which is the International City Management Association. I’ve taken some courses from A&M primarily in public works and water and sewage. And also, we recently got some through our own Texas City Management Association of which I am a member. But it’s constant, I think, going to seminars and preparing yourself and reading and keeping up.
LM:When you first assumed your duties as city manager in West University Place, what were some of the major issues at that time?
WJ: Major issues at that time are the same, I guess, as today. Primarily it was finance and zoning and personnel and street construction and water supply and the general things that confronts the city. However, one of the interesting things, I think, was the lack of adequate facilities for city administration. We had a very meager city hall, and I considered, at that time, one of the major things to do for this city was to build a new city hall to house administrative office, the council chamber, police and fire departments—which we did accomplish with much satisfaction to our citizens.
LM:What was the major source of revenue at that time?
WJ: Major source of revenue in 1947 was of course ad valorem taxes as it is today. West University is primarily a residential city. We have 95% zoning for residential single-family dwelling. We have about 5%—we don’t like to refer to as commercial, but it’s retail business, and our tax base of course is ad valorem and tax structure. The next most important thing is the income from water and sewer revenues.
LM:How does the tax rate in West University Place compare with Houston.
WJ: Well, that’s the most interesting subject for us to discuss, and we like to take a great deal of pride in saying were about 20% less than the city of Houston. And I have on my desk a historical record of the assessment of the tax valuation of this city beginning in 1952. The assessed valuation is $19 million, and we have a tax rate of $1.78 or receivable $390,000 in taxes. Tax rate stayed at a $1.78 until 1966. In 1966 the tax valuation had increased to $26 million with a potential income of $468,000. Currently, our total assessed valuation is $50,490,000 and the tax rate is $1.50. And the income is $757,000 based on what we have to say is a ratio of the market valuation of 50%. However, we have some known tax sales, not taxed unless it’s a known market sale to indicate we’re assessing them about 25%, 26% basis. This city needs to have a complete re-valuation, re-assessment program to update and bring current its tax valuation. We’ve had a great influx of valuation and escalation, if you please, since Greenway Plaza has been constructed adjacent to our city. And we’re getting a number of younger people moving in, and they’re remodeling and building their houses and upgrading them. And I think that our tax department has not stayed abreast of what the current values are.
LM:05:24 Has the composition of the residences of West University Place changed over the years?
WJ: It’s a notable change. We can see this by the new applications we have for water service. Not long ago we thought that our average age out here was about 48 years, and now we believe that it is less than 40. We’re getting a number of young people aged 25 to 35 with 2 or 3 children. There is a great transition of the elder people moving on and younger people moving in. And one of the things I think that causes that is people come in and they get promoted in their jobs and they stay in a position 2 or 3 years or 4 or 5 years, and then they get another promotion and perhaps they get themselves in a better standard of living, and then they move on to another place. So we do have a fairly good turnover population. Our population at this time is about 13,500, considerably less than it was 15 years ago which was estimated to be about 15,000 or 16,000. And we’re unable to account for that drop off in population.
LM:About when you first assumed your duties here, were the boundaries of West University Place already set?
WJ: The boundaries of West University have been set. They are circumscribed to the extent that we are surrounded almost by the city of Houston on 3 sides, and then the city Southside projects into part of our corporate limits, and on the west is the Southern Pacific railroad track, and then west beyond that is city of Bellaire. So we are one of many municipalities inside the corporate limits of Houston—I think about 22 or 23 inside the corporate limits. The largest city, of course, which is Pasadena of about 100,000 population.
LM:Does having set boundaries, such as West University has now, make for stability or less financial problems?
WJ: 07:47 Obviously it does. We are confronted with the fact that about the only place we can do is grow upward, we can’t grow outward. We have a quality of service here I think people appreciate, but it would be nice from a management standpoint to have more money to do more things for people in a more refined and personal way. The things that I like, construction and I like growth, and I think that’s one of the distractions of this city is it will not grow in the future. Perhaps it will grow upward, but not in any other direction. Ultimately we might have 18,000 population, but I think that would be our maximum growth.
