Introduction By Bill Oakey – June 25, 2015
Last week I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from Amanda Atwell, a journalism student with a minor in government at U.T. As a follower of this blog, she became interested in the high number of vacant staff positions in the City budget. She asked me some questions for a paper on that subject for one of her journalism classes. So, today I welcome her to this blog by posting her report, which I found to be quite impressive.
But first, a few quick notes about Amanda. Last year she received College Honors from U.T.’s Moody College of Communication. She belongs to Texas Student Television and currently works as an intern at KXAN-TV. Her career interests include sports broadcasting and political journalism.
Resolution Passes Regarding Vacant Positions
By Amanda Atwell
Austinites will have a better idea of where some of their tax dollars are being spent because of the recently passed resolution by City Council regarding excessive city job vacancies.
The resolution, which passed June 11, will attempt to eliminate some of the 1,012 vacant city staff positions. It will also allow City Council to re-appropriate the funding for vacant positions. The resolution allows the council to reevaluate the necessity of the long-term vacancies, some vacant for nine years. Many positions have been vacant due the difficulty of the city being able to compete salary-wise with the private sector. The resolution requires the city manager to bring vacancies before the council from the varying departments, allowing the council to determine what to do with excess funding and whether or not to terminate the position for the next fiscal year.
Austinite and author of a website focused on affordability in Austin, Bill Oakey, believes the resolution is a step in the right direction, but is still concerned about the lack of transparency in where tax dollars are going. Oakey is a former member of the City Electric Utility Commission and continues to work with City Council to find solutions to alleviate excess city spending, in turn lowering the burden on city taxpayers. According to Oakey, much of the unused money for the vacant positions has gone into a “slush fund,” making it unclear what exactly the money was used on. “It’s (money) just thrown into a pile and they can use it without much accountability,” Oakey said. According to the resolution, $73 million is allocated in the budget for the current vacant positions.
While the lack of transparency in city government presents a major issue, the inability to fill these positions could have major implications in the city’s ability to provide necessary services. According to Oakey, Austin’s Emergency Call Center (911) remains badly understaffed, resulting in excessive overtime and increased stress on employees. The fire department suffered vacancies because of a hiring dispute and a federal mandate that resulted from the issue, postponing the hiring process. The police department and Austin Energy also have suffered from vacant positions because of the lack of applicants with the proper skills.
Austin Energy has struggled to fill vacancies because of the competition with private-sector employers. According to Ken Craig, policy advisor for Council Member Ann Kitchen, other employers are capable of being much more competitive with salaries, therefore making it difficult for Austin Energy to fill high-skill positions such as engineers, and information technology specialists. “There is a potential impact in not being able to fill needed positions, as services to citizens may be compromised,” Craig said.
The resolution allows the city manager to bring forward specific positions to be discussed by the council, whether to eliminate the position or reevaluate the pay. “It would be helpful for the city manager in situations where we have trouble filling a vacancy because we’re not being competitive in the pay that we’re offering, it would allow him an opportunity to make that case to the council, as well,” Council Member Troxclair said at the council meeting June 11.
Some believe while this is a step in the right direction, there is room for further improvement. Michael Searle, policy advisor for Troxclair, said this is just the first step in the process of reducing the number of vacancies and improving budgetary transparency. Cities such as San Antonio place protections on the percentage of allowable city job vacancies, capping their allowable vacant positions at around 6 percent. Austin is currently at 8 percent according to Searle.
The resolution does not place a percentage cap on vacant positions, but aims to increase transparency in the budget, and allows City Council to re-appropriate funding for non-sworn positions that remain vacant more than 12 months. The resolution will allow City Council to determine whether to continue funding of the long-term continuing vacancies by requiring the city manager to notify the council of positions vacant over 12 months. “This will allow us to put a structure in place so that we don’t get into this position again,“ Troxclair said at the council meeting June 11. “We don’t have to check in every, you know, every few years, and say, oh, well, we’ve been spending, you know, $500,000 on this position that was vacant.”
In order to completely alleviate the issue, Oakey believes more change should happen. “I think the new resolution was a softball approach to the problem,” Oakey said. He favors the “Honolulu policy,” which places funds for vacant positions under the control of one central office. This office will then distribute the funds on an as-needed basis, preventing departments from padding their budgets with the excess funding. Honolulu, Hawaii, adopted this policy when the city had a similar affordability crisis. Oakey also suggested that the city’s website should provide the taxpayers full transparency.
Oakey supports the resolution, but still questions where the money previously allocated for these positions went. According to an article in the Austin Business Journal, in August 2013, Austin had 934 jobs available, but only 76 were advertised and open to applicants. According to Oakey, three council members said that the funds specifically for the salaries of these vacancies could be used for other unknown purposes without discretion. Because of lack of regulation regarding the unused money, Oakey said it is difficult to tell where exactly is has been spent in previous years.
Oakey said the most immediate impact the resolution will have would be the requirement of regular reports from the city manager on the amounts of budgeted funds from vacant positions that are available to be re-apportioned. While this doesn’t eliminate the funds from the budget, it allows for accountability to the taxpayer and helps to ensure their money is spent responsibly, improving on the lack of policy regarding the issue in previous years.
I was first alerted to this issue (unfilled longterm vacant city staff positions) from Bill Oakey’s Austin Affordability blog last Summer, and brought it up numerous times during the city council election. Unfortunately, it was an issue drowned out by many others. Thank you for keeping this in front of people as it’s emblematical of a city government that has been unaccountable for too long. New faces and adding a few seats on the council is nice, but if the status quo is kept, then the change we’ve hoped for from single member districts simply amounts to window dressing.