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Many county employees live in poverty

Thursday, August 19, 2004 by

More than half of those leaving TNR cite for higher pay as reason

More than 160 employees in Travis County's Transportation and Natural Resources Department live below the poverty line. Many are forced to take extra jobs and cut out health insurance for family members to make ends meet, department leaders told commissioners at a public hearing on the county budget last night.

County commissioners are considering a 5.75-percent pay raise for county employees this year, after two years without raises for most of the county's rank-and-file workers. The total cost of that raise would be $5.8 million. This afternoon, commissioners will discuss the mix of that pay raise, with the most popular suggestion so far being a 4-percent across-the-board pay raise with 1.75 percent set aside for departmental merit pay.

A 2.75-percent raise is proposed for peace officers, who have gone a year without a raise. The cost of that additional pay will be $1.8 million to the county.

Commissioners have already taken some heat for giving a lump sum payment to Transportation and Natural Resources Department employees out of annual departmental savings. Last night, most of the chairs in the boardroom were filled with front-line road and bridge workers, ready to thank the commissioners for their one-time lump sum payment and encourage the department to offer a pay raise for next year.

Don Wheeler and Don Ward, leaders in the division, offered much of the testimony, telling commissioners that 80 percent of the division's workforce lives at or below the poverty standard for a family of four in Austin. Wheeler said these workers were really the working poor, forced to take second and third jobs to support their families..

"In the last two years, over 50 percent of the people who have left our employment have left because of a need for higher wages, " Wheeler said. "We ask people why they leave our employment when they do the exit interview, and over 50 percent said they left to make more money. I know and I appreciate the direction the court is headed, and hopefully we can continue to stay in that direction."

Ward told commissioners that the current hourly rate for equipment operators in Travis County matched the 1999 private sector market rate. In essence, Ward said, Travis County wages are five years behind the market.

Vernell Daniels, who works in the county's sign painting department, said he would have quit the county a long time ago because of the low wages, but he had 17 years of service behind him. Daniels said he could no longer encourage young men and women to join the department, knowing that the wages paid by the county are so low.

Ed Garcia said the lump sum came at a good time, the weekend before school started. Children started school with new sneakers and new school supplies because of that payment. He went on to describe how difficult the low pay was and how he, as a front-line supervisor, had to sit down with employees to decide which family members they could afford to keep on health insurance and which family members would have to be cut.

"I've got workers—I don't want to name names—who have to pick and choose who they are going to put on health. They say, 'My wife is going to cost me this much. My child is going to cost me this much,'" Garcia said. "So they can only insure employee plus one. Health insurance is so important, but they can't afford to put the whole family on insurance."

The county's employee health insurance fund has more than doubled since 2002 due to rising medical and pharmaceutical costs, Smith said. This year, employee health benefits will cost an additional $3.5 million, which will be split between the county and employees. The health insurance fund total will go from $31.6 million in FY 04 to $37.3 million in FY 05.

Commissioner Margaret Gomez said she was ready to sit down with Wheeler and Ward to discuss how to raise the hourly rate for the department's workforce or listen to any other idea to raise wages. Commissioner Ron Davis said he was committed to making sure employees get an across-the-board raise prior to Oct. 1, when the increased cost of health insurance would kick in for most employees.

Employee Kenneth Smith thanked Davis for his support of a proposal of 4 percent across-the-board pay raise, plus 1.75 percent for merit. Smith told Davis he was going directly to church to pray for Davis and his proposal.

"Pray for all five of us," County Judge Sam Biscoe intoned after Smith's comments, drawing laughter from the crowd.

According to a brief overview presented by Christian Smith, executive director of the Planning and Budget Office, the county will add 45 full-time employees to the county payroll. Of that total, 16 new positions have new non-property tax revenue associated with them and another 17 are a switch from grant funds to general funds. That total also includes 8 new full-time employees tied to East Metro Park.

The tax rate currently being considered by commissioners does not extract the hospital district's tax rate. The tax rate would rise from 49.1 cents to 50.1 cents. The average homeowner would pay an increase of $42 per year, from $752 to $794.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty closed the meeting by thanking the employees who attended the public hearing. Daugherty said he appreciated the words of the speakers, many of whom had no experience addressing elected officials.

"I want you to know that you don't ever need to come and feel like that you're begging," Daugherty told the crowd, referring to the comments of one speaker. "You're asking for something that's only reasonable, and I want you to know that I sincerely appreciate the work that you do, and I hope you can be thanked with an increase in pay."

Bond boosters explain AISD's commitments

A coalition of leaders in the education and environmental arenas, including former Mayor Gus Garcia, launched a public campaign in support of AISD's upcoming bond proposals on Tuesday. The group, called the " Committee for Austin's Children," is urging voters to pass all six of the propositions up for consideration on the September 11 ballot. That includes a proposition to fund construction of a new elementary school in Southwest Austin.

"They're all equally important," Garcia said of the six different propositions. "Some people have singled out one or the other. The citizens’ committee that put the bond package together assembled a package that makes sense for Austin."