LM:Does a difficulty arise from having—from being contained and yet at the same time, the costs of building and upkeep continues to grow, and your tax rate has to grow with it? Will this create a burden on the people living here?
WJ: In our opinion, it will. The resident—the single-family resident will have to share the tax costs of the city. We’ve got a minor amount of sales tax. And when I say minor I’m saying about $100,000, but how does a $100,000 relate to $1.5 million budget. And if you don’t have retail establishments, you can’t expect our retail sales tax to increase. I think our people, however, are willing to pay a reasonable ad valorem tax and cost to receive the services which we provide them. (telephone rings; recording interrupted) I believe—pardon our interruption, but I think that we are limited by the amount of sales tax this city will ever receive. As I said, it’s about $100,000 a year, and it’s unfortunate it’s not a half million dollars a year. I am, personally, a strong advocate of the sales tax. I’d like to see our burdens distributed rather than have the load on taxes imposed upon our people. One of the concerns that I have, and city commission has at this time, is the fact that we have not granted a $3000 homestead exemption to those 65 years and older. And it’s coming about because I think the state legislature will pass the mandatory legislation, and that means a reduction of income of about $60,000 a year. And our city commission—previous one—did it in good faith thinking it was discrimination against all taxpayers rather than a special concession to those 65 years an older. And I believe now that they have changed their opinion and will look at it in a different direction.
LM:11:00 About the issues of bonds.
WJ: We’re fortunate, the city of West University has no bonded indebtedness, either general obligation bonds or revenue bonds. We were the third city in the state of Texas that had a general obligation bond rating of AA. And I got that by merely sending a 5 cent postcard to Moody’s in New York and Standard and Poor. And we’re going to have a bond issue of more than a million dollars, I’d say, within the next 6 or 8 months. Currently, we are in process of asking Moody’s to rate our bonds. You will, of course, understand that with an indebtedness of less than a half a million dollars that you lose your bond rating. Then you got to apply again and get a new rating. Now if it’s possible for this city to get a AAA rating on its general obligation bonds, we’ll strive to do that. And that means a quarter or a maybe a half a percent in interest rates. And that calculated over a period of 20 years for a million dollars amounts to a considerable savings. But this city would be stagnated if it didn’t devote some bond issues and make some public works improvements. We need them in the area of street paving, new curbs and gutters, new sidewalks. We’ve got a lot of elderly people that walk through the towns for the exercise in the evenings, and we got a lot of complaints about the irregular sidewalks, the ups and downs and the broken parts, and we’re supposed to correct those. (telephone rings; recording interrupted)
LM:Is West University Place responsible for all ordinary city services or are any shared with Houston?
WJ: We are responsible for all of our services, very fortunately. We have control over them. I don’t think our people, our residents, would be happy of having to be dependant upon the city of Houston or Harris County. I can’t think of any service that a city of this size needs that we don’t have. We don’t have a lot of park area, we don’t a high school, we don’t a football stadium, we don’t have golf courses, things like that, but we do have other programs. We have a fine recreational program—year-round recreational program, full-time director. We’ve got hundreds of people participating in this program at this time. We have a very fine municipal swimming pool, and we’ll probably teach, this year, 700 or 800 children how to swim in our program. And I could certainly say in the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve probably taught 7,000 or 8,000 children how to swim that would never have had this opportunity. We have our own fire department, our own police department. We have a water system, we have a city disposal plant, we have a humane department, we have our own water wells. We read our own meters, we do our own billing. We have an insecticide program—a health program affording for mosquitoes. I just can’t think of any service that we don’t have. We have a joint service with Harris County on the library—for a Harris County branch of the library. It’s a very fine building in which is housed a library of maybe 100,000 volumes, and we’re extremely proud of that. There are other things that we don’t have that a city disassociated from a major metropolitan area would have, that I must say.
LM:Do you have a full-time fire department?
