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Austin Water says it’s doing better in the face of crises

Thursday, March 30, 2023 by Jo Clifton

At Wednesday’s joint meeting of City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee and the Austin Water Oversight Committee, Austin Water Director Shay Ralls Roalson answered questions about a variety of topics, but one of the most difficult involved vacancies within the department, particularly at water treatment plants.

The focus of the meeting was the utility’s actions in response to a report from the University of Texas Center for Water and the Environment.

Since 2018, Austin Water has gone through five incidents of service disruptions or problems with the quality of tap water.

Council Member Alison Alter, who chairs the Audit and Finance Committee, asked for the report last year in response to the service disruptions. On Wednesday, she said it was important to note that the report did not call for large infrastructure changes, but instead for systemic improvements to management and organization. She added that there were valuable lessons in the report for other city departments.

Alter said she was “really heartened by the fact that we made it through the February freeze with limited water service interruptions and consistent, clear communications from Austin Water.”

Roalson told the committee that despite some loss of power, only 40 homes lost water service during that storm. She added that coming out of the storm, the utility has a list of what to do better next time.

Of the city’s three water treatment plants – Ullrich, Handcox and Davis – Ullrich is the one responsible for the most problems in past years. Although there were a number of recommendations related to Ullrich, many applied to the organization as a whole.

According to the report, a number of the problems relate to issues between Austin Water and the Human Resources Department. Roalson indicated that she has been meeting regularly with Rebecca Kennedy, acting director of Human Resources.

Despite problems filling vacancies, Roalson and her staff were eager to tell the committee that vacancies throughout the utility had dropped to 13 percent, saying it filled 300 vacant positions during 2022. She said the utility had been able to increase pay for a number of positions, including electricians, which has been important in getting new hires.

A spokesperson for Austin Water later told the Austin Monitor via email: “Austin Water has 1,359 positions and 178 vacancies across the organization. While the number of vacancies fluctuates at any given time due to retirements, resignations, transfers to other departments, and terminations, we have made significant strides in expediting our hiring processes and putting resources into enhanced recruiting strategies – particularly for our harder-to-fill positions – and we’re seeing improvements in our efforts to attract and hire staff. Since January, Austin Water has filled 98 positions.

“Retention is the area we are now focused on to reduce our vacancy rate – with particular emphasis on staff at our treatment plant facilities. Our current vacancy rate at Ullrich is 34% (12 vacant positions), Davis is 38% (14 vacant positions), and Handcox is 14% (4 vacant positions). While we’ve filled many positions because of enhancements to our hiring and recruiting strategies, we’ve lost staff primarily due to retirements or transfers to other departments. It’s important to note that transfers to other departments are a common mechanism for promotion opportunities and higher pay, so we’ve begun a series of pay incentive programs (licensure stipends, retention incentive pay, etc.) to encourage our staff to stay at Austin Water. Many of those programs just launched this month, so several more pay periods are needed before we can evaluate their effectiveness. In the meantime, we are actively working to identify additional opportunities to retain staff long-term,” she concluded.

Interim City Manager Jesús Garza stopped by the meeting Wednesday and listened for a while before approaching the podium. He said the vacancies experienced at Austin Water are not unique to the utility but “are being experienced throughout the organization – some departments worse than others.”

Garza said the Human Resources Department is participating in the manager’s “special items briefing” every Monday morning.

“We’re asking them to drill down … to work to fill those hard-to-fill positions,” he said. “And what we could do differently in hiring.” He added that Roalson and other directors are working to try to make the system easier to deal with, “and not use the civil service system as an excuse as to why we haven’t been able to bring in people more expeditiously.”

Garza later told the Austin Monitor, “We’re not unique. The issue of a lot of vacancies is one a lot of organizations are having to cope with. And so, we’re trying to employ whatever strategies are most important to employ people, to retain people …. In terms of the organization … what we’re emphasizing is teamwork … and the second is to be responsive … there’s some knock on us that we weren’t as responsive as we needed to be” during the recent crisis.

“So I’ve urged directors to have a sense of urgency” when dealing with people’s problems “so that people are not left in limbo,” Garza said.

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