Wreckless Recs?

Garza's Affordability Strategy Slides Into Uselessness

illustration by Doug Potter

Affordability 2000. It sounds kinda cheesy, like a drive-in movie about Austin city government. That is, if it had a love interest, and there's not a lot of love in the room when Affordability 2000 gets discussed. But the real-life city campaign to reinvent itself has generated plenty of conflict, action, and special effects. It's City Manager Jesus Garza's greatest production, a mystery story -- perhaps most mysterious to its actors, the city departments whose programs are undergoing review, based on confusing "benchmark" data from cities across the U.S. but not on any input from the people who actually use the services. With six departments audited over the last two years, the plot has so far been unpredictable, with some programs being completely gutted, others left alone, some told how to do their jobs better, others told to do completely different jobs.

Not all of these plot devices have found their way into subsequent city budgets, but the ones that have are often riffs on themes Garza has essayed in the past -- things like outsourcing, cost-shifting, consolidating, and other euphemisms for cutbacks. So despite the advance billing for Affordability 2000, promising things audiences have never seen before, this movie may end up telling a familiar story -- one that, for many city employees and departments and citizens, will not have a happy ending.

Re-engineering Government

That's been the word on the street since Garza proudly announced "Affordability: A Strategy for the Year 2000," as the 1995 communique laying out the storyline was titled. The first sentence therein reads "In 1995-96 [as part of that fiscal year's budget], Council approved the addition of a new priority: Affordability." True enough, as one of the broad and vague headnotes to the budget-building process: Right now, the others are "public safety, sustainable community," and "youth, family and neighborhood vitality."

Now, we in the cheap seats all thought that "affordability" meant working to contain Austin's overall cost of living -- say, by increasing the housing stock, or by limiting sprawl and vast outlays in new infrastructure -- but Garza thought differently. The next sentences read "Affordability can be defined as a guiding principle of how we do business. Affordability means providing the best possible service to our customers at a reasonable price."

Which served notice that Affordability 2000 was Garza's catchphrase for his priority, re-engineering the city government: "My challenge in striving for affordability is to enhance our capacity to deal with change, our desire for self-examination, and our ability to recognize and seize opportunity." If you're a city department head, these can be fairly scary words, coming from the inner circles of management, long seen by both employees and citizens as The Bad Guys.

As Garza outlined it, Affordability 2000 had four components: Benchmarking our basic services, converting to a program budget, evaluating every city program during the next five years, and streamlining the organizational structure. If you're following along with the 1995 memo at home -- it's on the city's website, in the same section as Garza's bio -- you can stop reading, because most everything that follows -- the entire implementation structure, as well as the schedule of departments to be reviewed -- has been abandoned, and as a result the review process will take longer than five years.

Of Garza's components, Numbers 2 and 4 are no-brainers, commonplace in the era of Total Quality Management and Continuous Improvement. Streamlining the structure means eliminating bunches of middle management; a program budget allows for funding decisions to be driven by performance goals and objectives, instead of by organizational structure or bad habit. Both of these tactics, when applied in the private sector, are supposed to foster creativity and independence among the newly empowered and invigorated front lines.

Whether that really happens anywhere is questionable; it's certainly dubious in Austin, where departmental initiative often gets restrained by both city council and city management, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. And that brings us to the heart of the action in Garza's magnum opus.

Benchmark Press

Garza's planks Number 1 and 3 -- benchmarking and program review -- go hand in hand, since the benchmarking undergirds the conclusions of the program review. "Benchmarking" means comparing Austin, statistically speaking, to other cities, which seems simpler than it has proven to be. "Program review" means the annual Affordability audits of city departments. In 1995-96, the teams looked at Public Works and Transportation, Planning and Development, and Environmental and Conservation Services (ECSD), and by the time they were done, the latter two names were erased from the city's organizational chart. The departments were merged to form the Planning and Environmental Conservation Services Department (PECSD). (For more on the changes to the former ECSD, and the water quality personnel who were shifted to the Drainage Utility Department as a result, see "Enviro Shuffle," Page 32.)

This past fiscal year Garza looked at Parks and Recreation, Solid Waste Services, and the Austin Public Library. If there is a theme to the audits, both this year and last, it is this: Many important functions, if not completely privatized, have been moved out of the purview of individual departments and moved into more centralized -- and thus more directly responsive to Garza and the assistant city managers -- organization structures. (See chart.) Next year's main focus is the Municipal Court, with a limited audit planned for Health and Human Services.

