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Futrell balanced budget cuts 519 jobs

Friday, August 1, 2003 by

Ninety-one of those face layoff in October

City Manager Toby Futrell yesterday outlined her proposal to eliminate nearly $54 million in expenditures and 519 city positions—including outright layoff for 91 city workers—for the 2004 Fiscal Year. The afternoon City Council presentation followed months of speculation and a morning during which many department directors were forced to tell employees they would be moved to other jobs or laid off by October 1. But the gloomiest statement of all came in Futrell’s prediction for 2005: “We haven’t gone far enough. There’s an additional amount of cuts that are needed to maintain structural balance,” for next year.

In addition to the job cuts, Futrell said libraries, parks and virtually every area of city endeavor would have to change—especially the development review process. “We committed to new business service models rather than business as usual,” she said. Funding for development review and permit processing has been cut by 40 percent, a savings of $1.1 million, she said. Those close to project managers of the city’s four land use review teams indicated that all of them were being offered other positions within the city.

Joe Pantalion, who this week was named acting director of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department (WPDR), told In Fact Daily, “We are losing 26 positions,” including 12 that were vacant. He said a number of the current employees would be transferred to other positions within the department. Because the watershed protection department is funded mainly through money from the drainage utility, as opposed to the General Fund, and because the area had vacancies in positions such as environmental reviewing, several employees will be offered to move into jobs that may pay less but still pay the bills and give them the benefits the city provides, such as health insurance.

Pantalion said the new development review structure would be patterned after what is used in Smart Housing, which is carried out by the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department. “Our goal is to have this process in place by Oct. 1,” he said. “However, the success of this new process is heavily dependent on our ability to change the way we do business.” In order to streamline the department in the way he envisions, Pantalion said, many employees would require cross-training—a critical element of the new procedure—and the department would be using new technology.

In order to keep up with what Futrell called “built-in cost drivers,” of $25 to $30 million a year, the city must reduce other expenditures or raise taxes—or both. Those drives include public safety expenditures, wage and benefit increases, operational and maintenance costs of new facilities such as parks, libraries and recreation centers already funded through bonds, and the continued increase in demand for indigent health care. In order to minimize those increases, Futrell proposes:

• Reducing public safety wage increases to two percent and a freeze in wages for all non-civil service employees for the second year in a row;

• Reducing health care premium costs by replacing the city’s medical plan with a “privately-funded, self-funded provider organization.”

• Delaying construction of 10 new facilities, including four library expansions; two parks; the Mexican-American Cultural Center; the Gus Garcia Recreation Center, the Colony Park Recreation Center and an addition to EMS Station #14.

One of the most important themes of Futrell’s message was the need to move to the effective tax rate. That is the rate that brings in the same amount of revenue as the city got from property taxes last year. As Council Member Betty Dunkerley, formerly the city’s financial manager, explained, “The effective tax rate is that rate that brings in the same amount of tax dollars next year as we have this year. So overall, the taxpayers in total will not be paying more. Now, individuals will say ‘what about my tax bill?’ So for those of you who have tax bills, you need to do a simple thing. You need to compare how much your valuation went up or went down compared to the average of the roll. So if our roll is down four percent and your value went down five percent, you’re going to get a tax decrease. If you’re property went down three percent and the average of the roll went down four percent, you’re going to get a little bit of an increase. But we deal with averages. So this is the rate that you have to have to bring in the same amount of money with the same tax burden overall. It is also the rate that I personally think is absolutely necessary to maintain the financial stability of this city as we go into the future.”

Council Member Daryl Slusher praised the manger and her staff, “for doing what I think is a good job in an incredibly difficult situation. There’s a lot of pain involved in this budget; it’s really affecting a lot of people’s lives in a negative way. This is not a situation where we’re having a philosophical debate over government spending and how high taxes ought to be or how many services should provide. We’re in a situation where we have no choice but to cut services to our citizens. The fact is, is that the money simply isn’t there.” One of the reasons for the extreme cuts now is that the city expanded services during the boom years of the 1990s. Slusher reminded taxpayers that citizens had instigated most of those service increases.

“Also, cities all over the nation are in similar situations. I think we need to have extensive public discussion of this,” Slusher said, “but I would really appeal to members of the public that for it to really be meaningful input to us, it won’t be helping to just say ‘don’t cut this’…what’s going to be incumbent on the Council, and I hope members of the public will take this sprit too, if you don’t want to cut something that’s in here we’ve got to identify what else we’re going to cut instead or where we’re going to get the extra revenue.”

The city will hold public hearings on the proposed budget next Thursday, August 14 and August 28. The Council will adopt the 2004 budget in early September.

In concluding, Futrell said, “We have a burning platform here; we have an absolute mandate here to change and innovate…I believe we can come out of this with a stronger organization and that will be our silver lining.”

