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John Stephens,

Monday, June 11, 2001 by

Director of Finance and Administrative Services

A conversation with the man in charge of the budget

John Stephens has directed the Department of Finance and Administrative Services (DFAS) for a year now, having previously served as City Controller. As director, it is his duty to oversee the financial well-being of the government of the City of Austin, monitoring the financial performance of all city departments. The department offers a wide range of services to the municipal government. The DFAS manages the city’s financial accounting and reporting activities and makes recommendations for financial allocations. The Controller’s Office is a division of the DFAS, providing centralized payments to departmental employees and to vendors for services provided. Fleet management and building maintenance also fall under its aegis.

Beyond those operational tasks lies Stephens’ most vital responsibility, the development of the city’s budget. The fiscal year 2002 budget is currently being hammered out. Though he has previously indicated that the latest numbers are less than exciting, Stephens is quick to correct any suggestion that the City’s financial situation is anywhere near dire. “Austin is doing better than other cities in Texas, it’s just that our growth in revenue has slowed. The impact will be that we will not see a corresponding growth in expenditures as high as we have in the past.”

He describes a spending stasis: “No significant capital projects are going to be put off. On the other hand, the transportation bond package isn’t going to be enough to pay for our transportation needs, but it’ll have to do.” A certain amount of prudent belt-tightening is in order, in Stephens’ opinion. “The city has gone through some exercises to defer things that are not absolutely essential. It’s no different from what most companies do, minimizing discretionary expenses like travel and training. When the money gets tight, those are the things you look at first.”

Similar to any household, the city takes advantage of any interest rate decreases. “The treasury is always looking for opportunities to save on debt service and cash management. There’s an item on the Council’s agenda right now to refund some $129 million in general obligation bonds, and that’ll save the city some money.” He explained further, “We issue new bonds to refund the old bonds, not extending the maturity date of the debt. These were bonds issued back in 1991 for a variety of purposes, from transportation to parks.”

As of this year, Information Services is no longer part of DFAS, but the department still has some significant e-government projects underway. They are working on a project that allows vendors to register with the city online and track payments. Another project is being planned that allows people to apply for city jobs online.

The Fleet Services arm of DFAS has extensive responsibilities. They operate five service centers around Austin that maintain most of the City’s vehicles, excluding those of the Departments of Aviation and Water and Wastewater. The Fleet and Purchasing Offices of DFAS are currently working on an initiative to increase the number of alternate fuel vehicles. They have enhanced their propane-fueling infrastructure in order to accommodate this effort. Stephens said, “That’s a Council initiative that we’ve taken very seriously.”

When asked about the most challenging aspect of his job, Stephens said, “The biggest challenge is the complexity of the city. There are a lot of departments doing different things, and it’s hard to make everything fit into one box. We do things that other cities don’t do. We have our own electric utility; we have our own airport—all part of municipal government. That complexity has its advantages, because the work is always interesting, but it’s big and spread out. It’s just got so many people involved in the process, and just getting a decision made is sometimes not easy. That’s true of any large organization, not unique to municipal government.”

Stephens described Austin’s rate of growth as its greatest challenge: “The provision of services are overburdened, just like the rest of the country. Help for the indigent will remain an issue. Those who have lived here have seen their cost of living and housing increase without a corresponding increase in salary. That’s why the council has brought the housing issue to the forefront.” When asked if the proliferation of “for sale” signs might be an indication of a cooling-off period, Stephens disagreed. “There’s really no loss of momentum in growth (for lower and middle incomes). From what we’re hearing from the Travis County Appraisal District, the only change has come in the above-$300,000 category of homes.”

Stephens is 53 years old, married with two children, Carolyn and David. He was born in Ft. Worth and holds Master’s Degrees from UT-Arlington, UT-Austin and the University of Michigan. In his spare time he swims at the downtown YMCA and reads fiction.

Environmental Board agrees

To watershed CIP funding

But says more protection for Bull Creek needed

After a presentation by members of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department (WPDR) on the department’s CIP funding for fiscal year 2001-2002, the Environmental Board voted 5-1 Wednesday night to recommend approval—with two conditions.

Assistant Director Joe Pantalion and Manager of Engineering and Field Operations George Oswald walked the Board through a detailed appropriations summary. “What we’re looking at for next year is $3.5 million of capital appropriation for new projects,” Pantalion said. “It’s $3.5 million in new appropriations spread out over 11 projects.”