In the beginning, the city's benchmarks for basic services were other Texas cities. Of course, we all take great pride in how Austin is different from other Texas cities, so using them as a benchmark does not often impress people. For example, "there's no point using Texas libraries as comparisons, because they're all underfunded," says one Austin Public Library manager. "We [meaning Austin Public, as opposed to Garza] have tried to consistently use benchmark cities that have the level of library service we have and want to have."

In 1996, the City of Austin tried to upgrade the benchmarking process by joining 35 other governments across the U.S. and Canada (see box) in an effort by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) to compile a master benchmark database. (The ICMA project now involves 44 municipalities, including Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Arlington.) But there are some problems inherent in the system.

These communities range in population from 150,000 to 3.5 million, in area from 50 square miles to more than 7,500. Some are cities, some are counties, some are consolidations of the two. Regional cost-of-living variations are not taken into account, though ICMA plans to do so in future years. If even three of the 36 communities have substantially identical organizational structures, or provide basically the same range of services, or even pay the same prices for the same goods and services, it would be a miracle. So the ICMA data's ultimate usefulness to Affordability 2000 is still unclear. "It's hard to balance," says City Controller John Stephens, who oversees the Affordability audits, "between cities that are similar to Austin but have different systems, and cities with similar systems that are different from Austin."

The ICMA, in its report published earlier this year with 1995 figures, compensates with lots of derived data and commentary. There are statistical analyses looking for relationships between, say, library circulation and library staffing levels, or streetlighting expense and population density. (Many of these relationships, intuitive as they might be, turn out to be statistically irrelevant.) There are also notes on why some cities are different from the rest, especially when the difference is positive. (Austin only gets thus singled out once, in the section on libraries.) "The reason why a jurisdiction has a particularly high or low value compared to other jurisdictions is usually quite complex," note the authors of the report, as part of 18 pages of explanation and caveat to the data in the report.

Most all of this context has been stripped from the ICMA data (or from any other benchmark data) as it appears in City of Austin documents -- both in the "Community Scorecard," produced for public consumption in June and covering a wide range of services, and in the Affordability 2000 audits themselves. We are instead left with bland and maddening excerpts from the ICMA's usually broader notes: for example, low per-capita spending on street maintenance (in which Austin is near the bottom) "may suggest either an efficient operation or the neglect of road maintenance." In Austin's case, it probably suggests both, but lacking further detail, this is a fairly useless benchmark.

That is, if the data is even accurate in the first place. According to Stephens, "even when going to the published data, you have to be careful, since different cities define their services and costs differently." He notes that ICMA's data on cost-per-customer for trash collection and disposal, which shows Austin at a well-below-average $87, is wrong. "Our actual cost in this year's budget is $141," Stephens says, "because ICMA is only counting direct costs to Solid Waste Services, whereas we're including all the indirect costs [i.e., the city's overhead] that we have to allocate to Solid Waste when setting the rates. The other cities in the database are including their indirect costs as well, so compared to them, we look better than we actually are."

Damning Data

Of course, cynics claim that this is the point of benchmarking -- to make Austin look better than it actually is, or worse, depending on the motive. Jaundiced city observers, and those aggrieved by Affordability 2000 recommendations, focus on how different cities are compared to Austin on different measures at different points. The implication is that Garza et al. are using the benchmarks as cover for decisions they already planned to make, though the data's own inadequacy might explain such variations.

Then again, the Affordability 2000 audits don't always understand the data they cite; one minor, but telling, example turns up at the beginning of the Austin Public Library audit. Comparing Austin to other Texas cities, the report claims that "Austin's funding compares favorably, especially with respect to State funding." (This is like saying the Sahara in summer compares favorably to Hell, but never mind that.) What the Affordability team doesn't tell, and likely doesn't know, is that state aid to Texas public libraries is routed through 10 regional systems, one of them based at Austin Public; the other 493 libraries receive no direct state funding at all, and the impact of state funding on Austin Public's own services is next to nil.

Garza defends the benchmarks, explaining that they are not used just to throw around numbers, but to make qualitative comparisons. "It's not the whole tool, but we need to measure ourselves against something in order to come up with a goal to strive for," Garza says. As for suggestions that he and his staff have an agenda already laid out, Garza vehemently denies it. "We don't start with an agenda, we start with benchmarks, we start with a self-critical look at the services we offer and how to make them better while saving money," Garza says. "Our only agenda is that we want better library programs, better parks, a better health system -- who doesn't want that?"

