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Jim Smith: Executive Director

Monday, April 23, 2001 by

Austin Bergstrom International Airport

By David Ansel

Former Assistant City Manager Jim Smith is the new Executive Director of Austin Bergstrom International Airport. He’s been there since January, but only officially took charge on March 1. As director he has gained many new responsibilities in an industry that was previously unfamiliar ground. Like other city department heads, he’s concerned with the capital program, increasing revenues, controlling costs and planning for growth. Unlike other department heads, he finds himself in a new industry with new concerns. “The policy industry is very different from the airport industry, and I’m now learning about the key issues about the airport industry, what’s affecting it, where it’s going.”

What also makes this department different is that while it’s a key piece of the community infrastructure, it’s also a part of international infrastructure. The airport serves the community as a transportation hub for passengers, but possibly even more important is the health of its cargo operation. In providing the highly competitive cargo services that different industries need to access the Austin area, ABIA helps to promote regional economic vitality. Conversely, the airport is dependent upon the local economy to help persuade industries to locate here. “People forget cargo,” Smith says, “The airport is a benefit to the entire region, dependent largely upon the level of service that the airport can provide relative to cargo.” Cargo revenue is clearly affected by international and national economic factors as well. Cargo growth is now at an all-time low for ABIA, an anemic 2% in comparison to its normal growth rate of 25-30%.

Planning for that growth is probably the biggest job that Smith has. ABIA is already a fairly large operation, with $66 million in revenues and $40 million in operating expenses last year. The 1993 ABIA Master Plan largely underestimated the expected growth of passenger and cargo services, as ABIA is already functioning at the growth levels forecast for 2010. By this summer, the new Master Plan should be complete. While airfield capacity is fine, gates will soon fall behind demand.

“Coping with growth is the biggest challenge Austin faces. One thing Austin has going for it is that lots of places have been through this, and we can learn from their mistakes. It’s like in the Statesman article this morning, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ Do you want to be a Dallas or do you want to maintain quality of life without the aggressive growth? You need to balance the infrastructure needed for quality of life and the ability to pay for it. It’s about how we’re going to cooperate regionally to manage growth.” When pressed for an opinion on policy to best manage growth, he cheerfully replied, “Let someone else focus on that. I’d rather focus on the airport. That’s why we elect policy leaders. We administrators just help put the plan into action.”

Also on Smith’s plate is the Noise Abatement Program, a five-year program which soundproofs or purchases homes in areas above the noise threshold. An ongoing segment of his workload concerns constantly improving the level of service to airport patrons and the level of training for airport employees.

Smith’s enjoying the opportunities that his directorship provides. “I’m now able to set the budget, create training programs and really set the tone for how this organization will function . . . I also enjoy getting to work closer to front line people, the business leaders.” He describes the environment at the airport as contagiously cheerful. “I’m happy working with the employees at the airport, because they really enjoy working there. It’s fun to be working with people that like what they’re doing. There’s lots of community pride, and that carries over to employees.” He said that the regional feel of the merchants and entertainment help promote that feeling. “They’re proud of the facility and proud to help make it work.” However, on the flip side of that coin lie the personnel problems that often bubble up through the management structure to him. “When there’s a contested issue between worker and manager, I become the arbiter. It’s the most difficult part of the work.” Of course, he has faced the same kinds of issues in his many years with the city.

In his spare time, Smith enjoys biking and running on Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail in training for triathalons. Born in New York City, Smith got his undergraduate degree at CUNY and his Masters of Public Administration at the University of Dayton, Ohio. He moved to Austin in 1984. He is married with grown children.

Audit raises concern

For employee safety

Solid Waste, Parks, EMS cited for preventable injuries

When the City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee meets Tuesday, members will have plenty to discuss. On Friday, City Auditor Steve Morgan delivered copies of a citywide safety audit, along with audits of Solid Waste Services (SWS), Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) and Emergency Medical Services (EMS).

The city paid $6.5 million in workers’ compensation costs during fiscal year 2000. The city spent an additional $3 million for administration of workers’ compensation claims, wage continuation and full-duty wages to employees on limited duty work.

The report places fault with the City Manager’s Office, as well as the individual departments and the Human Resources Department (HRD). Restructuring in HRD has “effectively eliminated all of the resources dedicated to a citywide safety program,” Morgan wrote in a cover letter to the Mayor and City Council. He said he had discussed the issue with new HRD Director Juan Garza, and Garza wants to devote additional resources to safety. He also said that City Manager Jesus Garza has been “a big proponent of safety programs,” in the past.

Deputy City Manager Toby Futrell told the American-Statesman the report raised her hackles. “Obviously, safety is not only a stated priority, it is inferred . . . We have a zero-tolerance policy where violations are concerned,” she said.

