Tag Archives: Mike Martinez

Why The City Council Has Lost All Public Confidence

By Bill Oakey – September 5, 2014

When you go around Austin these days, how many people do you run into who talk about what a great City Council we have? Come to think of it, have you ever heard anybody say that in the last ten years?

Well, why would that be? Let’s start with a simple question. If your city has a major problem and it is being talked about at every single civic function, wouldn’t you expect your city leaders to do something about it? Wouldn’t you expect them to at least organize some sort of major effort to solve the problem. In the case of affordability, they have done nothing of the sort.

The sad fact of the matter is that our current City Council members do not get affordability. After all this time, they are still not willing to give it anything more than lip service. Because of that, they have lost all public confidence. Most of us are just waiting for them to leave and make way for a new Council that will listen to the people. This Council has proven over and over again that the only thing they know how to do is business as usual.

Lots of us have attempted to delve into the affordability problem, and we have done it in great detail. One of the obvious starting points is the City Budget. We were told way back in February that the City had a $14.2 million budget surplus. A strong citizen outcry pushed back against efforts by some Council members to spend the surplus. We succeeded and none of the surplus has been spent. At least not yet.

But that is soon about to change. I just learned this week from sources at City Hall that all but $3.3 million of the surplus has “gone into the current budget.” And what about the remaining $3.3 million? The word I got on that is this: “The 3.3 million could be allocated for one-time critical funding needs.”

So, here we go again. They wrote a budget one year ago this month that they were satisfied with. Then a large amount of surplus money came in. The reason so many people contacted them and asked them not to spend it is obvious. We have an affordability problem. Got that? Let me pretend for a moment that I am on the City Council. Affordability? Oh, yes. That’s that word that everybody talks about. We are expected to say that we care about it. Not do anything about it, but just write about it in memos from time to time and mention it in public from time to time. That’s all the City Council members think they have to do.

For that reason and many others, there is absolutely no reason to vote for either Sheryl Cole or Mike Martinez for mayor. Where were they when the opportunity came to transfer the budget surplus over to the Water Utility to hold down the upcoming rate increase? Where were any of them when the opportunity came to use all of the surplus to hold down next year’s tax increase? Or to hold it in reserve and apply it next year towards a homestead exemption? I just have to wonder what they think affordability means. Maybe it means nothing to them at all. Apparently so. We will have to wait until next January for any hope of accountability for our tax dollars.

The credibility problem is compounded by the fact that nobody has any confidence in Capital Metro. Today they announced that ridership has dropped this year and is projected to drop again next year. Why? They attribute it to fare increases. Hmmm. So, now we are expected to go out and vote for a massively expensive rail system that will be managed by Capital Metro. And by the way, the City Council is hoping you will forget about who will manage the system. You’re supposed to think of the great and wondrous Project Connect. Those are the folks who came up with the brilliant, but actually warmed over idea of running a rail system from East Riverside to Highland Mall. When you get to Highland Mall, you will run into the passengers who are just arriving from the nearby eastern corridor on the Red Line. Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

It’s very sad that we have to put up with a lame duck City Council for four more months. They will not be missed when they go. In meeting with the many candidates who are working to take their places, I keep hearing that they really do want new ideas. They say they are not satisfied with business as usual. The expectations for them are pretty high. But, considering the fact that things couldn’t get much worse, I would say that we have something to look forward to. It will be up to us as citizens to let them know from their fist day in office that simply applying lip service to affordability will not get the job done.

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City Hall Victory – New 911 Call Center Operators To Be Hired

By Bill Oakey – June 30, 2014

Following a KXAN news investigative report and appeals from this blog, the City Council last Thursday took action to hire more call takers for the 911 EMS system.  In accordance with my recommendation, they will hire 7 new positions using leftover funds to make the positions available without waiting for the new budget that begins on October 1st.

The critical staff shortages in the City’s Emergency Communications Center have persisted since the summer of 2011, with costly annual expenditures of $1 million for overtime, burned-out employees, and citizens being placed on hold during emergencies.  Even the disastrous Halloween flood from last year was not enough to prod the City into action.  The Public Safety Commission had voted numerous times to ask for more emergency operators.

Because of a State-mandated certification requirement, the new hires will need to complete an interim training program, which will be provided by the City.  For details on the training requirement and job transition, see this document.  Interested job applicants can read the announcement and file an application here.

