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Wednesday, October 24, 2001 by

Hit top of pay scale

Commissioners agree on 5 percent lump sum payment

The number of Travis County employees who reach the top of their pay category is expected to almost double in each of the next three years, forcing Travis County Commissioners to take a hard look at whether they should adjust pay ranges.

Commissioner Margaret Gomez said the problem of senior employees hitting the top of their pay scale is one many department heads noted when the new salary ranges were implemented in 1998. If pay scales are not adjusted as many as 957 employees will reach the ceiling by fiscal year 2003. “The chickens have come home to roost,” Gomez told her colleagues during the two-hour discussion of the topic.

Approximately 20 percent of county employees are at the top of a pay grade this year. Commissioners were torn by the issue and have spent a number of court sessions discussing the pros and cons of adjusting pay scales only three years after Travis County completed a comprehensive salary study. In the end, County Judge Sam Biscoe suggested giving the redlined employees a 5 percent lump sum payment and allowing department heads to suggest salary studies in job “families,” or subsets of similar employees. Redlined employees are those who are paid at or above the maximum pay range set for the job as determined by a market study done in 1997.

“We’ve delayed this matter long enough,” Biscoe told his colleagues prior to the vote yesterday morning, noting that the topic had already been up for discussion four or five times. “It’s as clear as it will get. It’s a tough issue, and it’s not going to get easier for the delay.”

Commissioners could have chosen either a one-time lump sum or to adjust all 27 county pay grades with a 5 percent bump to the top of the scale. Linda Moore Smith, director of the human resources and management department, recommended maintaining current pay scales and giving a 5 percent one-time lump sum payment.

Smith argued that recruitment and retention statistics did not suggest the problem was pervasive enough to make sweeping salary changes. Indicators, she said, showed that current salary scales—set at roughly the mid-point of the market—are adequate. The vacancy rate, she said, had dropped from 13.8 percent to 9.3 percent in the last eight months. The turnover rate has dropped from 17.41 percent in 2000 to 14.5 percent in 2001. The county also has seen a 30 percent increase in the number of applications received for job openings.

Adding an annual 5 percent increase to the top of the pay scale for redlined employees could end up costing the county up to $2.8 million between fiscal year 2001 and fiscal year 2003. Smith also pointed out that the county’s system for the annual reviews of some job families could also raise some employees’ salaries.

Commissioner Ron Davis argued that the county had failed to ensure that veteran employees were considered for job vacancies. He and Gomez mentioned the need to give employees new skills to increase their pay ranges.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner suggested that applying a pay raise to every redlined employee was not necessarily the right decision, either. She said that managers should be given the flexibility to address individual pay issues. Gomez disagreed and said that wide discrepancies in individual pay was the reason that led to the 1997 market salary survey, which required a $25 to $28 million correction in pay raises.

Commissioner Todd Baxter argued that the point of any pay raise was to adjust a salary for a particular job description to represent what the market would bear. The point is not the individual employee, but rather what it takes to retain a quality workforce, he said.

“If we’re paying market rates and they’re leaving, they’re leaving for other reasons,” Baxter said. “We need to find out why they are leaving. A pay raise could possibly be a disservice to those who pay the taxes.”

ZAP says yes to senior

Apartments on Slaughter

Foundation Communities working with neighbors

Tuesday night the Zoning and Platting Commission approved zoning for a housing development for low-income senior citizens on West Slaughter Lane. The ZAP Commission agreed to recommend changing the lot zoning from DR (Development Reserve) to MF-2-CO, with restrictions on the density and traffic generated by the project.

Plans call for 250 apartment units on the 14.7-acre tract, which is located adjacent to the Trails at the Park Learning Center at 815 West Slaughter Lane. “We’d like to develop a seniors’ residence here on this property, and we’d like to create a symbiotic relationship with Trails at the Park whereby we could have programs that go back and forth between the youth and the seniors,” said Craig Alter of Foundation Communities(FC). FC is a non-profit group that developed the city’s first completed Smart Housing development, Southwest Trails. He also stressed the need for housing for low-income senior citizens. “Occupancy is very high in Austin with the senior projects,” he said. “Most of the properties are 100 percent occupied.” If FC qualifies for the necessary tax credits, the apartments would be rented to seniors at about half the current market rate.

