Council staff proposal up in the air ahead of vote
Wednesday, April 1, 2015 by Tyler Whitson
Despite committee efforts and new cost projections, a conversation among City Council members Tuesday revealed that they still have some work to do on a proposal to increase staffing and resources for the mayor and Council offices ahead of a vote Thursday.
“We’re two months, already, past January,” said Mayor Steve Adler, urging his colleagues at a work session to support the additional staffing he says his office needs. “To the degree that you would deign to help me be effective, I would like it because I’m not being as effective as I should be.”
Council took the opportunity to vet the recommendation that the Council Audit and Finance Committee unanimously adopted on March 25 that would create 12 full-time positions, with two in the mayor’s office and one in each Council member’s office.
According to Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo, the proposal would cost a projected $346,953 from a May 3 start date to the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30, with $328,953 going to full-time staff with insurance and benefits and the remaining $18,000 going to additional computer and telephone equipment.
Van Eenoo said that if Council adopts a resolution enacting the temporary change, staff could allocate the resources necessary to finish out the fiscal year without an ordinance change or budget amendment by using temporary vacancies. “Staff does this all the time,” he said. “We firmly believe that we can manage this between now and the end of the fiscal year.”
This is an alternative to a resolution that Council voted narrowly to send to Audit and Finance in late February and will reconsider at this week’s meeting.
At the time, Adler proposed creating five positions in the mayor’s office to support Council committees and major initiatives and allocating $25,000 to each Council office for the remainder of the fiscal year, with Audit and Finance evaluating a permanent plan.
Council would need to consider a permanent plan as part of the upcoming budget adoption process, as budget staff estimates it would cost $950,351 annually.
However, it does not appear that the entire Council is ready to agree on either of the temporary proposals and may need to continue to search for common ground.
Adler said the proposal to allocate an additional staff member to each Council office is “great,” but did not agree with allocating only two staff members to his office. “I would respectfully push back and say that if I can’t get five, please give me three or four for the balance of the next few months,” he said.
Highlighting the fact that his office serves constituents citywide, Adler said it has about one-and-a-half times the staff that Council offices have. However, as documents his staff provided to the Austin Monitor on Tuesday demonstrate, his office has filed roughly between four and 20 times the customer assistance forms that individual Council offices have submitted this year.
Jim Wick, director of community engagement in the mayor’s office, said that these forms represent formal constituent requests that require staff action, though there are others that do not require staff action.
Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who chairs Audit and Finance, said she believes that the committee recommendation is a good compromise and addresses concerns about maintaining a power balance between offices. “An equitable distribution of increased staff across the whole Council and the mayor’s office was a primary concern, and this proposal achieves that,” she said.
“I will have a much harder time and will not probably support a proposal that shifts that balance back again,” Tovo added.
Council Member Pio Renteria, who also sits on Audit and Finance, said that he is “not really happy” about adding staff to Council offices as an alternative to the five positions Adler has proposed, but voted for the recommendation in the hopes of reaching a compromise that Council will adopt.
“Even when we’re adding extra members to our staff, we’re still not focusing and working on the big picture,” Renteria said, using affordability and transportation as examples. “We need these extra people that can be able to focus on those big issues.”
Renteria added that an upcoming discussion about potentially enacting a 20 percent homestead tax exemption would complicate the financial issue further.
Council Member Delia Garza said that although she agrees that Council needs more resources, she is concerned about the fiscal impact that adding staff in general poses to the city budget. She has also been a vocal opponent of adding a greater proportion of additional staff members to the mayor’s office.
“I don’t think we’ll ever get to a level of being able to provide the constituent services that we all hope that we would be able to provide,” Garza said. “I’m curious to see where the discussion goes Thursday, but it’s going to be really hard for me to support … 12 (new positions).”
Several Council members said throughout the discussion that they would likely be posting proposed amendments to the Council message board ahead of the vote.
Photo by Asa Wilson (CubeSpace) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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