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County freezes hiring for remainder of the fiscal year

Wednesday, April 15, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

In search of steadier financial footing amid the economic turmoil triggered by Covid-19, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to authorize staff to pursue an immediate hiring freeze for nonessential personnel. Commissioners will permit county staff to return on April 28 with a list of exceptions to the hiring freeze for approval.

The hiring freeze will remain in effect until Sept. 29 and will apply to county staff, with some exceptions. While elected and appointed officials are not required to implement the hiring freeze among their personnel, they are “highly encouraged” to enact a similar prohibition in their offices.

While staffers do not yet have a complete list, Tracey Calloway with the county’s human resources department said employees who are required to meet statutory or contractual obligations will be exempt. This can include election workers, public defense attorneys, law enforcement personnel and corrections facilities staff. Jessica Rio with the Planning and Budget Office elaborated, saying that recipients of job offers extended prior to the posting of this item on the Commissioners Court’s agenda will also be considered for exemption.

The hiring freeze will affect current county employees by eliminating interdepartmental changes, promotions, job reclassifications, temporary assignment pay, ad hoc salary increases and increases in hours. However, anniversary step increases, automatic job progressions and merit promotions will continue for the remainder of the fiscal year.

“I don’t think we’ve gone far enough at all because I think Covid-19 is going to be very, very crippling to this community,” Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said. He specifically called out the voluntary compliance for elected officials and exemptions to the freeze as problematic. “Let me tell you what happens with exceptions: You build numbers,” he said.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Commissioner Brigid Shea expressed their views that the county has the duty to operate as an economic engine. They said a targeted hiring freeze would allow for critical positions to remain open and give the county the ability to hire residents to help them recover from the economic shock induced by the pandemic.

Travis Gatlin, budget director with the Planning and Budget Office, told commissioners this selective hiring freeze will save $4.7 million over the remainder of the current fiscal year. He calculated this projection based on the county’s average engagement of 51 employees per month. Currently, there are 392.5 full-time employee vacancies at the county.

A savings of $4.7 million is only a small savings in respect to the forecast “worst-case scenario” shortfall projected by the county’s Planning and Budget Office. The revised projections show $61.3 million less revenue than originally planned for the upcoming fiscal year. February’s budget forecast anticipated a $30.8 million increase in revenue for 2021.

“We think it’s prudent at this point to implement some immediate measures,” Rio said. Beyond freezing hiring and promotions, Planning and Budget Office staff members are looking for projects and expenditures that can be minimized and will recommend a 15 percent cap on increases for revenue-generating contracts maintained with other jurisdictions.

Rio said that the objective behind this belt-tightening is to put the county in the strongest cash position possible in order to maintain existing county programs and services. “All of these recommendations are done in light of that,” she said.

Budget planning for the 2021 fiscal year will continue as scheduled, though Commissioner Daugherty predicted that in the upcoming year the county will be operating on “life support.”

Eckhardt took a less grim view of the situation. “Planning and Budget is preparing for the worst so that we may be pleasantly surprised,” she said.

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