Proposition 5 calls for the district to issue bonds to pay for the construction of a new middle school in Southwest Austin, as well as leverage private dollars to build a new district-wide Performing Arts Center. The prospect of a new middle school in Southwest Austin has garnered some opposition on the grounds that it could promote development over the Edwards Aquifer. ( See In Fact Daily, August 10, 2004.)

However, Jim Marston with Environmental Defense, said the school district had gone out of its way to draw up plans that were environmentally sensitive. "This bond issue is the 'greenest' bond issue that any school district has ever issued in the state of Texas," he said. Marston, who served on the bond committee, said he supported the group’s recommendation for funding of the school. He said the committee concluded that a new campus is needed to serve existing students in Southwest Austin.

"If we were starting from a perfect world, we wouldn't be building anything in certain places. But there are already homes there; there are already kids there," he said. "If we don't build a school there, that land is not going to remain pristine. In fact, it's likely to be denser development than just a school. For what's going to be built on that location it will be very low impact. It will serve kids that are already there." He also noted that the district was committed to full compliance with the city's SOS Ordinance and would be participating in the " Green Building" program ( http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/greenbuilder/). The location targeted for the new middle school is over the contributing zone for the Edwards Aquifer, not the recharge zone. Last night, the Central Austin Democrats decided to endorse all of the bonds after hearing that the district had promised that such schools would comply with the ordinance.

Two other propositions on the ballot also won praise from Marston. Proposition 2 would fund the purchase of new heating and cooling systems, the installation of new roofs and other energy conservation measures. Proposition 3 would set aside $53.9 million for the purchase of new low-emission school buses.

The other bond propositions include measures to build new schools throughout the district, repair aging athletic facilities and create a fund dedicated to pay raises for teachers. That measure, Proposition 6, would not directly use bond funds to pay salaries, which normally fall under the "maintenance and operations" portion of the budget. Instead, the district proposes to refinance some short-term certificates of obligation with longer-term bonds. The better interest rate would save the district money. "The board has committed to using the savings that would be generated for teacher pay raises," said Gus Garcia, a CPA and former School Board president.

Supporters of the bond packages, which total $519.5 million, say the owner of the average home within AISD would pay an additional $72 dollars per year in property taxes if all six propositions pass. Early voting begins August 25 and runs through September 7. The actual election takes place on September 11.

Recall campaign update . . . Sal Costello, founder and spokesperson of People for Efficient Transportation PAC (PET-PAC) said yesterday he is gratified by the number of emails his web site has generated—2,600 in two weeks—but that he had no count of signatures for the recall of Mayor Will Wynn and Council Members Brewster McCracken and Danny Thomas. Costello added that recall is only a part of his plan, which includes the election of Democrat David Baker, who opposes the toll roads, to replace Hays County Commissioner Bill Burnett. Baker faces Republican Will Conley in November. ( See In Fact Daily, August 2, 2004.) He also named Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock), who faces a write-in candidate in November, as being vulnerable because Krusee authored HB3588 “and it took away our right to vote” on toll roads, Costello said. He concluded, “We’re not going to quit until every single one of them who voted for it (the CAMPO toll road plan) is out of office.” On the other side of the issue, former RECA President Tim Taylor has filed papers for Citizens for Responsible Community Leadership PAC (CRCL-PAC). Taylor’s purpose is to oppose the recall petition. He said he has talked to numerous community leaders who disagree with Costello and are willing to put money into the anti-recall effort . . . Where am I calling? . . . Patricia Paez in Council Member Brewster McCracken’s office related the following via email: “Today I received about 35 back-to-back phone calls from people in Austin and around the United States in regards to Alex Jones' radio talk show. We weren't able to tune in, so we're not totally sure what (Jones) was saying, but we gather that he was telling listeners to call Brewster McCracken's office because Brewster is taking away public access and denying free speech. Callers to our office had no idea what city they were calling nor did they know who Brewster is and what position he holds. Curious.” McCracken opposed funding for the Austin Music Network, which was transferred to ACTV earlier this month. However, he voted with the rest of the Council to transfer the city’s final month of funding to ACTV. Jones spoke out quite vociferously against AMN’s move to ACTV, predicting that the change—along with others that the access channel board was planning—would spell the end of free speech on the access channels. Evidently, Jones did not target other Council members for the same treatment. McCracken said, “I don’t know to what to ascribe that honor, (but) I’m perfectly comfortable being on the other side of an issue from Alex Jones “. . . No City Council meeting today . . . Tune in to Channel 6 next week for endless hours of entertainment . . . Honored . . . The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce gave All for One Awards for commitment to the community to Meals on Wheels and More, Velocity Credit Union and AMD at its annual awards ceremony last night. Kevin’s Cookies & Deli, Austin Cancer Centers and the APD Citizen Police Academy won the Over the Top Awards for customer service. In the innovation category, Newland Communities, Motion Computing and the Barton Creek Resort and Spa took home the prize. Newland focuses on creating a virtual town square through local intranets. Motion is known for creating a Motion View Anywhere screen that can be viewed both indoors and outdoors. Audubon International has named the Barton Creek Resort and Spa as a ‘signature sanctuary,’ which establishes it as the first resort sanctuary in Texas because of “innovative measures to protect the environment,” according to the chamber.

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