The panache with which the Affordability auditors pick and choose supporting evidence is not limited to the benchmark data. In the Parks and Recreation audit, the team makes several references to the council-appointed Parkland Maintenance Task Force, whose suggestion that PARD pursue high-dollar concessionaires (like restaurants) on parkland is repeated without cavil in the audit. However, the Task Force's opinion that PARD needs at least $33 million to fund deferred maintenance "could not be independently verified" and is discounted while the audit recommends restructuring PARD maintenance -- including transferring much of the function to the central Building Services Division, part of Finance and Administrative Services, already the city's second largest department.

Again, the suspicious see a deliberate design behind quirks like this -- downplaying the real need for additional funding, highlighting questionable opportunities to outsource, privatize, and restructure -- that proves Garza's malign intent. But again, the Affordability teams -- working with limited staff and resources themselves -- may simply not know what they're talking about. The PARD and Austin Public audits are full of suggestions that seem weird, impossible, or unwise, that are already being done, or that were tried before without success.

For example: Austin Public is urged to increase its marketing and promotion efforts, but the library's public information office, whose job this was, got cut in last year's budget. Parks and Rec is urged to charge administrative costs for Cultural Contracts back to the Cultural Arts Fund, as opposed to the General Fund, but when PARD tried this last year, the arts community pitched a fit and got the policy reversed. The department is also urged to close recreation centers during school-day hours (included in the proposed 1997-98 budget) and to provide adult programming at the same places and the same times. At PARD, custodial services are supposed to be outsourced because they're too expensive, but at Austin Public they're supposed to be brought in-house because the quality is below par.

Sometimes, the recommendations are just plain insulting. Austin Public's materials-processing department -- the people who ready the books for the shelves -- is a model of efficiency for libraries across the nation, yet the Affordability audit recommends that parts of it be outsourced; since libraries in the benchmark data do it, it must be a good idea. (There are only two likely vendors, one of which is currently being sued by several libraries nationwide over alleged incompetence and impropriety. Neither was asked by auditors to provide cost estimates; even though outsourcing might be more expensive than the status quo, the affected employees have already been targeted for layoff.)

And both PARD and Austin Public are urged to use Community Development Block Grant funds to underwrite their services within the Eastside CDBG target areas. This suggestion is presented as if the city could simply raid the CDBG kitty for its own use; in fact, PARD and Austin Public would have to apply like anyone else and go through the elaborate and (usually) citizen-driven approval process. The philosophical issue of whether CDBG funds, usually awarded to non-profit community groups, should be granted to tax-supported entities was hotly debated by the city council not more than six months ago. Former Councilmember Eric Mitchell's contention that governments shouldn't get CDBG funding was, to many, one of the few intelligent points he ever made.

Input Bypass

Mitchell also made another point, directly pertaining to Affordability 2000, that's hard to dispute: "When he was on the council," says Stephens, "he made a very good comment about involving the community and the neighborhoods in this process. That's a sentiment that sounds good; I wish there was a way to do that."

The lack of any real citizen input has been glaring throughout Affordability 2000's life span, and it troubles observers for two reasons. One is simply practical: Had the teams asked, not even the public at large, but just the obvious stakeholders -- like, say, the Parks and Recreation Board or the Austin Library Commission or the Arts Commission -- they might have avoided some of their impractical, impolitic, or redundant recommendations.

Now that the boards and commissions have seen the final audits, they are generally underwhelmed. "The audit recommends that we both close branches and cut hours," says Library Commission chair Chip Harris. "So, when they presented the final report to us, we asked them what libraries they wanted to close; they didn't know. We asked what criteria they used to decide this; they didn't know. They just thought we should do it. It was not very helpful." The audit also recommends a moratorium on new branches, but doesn't specify whether that includes the replacement branches already under construction, a point on which the audit team waffled dramatically during its presentation to the Library Commission.

The other problem with a citizen-free process is philosophical, and can well be illustrated by comparing Affordability 2000 with the State's two flavors of program review: the Texas Performance Reviews from State Comptroller John Sharp, and the Sunset Review process created years ago by then-State Sen. Lloyd Doggett.

Sharp's annual reports, which bear sexy titles like "Breaking the Mold" and regularly recommend radical changes, are analogous to what Garza wants the Affordability 2000 teams to do, and they don't generally involve conspicuous public input and debate. But Sharp, despite his influence, has no real power to enact Texas Performance Review proposals; the reports are consultant studies, not management action plans.

Sunset Review, on the other hand, which happens to each agency every 12 years, can in theory culminate in the agency's extinction. And since Sunset Review is performed by the same Legislature that writes the budget, its recommendations have immediate and real impact. So it's only fair that Sunset Review is about the most citizen-friendly thing the Legislature ever does, with both the affected agencies and the Lege exhausting themselves soliciting public and stakeholder input.

