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Manager proposes citywide employee bonus

Monday, May 2, 2005 by

Futrell says 2 percent would be one-time boost on top of raise

City Manager Toby Futrell is proposing to give all city employees—except those involved in public safety—a 2 percent one-time bonus this year to try to bridge the gap between their pay and that received by police, fire and EMS employees. Futrell has expressed concern that the police and firefighters’ bargaining processes have created a “caste system” in which regular employees are second class citizens.

The problem has been exacerbated by three years of bad economic news. Futrell is proposing to spend $1.44 million—part of what has been classified as one-time critical costs in the city’s financial forecast—to cover the bonus. The bonus plus an anticipated 3.5 percent raise for all non-civil service employees judged to be “meeting expectations” in city jargon will give the city work force a 5.5 percent pay boost beginning Oct. 1.

Futrell’s proposal, which must compete with numerous other demands for money as the Council crafts next year’s budget, comes at a time when the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is pushing for greater equality between public safety employees and other city employees in salary and benefits.

The monthly Austin AFSCME newsletter for April reports, “Over the past several years, City Management has bestowed very generous salaries, benefits and retirement packages for Police and Fire Department Civil Service employees. During this same period, regular City of Austin employees received no pay raises, higher healthcare premiums, a freeze on reclassifications, and layoffs. AFSCME is pressing for substantial pay increases to close this gap.”

For example, under their contract, public safety civil service employees receive a 2 percent pay increase above any percentage given regular city employees judged to have met their bosses’ expectations.

Futrell explained that she wants to give the extra money as a bonus and not part of a regular raise—which would be 3.5 percent, the same as last year—because if the money is given as part of the city’s pay for performance raise, civil service employees will also receive that raise, plus their 2 percent public safety premium. She said she also wants to do a market study of all city job classifications during the next two years. At this point, Futrell said, “Our public safety employees are at the top,” of the market, while “our city (regular) employees are below 50 percent of market.” The bonus and market study, she said, is part of a two-year plan “to bring the non-civil service workforce up to market.”

Informed about Futrell’s bonus proposal, AFSCME Political Director Jack Kirfman fumed, “That’s insulting. We’re proposing a 5 percent market adjustment.”

AFSCME Representative Carol Guthrie told In Fact Daily the reason the union is seeking the market adjustment is that the police, firefighter, EMS bonus will not be impacted by a market adjustment during the first year that amount is added to other employees’ pay. But Guthrie said the market adjustment would be added to each employee’s base pay for the following budget year.

Futrell said AFSCME is mistaken about how the cost of living increase works. “The very first time you put it in, it immediately goes into base,” Futrell said, so APD, AFD and EMS civil service employees would get 2 percent more than that, or 7.5 percent for the coming year. Future raises for all employees would build on that. In addition, Futrell said, she can take the bonus out of this year’s ending balance as a one-time cost. She cannot do that in future years.

The city is forecasting a $5 million gap between revenues and expenditures for the upcoming year. After adding in capital expenditures such as vehicle replacement, technology upgrades and replacement and the bonus, the gap becomes $12.4 million, the manager said. Making the bonus into a market adjustment “would just make the gap bigger,” she said.

AFSCME has also criticized the City Manager for putting through a market increase for her executive team that averaged $9,400 annually. Futrell said those raises were a necessity. She has had a hard time finding new executives to add to that team, she said. For example, “I’ve gone out three times for the Chief Financial Officer,” position. “We were getting people who were in positions two and three levels lower who were applying for the job who were making more money than the job they were applying for here.” Futrell was able to talk CFO John Stephens into remaining on the job instead of retiring, but she is still worried.

The raises, she adds, came as a result of looking at the market. “We brought in an outside market person and that’s when we found out that 60 percent of our executives were making less than 50 percent of market,” she said. Fifty percent is the exact middle of a wage range for a particular job. She said she did not want her legacy to the city to be leaving the city “with a different quality of management team. At the same time, I turned down my own raise so that there would be no perception that anything was self -motivated in it.” She also points out that she raised the lowest-paid employees to $10 per hour three months earlier than had been scheduled in the current year’s budget. That pay will go up to $10.81 in October.

Futrell’s also planning on asking every department to elect one employee, making up a group of about 30, to meet with her to talk about wages, benefits, working conditions and other matters of concern to employees. The group would also include representatives of AFSCME and several other employee groups, she said. She said she would like to work with that group through the budget season on a more formal basis than the input she receives through town hall meetings.

In addition to higher pay and benefits, the union is also seeking official Council recognition of the union and a Council directive to Futrell to give the union “a seat at the table” when management makes decisions about pay raises and other benefits for non-civil service employees. Futrell said they already have that, but no more so than other employee groups.

