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In Fact Daily Profile: ACM Laura Huffman

Tuesday, September 2, 2003 by

By Keith Sennikoff

In another installment of Austin city government 101, In Fact Daily spoke to Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman, a second-generation Austinite who is very enthusiastic about her job and is deeply embedded in the community. Part of her profound commitment to helping streamline the city into the 21st century is safeguarding quality of life for a very large circle of friends and family.

Born and raised in Austin, Huffman attended Texas A&M, earning a bachelor of science in Political Science, and the LBJ School of Public Affairs, where she garnered a master’s in Public Affairs. It was while still a student at the LBJ school that she first began working for the city, in the office of the City Auditor. Huffman also worked at City Hall as an executive assistant. After graduate school she relocated to San Marcos where she was deputy city manager until in May 2002.

“In San Marcos, the management structure is the city manager and the deputy city manager; there are no assistant city managers. So I had full purview over all city departments.” As an ACM in Austin she oversees public safety—in other words: police, fire, EMS, the Office of Emergency Management, the Municipal Court and the Community Court.

Meet and Confer

The breakdown of how much time she devotes to each varies according to the Meet and Confer negotiations. “Meet and Confer is a tool that was established through the state legislature. It is a way Austin has of negotiating with both the police and the fire associations. It is a voluntary activity; both sides have to agree to go to the table. And it’s an opportunity to negotiate how (the city) uses Chapter 143, or the (Texas State) Civil Service Law. It has given us, for example in the police department, some flexibility in how we hire and promote officers. It also allowed us to establish a police monitor function in Austin. And in the fire department, that negotiation process allowed us to modify the hiring process in order to diversify the department.”

Both the police and fire departments utilize Meet and Confer, which comes up for renegotiation every three years. “Last year when I started with the city, we began the fire Meet and Confer negotiations, and that absorbed a lot of time. So last year—at least, last summer—the fire department had the majority of the issues. Now, this summer, we’re resuming the fire department Meet and Confer negotiations; we have begun police department Meet and Confer negotiations and we are renegotiating our interlocal agreement with Travis County for the provision of countywide EMS services. So right now those three departments are absorbing most of my time. Also, we have been reevaluating our Homeland Security readiness in the last six months.”

“Last year we put the fire negotiations on hold. Both the association and the city agreed that given the economic conditions of last fiscal year we would be better off if we were to negotiate both the police and the fire contracts in the same year. That gives the city a chance to establish a uniform policy, for example, about how it’s going to approach the pay portion of those contracts.”

“The concept that we’re moving toward, and is proposed in this budget, is going to be a two-percent public safety premium. That will be a two-percent pay raise in a year when city employees are receiving no pay raises, or two percent over what city employees are receiving as a pay increase in a year when city employees are eligible for pay increases.”

Huffman represents city management on the city’s negotiation team during this process. She shares her side of the table with an outside attorney and members of the police administration. “The association also has a team. In the fire department that team is elected, and in the police department that team is appointed by the association president. So the city is really negotiating with the associations.”

“The process that we use in these negotiations is called IBB, or interest-based bargaining. It’s intended to be a collaborative process that focuses on the interests of the two groups and on building solutions that are mutually acceptable for the groups. It requires the city, for example, to help resolve association problems or issues, and the association also has to work to help the city resolve issues that it might have.”

“What you would see if you walked in the door is you would see a large table with probably half a dozen city representatives and half a dozen or a dozen association representatives. And in this cycle you would see us discussing issues related to the existing contract, what provisions we need to add to or delete from the existing contract. We start with the existing contract and talk about how we can build on or strengthen it. And there are large portions of the contract that work quite well for both sides the way they are and will require absolutely no amendment.” And depending on the issue under discussion different members of each team would have the floor. Huffman was the one in the last year’s cycle who described the public safety premium would look, how it compared to the pay benefits that were in the previous contracts and the city’s interest in moving toward it.