Commissioner Jean Mather was concerned that the project might not get the appropriate tax credits. She asked what the impact on the neighborhood would be should the project fall through, leaving the MF-2 zoning in place for another developer. To cover that possibility, commissioners approved a conditional overlay on the MF-2 zoning, limiting the density to a maximum of 255 units on the tract, slightly more than the 250 planned by FC.

The non-profit group got an endorsement, of sorts, from Lyda Guz of the Texas Oaks South Neighborhood Association. “The organization that wants to put this together has been very willing and eager to try to make everyone agree so that we are a unit that is trying to achieve this together,” Guz said. “If we’re going to have to continue building on Slaughter Lane, this is a very nice option.” Guz told commissioners that neighborhood concerns about density had been addressed, and also offered suggestions on how to best manage the traffic generated by the facility. “There is a definite, serious concern that we engineer this well for the safety of the residents and the safety of the other people driving on Slaughter Lane,” she said.

The commission voted in favor of the zoning change 7-0, with Commissioners Diana Castañeda and Keith Jackson absent.

Parks board OKs childcare

Standards for rec centers

Ordinance could exempt city from state regulation

The Parks and Recreation Board last night approved a proposed city ordinance to establish new standards for childcare at Austin’s recreation centers.

The ordinance identifies policies and procedures that are already in practice at many of the city’s after school and summer day camp programs. The city can be exempted from state childcare laws if the City Council passes its own ordinance, said Assistant City Attorney Raul Calderon. A hearing at last night’s board meeting drew no opponents. Feedback from neighborhood centers and parents also was minimal.

Commissioners did question whether practices could be standardized across the board, but agreed that neighborhood centers with different programs have different needs.

Robert Armistead, division manager of park programs, said the ordinance would require no additional staffing. Under the city’s proposed ordinance, the minimum staffing ratio would be one staff member for every eight children under age five. That ratio decreases to one staff member for up to 10 children between the ages of 6 and 9, and one staff member for up to 12 children between the ages of 10 and 15.

Swimming pools will require one lifeguard for every 30 swimmers and one staff member for every two children four years of age and under. That ratio is similar for city wading pools, although the ratio decreases to one staff member for every12 children between 8 and 12 years old. Activity leaders must also be certified in water safety and first aid.

All volunteers and employees are also subject to a criminal background check. The parks department cannot use those convicted of a felony.

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Watson still popular at home . . . The Downtown Austin Alliance has sold out seating at today’s luncheon featuring a talk by Mayor Kirk Watson. Last night, the Mayor received a Peacemaker Award from the Dispute Resolution Center. Tracy Watson, director of special projects, including development of the city’s dispute resolution program on zoning issues, received an award for work in the community category. The two Watsons are not related . . . More billboard hearings . . . The Planning Commission tonight will be holding a public hearing on a proposal to change city regulations governing billboards. In Fact Daily expects fierce debate on changes approved by a committee of the previous Planning Commission . . . Villas case postponed . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission last night voted to postpone hearing a request to change the zoning for construction of a 163-unit at 2717 Guadalupe and 2804-2810 Hemphill Park. The previous Planning Commission denied the request on July 24, but applicant Mike McHone and city staff erred in the posting, which caused some neighbors not to receive notification. Gregory Guernsey, Development Service Manager for the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, told commissioners they would have to hold another public hearing in order to hear the case. Rachel Rawlins, attorney for NUNA (North University Neighborhood Association), requested the one-week postponement, which McHone opposed. Opponents have labeled the condos the “Villas at Mango’s,” referring to a nearby bar and restaurant . . . Baptists expect no miracles . . . The Hyde Park Baptist Church and the surrounding neighborhood’s planning team have not reached a resolution to their different views of what the area should look like in the future. So, it seems unlikely the City Council will get to a third reading this week on the Neighborhood Plan. The church still prefers to be left out of the plan and the neighbors still want the plan to govern land development . . . Goodman in DC . . . Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman is in Washington, DC this week, attending a conference on behalf of the city. A spokesman for her office said she would arrive at Thursday’s Council meeting late . . . Youngest guest. . . The special guest at last night’s Parks and Recreation Board meeting was Emmy Francell. Emmy’s dad, board member Jeff Francell, went directly from last month’s board meeting to Seton Hospital, where wife Marnie gave birth to their 7-pound daughter.

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