Report: Houston is $11,700 in Debt for Every Taxpayer

November 16, 2016

Contact: Katherine Oxenreiter, 312.589.5104

CHICAGO – Truth in Accounting (TIA), a Chicago-based think tank that analyzes government financial reporting, found that Houston’s taxpayer burden - the amount each taxpayer would have to pay for the city to be debt-free - comes out to a staggering $11,700. When ranked amongst the 20 most populous cities in the U.S., Houston has the sixth worst taxpayer burden.

To determine a city’s taxpayer burden, TIA researchers use a systematic and thorough approach to get a complete picture of the city’s finances. Unlike reporting done by city government officials, TIA’s data includes all promised liabilities such as retiree health care and pensions. According to TIA’s analysis, Houston has committed to $5.3 billion in pension payments and $2.1 billion for retiree health care, but the city has not adequately funded these obligations.

This year, TIA has noticed a dramatic increase in reported pension liabilities. New financial standards require the city to list the bulk of its pension obligations on the balance sheet for the first time. This rule increases transparency, but also produces a massive jump in reported debt statistics. For example, Houston’s reported pension liability increased from $1.2 billion in 2014 to $5.6 billion in 2015.

“Houston has used accounting tricks to conceal this pension liability for years,” said Sheila Weinberg, Founder and CEO of TIA. “We welcome this step towards more honest financial accounting and are glad to see city government officials abiding by the new rule.”

Although Houston is reporting all pension debt, TIA researchers discovered that the city is still concealing $552 million in retiree health care obligations. When all unfunded liabilities and hidden debt are included, Houston’s total debt amounts to $7.6 billion after available assets are deducted.

“Houston’s financial situation is not positive and I urge the city government to fully report their obligations and take action,” said Weinberg. “It’s unfair to pass the bill to taxpayers who will receive no corresponding benefits.”

Across all 20 cities, TIA researchers calculated a total of almost $263 billion in unfunded liabilities, a huge financial burden for taxpayers. TIA believes high debt and taxpayer burden are not abstract numbers: they’re linked with lower quality of life, poor highway systems, and the slow home price recovery.

Here’s how the top 20 most populous U.S. cities compare by taxpayer burden (ranked best to worst): 

  1. Charlotte: $3,300 (surplus)
  2. Columbus: $2,700
  3. San Diego: $2,900
  4. Austin: $3,000
  5. San Antonio: $3,300
  6. El Paso: $3,700
  7. Denver: $4,300
  8. Indianapolis: $4,300
  9. Phoenix: $5,000
  10. Jacksonville: $6,100
  11. Seattle: $6,600
  12. Los Angeles: $7,400
  13. San Jose: $9,100
  14. Fort Worth: $9,700
  15. Houston: $11,700
  16. San Francisco: $16,400
  17. Dallas: $16,900
  18. Philadelphia: $27,500
  19. Chicago: $44,000
  20. New York City: $61,000

Full details about Houston’s finances can be found in The Financial State of Houston.

The Financial State of the Cities examines the financial conditions of the 20 most populated cities nationwide. The data is derived from each city’s 2015 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.


Founded in 2002, Truth in Accounting is dedicated to educating and empowering citizens with understandable, reliable, and transparent government financial information. Sheila Weinberg is a Certified Public Accountant with more than 30 years of experience in the field.


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