The Thursday Council meeting was very contentious otherwise.  The highlight of the day was their broken promise to scores of citizens who filled the chambers, hoping to speak on a $1 billion urban rail and road initiative.  Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole, both candidates for mayor, joined the majority in voting to break the promise and limit the number of speakers.  Many of the rail activists took their anger and frustration into weekend gatherings and online discussions aimed at mounting a strong opposition to the November rail bond election.

Something Doesn’t Smell Right At City Hall – And We Need To Get To The Bottom Of It!

By Bill Oakey – May 13, 2014

I was enjoying the gentle breeze while waiting at a table outside Jo’s on Second Street last week when City Council Member Mike Martinez showed up for our meeting.   He introduced two new critical words into the Austin affordability discussion…

Vacant Positions

Mr. Martinez said he was concerned that City Manager, Marc Ott, had left too many vacant positions in the City Budget.  How many is too many?  Well, how about 900 of them?

As I mentioned in my recent blog posting, the City Council has a big problem on its hands, going into the new budget cycle that begins in earnest within a couple of weeks.  They need to double down on affordability if they expect to gain any hope of confidence among beleaguered taxpayers.  So, what are they doing with 900 vacant positions on the books?

Such a large number of vacancies can add up to quite a bit of money.  And once it’s in the budget, those funds can easily be shifted to other purposes by the individual departments.  As it turns out, this very same issue began brewing in the City of Honolulu in 2010.  In their case, it was 1,000 vacant positions that added up to almost $40 million.  See “City Budgets $38.8 Million for 1,000 Vacant Positions” in the Honolulu City Beat.

There was great debate in between the luaus, and it took their city three years to resolve the issue.  Questions were asked about why that much money was “borrowed” from the taxpayers, and whether some of it was being used as a slush fund.  After all, once money finds its way into the budget, people can always find a way to spend it on something other than what it was originally intended for.  As a veteran accountant, I can tell you that one can accomplish such a switch by changing an object code, a cost center, or some other designated code.

Last year Honolulu abandoned the practice of allowing individual departments to “manage” large sums of money budgeted for vacant positions.  Those duties were assigned to a centralized staff person, who now disburses unused funds for approved hiring purposes.  The funds are held in a provisional account.  And they don’t keep $40 million on hand.

While at Austin City Hall yesterday, I asked City Council Member Kathie Tovo to please look into this issue.  I also asked her one important question.  Can departments spend money allocated for vacant positions on other things?  Her answer was simply…

“Yes.”

I have also learned that some members of the City Council attempted to address this problem during last year’s budget deliberations.  As of last August 1st, there were 934 unfilled staff vacancies, with only 76 of them posted for applicants to apply, according to the Austin Business Journal.  So, in September the City Council approved the new fiscal year 2014 budget.  Some of them thought they had fixed the problem with the huge pile of taxpayer money being posted to the books as “unfilled positions.”

Come January 10th, City Manager Marc Ott sent a memo addressed to all departments heads.  In it, he states that there were no less than 900 vacant positions, and he concedes that is “quite frankly, far too high.”  What happened to the “fix” that the City Council thought they had done?

I concur with the Honolulu Council Member who had this to say about huge piles of taxpayer money being stacked up for vacant positions and potentially being spent for other purposes:

“In essence, it’s a no interest loan in favor of the city,” said Anderson. “The city is saying, ‘We took your money this year, no we didn’t use it, thanks a lot for letting us borrow it, and no you can’t have it back.”

As of today, we do not know what has happened to the extra money that was bottled up at Austin City Hall in early January.   But we do know that we paid for it in the property tax bills that we sent to the Travis County Tax Office.

I have asked the City Council for a full accounting from every department on the status of all funds originally allocated for vacant positions since the beginning of this fiscal year last October 1st.  And I have also asked them to consider adopting the Honolulu model of assigning the duties of disbursing vacant position funds from a centralized office.  That office should report the status of these funds to the regular meetings of the City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee.

I am reminded of the fishing trip that my parents took us on when I was a young child.  As we were about to leave the driveway, my mom asked me to do something.

“Billy, please run back in and grab the thermos bottle.  And rinse it out first.”  When I pulled the thermos bottle out of the cupboard and popped the cork off, I gagged and took a few steps back.  Somebody had put it away the last time when it was still full of milk.  Needless to say, it didn’t smell very good.

Something doesn’t smell right today down at City Hall.  And somebody needs to do something about it.