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Martinez, others grill city staff on vacant positions in FY2014 budget

Thursday, August 15, 2013 by Michael Kanin

It wasn’t exactly pitchforks and torches, but it came close.


Austin City Council members Wednesday hammered staff and management over multiple issues in their proposed FY2014 budget. Council members mostly hovered around the issue of more than 900 vacant positions listed in response to a budget question from Council Member Chris Riley as of July 14 – coupled with staff request for well over 300 more positions.


“The question on the street is: Wow, we’re doing so much better. Why are our taxes going up?” offered Council Member Laura Morrison, who pitched a lower overall vacancy rate. “We have to turn over every rock.”


Other issues also emerged. Some had to do with multiple confusing typographical errors scattered throughout the budget. Others touched on the burgeoning issue of the level of city infrastructure it takes to support the city’s many special events.


Still, by the end of the day, Council Member Mike Martinez – who took time to ask each department to justify its vacancy requests – remained focused on that issue. “I want to officially turn my opening question this morning that wasn’t responded to into a budget question so that we can get a response: What was the rigorous hiring process instituted in 2009 when we used vacancy savings in a budget shortfall, and is that still being employed today, and if not what is the current process?”


Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo answered the question on the spot. Van Eenoo explained that the 2009 process added a panel that vetted position requests decisions. He said the panel is no longer in place.


Martinez forced the vacancy issue with interviews he gave to two reporters on Tuesday. There, he raised questions about why so many city departments were looking for more positions, despite the vacancies.


That city management offered a preemptive briefing on vacancies before Council began its work Wednesday did little to quell Martinez or his colleagues. Nor did statements from city Human Resources Director Mark Washington about the relative position of the City of Austin in comparison to other municipalities. “The industry data for local government turnover…is about 10 percent,” Washington offered.


Washington put city turnover, annualized, at 6.8 percent.


Martinez appeared to make headway early. He asked Municipal Court Clerk Rebecca Stark to go through court positions left vacant for more than six months. As she moved through her list, Stark initially found at least one position that she determined were not needed by the municipal court.


It was what Martinez was after. “If I track her correctly, there are five positions that are not going to be filled,” he said. “And at an average of $50,000 per FTE – that’s what I want to do, when I say we need to take a critical look at this.”


However, in an odd twist, Stark found herself planted back before the dais shortly after Council members returned from a lunch break. Returned, she thanked the Mayor for the opportunity to clarify her vacancies and walked back much of her statement.


Martinez and his colleagues also grilled code compliance officials. Martinez started by asking Code Compliance Director Carl Smart why the city’s budget projects fewer inspections for the department – a clear disconnect from arguments heard around the city about rapidly advancing growth.


Smart replied that he wasn’t sure why that projection is included in the budget.


Spelman honed in on employment statistics. He attempted to reconcile what he saw as conflicting numbers of new employees in documents his office reviewed. After some deliberation, the department’s Finance Manager Keith Murray told Spelman that some of the conflict could be chalked up to recent departmental job classification changes.


Code officials promised to return with more information. The department has asked for an increase of 26 employees. It remained unclear Wednesday how many were support staff and how many would work in the field.


At one point, sensing the direction his colleagues were taking the discussion, Mayor Lee Leffingwell offered some concerns about the notion of using vacant positions to scratch out more general fund dollars. “I think that this is something that you have to be careful with because if you use this sort of accounting gimmick to make it look like you have more revenue than you really do, or less expenditures, than if you chose to lower the tax rate you are impacting yourself in years ahead because that is also going to lower your rollback,” he said.


“On the other hand, if you add to expenditures than those are going to be, in most cases, structurally built in to the budget,” Leffingwell continued. “So the next year you’ve got those expenses to build on.”


He called the practice “unsustainable.”


Martinez has pointed out that the city has engaged in such practice at least twice in recent memory: Once in 2002 and again in the very hard budget year of 2009.



Late in the day Deputy City Manager Michael McDonald offered a statement in an impromptu interview arranged for media during the latter portion of Wednesday’s work session.


“It really isn’t (that simple),” he said. “You have to remember that this is a $3.3 Billion enterprise we have over 12,000 employees and so at any given time, due to resignations, retirements, any number of reasons that you would have vacancies at any given time.”


Spelman too is ready for a change. He said Wednesday afternoon that the creation of a fund to provide dollars for items brought by Council could result in what he called a “more honest budget”


“There is folklore in the city that the reason that it makes sense for department heads to pad their budgets, at least in small ways, because they don’t know what is going to happen over the course of the year,” Spelman said. “The problem is, if every department head is working with the same mindset we’ve got a little bit of padding all over the budget.”

Under his proposal, Spelman would create a finite box of money for Council members to draw for items from Council and other unexpected fiscal demands.


In the meantime, Council members will return on August 19 and possibly August 21 to cover departments that they did not get to over Wednesday’s all-day affair. They also set aside September 3 for a meeting where Council proposals for budget changes could be aired.


Coming Friday: A look at determining just how many police officers Austin really needs

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