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Budget process could calm employees’ fears

Tuesday, June 7, 2016 by Jo Clifton

At the end of a very long City Council budget work session last Wednesday, Mayor Steve Adler asked his colleagues to weigh in on a budget process proposal that he, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and members of the city’s budget staff had put together with the hope of having a more orderly process and avoiding the angst of the 2015 process.

One of the problems with the 2015 budget adoption was that too many items stayed on what was known as the “concept menu,” including some ideas that had little support but were unsettling to city employees, among others.

Adler noted that the new proposal was posted on the City Council Message Board and asked other Council members to decide how many sponsors an item should have in order to be added to the concept menu, how many Council members would be needed to remove an item from the menu and whether Aug. 22 would be a good deadline for adding items to the menu.

He, Tovo and the budget writers proposed that Council members be able to add to the concept menu without co-sponsors until Aug. 3.

Assistant City Manager Robert Goode told Council that city employees were concerned about some proposals staying on the menu. He said, “Last year, you all had some concepts that affected employees, and if you’re going to look at that, that’s great. That’s your prerogative. But if the majority is not going to look at this, you have employees … worrying about losing their jobs. If you’re going to look at that again, that’s your right.” But if not, he said, then employees should be able to relax.

Last year, while the budget staff proposed a 3 percent raise, Council members Don Zimmerman, Ellen Troxclair, Ora Houston and Sheri Gallo suggested a tiered raise structure that would have awarded the largest raises to the lowest-paid workers and offered no increase to the highest-paid employees. Adler proposed a 1.5 percent structured pay increase in lieu of the recommended 3 percent raise.

City Manager Marc Ott sent a memo to the mayor and Council telling them that employees felt that they were under attack during a time when they were working harder than ever.

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

Ott attached a memo from Parks and Recreation Department Director Sara Hensley, which was signed by 22 directors, expressing their dismay with the direction pay raises and benefits seemed to be going.

Council Member Delia Garza gave another example of an idea she thought stayed on the concept menu too long. “Everybody knew,” she said, that the Council was not going to eliminate funding for the various chambers of commerce.

However, the concept stayed on the menu, causing nervous chamber people to sit in the audience during the budget meetings and address Council. Garza said she would support requiring four co-sponsors for items on the concept menu.

Houston responded, “I was ready to cut their budgets. I was ready to cut their budgets because their focus was on doing something different than what the people in my district need.” The chambers are not bringing the the necessary kinds of employment to District 1 citizens, she said.

Tovo said on Thursday that she thought an idea should have several co-sponsors in order to be placed on the concept menu. She also said she thought that sponsors should present good evidence for their budget proposals, similar to what they give their colleagues for items from Council.

The concept menu will start with items that Council has already approved. The manager will deliver the budget to Council on July 27, and, under the current proposal, Council members may submit items without co-sponsors through Aug. 3. City staff will then compile the list by program areas.

Council could not vote on the process during Wednesday’s work session, but Adler said it would be back on an agenda next week. On Thursday, the mayor’s spokesman, Jason Stanford, told the Austin Monitor that Adler had placed the item on Tuesday’s work session agenda because he will be out of town on June 9. That will give Council members two possible meeting dates to finalize the process — June 16 and June 23 — before they take their July break.

The budget staff is urging the public to weigh in on their priorities by visiting the Austin Budget Simulator.

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