Seen in that light, Affordability 2000, which likewise has immediate impact on department budgets, should be an open process, which puts Stephens and his teams in a bind. "Allowing citizens and employees to sit in sounds good, but we have to conduct this in a way at some point where we're free to envision all scenarios," he says. "That was the directive from the city manager: to turn the programs every which way and ask all the questions we could think of. We're trying not to close the door to any options for change, but even looking at some options will upset people in the community."

A Search for Meaning

Plus, the Affordability teams don't have much time to solicit public input; according to Stephens, it was a race to get this year's audits completed by July 15, by which point the departments in question had long since made their budget requests. "The ideal time frame [for completion] would be the end of February, but we're living in a real world," he says. "We really wanted this year to be ready by end of April, but staff turnover and the usual bumps in the road slowed us down -- and PARD and the library are very large departments. Next year, we only have one full-blown review on our plate, but the staff's been cut accordingly."

All these caveats -- the problems with benchmarking, the lack of citizen input and the subsequent useless suggestions, and the inconvenient time frame -- cast enough bad light on Affordability 2000 to obscure the useful points the audits have made. Last year's big change -- the creation of a whole new department, Infrastructure Support Services (ISS), to perform those functions formerly duplicated within Planning, ECSD, and Public Works -- has so far been successful enough, says planning director Roger Duncan. "It really has saved us money, and that can be seen in this year's budget," he says. "And we still have the opportunity, because we actually have a contract with ISS, to monitor and make sure we get the services we need."

This year, despite some of the wacky recommendations in both the PARD and Solid Waste audits, both departments got caught -- if we can trust the audits -- with their pants down on several key points. The team found that PARD, for example, had failed to charge the council-approved facility rental fee on more than half the reservations made within the system -- leading to $40,000 in lost revenue at one site alone. On top of that, PARD has apparently failed to charge Austin ISD its share of joint-use playscape maintenance for 16 years, translating into $1.5 million in lost revenue over that time.

The Austin Public Library, on the other hand, was praised in its audit for providing efficient and effective library services, but was then urged to completely change the way it provides services, by converting to a "regional" system.

In explaining the audits, Garza is the first to admit that perhaps public input was not what it should have been. "Maybe that's what we did wrong.... There's no mystery to what we are doing and maybe we should have done a better job of showing the people what the process is about," Garza says. The Affordability 2000 mindset, Garza says, is pinpointing programs that are not as useful or that are underutilized, and taking the money from those to fund more effective programs. For example, with the libraries, Garza says he believes "they should be more than meeting rooms and reading rooms." In reference to the proposal to shut the already underfunded Riverside branch library, Garza asks, "Isn't it better to close the smaller branches in order to take those savings and put them into buying more research materials, more computers, and better books" at larger branches that are used by more people? "You may have to drive a little farther, but if we want to have an adequately funded library with more books and longer hours, let's do it, and do it well."

Converting libraries to a regional system would likely take more than a decade to implement, and some key points in the other two audits -- like consolidating Solid Waste's call center with the Utility Customer Services Office -- will also have to wait for future budgets, and perhaps future City Councils and city managers.

By which time the data used to make these judgments may be even less valid than it is now, and there's no provision in Affordability 2000 for either updating the audits or following up on those suggestions that were adopted. (There were in Garza's original description, but they've since gone away.) "In some cases, if the department's asked for our assistance, we've continued to work on implementation," says Stephens. "And we knew that some of the recommendations would not be fully taken in this budget process, because they involve a longer-term implementation. We'll leave it to the department, unless they ask for our assistance, to determine whether a recommendation is still valid."

Ultimately, it will all be up to the city council, which seems to be asking some of these same questions about the usefulness of Garza's affordability exercise. "I'm not sure we're getting as much out of the audits as we could," says Councilmember Daryl Slusher, along with Beverly Griffith, the current council's fiscal watchdog. "When you look at the Metzler audit (the consultant review of the Electric Utility in preparation for deregulation) or the audit of the Police Department, you see real changes that save money and improve services in ways the departments claimed were impossible. We haven't seen that with Affordability 2000."

With these kind of reviews from both the critics and the audiences, Garza's big production may end up being a bomb at the box office, which won't be a good thing for his performance review. But then, maybe that's to be expected from such familiar material. As one Library Commissioner puts it, "We've seen this all before. They call it something different now, but it's the same old story. And we don't like it."

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