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County departments in turf war over new complex

Thursday, April 24, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The ongoing fight between Travis County’s Facilities Management Department and its Planning and Budget Office over who would be the better leader on a new county complex can only be described as a turf war. 

County commissioners spent an excruciating couple of hours on Tuesday afternoon hearing arguments from both departments – and the civil court judges – over who would be best to sit in a First Chair, Second Chair situation. In this case, the first chair would be the project director with oversight capabilities and the second chair would be the project manager with day-to-day operational accountability.

The actual area of this part of the plan – which will actually include the hiring of an experienced consultant – is a needs-analysis forecast for the county.

Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt – after hearing about six hours of testimony and reading 60 pages of rebuttal from the two departments — laid out the conflict succinctly. Facilities management feared an impractical plan out of the Planning and Budget Office, and the Planning and Budget Office feared splitting the responsibility of needs analysis between the two departments would simply dilute the ability of either department to get the job done.

County Judge Sam Biscoe stated the obvious: no one was going to have much faith in the project if the two departments could not put aside differences.

“I have heard various complaints. It seems to me we have to get over them,” Biscoe told both sides at one point during the discussion. “Taxpayers will not go out and approve spending in excess of $100 million – and, who knows, maybe close to $200 million – if they think we may not be able to work together to get the project implemented. I would have to vote against it myself.”

Facilities Management, led by Lisa Stricklin and Roger Khoury, considered its department better staffed to handle long-term facility projections. Space and parking forecasts, as well as new facilities and parking alternatives, is the bread-and-butter of his department, Khoury told the court.

“This is a fundamental function of the facilities management department,” Khoury said. “And what we see here is what we do best, which is executing projects and planning projects for all county departments, all county facilities, including all departments who are users.”

Executive Manager Alicia Perez sided with Facilities Management Department, saying the staffing of the department had been ramped up and expanded to handle just the sort of challenge a county building complex would present. In large counties and in Travis County, individual departments typically handle their own planning: parks would plan parks and facilities management would plan facilities.

Belinda Powell and Leroy Nellis were on the Planning and Budget Office side. Clearly, the day-to-day execution of plan would belong to the facilities department, Powell said. On the other hand, the ability to scope and plan projects as a project manager could just as easily belong to the facilities section of the budget office. Nellis added that outgoing Executive Manager Christian Smith’s replacement – Rodney Rhoades – had extensive experience with broad-range planning in Collin County. Rhoades will arrive to take his job in Travis County on May 5.

Caught in the middle of the whole debate were the departments, as well as the courts, who were feeling the space crunch. Auditor Susan Spataro, who sees disaster on the horizon as the county struggles to find the space to implement a new computer system, said she did not have much faith that either department was capable of decisively leading the charge.

“We’re seeing a turf war as to who is the best at facilities, who can do the best job,” Spataro said. “I have to say, from where I sit, no one has done a very good job.”

With the two departments at a stalemate, county officials walked through the various steps, discussing when it might be more logical to make one department a lead over the other. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, frustrated by the impasse, suggested that Powell, a former employee of the facilities department, be transferred or even loaned from Facilities to Planning and Budget  for a year to 18 months.

Powell quickly demurred, saying her job duties were much broader than the county complex, but Biscoe noted that no project Powell possibly could have would measure up to the need to complete the multi-million dollar complex. Biscoe sounded like he was only half joking, although he had considered and rejected the idea two weeks earlier, Biscoe told Daugherty.

Eckhardt, seeing no winner in the fray, finally proposed appointing one point person as project manager on the initial planning phase. That person could be from Planning and Budget, Facilities or even be the outside consultant. Biscoe protested that the point of the initial division of labor was to gather and provide information to the consultant in an efficient manner. The work would no longer be divided and would be consistently handed to one person throughout the planning phase, Eckhardt said.

At the final vote, commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of the project manager concept. Biscoe was the lone vote against the proposal.

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