Morgan says workers’ compensation costs increased by 86 percent between 1998 and 2000, while the number of injured employees making such claims has only increased by 13 percent. The huge cost increase “is due to at least two detectable factors: catastrophic incidents increased in FYs 99 and 00, and medical costs increased,” the letter says.

Although PARD works face “exposure to wide-ranging hazards,” the department has only one safety officer, who must oversee both occupational and public safety. Naturally, public safety comes first, the auditors said, so the officer has little time for preventing employee injury. The Parks department has a particularly bad problem, Morgan said, because it has so many temporary employees. On the other hand, the auditor praised the department’s aquatic safety program.

The report on SWS indicates that the department phased out field inspectors “around 1996, and the inspectors became SWS Technical Trainers. When this occurred, field observation responsibilities were shifted to SWS supervisors. However, supervisors report that because of competing priorities, they have little time to be in the field observing employees.” Auditors said they were unable to find any documentation of field inspections performed by supervisors.

Management of the department responded by promising to begin doing random and periodic safety inspections by the end of the current fiscal year, September 30.

The good news for EMS was that “workers’ compensation claim rates dropped significantly in FY 00.” However, the audit says EMS needs to do a better job of collecting data and investigating the causes of accidents. “EMS has difficulty determining the root cause of injuries, identifying if the incident were preventable, and creating a prevention plan to eliminate a recurrence,” the report says.

In addition to the reports and recommendations for departments, the Auditor’s Office made six recommendations for the city overall. The action summary presented to the City Council shows that city management concurred with all the recommendations:

1. The City Manager should create a corporate safety office and provide the human and fiscal resources necessary to comprehensively and systematically address the city’s safety needs. 2. To communicate a commitment to employee safety citywide, the City Manager . . . should establish a set of corporate safety performance measures and corresponding goals for the city as a whole and for each department. 3. The City Manager should require the director of the Human Resources Department to monitor achievement of safety goals and issue reports on the results. In addition, HRD should “develop a system to correct performance when goals are not met.” 4. The City Manager and his assistants “should develop a system by which departments can be held accountable for safety performance.” 5. HRD should determine which injury information would be of most value to city management, as well as departments, in managing safety needs. 6. The director of HRD should annually review each department’s compliance with “safety-related laws and standards, including the Hazard Communication and Blood Borne Pathogens standards.

Morgan said better safety programs mean fewer injuries and long-run savings of city money. Austin Energy and the Public Works Department“have really good safety programs and it makes a difference.”

Council Member Beverly Griffith told In Fact Daily, “The news that $6.5 million in workers compensation was paid in FY 2000, plus another $2 million in wages, really got my attention. The human side of these injuries is, of course, another cost. My hope is that the City Manager will make employee safety a stated priority—and provide an employee safety office and staff,” steps recommended in the audit.

Griffith said she also supports the idea of making safety a departmental goal throughout the city. In addition, she said the city ensure “consistent compliance with Texas Hazard Communication Act.” According to the audit findings, “The eight City sites inspected were inconsistent in their compliance with the . . . Act.” Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said, “Employee safety is an absolute priority. I'm sure that we’re about to begin a major initiative in any departments with problems in this area. We’ll need to track the program improvements and make sure that our workplace conditions and procedures are everything they must be to insure that safety.”

Council Member Daryl Slusher said, “With my blue-collar background, I’m very interested in safety issues. I think we are going to be implementing many of the recommendations.” Slusher said he had asked the Auditor’s Office to provide the Council with comparisons between Austin and other Texas cities on injury rates and costs. Griffith, Goodman and Slusher sit on the City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee with Mayor Kirk Watson.

©2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Council to honor volunteers . . . The City Council will honor members of city boards and commissions at a reception and dinner May 11 at the Austin Convention Center . . . Meetings . . . The Historic Landmark Commission will meet this evening. Since this is the 4th week of the month, there are fewer meetings scheduled . . . But does he sing?. . Promotional posters for the 10th Mother Earth Festival benefiting Habitat for Humanity (Sunday, May 6th at La Zona Rosa) indicate City Council Member Daryl Slusher will be a “special guest”, as will musicians Ian Moore and Steve Garrett. The show to benefit Habitat for Humanity will feature performances from Austin band Soul Hat, singer Patrice Pike, and MC Overlord. There’s no indication if Slusher will also be performing . . . Time to get ready . . . The City Auditor’s Office had planned to include a review of safety procedures at the Austin Police Department, but auditors concluded they did not have enough time to do that department at the same time as the other three. City Auditor Steve Morgan said APD would have a few months to beef-up its safety program before auditors take a closer look at injuries there.

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