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Structural review calls Travis County dysfunctional, recommends changes

Thursday, August 7, 2014 by Beth Cortez-Neavel

The Travis County governmental structure is dysfunctional and needs to reorganize under one main administrator, according to a report by an independent consultant group hired to assess the county’s internal administrative system. However, some county officials, while not surprised by the report’s findings, are concerned about recommendations to consolidate and change departmental functions.

PSPC Consultants issued the report, which took a year-and-a-half to produce. It found fault with 45 total processes within the overall county administration system. The report makes recommendations as to how each one should be addressed to maximize the county’s authority and efficiency.

Robert Milne with the consultant group presented the final report to Commissioners Tuesday. He said that without reorganizing the governmental structure, fixing the county’s problems would be very difficult.

Reactions from Travis County Commissioners ranged from concern over some county employees possibly losing their jobs to determination to see that the recommendations are carried out and not put on a shelf to gather dust.

Travis County directly manages approximately 930 employees, with an annual budget of more than $850 million, according to the report. Some county managers were concerned that a recommended reshuffling of personnel could cause more harm than good.

However, the report flatly states that some changes are truly necessary.

“Travis County is operating a large and complex administrative system without any effective central administrative authority,” the report stated. “Consequently, the county’s administrative departments operate in functional silos without any hierarchical managerial mechanism to facilitate greater administrative efficiency, effectiveness and accountability.”

The PSPC team sifted through various state-level and county-level documents, interviewed representatives from other urban counties, former county elected officials and 85 Travis County employees at various hierarchical levels. Based on this research, the report recommends the county create a county administrator position, which would help streamline major administrative duties and insure more communicative and accountable county government. The administrator would report directly to the Commissioner’s Court.

The report found that several key Human Resources processes – recruitment, job profiling and candidate screening – are deficient. It cited the Planning and Budget process for a lack of long-term planning strategies and performance-based analysis of the county’s responsibilities; county employees lack of a means to disagree or appeal administrative actions; departments with multiple points of contact, making it difficult to conduct business; and departments that lag in providing appropriate financial paperwork to contract vendors.

Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis said he was concerned about the plan’s call for an apparent reduction in force, and did not think highly of creating a single entity with so much power over the other departments.

“It appears that in some of these recommendations that you’re bringing forth, there is a reduction in force in some employees,” he said.

Milne countered that he was not advocating for a reduction in force, but to think of it as eliminating duplication. However, the report does recommend the HR department downsize from 23 full-time employees to 16. It also would move administrative employees from the Transportation and Natural Resources, Health and Human Services and Veterans Services and the Planning and Budget Office from 32 staff down to 22.

“I think the court may be given the opportunity to reallocate resources to do different programs instead of hiring new people,” Milne said.

Transportation and Natural Resources Director Steve Manilla told the Monitor he and his staff are concerned about the reallocating of personnel and that losing five HR employees could cause more harm than good. Manilla will meet with his staff within the next week to iron out a detailed memo to the court about his department’s concerns.

Debbie Maynor with the Human Resources Management Department said many of the findings and recommendations for her department have been on the county’s radar for years, especially regarding new hire application screenings, and are already being actively discussed.

But the recommendation to consolidate different HR branches from other departments into the main department was somewhat surprising, although she said she is not concerned at this time.

“It was really non-specific about what that would look like. Whether or not those people would physically come to HR, or maybe they would just fall under the jurisdiction of HR,” Maynor said. “If the court decides that it wants to move in that direction and we would have to specifically define what that report looks like.”

Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who sponsored the report with Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd, said he was not surprised by the report’s findings, that it verified why the report was commissioned in the first place.

Todd said the report is only good if it is actually put to use. The county received a similar report in 1995 from the state’s Office of the Comptroller, but failed to implement its recommendations.

“We have too many cases of governments where reports are made, paid for, put on a shelf and never looked at again. This would be a huge mistake,” Todd said. “What is not acceptable is just not to do anything, because it clearly points out things that can be done better.”

Milne said the current organizational structure has multiple departments and other extraneous bodies that fall under county jurisdiction reporting to the Commissioner’s Court. The county is the only one of eight urban counties in Texas that does not have or is not considering a central administrative office and county executive.

“A lot of the things I’ve faulted you for, or faulted the county for not doing, are very difficult to do in the current system,” Milne said. “The current administrative system makes it difficult to implement functions that go across the departments. That’s a fundamental problem.”

The report recommends the county restructure its six main departments to report to the county administrator, who would then report to the Commissioners Court. The restructure would also include creating a Public Information Office to streamline communication with the public and a Performance Improvement Office to conduct regular process reviews. The county’s Intergovernmental Relations office would also report to the new county administrator.

The restructure and implementation of recommendations could save the county an estimated $2 million in the first year, according to the report. This includes the overall estimated cost of creating new positions and reassigning or eliminating others.

 

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