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Council reacts to questions about Ott’s authority to halt raises

Thursday, January 22, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Although Council Members were not completely certain that City Manager Marc Ott had the authority to postpone implementation of market raises for about 1100 city employees, they seemed willing on Wednesday to take a wait and see approach on the matter. Ott announced on Friday that he had frozen all vacant positions and blocked the raises for the foreseeable future.


On Monday, union spokesman Jack Kirfman told In Fact Daily he thought Ott had overstepped his authority. Kirfman, a longtime spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said because the City Council approved the budget with the market raises in it, the City Council must approve a budget amendment in order stop the expenditure represented by those increases.


Ott disagreed, saying the decision was his. He added, “Even if that was the case, I suspect that nobody on Council would disagree with my decision.”


Council Member Randi Shade said she was not sure about whether postponing the raises should require Council action. However, she added, “With the information that I have now, I do support the decision, unhappy as I am that we have to tighten our belts like this.” She added, “Really, I’m looking around at all the major employers in town and hearing the news about bonuses that are not being paid and hiring freezes and recognizing that the public sector isn’t any different.”


Shade pointed out that most employees got a 2.5 percent raise in December. “And for most people I think having a modest raise and some job security is worth a lot.”


Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken said, “I agree with the city manager on both accounts.” He said he thinks Ott has the authority to take the budget cutting action under the City Charter. Council Member Sheryl Cole agreed. She said, “My understanding is that the charter grants the city manager this authority and we have to follow the charter. I have confidence in the process that the city manager went through to make this decision in these tough economic times. At all costs, we want to avoid layoffs.”


Council Member Mike Martinez said, “I’m not an attorney but I would suspect that he is completely within his authority.” However, he said it was a question that should be answered.


Council Member Lee Leffingwell said, “I think he has the authority to implement a hiring freeze but the raises are part of the budget process. I need to double check.” Leffingwell said he would ask city staff to give the Council a definitive answer.


Council Member Laura Morrison said, “I haven’t seen the nitty-gritty numbers so I don’t feel like I’m in a position to comment on the specifics of whether it’s the right thing to do. The whole issue of adjusting budgets and hiring freezes is a new realm for me. So I do want to look at the questions that have been raised.”


Ott will present a menu of possible cuts to the Council on Feb. 12. He has asked department directors to give him suggestions for how to cut 2 percent at this point.


According to preliminary figures provided by the city, those employees not seeing expected market increases includes 197 at the Austin Water Utility, 65 at Austin Energy and 40 in the Aviation Department.


City Chief Financial Officer Leslie Browder said the city is saving about $900,000 as a result of not implementing the raises this year. The hiring freeze should result in a savings of approximately $2 million, she said.

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