Futrell says the union represents about 12 percent of the workforce at the moment. “I’m not interested in building a power base kind of group. What I am interested in doing is trying to find out what I can do to change the working conditions of the rest of this workforce. The overarching issue they talk about – the equity gap – is a problem. I’m as worried about it as anyone. In fact I would argue that I’m more worried about it. It is a caste system.”

Police union vs. employees union

What the union is asking for is “to level the playing field among City of Austin employees,” according to the AFSCME newsletter. It notes that police, firefighters and EMS employees received about $1,000 a year on average extra as a result of the public safety premium. AFSCME argues that many city jobs are just as crucial and dangerous. Their first example is officers within the airport and parks police forces. Mike Sheffield, president of the Austin Police Association, said he agreed that those officers should also receive the premium. The airport police, he said, had already affiliated with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. “They are seeking some fairness in the application of that two percent public safety premium,” he said.

There are some other differences. Public safety employees who are bilingual receive an additional $175 a month, but other bilingual employees do not. The city makes an 18 percent contribution to the retirement fund for police officers, but only 8 percent to those funds for non-civil service employees. Employees hired after 1987 receive no payment for accrued sick leave when they leave the city, but police officers can get compensation for up to 1,020 hours, according to AFSCME.

AFSCME also would like employees at Austin Energy who work on high voltage lines and those involved with the Austin Water Utility, Solid Waste Services, Public Works and Community Care to receive the same premium. The union argues that some of those jobs are just as dangerous.

In Fact Daily, "Our jobs are inherently more dangerous. There are more injuries received on the job, "than other city jobs. In addition, he said police have more stringent requirements for employment. Their pay, Sheffield noted, is based not only on what they do but what they must be prepared to do. "We put our lives on the line and our jobs on the line," often leading to controversy. Not only are police officers threatened with injury and death on a regular basis, they are threatened with loss of their jobs due to the contentious nature of many of their interactions with civilians. "That’s why the disciplinary process is so critical to us," he said. That process gives officers the ability to do the job without fear of political interference, he said.

Kirfman said the union had been getting a good reaction to the pay parity proposal. “Obviously, we want to get legislative authority to have the same kinds of rights,” as public safety workers, he said, although it would be something short of Meet and Confer. He acknowledged that support for that idea is “not a real slam dunk.” However, he said, “If we could get the Council to pass something to give a pretty good indicator to the manager of what they want to see,” the manager would likely react positively. “She (Futrell) is the one that used the term ‘a developing caste system’ so you’ve got to come up with a strategy that does away with that,” Kirfman said.

He explained that the union believes services like garbage collecting and public works are just as essential to public safety as police and fire services. “If you look at some of the compensation levels, it’s getting pretty skewed,” he said, especially in mid-management levels of the police force and fire department.

City to study impact of design standards

The city may bring in some outside help to deal with proposed changes to commercial design standards, now that the Council has sent the bulk of the policy recommendations to the City Manager’s office to be converted into ordinance language. City Manager Toby Futrell says she will likely call in outside consultants in order to complete a Council-ordered study on the economic impact the standards will have on small businesses and other stakeholders.

The Council voted last week to send all of the recommendations off to be codified except the sections dealing with development orientation and building design. Those two portions of the proposal drew the most criticism from the various stakeholder groups that have been involved in the 18 months of discussions. Some local restaurant owners opposed the building design rules relating to branded architecture, the distinctive stylized building design utilized by many national retailers.

“Please don’t take the identity we have worked to achieve for the past 36 years,” said Mary Dozier, who operates a number of Taco Bell restaurants in the Austin area. “It’s the cost and potential loss of identity that causes us to focus on the design section of the proposed policy as it applies to new franchise structures. We want to continue to develop our business and our employees in Austin, but we need to keep our brand name and the elements of our brand on the building to identify to our customers who we are and where we are.”

The owner of several Sonic restaurants also appealed to the Council to take more time on the building standards, as did a representative of the Austin Independent Business Alliance. “We are requesting a local business economic impact analysis to be performed prior to any Council vote on the proposed design standards,” said AIBA Director Melissa Miller. “We are certainly supportive of efforts to keep Austin from becoming Anytown, USA…but we are concerned that there could be unintended consequences brought about by this initiative.”

The Real Estate Council of Austin, the Building Owners and Managers Association, and land use lobbyists Nikelle Meade, Jeff Howard, and Paul Linehan also asked the Council to hold off on sending that portion of the guidelines to the City Manager. The proposals reviewed by the Council did find support from other business and community organizations, including the Downtown Austin Alliance, LiveableCity, and members of the Planning and Design Commissions.