WJ: 15:02 Indeed we do. And we also have an ambulance service—we have our own ambulance. We hope to be connected into a telemetry system with Ben Taub Hospital in the future. We hope that our people will be qualified to perform service that any ordinary ambulance service will perform, and particularly the same enviable service which the city of Houston has. We have our people trained now as EMTs—emergency medical technicians. We hope to eventually get some of them trained as paramedics, not for rescue like you see on television, but to take care of a patient—to take care of his emergency needs until they can get him to the hospital.
LM:About relationships with the county, are there shared expenses there? I realize of course the hospital and—
WJ: Unfortunately, we do not have—I understand there’s a state law that permits a municipality that would enter into some sort of contractual relationship about construction of the streets, even engineering and things like that. But it seems like the Commissioners Court of Harris County is not receptive to that sort of modern technique, modern system of operation. We have recently had some sad experience with them. They’ve taken a couple of major streets or roads or county thoroughfares, you might say, out of our city—out of our city. They had them in a county road log and they took them out 10 or 15 years ago. And recently the city commission passed a resolution asking the Commissioners Court to take that back in—or so I’m saying that—I intend to say Weslayan Street between this and that and Bellaire Boulevard back into the county road log system, and also this and that between Academy and the Southern Pacific railroad tracks to the west. They put them in there, they pave those streets, and they take them out, and never have a public hearing or never ask us our opinion or our permission to do it. And it creates quite a financial burden on this city to maintain major thoroughfares where traffic is generated in Houston or through traffic going in the loop 610 south. And you can imagine the traffic that we’re going to be burdened or confronted with from Greenway Plaza which is going to go through our city. These are some of the problems we think that the county should help us with. And I guess it’s a question—I hate to say it, but I think it’s a political question rather than a business proposition. And our city officials are not very good politicians, have not been in the past. I think they want to operate this city on the basis of what’s good for the people and the merits from the system, and they’re just not good politicians. And I think that they’re going to have to get in the political market now to get Harris County Commissioners cornered to do something to help this city. And we’re talking about maybe $2 or $3 million, and there’s no conceivable way that this city can finance that type of major construction under is present bond structure of financial structure. So we do have some problems that we’d like to get resolved with the Harris County Commissioners Court.
LM:What are the political factors that would influence the Commissioners Court not cooperate with you?
WJ: 18:53 Well, I don’t think it’s a question of not, I think it’s we have not pursued the thing and let them know that we do have some concerned people out here with a little bit of political strength. Our people vote out here exceptionally well. And it seems that’s the thing that they understand, if you’ve got political strength in voting and making not heated demands, but making reasonable requests upon the court. And I think that we’ve been lax in that area. And we’ve got to go to the Commissioners Court and tell them what we need and compare our needs and wants to some things that they’ve done for other municipalities, and let it be known that that problem exists, and see if we can’t communicate with them a little better. I’m in hopes, and so are the city commission, that this new court set up with a new judge down there, that we will be able to communicate with them a little better than we have in the past. We have great prospects in the future for, maybe, county government that I didn’t see the past 10 or 15 years.
LM:Why do you see this now?
WJ: Well, I think it’s a change of attitude—change of attitude of the Commissioners Court, a more unified operation than they’ve had before. They are thinking down there now, I think, maybe a county management, sort of, system that—at least they have explored that. And that, in my opinion, is probably either a centralized, unified operation rather than precinct operation by each commissioner buying his own equipment, going his own way, making his own decision, hiring his own employees. They have recently employed a full-time personnel director that I think is going to accomplish quite a bit for them down there. And it’s been like a 4-precinct kingdom, shall we say, and each one going his separate way. And I really believe there’s going to be a change in this form, and the change may eventually come by mandates by the state legislature that they pass some legislation requiring it. It’s been tried in other counties and has worked. I’m not interested in a Dade County situation like they had in Florida, but you know the way the city of Houston is expanding, the counties expense and maintenance of roads and street construction is being minimized every year. And I don’t know where they’re devoting all their money to. I do know they’ve got a lot of problems in the police department, crime prevention, and things like that. But what service would they render the city of West University and the city of Bellaire? I mean, they service—you go down and file a record or a document and that sort of thing, but from the standpoint of permanent improvement, they just don’t make a contribution for it. And one day, I think we’ll see that the metropolitan area and Harris County, their responsibility on the street and thoroughfares and roads is nil—it will not exist. City of Houston and the other municipalities will take that over. I’d like to see an amalgamation of some services down there—co-mingling of—well, for instance, civil defense, air and stream pollution, water pollution, health problems, library. We could have one unified system. I am opposed to one police department organization or fire department or solid waste disposal system.
