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City manager slashes cost estimate for proposed civil service plan

Monday, August 20, 2012 by Michael Kanin

City Manager Marc Ott, citing significant changes to a new ordinance passed by Council, drastically revised downward his estimate for how much it would cost the City of Austin to adopt a civil service employment system for its rank-and-file employees.


In a letter sent to Council members on Friday, Ott estimated that the minimum costs associated with the switch to civil service from the current “at-will” employment system at $625,000 the first year, $467,000 the second year and $347,000 for each year thereafter.


Three weeks earlier, Ott pegged the cost for what would have been a far more extensive civil service plan at $31.5 million to $82 million annually, plus one-time transition costs of $591,000 to $741,000. But this estimate was based on an earlier proposal that, if approved by voters, would have meant sweeping changes to the City’s pay, hiring, promotion and disciplinary practices.


The updated financial impact estimate is based on the revised, pared-down ordinance approved by Council that would establish a five-member civil service commission and result in the hiring of an administrator and two coordinators to manage the system. But it would leave areas such as pay and hiring and disciplinary practices to be determined later through a rule-making process. Ott wrote the updated costs would pay for the staffing and technology investments needed to support the civil service system to cover the City’s 8,095 rank-and-file employees. The commission, whose members may or may not be paid as determined later by Council, would rule on employee grievances.


On Aug. 2, City Council passed the revised charter amendment with no discussion. At a Council work session on Aug. 14, Council Member Laura Morrison asked Ott to provide an updated financial impact estimate based on the less comprehensive civil service plan that City Council approved. In a story that ran Aug. 17, In Fact Daily erroneously reported that Council had not asked the City Manager’s Office to provide a revised financial assessment; Morrison had asked for the updated estimate earlier last week (see whispers, 8/20/2012).


The decision is now left to voters, who will decide on Nov. 6 whether to amend the city charter to provide a civil service system for non-public safety employees.


“The proposal that will be put before the voters inserts a fundamental element of fairness for employees, requiring ‘just cause’ protections,” Morrison told In Fact Daily in a written statement. “It ensures that grievances between city employees and management, not otherwise settled, could be heard by a commission appointed by Council rather than leaving the final decision to the City Manager.”


Morrison said City Council removed provisions in the ordinance that greatly inflated Ott’s initial cost estimate.

“There was a section in the original draft of the charter amendment proposal that was interpreted by the City Manager as having a significant fiscal impact,” Morrison said. “There was strong disagreement with his assessment. In any case, we removed the section in question from the draft, so those dollar figures are off the table.”


Ott said his cost estimate for covering regular City employees with civil-service rules is separate from the City’s current funding of its existing civil service commission, which covers 2,539 police officers and firefighters. It also doesn’t include the costs of another initiative that also is on the Nov. 6 ballot that asks voters to OK extending civil service to 442 Emergency Medical Service employees.


About 200 Texas cities, including Austin, have adopted civil service policies for its police and fire departments. The only other cities in Texas to implement a civil service system for non-public safety personnel are: Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso.


“It’s very uncommon,” Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, said of providing civil service to rank-and-file employees.


In his memo last week, Ott noted that his latest cost estimate could escalate significantly if Council subsequently adopts civil service rules “that are based upon how ‘merit and fitness’ is defined by state civil service law.”


The language in the earlier version of the Ordinance was definitive as to the change in testing and promotions, which led to our projected cost impact,” Ott wrote. “That language has been modified to give Council an option for testing and promotions. However, if procedures are adopted in the future that reflect the earlier Charter language, then our original assumptions and cost projections would remain.”

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