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Martinez has blunt questions for staff over vacancies, budget requests

Wednesday, August 14, 2013 by Michael Kanin

City of Austin staff and management will face a barrage of questions today from at least one very frustrated City Council member. Mike Martinez told In Fact Daily and the Austin American-Statesman Tuesday afternoon that he will look for opportunities to freeze some of the more than 900 currently vacant city positions.


With those savings, and that achieved by cutting ancillary costs such as vehicle and fuel use, Martinez believes he can find funding for such items as a bigger city employee raise, a property tax reduction for city residents, or more parks funding, among other ideas.


Martinez warned reporters that he would be blunt, and he was. He said that he was unhappy with the budget as presented to Council. “Bottom line is, I cannot support a budget that does not take a critical internal look at the amount of vacancies that we have, the existing vacancies that could potentially create some savings,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to not hire the cops or firefighters or certain critical needs but you can’t tell me that all 934 vacancies need to be funded this year and we can’t find any savings.”


He continued: “We are raising taxes literally to the rollback rate – we’re .20 below the rollback rate. So this message that we’re staying below the rollback rate? We’re not.”


Martinez’ office offered reporters a copy of a spreadsheet pulled together using data reported to Council Member Chris Riley after Riley asked for details about city vacancies that had been open for more than six months. Martinez’ aides added a fair bit of their own math and came to some staggering conclusions.


The city’s fleet department asked for five new full time equivalent positions for FY2014. According to Martinez and his staff, however, the department still had 30 vacancies as of July 14. Ten of those positions had been vacant for more than six months.


“If you go down this list, literally, it goes on and on,” Martinez said.


Fleet is one of 17 departments citywide to have asked for fewer new full time positions (5) in the coming budget year than it has current vacancies (10). Other departments in that position include the Communications and Technology Management department (4 and 18), Financial Services (20 and 3), and the Austin Convention Center (6 and 16.75)


Martinez said he’d like to see justification for each of the positions that staff requests. That, he argues, goes for both those new to the city, and the ones left vacant.


Indeed, city staff has asked for more than 300 new city positions. Martinez points to the Code Compliance division. That department has asked for 26 new employees, 14 of which will serve support functions.


“The prediction of cases that they believe are coming in is actually down by 3,000,” Martinez said.


Code Compliance officials have a goal of getting caseloads per officer down to 260 cases per year. That may be a hard reconciliation for staff to give, noting that the department requested two fewer investigators.


Martinez also notes that the city Public Safety organizations – police, fire, and EMS – hold on to a host of other vacancies. These, he argued, will be harder to freeze thanks to the fact that, with unpredictable turnover and cadet classes, it is more difficult for public safety agencies to keep positions filled.


Martinez may not be the only Council member who did his homework. Bill Spelman, who is locked in a perpetual battle with the city’s Public Safety Commission and the Austin Police Department over police staffing, suggested to In Fact Daily that he might have a fresh set of figures and questions for police and management staff.


Meanwhile, Riley is planning to ask city management to examine the idea of using non-APD, but skilled officers to play a role in traffic control for major events. This, it has been argued, could relieve pressure on what has become a large dose of heartburn for the Austin Police Department.


In a parting shot, Martinez held up a manila folder. He pointed to a calculation he’d written down, one that suggests that, at an average of $50,000 in annual salary (excluding the ancillary costs), the salary totals for the vacant positions and the 2014 requests add up to nearly $65 million.


“If we’re booming, why, why, are things being run the way that they are – and that’s a fundamental question that Council needs to address,” he said.

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