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Austin Water set to address staff shortage

Monday, July 25, 2022 by Veronica Apodaca

Austin Water discussed efforts to address its staff shortage at Wednesday’s Water and Wastewater Commission meeting. The discussion about recruiting and retaining employees was part of the department’s presentation on its 2022-23 budget, which was unanimously approved by the commission.

As interim Director Robert Goode said in his introduction to the presentation, the city manager “focused a lot of his budget this year on employees, rightfully so,” calling them the “most important asset we have.”

According to a July 15 press release from the city, there is currently a 17 percent vacancy rate in city employment: “While elevated vacancy rates are not unique to the city of Austin, or even to the Central Texas labor market, further action to address recruitment and retention and ease the city’s staffing shortage is regarded as critical to sustaining and improving public services over the coming year.”

This focus on staffing led to budget requests from Austin Water that will support employee retention as well as the creation of additional positions within the department. One of the highlights of the utility’s budget is the proposal for 47 new full-time positions, which the department hopes will improve areas like customer satisfaction and infrastructure maintenance. An estimated $5 million of the proposed $27.6 million budget increase will be used for the creation of these positions.

Among the new positions are an IT consultant to work with Austin Water’s mobile workforce with the aim of making the team’s work more efficient, and an IT analyst to improve the department’s hardware and software support. In addition, the water utility hopes to hire a public information and marketing program manager to improve customer relations, as well as five new security positions that will take the place of contracted security services.

Joseph Gonzales, Austin Water’s financial chief, acknowledged that 47 new positions will create a large increase in staff, but noted that it is a smaller increase than last year.

“It’s an investment in many of our effective utility management focus areas,” he said in response to Commissioner Judy Musgrove’s concern about the new positions taking up a significant part of the budget.

Gonzales also explained that three of the positions are funded by Austin’s Development Services Department, part of a larger effort by the city to make its development review and approval process more efficient.

In addition to creating new positions, $4.8 million of the increase is expected to go toward employee wages and benefits as part of Austin Water’s effort to retain employees. This marks a 4 percent increase in wages for current employees, following City Council’s June 16 direction for the city manager to raise the city’s living wage from $15 to $22 per hour. Currently, the living wage is set to be raised to $18 per hour, but the city has a long-term goal to raise the wage further.

“The primary focus of the overall city budget is investing in the workforce, and you can see that reflected in some of our increases as well,” Gonzales said.

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