The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Uncivil Service

City management panics at the thought of workers' rights

August 31, 2012, News

How do you make a small fortune in city government?

Start with a large fortune.

I was thinking of variations on that hoary joke this week, as I reviewed City Manager Marc Ott's revised analysis of the potential cost of civil service protections for all city employees. City Council revised and passed the draft proposal (for the November charter ballot) in the wake of Ott's earlier report that the change would carry an initial cost of between $600,000 and $750,000, "with an initial recurring annual cost thereafter between $31.5 million and $82.4 million."

Being charitable, we can presume that an estimate of "between $32 million and $82 million" is what professional mathematicians call "a wild-ass guess." After minor revisions in the ordinance – to eliminate mysterious financial risks visible only to Ott and his staff – Ott now says the potential cost would be "$625,000 in the first year, $467,000 in the second year and $347,000 for each year thereafter."

That's quite a discount, though it appears there is little reason to trust this estimate any more than the first one – especially since neither the sponsors of the ordinance (which, despite Ott's best efforts at sabotage, passed unanimously) nor AFSCME union General Man­ager Greg Powell understand where Ott is getting his numbers. Council Mem­ber Laura Mor­ri­son welcomed Ott's dramatically more reasonable arithmetic, but added that certain "assumptions" remain in the new numbers that she's yet to see justified. Powell called the revised estimates still "grossly inflated," and noted that Ott made a point of reiterating that until the new civil service system is installed he can't be certain the costs won't be higher.

Money Earned, Money Saved

As we reported earlier ("Fire 'At Will,'" Aug. 3), the purpose of the charter amendment is not to give all city employees an enormous raise (one of the unfounded presumptions of Ott's earlier analysis), but to replace the city's "at-will" employment system – under which all authority on hiring, promotions, and discipline is in management's hands – with a "just-cause" system, which would provide an independent check on personnel decisions by a civil service commission.

That's it. City employees have a grievance procedure now, but they say it's too often ignored or overturned by upper management. Managers would retain their authority; employees just want the right to appeal to independent commissioners who will provide a check against arbitrary decisions. The change should only be a problem for managers who cannot bear to have their decisions questioned or reviewed.

Ott insists such changes will at a minimum require hiring three new staff members and a technology overhaul to accommodate the new system (that's where he gets his cost estimates). Yet presumably he has staff now who process grievances and other personnel matters – can they not manage the same process under the new system? And he raises the specter of paid civil service commissioners, though Morri­son points out it's not even clear that the task will be full-time, or won't be manned (like current boards and commissions) by volunteers. Powell says there were about 15 grievance hearings last year (confirmed by the city), which hardly sounds like a work load requiring full-time commissioners.

More importantly, Ott's supposedly objective analysis does not even consider the possibility that there will be savings under a new system – in better and more equitable hiring and promotion decisions (and therefore lower training costs), in fewer lawsuits or EEOC complaints (one of which recently cost the city $250,000), or more generally in employee morale and productivity, when workers learn they can't be arbitrarily dismissed or disciplined by a willful boss, or by a manager reflexively backing (or overruling) his subordinates.

Fiscally Irresponsible

Ott's overreaction to a modest employment proposal – one that is to the credit of City Council – hardly reflects confidence in the judgment of his own staff. Moreover, his frankly ridiculous initial cost estimates set hair on fire down at the Statesman bat cave, and the editors were denouncing the multimillion dollar boondoggle even after city management had abandoned its initial estimates. Powell says city administrators could not even identify the draft provisions that would supposedly cost so much money, so he offered minor revisions that the city gratefully accepted. AFSCME can now take credit for saving the city $82 million a year.

Meanwhile, it's budget and tax rate time, so the Statesman editors have trotted out their "Taxes Is Too Damn High" drum for its annual beating, pandering being much easier than actually looking at the city's fiscal circumstances. The city has (again) postponed urban rail, cut services dramatically three years running, and whittled a $1.5 billion needs list down to a $385 million bond package – all so it wouldn't have to raise property taxes for bond debt.

Never mind all that, says the Statesman. Last weekend, in an utterly incoherent editorial ("Central Texans deserve truth about their taxes") the daily misrepresented the bond package, denounced taxes in all directions, took yet another shot at the civil service reform as too expensive – and then stuck in a buried line urging readers to vote for a Central Health medical school property tax. (With friends like these, Kirk Watson needs no enemies.) The piece made absolutely no sense, but I suppose the editors can claim they were defending "fiscal responsibility" – although if the phrase means anything, it means knowing you have to pay your bills.

Under the guise of defending working people, the Statesman never misses a chance to bash unions. It would be nice if city management didn't rush to provide dishonest help.

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