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In tight budget year this may be the only point of contention

Friday, September 6, 2002 by

Council Member Will Wynn has proposed to his colleagues that they cut their own staff to help balance the city budget. In particular, he suggests that each Council office be limited to one staff person—like his own—and that all paid interns and temporary staff be eliminated. Wynn says the Council could add two shared administrative or secretarial positions, for a savings of about $336,000. He calculates the savings at 19.25 percent, reducing the City Council budget for the coming year from about $1.74 million to about $1.4 million.

Wynn’s memo points out that determining exactly how much is budgeted for Council staff in the coming year is no simple task. “The budget summary tells us [the total is] $1,190,890. However, after more investigation, an additional $554,258 of hidden expenses were identified as being charged to other departments, primarily the office of the City Clerk.” That includes $42,000 for interns who work part-time and are usually college students. Funding for the internships comes from the Human Resources Department. Wynn identifies one staff member in the Mayor’s office as being funded by Austin Energy.

Wynn’s memo lectures his colleagues, “I believe the City Council needs to show leadership. I would like for city employees to see that we will not ask them to do anything that we’re not prepared to do ourselves.”

In May, when his secretary found a city position, Wynn decided not to hire a replacement. He also suggested that other Council offices follow his example, but none did. Wynn’s memo states, “The most noticeable level-of-service issue is that most phone calls to my office are not answered live.”

Wynn’s ideas, set forth in a memo circulated yesterday afternoon, have not received an enthusiastic response. Council Member Daryl Slusher said, “I’ll give it consideration but it looked like to me it would mean less service to our constituents and I’m not going to be for that. He recommends eliminating the interns. First of all, the interns help the office function better and my intern is working her way through college. I can’t see balancing the budget on the interns. I do support cutting, office by office.”

Slusher said he is willing to cut his own budget by the percentage that most other departments were being reduced. He suggested that an easy item to cut would be travel, noting that he has not traveled on the city’s behalf since the budget crisis began. He concluded that each office should figure out how to save money without being forced to adhere to any particular policy.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who has a lot of budget experience but only three months as a Council member, responded, “What I would say is that before I would recommend it I need to do a better analysis of my workload. I’ve been there three months and for two months it was all Stratus. And there’s no way I could have handled it [with only one staff person]. One of my highest priorities is to respond to all of the citizens who contact my office.” While Stratus was being considered, she said, she got 500 to 600 emails at a time—far too many for her to deal with alone.

Dunkerley also said she would not consider doing away with the intern program. “I really enjoy having the young interns—not so much that it helps me—mainly it gives them exposure to the city and a possible career choice and helps them get through their education years.”

Several staff members pointed out that Wynn’s office uses the administrative assistant available to all Council members more than the other six. But no one wished to discuss this matter on the record. Wynn’s name comes up in any discussion about who might be eyeing Mayor Gus Garcia’s job after the latter’s retirement. But Garcia appears to be enjoying his job and has told his assistants he would not be making a decision about running again until January or February.

The Mayor has three executive assistants plus three staff members who do administrative work such as answering the phones. The city manager’s proposed budget for the coming year gives that office a total of $408,624, according to Wynn’s figures. His proposal would cut only about $30,000 from that budget; however, the other Council offices would lose considerably more. For example, Slusher’s budget would be cut from what the manager has proposed—$202,339 to $129,123. The proposed budget for Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman’s office is $203,371; Wynn would cut that to $140,923.

The subject is complicated by the different levels of experience and number of years of city employment each staff member has. Newly hired secretaries make considerably less, for example, than those who have been city employees for years. The same is true of executive assistants. Nor do the numbers necessarily reflect the amount that is actually being spent. Wynn’s office budget, as proposed by the city manager, is $203,854, which is higher than Goodman’s. He is proposing a budget of $129,123 for himself, Slusher and Council Member Danny Thomas.

The Council is scheduled to take its first budget vote on Monday.

