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Water & Wastewater staff shortage means

Thursday, July 13, 2000 by

Department one year behind in new service

Only one crew working on breaks, overflows

The City of Austin has only one crew to work on water and sewer line breaks and overflows, according to Jack Gatlin, acting assistant director of pipeline operations and maintenance for the Water and Wastewater Department. Gatlin said, “In the past, there were six crews” to work on emergencies. “We’ve got people working so much overtime our safety people are concerned. (Some employees are working) four and five 16-hour days. If we weren’t rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, we’d still be behind,” Gatlin told the Water and Wastewater Commission Wednesday night. Gatlin said he needs 320 employees to fully staff maintenance and operations, but he only has 287. He said that next year’s departmental budget—FY2001—calls for a total of 312 maintenance and operations employees. A few employees have retired—four between Dec. 1, 1999 and April 8, 2000–but most have gotten better jobs. Shaking his head, Gatlin said he will be losing a supervisor to another city department this week. The biggest problem, he said, is that trained employees “usually get hired away by people paying more.” A study by Malcolm Pirnie Inc. showed “that we have fewer staff per mile of line than the average utility,” Gatlin said. “Their report showed it– they just didn’t choose to report it in executive summary,” so very few people knew about that particular statistic, he said. As a result of understaffing, Gatlin said, “the department is 12 months behind in installation of water and sewer lines.” Every time an employee quits, he said, unless that person was on the bottom of the ladder, someone below that level will probably be promoted to fill the position. As a result, each time a senior worker quits, the department has to advertise three jobs: the senior position, the assistant position, and the associate position, because the assistant and the associate employees move up, necessitating more hiring. Gatlin told In Fact Daily, “I have people calling every day—both developers and homeowners—saying, ‘I bought a tap six months ago.’” Those people expect to get lines installed, he said, but the department is eight months behind on connecting new homes to city sewer and water lines. Commissioner Jim Haley told Gatlin, “You’ve done a good job of advocating” for your department. Jane Burazer, acting assistant director of water treatment, said her department also has experienced “a lot of turnover at the higher level.” She said she had tried to lure employees away from other cities, but was unsuccessful because she couldn’t offer them enough money. Several jobs had to be posted three or four times before qualified people applied, Burazer said. She said a recent reclassification study had resulted in a higher wage for water treatment workers. Burazer said also that the Malcolm Pirnie report had spurred some changes in departmental policies, including “highlighting specific jobs in each plant where we have cross-training. That has helped us out considerably in the last few months.” Keeping trained staff is still difficult, she said.“ The overall goal is to downsize staffing.” One method for doing that is putting workers on 12-hour shifts, she said. In the last year, Burazer said, “we have switched from straight recruiting. The department has been advertising jobs on the Internet since January,” she said, “and that has helped a lot.” .

Water & Wastewater Commission wants

More time to review OSSF regulations

First draft given to commission last August

Almost one year after first receiving a proposed draft ordinance for regulating on-site sewage facilities (OSSF), the Water and Wastewater Commission decided Wednesday night to study those rules for another month. That decision was made after Commissioner Mike Wilson made a motion, seconded by Commissioner Jim Haley, to re-consider the entire set of rules yet again. Wilson was chair of a three-commission committee, made up of members of the Environmental Board and the Planning Commission and Water and Wastewater Commission. Haley was also on the committee. That committee began considering the rules last fall, going through each section one step at a time. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 16, 1999) The public was invited and a number of citizens made lengthy and critical comments, mainly telling the committee they did not want to abide by any rules that would be stricter than the minimum rules enforced by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC). Throughout those meetings, Wilson and Haley reacted negatively to the majority of changes city staff had suggested for Austin’s regulations. The committee concluded its work on March 30, voting to send the revised rules forward. At that time, Haley said he did not view the regulations “as a consensus document.” However, he was a minority voice on the committee. At his first meeting Wednesday, newly appointed Commissioner Mike Warner said he was worried about homeowners being able to afford to upgrade old septic systems. Chair Darwin McKee said he did not want to tell the City Council the commission was either rejecting the rules or starting over on the process. He explained that “there will be a lot of public input” when the rules reach the Council. “And Commissioner Warner, I’m aware of affordability (as an issue). But I think we need to be very, very clear that the public health and safety is our first concern.” After hearing from McKee, Wilson withdrew his motion. McKee appointed Commission Vice-Chair Lanetta Cooper to be moderator of the sub-committee to revise the rules before next month’s meeting. Haley, Wilson and Warner were appointed to serve on the sub-committee with Cooper. The group set two meetings, which are open to the public, for 6 p.m. on July 17 (Monday) and July 25 (Tuesday). Jan Galbraith, administrative specialist for the commission, said those meetings probably will take place at Waller Creek Plaza, 625 E. 10th Street. Until the city’s rules are approved by TNRCC, the city cannot do the re-licensing and re-inspection of old systems that city staff believes are critical to protecting public health, according to Mary Bell Lockhart of the city’s Health Department.

Water agenda…The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Board

will meet at 5 p.m. Thursday. Discussion and possible action items include the controversial Hays County 2025 Transportation Plan, the Region K water management plan and the Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the LCRA… Cheese please…Campaigns for People, which seeks campaign finance reform, invites you to its new web site: www.hadenough.net, and to join the Million Mouse March According to Campaigns for People, one half of the $120 million raised in Texas elections in 1998 came from just 629 donors. Good-bye Brushy Creek MUD…The Water and Wastewater Commission voted Wednesday to authorize negotiation and execution of agreements for wastewater disposal and treatment services with the Lower Colorado River Authority and the Brazos River Authority. Under the contract, the city will sell existing wastewater facilities and assets to LCRA and BRA and terminate existing agreements with the Brushy Creek Municipal Utility District, Fern Bluff Municipal Utility District and the City of Round Rock. Mike Erdmann, wholesale service manager for the city utility, said the City of Austin will become a customer of LCRA and BRA and will have a contract “that matches Round Rock and Cedar Park’s contract.”.

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