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Mike Kanin is the Publisher of the Austin Monitor. As such, he doesn't report on much--aside from the workings of the Monitor--any more. In his previous life as a freelance journalist, Kanin has written for the Washington City Paper, the Washington Post's Express, the Boston Herald, Boston's Weekly Dig, the Austin Chronicle, and the Texas Observer.
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LCRA layoffs hit parks and natural science centers
In Fact Daily has confirmed that the Lower Colorado River Authority has cut a sizeable chunk of its parks and nature center workforce. All told, the layoffs, which affect roughly 20 positions in the parks, parks maintenance, and natural science divisions, reduce employment in those sectors of the agency by about 30 percent.
The LCRA currently owns 42 parks throughout its 10-county statutory service area with nature centers in some of the parks. It hosts programs and maintains some of the grounds. It also leases some of the facilities back to the jurisdictions that host them.
Recent fiscal troubles that stem from massive losses sustained for the construction and operation of regional water utilities and the pending departure of a host of wholesale electric customers have forced the agency into a large-scale culling. The resulting layoffs, retirements, and position realignment – much of which have come during current General Manager Becky Motal’s 10-month tenure – have brought major changes to the agency in a rather short period of time.
The parks and nature center together lost 21 of their 68 employees. The agency’s natural science center program took the largest single hit, with a loss of eight of 24 positions. Parks staff lost eight of 25 positions – however, thanks to one vacancy and one transfer, only six of those employees lost their jobs. Parks maintenance staff lost three of 19 employees.
The organization’s Parks Manager David Whatley was among those immediately laid-off. As part of this wave of changes, the LCRA’s manager of community services – Whatley’s boss – Fran Irwin will leave the utility in mid-May. Carolyn Nelson, who had run the organization’s Nature Centers will take over the parks department.
“The changes are part of (the) reorganization of LCRA,” said LCRA spokesperson Clara Tuma, “(They) support LCRA’s strategic efforts to reduce costs by eliminating redundancies and operating more efficiently.”
Tuma added that “the changes will consolidate work done at our parks and nature centers into a single work unit.” She further noted that “LCRA remains strongly committed to the stewardship and conservation of the land and waters of the Colorado River basin.”
The layoffs come on the heels of a change in the organization’s mission statement that removed a reference to the organization’s commitment to “ensure the protection and productive use” of the Lower Colorado River basin’s environmental resource. Tuma again denied – as she had when In Fact Daily reported the changes in the organization’s mission statement – that the agency’s recent actions signal any sort of broad philosophical shift in the way it does business.
“Not at all,” Tuma said.
Still, the situation has raised concern from at least one of the entities that will be touched by the changes. Travis County Commissioner Karen Huber tells In Fact Daily that the organization will keep an eye on the situation.
“As LCRA experiences internal changes, Travis County is open to exploring with LCRA options that may be helpful to them and the citizens of Travis County to ensure the LCRA parks and preserves remain amenities and continue to provide important natural resource protection,” Huber said.
Huber added that the LCRA and Travis County “have a long history of working well together.” She declined to offer more specifics. The LCRA owns 14 parks around Lake Travis. Travis County operates seven of these. Others expressed concern but declined to speak on record.
Thanks to their undeveloped status, the LCRA parks give Travis County environmental buffers for water quality protection. However, they could also offer the utility a source of needed cash in what it argues are tough times. Should the LCRA decide to sell some of the land it holds near Lake Travis, that action could, of course, threaten those buffers.
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