Cantu says oversized lines will save utility costs in the future

The Water and Wastewater Utility Commission Wednesday agreed to support a staff recommendation that the utility reimburse a developer for the cost of an over-sized water main which will service land in the city’s ETJ along FM 812. The 36-inch main will provide service to a proposed development presently called the “FM 812 Commercial Park” but will also make it easier for the city to provide infrastructure to the surrounding area.

“If a developer is willing to work with us to oversize the lines so that we don’t have to pay carrying costs, engineering costs, and easement costs, . . . then it’s a savings to the utility in the future,” said Reynaldo Cantu, assistant director of the Water and Wastewater Utility Engineering Program. “Or else we’re going to have little systems of 16- and 8-inch lines extended with no ability to serve any further.”

The land is within the Desired Development Zone and near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Both of those factors lead officials with the Water &Wastewater Utility to believe the area is poised for additional development. The overall cost for the project will be $2.4 million, which includes both “hard costs” for construction and “soft costs” for engineering work.

Commissioner Lanetta Cooper had several reservations about the proposal to reimburse the developer, noting that the money had to come from somewhere. “This causes me great concern from a rate-payer’s perspective,” she said, adding that she wanted to know what type of profit the developer would be making on the project. “I don’t think residential rate-payers should have to pay for these.” Cooper also had several questions about the motivations and procedures for the reimbursement, which involves a waiver from the City Code. “A waiver is supposed to be for an exceptional circumstance,” Cooper said. “Our responsibility . . . is to ensure that the request is based on valid facts.”

Commission Chair Darwin McKee countered that the additional utility capacity in the area and the ability to promote growth in the Desired Development Zone were sufficient justification for the waiver. “I don’t believe it requires an extraordinary circumstance,” McKee said. “The city has set itself on a policy of getting growth in a particular area. The city has basically told people, ‘if you will build it we will come’,” McKee said. “That whole area around the airport . . . has insufficient infrastructure now.”

Cooper urged the Commission to appoint a special subcommittee to consider their policy on future waivers. The final vote on reimbursing the company for the cost of the utility line was 4-0-1 in favor, with Cooper abstaining. The City Council will make the final decision.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Travis County Democratic Party is having its 2002 campaign kickoff party on Sunday from 5-7pm at La Zona Rosa. Congressman Lloyd Doggett recorded a phone message urging Democrats to attend Sunday’s party . . . Meet the Republican candidates . . . Ben Bentzin, candidate for Senate District 14, Travis County Commissioner Pct. 3 candidate Gerald Daugherty and JP Precinct 3 candidate Melissa Goodwin will be meeting folks at the home of Sheri and Robert Kleeman, 9607 Dawning Court on Saturday from 2 to 4pm. For more information, call 795-0675 . . . Press conference on insurance rates . . . Leading consumer organizations, including Consumers Union, Texas Watch, AARP and the Gray Panthers will be presenting proposals to solve the insurance crisis in Texas at 10 am this morning at the State Capitol. The organizations will be releasing information on specific legislative reforms they will be supporting during the coming session. . . Oops! . . . In Fact Daily erred yesterday in stating the time on next Tuesday’s Downtown Design Guidelines meeting. On Tuesday (9/10) the meeting begins at 7:30am. The following Tuesday (9/17) the meeting will be at noon. . . Texans for Public Justice crow. . . Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, said yesterday’s rejection of Judge Priscilla Owen by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is “a major victory for women, workers, minorities and consumers. It is also a signal to President Bush that ideological court packing will not be tolerated.” . . . Arson warrants issued . . . Arrest warrants have been issued two men in connection with a fire that destroyed an historic home at 1822 W. 11th Street last May. Jitendra Rajpal is accused of hiring 28-year-old Michael Joseph Allen to burn down the home. Captain Aaron Woolverton with AFD’s Arson Investigations division says Rajpal was frustrated that the historic zoning prevented him from demolishing the home, which is part of the Clarksville Historical District. “We believe his plan was to build a three-story triplex on that lot,” Woolverton said. The fire caused $100,000 damage to the house, which was eventually condemned. Both Rajpal and Allen are accused of arson, which is a second-degree felony. Neither of the men are in custody.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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