He told the board that the Watershed Protection Master Plan, which will go before the City Council next week for approval, was a huge help in the appropriation process. All the work put into creating the Master Plan, studying 17 different urban watersheds, has given the department focus and direction on where to spend the money, he said.

Oswald said the projects were divided into two categories. With a map of active flood and erosion control projects throughout the city, he illustrated projects currently underway and projects slated for 2002. He also mentioned a variety of other projects, including some in the Walnut Creek watershed in East Austin, where new development would be hampered if something is not done. “We’re taking what I call a preemptive strike” in this area, he said. He pointed out another area in East Austin, Lower Fort Branch. “We have a severe flooding problem in that area,” he said, with “severe stream degradation.”

He told the board about another series of problems across town, along Enfield Road in West Austin. “We have a lot of severe flooding problems along Enfield going out to Johnson Creek,” he said, noting that $800,000 is being allocated to improve storm drains along the road from Lamar Boulevard to Exposition Boulevard.

Oswald explained the $325,000 slated for improvements to the low-water crossing along Bull Creek at Lakewood Drive. He said the crossing is so frequently under water, staff is considering automatic closings at the crossing as a safety precaution. “Currently, we’re out there about ten times year closing down that road,” he said. In addition, he noted concern about automotive-related pollution in the water from cars passing over the crossing as water washes oil and other fluids from the undercarriage of vehicles. “It’s a tributary to drinking water supply,” he said.

The $325,000 would be enough to at least begin a study and might lead to upgrading the crossing somehow, he added. “We’re requesting your support in allocating funds for these projects,” he told the Board.

Board Member Phil Moncada said he would support the funding, noting that safety and water quality were his top priorities. Board Member Debra Williams said her main concerns were related to various city departments failing to work together on projects, thereby creating further problems, such as erosion, resulting in extra expense. “More funding to reduce costs sounds very bureaucratic to me,” she said.

“We’re trying to improve that coordination across departments,” Oswald said.

Pantalion said, “We’re essentially asking for Board support of where to spend the money,” he said, noting increased funding to the department is necessary to accommodate the Master Plan. The Master Plan calls for funding of $800 million over 40 years. “We’re trying to get to that $20 million a year level,” he said.

Vice Chair Tim Jones, the lone dissenting vote, expressed strong concerns about the Lakewood Drive low water crossing over Bull Creek. He agreed that water quality was an issue, but it was not as critical as preserving the character of the area along the creek. “I’m very concerned we’d be removing another piece of historical Austin,” he said, noting Bull Creek has already changed too much. He mentioned the variance Congressman Lloyd Doggett is seeking in order to develop a subdivision near Bull Creek along Spicewood Springs Road. If that variance is granted, he said, it may lead to city annexation of the land and inevitable escalation of development along Bull Creek.

Jones said if the low water crossing were upgraded at Lakewood Drive, it would be “the camel’s nose under the tent” causing Austin to lose more of it’s unique heritage by destroying yet more of the character of Bull Creek. If an actual bridge were built, he said, it would increase traffic on the road because drivers would use it as a cutoff from Loop 360 to FM 2222. “You can’t deny that, can you?”

Pantalion said it was too early to know how much or what kind of an upgrade might be appropriate or affordable at the crossing.

Chair Lee Leffingwell said, “This is a water quality issue . . . the low water crossing is actually too low.” He said he didn’t think it would be a large project. “We’re just talking about something to ease the pollution.”

Jones disagreed. “I’m not sure about that,” he said, offering a substitute motion to remove the Lakewood Drive crossing from the Board’s vote. His motion failed

Board Member Joyce Conner added two friendly amendments to the motion for recommendation, incorporating concerns expressed by Jones and Williams. The Board included a provision to maintain the character of Bull Creek around the Lakewood Drive crossing and another to ensure increased cooperation and coordination between various city departments.

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

Triangle revisited . . . Rosedale residents just learned that the General Land Office will hold a meeting at 6 p.m., Monday, June 18th, to discuss the Triangle Square Development Plan. A copy of the revised plan should be available for inspection, beginning today at the General Land Office, 1700 N. Congress Ave, Room 800 . . . RECA urges members to lobby County Commissioners . . . The Real Estate Council of Austin has sent out its Hot Sheet newsletter, asking everyone to contact members of the Travis County Commissioners Court, “imploring them to include right-of-way funding in the November bond package.” The projects RECA wants funded include SH 45 north, extension of MoPac from Parmer Lane to SH 45 and SH 130. These three projects have received environmental clearance to begin construction, with US 183A expected to join the trio soon, RECA says.

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