EMS, homeland securit y

The next area that Huffman is putting many hours into is EMS. “EMS is a metropolitan service in Austin, and that system, the system of first responders is contained in an agreement between the City of Austin and Travis County. There are also agreements called first responder agreements that the city has with the 13 emergency service districts that are in our area. The cities have agreements with the ESDs. This system is complex. It involves all of the cities in the region, all of the ESDs, Travis County and the City of Austin.” Each ESD has a board appointed by the Travis County commissioners, and each one has taxing authority. “What we’re trying to do now is to create an interlocal agreement that describes more fully how EMS services are provided throughout the county, and clarify just exactly how the provision of services occurs. For example, methods of basic performance measures, how the county pays for those EMS services, under what framework we respond to large or complex incidents. For the most part we’re clarifying issues that have needed clarification for quite some time, such as our response structure.”

“The city uses a structure called unified management system and the county uses a system called incident command. And what it describes is how multiple agencies will work together on a scene to resolve and care for the people at the scene. We’re clarifying that that’s the model that will be used in the county.”

Regarding homeland security, Huffman maintains that Austin invested early and well. “When we look at unmet needs now, we’re really looking at polishing a system. We’re going to wrap up some investments in communications, including radios and some software that will allow us to track where resources are and how they’re being used. For the most part, Austin did a beautiful job of investing in both human and technological resources right after 9/11. So we’re really in very, very good shape and have been recognized as such nationally. We’re one of the examples of how to be ready for homeland security issues.”

The strength and appropriateness of the investments passed their first test when the Iraq War began, said Huffman. “When we went to orange alerts Austin was already functioning on alert status. So I think the investments we made held up well when the security system ratcheted up a few months ago.”

As ACM Huffman must also spend weigh in frequently on the budget. “Public safety is a huge portion of the general fund budget; it is also that portion which we’re trying to protect the most. You cannot balance this budget without making some cuts to public safety and so we have worked very hard trying to identify some cuts that would be acceptable to the community—that wouldn’t compromise the quality of service, but would allow us to scale back and make contributions to a fund that’s in trouble.”

In general, Huffman and her colleagues find that civilian cuts have been the most acceptable to the community. “They’re also very difficult for us to recommend as managers because the civilians provide a lot of the underlying infrastructure for these departments. In any of the departments, they rely on civilians to manage the budgets, for some of the basic internal controls; and in the police department we’ve had a policy of hiring civilians in order to free up officers to be on the street. So any time you cut into those civilian services, those are real cuts and they are impacting service at the department level. But they are far more palatable than cutting uniform services.”

Unfortunately, such cuts can be a double-edged sword for the city. In EMS, Huffman notes, one of the civilian functions is collections. “If you cut into that you will cut into your ability to collect as much revenue as is out there.”

Huffman was here in Austin toward the end of the other big bust in the 80s. “There were some lessons learned about how we cut the organization then. We’re trying not to make one-time cuts . . . we’re trying to stay away from deferred maintenance or deferred investments in equipment. I think the lesson of the 80s was if you must cut back the organization, you must make permanent ongoing cuts. You have to literally shrink the size of government. And that’s difficult to do; we’re a service industry and a good portion of our budget is personnel.” All of which means reducing the number of people who work for the city, making cuts in services, lowering expectations, potentially overworking those who remain or all of the above.

“I think that it’s very important that people understand and trust that what we’re trying to do is find a way to reshape this government to fit with our reduced revenue stream. And I think our ability to do that will rest largely with people’s trust that we are managing this organization as efficiently and effectively as possible. So when we have to make tough recommendations, people understand that we’ve already looked at administrative and overhead costs, we’ve made those cuts; we’ve made this organization as lean as we can possibly make it without undercutting our ability to have basic internal controls. When we’re recommending service delivery cuts, it’s because that is what’s left in terms of reducing expenditures.

“This team is incredibly talented. I thoroughly enjoy working with this team. Everyone is open, collaborative, willing to discuss the tough issues, capable of stepping aside from advocacy roles that get developed overseeing certain departments and really think big picture in terms of what the best way is to move forward with this city. We are completely aligned in knowing that if we’re going to get through this budget crisis and be a stronger organization we have to make permanent ongoing cuts. And we’re challenging ourselves to do that in a way that preserves as much as we can and acknowledges the priorities of the community. It is not easy to do this, but I think I am working with one of the finest teams possible. It’s a lot of fun working with this group, a lot of fun.”