LM:That’s what I was going to ask you.
WJ: 22:55 And things like that, yeah. I’m kind of rambling now, but it’s most interesting when you get into what is the philosophy of local government and how it exists and how it all started. And I didn’t dream of having a city paved in gold and always sunshine and things like that. You can just ramble on, but it is most interesting operating, I think.
LM:Do you think you’re receiving better police protection, for example, than you would if you had one metropolitan police force?
WJ: Oh, I’m totally convinced of that. I think because you’ve got control over them. I think when you got a big, big organization you lose efficiency, you loose that personal relationship. It becomes unionized, it becomes one big facet that wants to have arbitration. It doesn’t want to be controlled, and almost like operating under a police state—which we don’t want. I really think the city of Houston would do quite well—and the Harris County—to break theirs down into precincts. Or like San Antonio tried one time, they called them subdivision operations where they set up residential police-type jails and police officers to serve that particular area—broke it down into quadrants, and it worked real well. The city of Houston has done it some to some extent, but not like I think they should. The bigger it is the more inefficient it will be. That’s an inevitable factor.
LM:24:45 Shift our attention for a moment to the political structure in West University Place. Now how does it operate? What is the structure here?
WJ: All right, we have city commission and city manager. Of course we have mayor and 4 members of the city commission. They are the governing body, and I am the appointed city manager. And most all the other department heads are responsible to me, and then we in turn are responsible to the elected mayor and the city commission. They are not full-time people. Unfortunately, they’re only paid $50 a month, and the mayor makes $150 a month. Our city charter is so archaic it needs to be revised, remodeled, and brought up to date. And one day I hope that that will be a project of city officials. But I have no jurisdiction over the appointment of the judge or court—municipal court. That’s the function of the city commission. But most everything is handled or channeled through my office directly to the city commission. We have a fine working relationship with them, and I’ve been here 27 years and we’ve had no political problems. We have an organization here called the West University Political Party that started back in 1945, and they have their convention—organizing convention. And they select candidates and endorse them and go out and see that they’re elected, and there has been some opposition. There was concerted opposition this last election in November by a younger group of people that—I don’t think they were particularly disgruntled of the city’s operation, but they had some new and profound ideas that they’d like to try. And I am willing to say that that’s a healthy condition. If people were elected continuously and no opposition, it’d be gaining office by default, and that’s not the true will of the people. So the political plan of West University has been exceptionally good, and I think our people want it to continue that way.
LM:Were there any factions, opposing factions?
WJ: Well, you might say that the opposing faction of the West University Political Party is comprised of the elderly people, and I don’t mean to be critical of it, but some would say they’re old-timers. And the other group are comprised of those, maybe like, 30 years and younger that have recently moved out here that would like to see maybe a different concept or a different type of operation, and maybe expand some of the city’s services and go in debt, and they’re not concerned about how to pay it off. And they do have some fantastic dreams of what can be accomplished out here, and it would be most interesting to see if those could be invoked and really made effective and work effectively.
LM:You mentioned that the city charter, as it stands now, is archaic.
WJ: In my opinion it is, yes.
LM:Are there any particular sections of it which are troublesome to you that you would like to see changed?
