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Travis Commissioners Court continues battle over Facilities Management

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 by Michael Kanin

A standing dispute over the organizational status of Travis County’s Facilities Management Department took center stage again at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting. Though the Commissioners’ action continues to reflect a desire on the part of the majority to keep the department generally intact, Commissioner Karen Huber took the opportunity to unveil her most pointed set of allegations against the department and how it is managed.


Huber faced a vigorous defense of the status quo from Commissioners Ron Davis and Margaret Gomez. County Judge Sam Biscoe did not offer a direct refutation of Huber’s statements. Still, he stood firmly behind the item that prompted the discussion – a resolution Biscoe brought to the court with Gomez that moves the county’s facilities department under the purview of its Planning and Budget head. The action represents the third organizational move for facilities in the past year. It passed on a 4-1 vote with Huber as the lone ‘no.’


Huber was livid. “This is bureaucracy perpetuation at its best,” she said.


Huber and Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt have been deeply critical of the way the facilities department has handled the renovations of the county’s new 700 Lavaca Street building (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 16, 2011). However, the roots of Eckhardt and Huber’s concerns about – as well as Davis and Gomez’ defense of – the facilities department extend back to the days when the department was under the watch of former county Administrative Services head Alicia Perez. The situation, already heavy with political overtones, has festered since Perez’s intrigue-laced departure.


A move to place the department under the county’s Planning and Budget office hands it to new county Planning and Budget chief Leslie Browder, who hasn’t yet spent an official month with the organization. Huber expressed some concern about that prospect. “I do not think it’s fair – as politically charged internally as this department is – to put this under a brand new, on the job less than a month, county executive,” she said. “(It’s) unconscionable to me.”


Huber wondered if the Court was setting Browder up for failure with facilities and whether her colleagues would allow Browder to make any changes the new department head might see as necessary. “If her recommendations…are not met with the liking of facilities, which is the ongoing history, how are we going to deal with it?” she asked.


Huber cited a host of “major problems” with the department. These include the weight of nine on-staff architects that cost the county roughly $1.1 million. County officials routinely turn to consultants to help with large-scale construction projects. Huber also argued that the way that the department had approached the glazing of the windows at the county’s 700 Lavaca building had cost the county far more due to a decision made by the facilities department.


She further noted that she “had a problem” with the county continuing to move facilities “just because they are not happy where they are. We have senior county executives that we have hired to run this county and their departments because of their expertise,” she continued. “If we don’t empower our senior executives to do what they think is right, we’re not running this county well.


“We cannot let a department under a county executive come to us and say ‘we don’t like it here, we want to be somewhere else.’” Roger El Khoury is the head if the Facilities Management Department.


That statement seemed directed at an attempt by the county’s head of Transportation and Natural Resources, Steve Manilla, to reorganize and absorb a portion of the facilities structure. Manilla told In Fact Daily that facilities’ organizational structure was similar to that of his department. “I saw some opportunity to do some merging,” he said. “That will probably be re-looked at by the new county executive over that group. There will probably be some change. How much and when that happens, that’s kind of up in the air still.”


For his part, Biscoe called putting the facilities department underneath the county’s Transportation and Natural Resources division – where it had been for less than a year until Tuesday – a mistake. “I think we would be foolish not to recognize and fully appreciate that placing this department under (Transportation and Natural Resources) was a mistake. In looking back, that’s my belief,” he said. “There’s no reason, in my view, to prolong that mistake. We ought to clean it up as best we can.”


Eckhardt and Huber continued to push the idea that Browder be allowed to make whatever changes she saw fit, and that a county-wide study of its management set-up needed to be conducted. Though Biscoe would grant Browder the ability to hire and fire whom she chose, he would not give her the authority to reorganize the department; which is to say that something like Manilla’s effort would not be welcome. 


After the hearing, Huber spoke with In Fact Daily. She noted that the nature of county government is to rule by committee. “That said,” she continued, “this court has a history of micro-managing their county executives who are hired – and paid more than we are – to manage their departments. We have a situation with facilities where we have the head of the department who performs or acts like he reports directly to the court, regardless of who he actually reports to. That causes the good management practices to go out the window.


“Others do that too,” she continued. “We just happen to have, in my opinion based on my professional experience in real estate, a department that needs very serious attention.”


Huber echoed a call from Eckhardt during the hearing for an ongoing study of the county’s entire management structure.

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