Budget forces fire department changes While the Police, Fire and EMS departments are not cutting sworn personnel, they are reducing the civilian workforce. And the Fire Department may adopt another cost-cutting move involving the deployment of a new type of fire vehicle called a “quint.” The more versatile vehicle is designed to combine the functions of fire engine and ladder truck.

Its implementation, said City Manager Toby Futrell, is part of an overall reorganization of the Fire Department. “By far, the most controversial service delivery model change contained in this budget is the Quint/Squad model,” she said. “It’s a model that customizes response to a change in service demand.” Statistics show that most calls handled by the Fire Department are medical, while fewer than 10 percent are to respond to actual fires. The reorganization in deployment and staffing would save $1 million in the General Fund.

The quints would be used in the outlying areas of town that generate the fewest calls. Four squad units will be stationed in central city areas with high call volumes. Fire Chief Gary Warren has previously explained to the Council that the change would not affect the city’s ability to meet the “two in, two out” rule, which requires that each pair of firefighters who go into a burning building be backed up by two firefighters outside.

The controversy generated by the proposed policy change comes in part from union opposition. “It would replace a fire engine with four firefighters with a smaller version of a fire engine with two firefighters,” said Mike Martinez, vice president of the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters. “If you staff a fire engine that responds to a fire with two firefighters, obviously you can’t comply with the ‘two in, two out’ law.” The union, Martinez said, will make its concerns known to the department’s administration and city management.

“We just want to be a part of the process,” he said. “We want to find the cuts that are necessary to help the city get through this difficult time, but we want to maintain our public safety.” If the policy is adopted, it would eliminate 11 vacant firefighter positions at the start of the new fiscal year and 16 vacant positions by April 2004.

For news from last week:

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Rules changes . . . The City Council approved the new rules and procedures for conducting meetings on second reading yesterday, with members agreeing that they should take time to read comments from the public before final passage. Council Member Daryl Slusher noted that they had received seven pages of public input and had not yet had the chance to read those comments. The major changes affecting public input include a revision of the schedule to sign up to speak at citizen communications and a penalty for repeated failure to appear for those who have requested time . . . Council appointments . . . The Council reappointed the following by consensus: Amanda Cagle and Phil Williams to the Airport Advisory Commission; Sue Ann Carpenter to the Child Care Counci l; Luis Plascencia to the Commission on Immigrant Affairs; Lark Anthony to the Solid Waste Advisory Commission; and Rick Krivoniak and Jim Walker to the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission (RMAA). The Council also appointed by consensus Judith Lewis to the Commission for Women and Claire Morris toRMAA. In addition, Council Member Brewster McCracken reappointed Wendell Ramsey to the Telecommunications Commission . . . Changes at Austin Energy. . . As part of the city’s budget reductions, Austin Energy has eliminated a total of 14 positions, including eight vacancies. Of the six remaining staff members, four have been offered other departmental positions and another has been offered a position at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. In another move to streamline management, five Vice Presidents will now be classified as department directors. One vice president’s job was eliminated. For those reclassified as directors, salaries will remain the same, but they will no longer have the additional benefits the vice presidents have . . . Why not take it all from Austin Energy? . . . During her presentation, Futrell said, “I can’t tell you how many well-intentioned groups have said just go to Austin Energy’s contingency management fund.” That fund protects the utility and its ratepayers from the very volatile energy market, she explained. At the moment, one of the units of the South Texas Project is down. An increase in demand, such as normally seen in the summer months, coupled with an outage and a rise in energy prices could wipe out the fund in two to three months’ time, Futrell said. “This proposed budget does not rely on one-time funds,” she added, noting that Austin Energy is already transferring what is considered the maximum of 9.1percent. That level “keeps our covenants with the bond-rating agencies,” she said . . . Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department . . . Director Alice Glasco said the department is eliminating the Neighborhood Academy’s three positions. One of those employees will be moving to another department, she said . . . Office of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development . . . Department Director Paul Hilgers said he has six vacancies. Two of those jobs have been offered to employees from other departments, but he said he is uncertain about the others . . . Intel sale official . . . Representatives from Intel, the City of Austin and the federal government gathered in Republic Square Park with the Intel building as a backdrop yesterday to make the official announcement that the downtown eyesore had been chosen as the location for the new federal courthouse. “This is a win-win situation,” said Congressman Lloyd Doggett. “It will provide Austin with a new courthouse…and provide Intel a resolution for the land.” Joining Doggett were Mayor Will Wynn, Intel’s external affairs manager Fred Shannon, representatives of the General Services Administration (GSA) and several federal judges. The GSA anticipates closing the deal for the land in early 2004, with construction beginning in late 2005. The project should be complete in 2008. Intel is only selling one of the four downtown lots it owns. The proposed purchase price is not being disclosed, but will become public next year when the deal is finalized.

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