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Council cuts 2.3 city positions

Friday, June 19, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council approved cuts to long-vacant city positions Thursday, but the result didn’t come close to the budget savings first envisioned.

The effort to eliminate positions that had been vacant for more than a year was led by Council Member Ellen Troxclair. She cited the savings this move would bring in her unsuccessful push for a 20 percent homestead exemption. During that discussion, she pointed out that eliminating these positions could save the city $8.4 million.

That number was whittled down to $231,353 on Thursday, when Council voted 10-1 to eliminate 2.3 city staff positions.

Taking a closer look at the vacancies Troxclair regarded as ripe for elimination quickly revealed that almost half were sworn Austin firefighter positions. Further study showed that many of the remaining non-sworn positions had been filled or were in the process of being filled.

By the time the grand cleanse of vacancies had made its way back to Council, four full-time positions and one-third of another were on the chopping block.

Of course, part of the problem is that the outgoing City Council did the same thing two years ago, leaving little fat left. In stark contrast, the old Council eliminated 19.3 positions in 2013, which saved them $1.9 million that year.

Another problem became clear through Council’s discussion about the five positions that were up for elimination. Lauraine Rizer, who is the director of the Office of Real Estate Services, explained that the position in her department for an assistant manager had only been reclassified in April, and since then the office has spent “considerable time and money” to recruit someone.

Rizer told Council that filling the position was part of her own retirement plan, and she hoped to train her eventual successor in that capacity.

Given that information, Council members opted to retain that position.

Council also voted to freeze money for, but not eliminate entirely, a Public Works Department transportation Department division manager position that costs the city $133,760 a year.

That compromise frustrated Council Member Don Zimmerman, who voted against the freeze.

“I can’t fathom why we can’t just strike this and dissolve it,” said Zimmerman. “I want to emphasize we have constituents with unmet needs to bring the cost of Austin government down. We’re spending too much money. … I’d like to see some cost savings, and we need tens of millions of cost savings. We’re only talking a few hundred thousand dollars.”

The one vote of dissent came from Council Member Delia Garza, who worried that scrutinizing five positions for elimination wasn’t the best use of Council time, or an appropriate one.

“I supported the initial mission to get a list of vacancies because, as I said then, I supported the goal of us wanting to trim the fat where we can,” said Garza. “But I’m just concerned about going down this road. I don’t know if we want to spend 45 minutes on nitpicking these positions of our staff. I just can’t support that.”

Garza said the proceedings reminded her of a Game of Thrones-style inquisition, where city staff was forced to justify themselves time and time again and beg for their jobs.

“I don’t think that’s our role,” Garza said. “And I’m wondering when it’s going to stop.”

This story has been corrected.

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