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Ott: Many employees feel “under attack”

Tuesday, September 1, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

It’s been a year of transition that has demanded city employees work harder and longer as Austin made the switch from the at-large City Council to the new 10-1 system. And, though that year isn’t quite over yet, Council has been looking for ways to cut back on employee compensation. In a memo sent Aug. 31, City Manager Marc Ott let Mayor Steve Adler and Council members know the changes and proposed budget reductions had taken their toll, and morale is suffering.

“I’m hearing that many employees are understandably feeling ‘under attack,’” wrote Ott. “I can attest to the sentiment that many of the concept menu items have been ‘deflating’ to say the least to our employees. I will also say that in my tenure here, this level of response by employees is unprecedented.

“The very employees that have been striving to support the new 10-1 system, especially the Department Heads and their executive teams, have said that they are feeling undervalued and unappreciated from several of the budget concept menu items. For example, several concept menu items focus on reducing employees’ benefits, reducing recommended salary increases, increasing employee insurance costs for some more than others, and even terminating almost 100 employees,” wrote Ott.

Ott attached a series of email messages affirming support for a letter written by Parks and Recreation Department Director Sara Hensley. In the letter, Hensley wrote, in part:

“(R)ecent budget policy discussions reflect that there may be a serious lack of understanding regarding the complexity of our work and perhaps, a diminished level of respect for the work we do. City of Austin employees are hard-working and dedicated. … The effects of some of the employee budget concepts are quite simply deflating. They will absolutely have a negative impact on not just the employees, but the City as a whole.”

Hensley wrote that the compensation model currently being considered by Council could have unintended consequences, like a higher staff turnover rate and associated costs of recruitment and hiring, and disincentivizing promotions.

Hensley continued, “The picture that’s being painted, implies ‘more responsibility and more difficult work, equals less merit pay and an increase in employee benefit contributions.’”

Today, Council will tackle its budget concept menu in earnest. Among the suggestions for cost-savings are a tiered raise structure that would award the highest raises to the lowest-paid workers and offer no increase to the highest-paid employees. Though that proposal does not appear to have the majority of Council support, it was sponsored by Council Members Don Zimmerman, Ellen Troxclair, Ora Houston and Sheri Gallo. Adler has proposed an alternative, which would implement a 1.5 percent structured pay increase in lieu of the recommended 3 percent raise.

Also up for debate are proposals to restructure employee health insurance premiums; cap merit bonus pay; reduce the city’s employer pension contribution from 18 percent to 15 percent for the Employee Retirement System; eliminate the executive health benefit that provides $500 per year in ancillary executive compensation; and reduce General Fund, Enterprise Fund and support services budgets by 20 percent for travel, training, mileage reimbursement, printing, binding, food and beverages, subscriptions, memberships, hardware, software, minor equipment and supplies.

As one of their first changes after taking office, Council members increased their own office staff in April. The proposed budget includes $1,109,620 for that staff, according to the answer to a budget question posed by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo.

Ott’s memo also included messages of support for Hensley’s letter from 22 city department heads.

City Clerk Jannette Goodall, Officer of Real Estate Services Lauraine Rizer, Department of Public Works Director Howard Lazarus, Animal Services Chief Officer Tawny Hammond, interim City Attorney Anne Morgan, Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, Austin-Travis County EMS Director and Chief Ernie Rodriguez, Fleet Services Department Director Gerry Calk, Director of Libraries Brenda Branch, Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert, Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros, Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey, court administrator Peter Valdez, Economic Development Department Director Kevin Johns, Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar, Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs Officer Rondella Hawkins, Small and Minority Business Resources Director Veronica Lara, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Director Betsy Spencer, Austin Convention Center Director Mark Tester, Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Scott Swearengin and Capital Planning Officer Mike Trimble all emailed messages of support to Ott or thanked Hensley for her letter.

In a separate thread, Austin Code Public Information Officer Candice Cooper wrote that she is “hearing an overwhelming concern and fear from my staff and other (public information officers)” about two budget concept items that propose to eliminate advertising and marketing positions. “I estimate that this may affect hundreds of people and the decision could be made as soon as Tuesday, Sept. 1,” wrote Cooper.

Those proposals are both scheduled to be discussed today. In the first, Gallo has proposed eliminating all advertising and marketing positions in each department. In the second menu item, Council Members Greg Casar, Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchen have proposed removing advertising costs from the Fiscal Year 2015-16 budget for the Austin Code Department and using the estimated $350,000 to create a “residents’ advocacy project” designed to improve city response to dangerous rental properties and short-term rental enforcement.

Update: In an email to the Austin Monitor, Casar clarified what his proposal would do, writing, “The budget office had previously confirmed on the concept menu, and has recently re-confirmed, that the budget concept to reduce or eliminate advertising costs at Austin Code would not result in any change in the number of employees at the City. This item would primarily reduce the amount Code spends on TV and radio ads… I want to clarify to the public and our city staff that during this budget cycle I am not in favor of eliminating existing positions at Code.

In the memo, Ott explains that he excerpted a sample of the messages he had received about budget concerns and reiterates his recommendation for employee salaries, insurance and pensions and against “terminating an entire employee work group.”

Download (PDF, 1.34MB)

Photo by mactzer made available through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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