Huffman and her husband Kent—also a native of Austin—have three girls and a boy: Hannah, Emily, Georgia and Maitland, who will be a year old on September 11th. She laughs when asked if his exact birth date was planned, “I figured in honor of public safety I would do something big!”

City waits to hear report from bond raters

Austin is going to market with its annual General Obligation bond sale today as city leaders wait to receive a report from the three major bond rating houses they visited in New York last week. The bonds being issued today will help pay for a variety of city projects including some street repairs, a police substation and forensics facility, the combined emergency dispatch center and acquiring parkland and open space. A portion of the bond package will also be structured to fund the legal settlement reached with the family of Richard Danziger earlier this summer. The total amount of the general obligation bonds and certificates of obligation is approximately $85 million.

In addition to the annual bond sale, the city’s financial advisors are predicting that the major bond rating houses will have a response today to the information presented by City Manager Toby Futrell, Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Betty Dunkerley during their visit last week. Bill Newman of Public Financial Management told Council members at last Thursday’s meeting that the trip went well. “To be quite candid with you, it’s certainly one of the smoothest presentations we’ve given in a long time,” he said, “and in hard economic times like this, I was very encouraged by it.” Newman had urged the City Manager and others to make a personal presentation to Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s, and Fitch Ratings regarding the Council’s efforts to deal with the economic downturn and balance next year’s budget.

The opinions of the three rating agencies impact the interest paid by the city when borrowing money by issuing bonds. Maintaining a strong rating sends a positive signal to the financial markets. Newman said other cities had recently been downgraded by the rating firms, but Futrell was optimistic that Austin could maintain its current status. “One of the themes that each and every one of the agencies stressed with us is that a recession or economic downturn is not what drives whether they downgrade your bond rating,” she said. “It’s how you respond to an economic downturn and a recession.” All three agencies, Newman said, emphasized devising long-range, structural fixes to the city’s budget problems instead of relying on transfers from Austin Energy or reserve funds. The City Manager’s team has highlighted such strategies in budget presentations.

Tuesday, Wednesday

, Thursday, Friday.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Chamber opposes county tax hike . . . The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce has announced its opposition to proposed tax increases by Travis County. Robena Jackson, president of Group Solutions RJW, is expected to present the chamber’s position at today’s Commissioners Court meeting. “Fortunately, Travis County is not in a funding crisis, as are some other jurisdictions. We have to realize that the county represents about 16 percent of the local tax burden, and there is a desire in the community to lower that burden instead of raising it,” she said . . . Some voters awake . . . Although the September 13 election has attracted little attention—aside from doctors and lawyers arguing over Proposition 12—nearly 2500 Travis County residents have already cast ballots. That figure is .62 percent of the county’s registered voters. Northcross Mall retains its ranking as the No. 1 spot for early voters, with 303 votes cast as of Friday night. The Travis County courthouse came in second last week with 285 voters. That was due in part no doubt to the AFL-CIO Labor Day fish fry Friday night. Union officials and their supporters urged those assembled to walk over from the party to vote. Randall’s stores on Research, MoPac and Bee Caves also did well, while 321 voters cast ballots at mobile locations. Today’s mobile locations are Services for the Deaf, 2201 Post Road, the Summit at Lakeway, 1915 Lohmann’s Crossing, and AIDS Services of Austin, 7215 Cameron Road. On Wednesday, state employees will be able to vote at the Travis Building, the LBJ Building and the Stephen F. Austin Building . . . Orchestra starts new season . . . The Austin Symphony Orchestra will begin its fall season this Friday at 8pm at Bass Concert Hall. Featured classics include Smetana’s “The Moldau” from “My Fatherland,” “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” by Falla and Sibelius’ “Symphony No.2 in D Major, Op. 43.” The orchestra will play the same program on Saturday night . . . Slow week? . . . Council members may have private conversations about the budget this week, but no meeting is scheduled until next Monday, September 8, when the first of three days of budget votes begins. Meetings are also scheduled for the 9th and 10th of September, and from the comments made last week, it appears likely that all three meetings will be required to work out differences between those who want to cut as much as possible now and those who are focusing on restoring cuts made in the City Manager’s proposal.

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