While the resolutions approved by the Council did not require the building design and development orientation portions to be codified just yet, the Council did send the portion relating to signs to the City Manager. That portion of the document also came in for some criticism. Sign company owners and representatives, including one from the International Sign Association, said the guidelines would be too restrictive and deprive businesses of a valuable asset. “We generally laud the effort that Council Member McCracken and his staff have led,” said Brad Greenblum, who spoke on behalf of a coalition of sign makers and installers. “We support the aesthetic environment upgrade, but we basically have some issues with specific sections of the sign code. Signage is the most effective, least expensive advertising for businesses, which is especially important for small business. There are lots of studies that revenues go down drastically when signage is lost.” Greenblum and several other speakers requested more time, ranging from 30 to 60 days, for additional input into the proposals.

Mayor Will Wynn said that additional stakeholder input would still be welcomed as the staff begins working on the ordinances relating to the design guidelines. “It seems to me an affirmative vote will in fact have that happen,” he said, “that is, the City Manager now has the direction to go and spend real time and effort to actually try to put into language the concepts that have come together so far. As most folks in this room know, that’s where the rubber hits the road.” As part of McCracken’s motion to provide instruction to the City Manager, Council Member Betty Dunkerley requested an economic impact study as suggested by the small business representatives and some land use attorneys. McCracken accepted the amendment, which was included in the motion the full Council approved.

City Manager Toby Futrell advised she would try to find the resources for that project, along with the major re-write of the City Code directed by the Council. “I’m actually going to be recommending that we bring on some help to get this done,” she said. “It is going to be very difficult to pull staff to dedicate to this and move it along in any reasonable time frame.” In the meantime, the portions relating to development orientation and building design should be back on the Council’s agenda on May 12. Those still wishing to weigh in on the other portions already sent to the City Manager will have another opportunity to voice their concerns in the future. “All we’re doing is saying we’re ready to continue the process…there will be another public hearing and there will be three votes at the time it comes up,” said McCracken.

The sections dealing with development design and building orientation are scheduled to come back to the Council in two weeks for further discussion.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Early voting continues. . . Voters continue to stream to Northcross Mall for early voting, bringing to 1,620 the number who have cast their ballots at the mall at the end of the day yesterday. In second place is the Randall’s on South MoPac, followed by the Randall’s on Research and the HEB on South Congress. The University of Texas is now the fifth most popular place to vote and the Randall’s on 35th Street is sixth. More than 1,000 Austinites have cast ballots at each of those locations. In contrast, voting has been very light at the five ACC polling places and at the HEB on E. 7th Street. As of last night 17,506 voters had cast ballots, or 3.56 percent of those registered. Early voting ends tomorrow for the Saturday election . . . In Williamson County, some 2,280 early ballots had been cast as of last Friday. There was heavy voting in the Round Rock Council and Round Rock ISD elections, with the Round Rock Public Library drawing 278 voters and the Clay Madsen location 215. In the Cedar Park and Leander city councils and Leander ISD elections, the Leader City Hall location had 124 ballots. And in the City of Georgetown, Georgetown ISD and ESD No. 8 elections, the Georgetown ISD headquarters topped the county with 412 votes. . . Smoking referendum remains hot. . . Both sides in the battle over smoking are sending out emails. The pro-ordinance groups have also sent direct mail and made phone calls to those they consider most likely to vote their way. Candidates are busy beating the bushes too, but with only two candidates on TV, the election is easy to miss . . . Music Commission meets tonight . . . Commissioners will hear from Rep. Mark Strama about the possibility of having a state museum of Texas music history. They can also be expected to discuss soundproofing of downtown hotels and condos, city assistance for live music venues and the Austin Music Network. No other commissions are scheduled to meet tonight . . . Metz mural unveiling tomorrow . . . The Metz Recreation Center community has invited the City of Austin to an unveiling ceremony for the newly restored Metz Pool Mural. This is a celebration of the local artists who painted the first mural as teens and came back to update and restore their work. The Holly Neighborhood Grant Assistance Program, a project of Austin Energy, provided funding for the restoration. Ceremonies are scheduled for 5-7pm Tuesday as part of the Metz Recreation Center Community Cinco de Mayo Festivities, at 2407 Canterbury Street. For more information, contact Rodolfo Mendez, Artistic Director, at 385-2838 or by e-mail: mendestein@juno.com . . . A taste of salsa . . . At Noon on Friday, Ruben Ramos and the Mexican Revolution will kick off a series of Latino-flavored concerts at the City Hall Plaza. The City of Austin and the Austin Latino Music Association are sponsoring the series, along with Gibson Musical Instruments, Güero’s Taco Bar and the Downtown Austin Alliance. “This music series will help showcase some of the finest talent from our Latino music scene, and in so doing, help further Austin's reputation as ‘Live Music Capital of the World,’" said Council Member Raul Alvarez. "The series will also make use of a new and exciting downtown venue, the City Hall Plaza overlooking Town Lake." Various vendors will be on hand for those who wish to buy lunch.

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