WJ: 28:19 Absolutely, there’s a limitation on the thing of $500 in purchasing. I cannot purchase anything over $500 without taking competitive bids. State statute is $2000, and we need to amend and modify that. We need to amend the charter in many respects. One is purchasing, the other is to change the title or nomenclature of some of our officers. For instance, we have city treasurer. Well, that’s fine, but actually the title now is director of finance, and I think that’s what it ought to be. The mayor and the city commission ought to have more compensation than what they’re making—$50 for commissioner, $150 for mayor. Their cleaning bill, their banquet tickets bills are more than that, and that’s entirely wrong. I’d say the method of co-regulating franchise to utilities companies should be looked at. I think we should change our physical year. We’re operating on a physical year which is a calendar year coincide January 1, December the 31st, but the budget has to be adopted by August 31st. You can see what an unworkable handicap that is on our finance people, our tax people, my office, and the mayor and city commission. We adopt a budget on August the 31st that does not go into effect until the following January. And even in auditing, we have of course an independent auditor, and that makes—works a handicap on him. I can’t think of any others particularly right now other than I think it’s the limitations and restrictions on expenditure of funds, financing, budgeting, that sort of thing.
LM:What essentially is the mayor’s role in this relationship to you?
WJ: Our mayor is, or course, the chief administrative officer of this city as in all cities. And our mayor’s have been very active. They are concerned people. They come by my office every day—every week and almost every day, and I report to them. We have financial reports, we have data reports. I like to let them know what the police department has done, any major problems, any crime areas that we ought to concentrate on, financial statements, any unusual circumstances. Mayor has to, in longhand unfortunately, sign all of our checks—and we have an abundance of those—and he signs all contract documents. He’s the ceremonial head of the city. Any flag raising, ribbon cutting, the mayor’s in the forefront. We don’t try to take any credit around here. I’m opposed to personal aggrandizement because I think that’s what—the mayor and the city commission ought to get that credit. And you know, it makes my job easier if I can pass on the credit to them. And I found my philosophy as this, that you cannot pass on goodwill and credit—you can’t give it away because if you do it will come back to you. We try to push them in the forefront in a publicity and public relations standpoint.
LM:Who appoints the city employees?
WJ: 32:33 Well, I do. I’m charged with the responsibility of the employment and discharge of employees. I don’t act on that without recommendation from our department heads.
LM:Is there any full on civil servants?
WJ: We do not have civil servants. We have—I guess it’s kind of a unique system, we try to track the state statute as best we can and give our employees everything that’s in the civil service 1259 N statues—vacation, holiday pay, longevity, fringe benefits, retirement, social security, group hospitalization. We’ve got one of the finest fringe benefit programs in the city and, I think, in the state of Texas.
LM:During the time that you have been city manager, what has been the greatest change that you’ve noted?
WJ: Oh, I’d say—well now, what do you mean?
LM:The most significant change with regard to city management?
WJ: Oh, city management?
WJ: I’d say—I can best explain that by saying frustration—the change of frustration, the change of the attitude of people. I find that most people are intelligent, they know what I’d like to classify as not their civil rights, but their democratic rights. They know how to go about attaining these, and they don’t hesitate to ask for them. I think the people in West University, when once you give them a reasonable answer they accept it. But they are entitled and know what their rights are, and once you tell them we haven’t really had problems. Younger people, I think, are progressively getting easier to deal with and to get along with and to understand problems. They are concerned and they want to participate in their city government, and they do participate through board and committee action. We have a lot of them that attend our public hearings and express themselves, and I think that’s wonderful. All of our meetings are open and we don’t have any closed sessions. The city calls more public hearings now, I guess, than it has ever in its life. But I’d say it’s the change of attitude and our willingness to change with it. And I think that we just don’t roll with the punches here at the city hall, we try to keep abreast of it and be modern and change with attitudes.
LM:I want to thank you for the interview. I know you have an engagement. I don’t want to detain you any longer. I do appreciate the time you have made for us.
WJ: 35:40 Well fine, it’s been my pleasure. And let me take you back to the conference room because I do have some very important records that I want you to see. (telephone rings)
LM:Thank you very much.