Steve Adler goal of whittling city vacancies unfulfilled
On the mayoral campaign trail in 2014, Steve Adler took up one of his opponent's pet issues: vacant city staff positions.
Former Austin City Council Member Mike Martinez had questioned the city manager's 2013 proposal to add 365 jobs in the next year's budget when 934 existing positions were unfilled, including 500 posts that had been vacant more than six months, the Austin American-Statesman reported at the time.
Council interest led City Manager Marc Ott to push city departments to reduce their vacancy rates, city Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo told us by phone. Ott also pledged not to bring another budget proposal to the council with a high overall vacancy rate, Van Eenoo said.
Adler, as part of his affordability agenda, declared as a candidate that vacant city staff positions shouldn't exceed 5 percent of all jobs in city government. Also, Adler said, the city should keep money budgeted for unfilled positions in a "centralized provisional account."
We recently asked Jason Stanford, the mayor's spokesman, why Adler thinks it important to reduce vacancies. "First, people should be able to trust that if the City Council appropriates money for a purpose that it will actually be spent for that purpose," Stanford said by email. "Second, a lot more work gets done by positions occupied by people than it does by positions that are vacant. That's science."
Let's first look at changes in the vacancy rate on Adler's watch.
We asked David Green, the city's media relations manager, if the vacancy rate had ever been at or below 5 percent since Jan. 6, 2015—the day Adler, and the rest of the council, was sworn in.
"No," Green said by email. He provided a spreadsheet showing the vacancy rate when Adler took office was 7.8 percent; it shortly dipped to 7.7 percent but otherwise ran higher through April 2016, topping out at 10.8 percent in a pay period ending in early October 2015. The latest shown vacancy rate, in the last half of April 2016, was 8.8 percent, representing 1,154.7 vacancies out of 13,094.4 total positions.
Green noted that the data analysis the city ran to get these numbers used the payroll system. His point: Some of the seemingly vacant positions were actually filled but not yet entered in the system.
Van Eenoo separately said he doesn't think it's feasible for the city to achieve a position vacancy rate of 5 percent. He said the rate hasn't been that low during his time at the city, which began in February 2009. "You're never going to be able to drive the vacancy rate as low as the mayor envisioned," Van Eenoo said.
The city has 13,000 employees, and at any given time, people are moving on to other opportunities or jobs, Van Eenoo said. That creates vacancies, which may persist, as an internal candidate may fill a higher-level position. Then that candidate's position opens up, which another, lower-level employee may fill, perpetuating the vacancy.
And, Van Eenoo said, just because a position is labeled "vacant" doesn't mean no one is doing the work; city departments often backfill through overtime or by deploying a part-time employee or a temporary employee.
A City Council resolution
So, the vacancy rate hasn't reached Adler's goal of 5 percent.
Still, Stanford suggested, the council acted to reduce vacant positions. On June 11, 2015, the council approved 11-0 a resolution proposed by Council Member Ellen Troxclair and co-sponsored by Council Members Sheri Gallo, Don Zimmerman, Ora Houston and Ann Kitchen.
The resolution directed Ott to bring a budget amendment to the City Council by August 2015, and afterwards in March of each year, enabling the council to redirect funding for positions that have been vacant for 12 months or more. It also directed the city manager to include a report about vacancies with each proposed budget.
At the time, Troxclair told the American-Statesman, "For transparency's sake, I think a lot of people would be surprised to know, just like I was, that we have positions that have been vacant since 2005." She also said it was the council's responsibility to "ask questions about what that money is being used for and whether or not we need to continue funding a position that has not been filled."
On June 18, 2015, city staffers returned with a list of 31.3 full-time equivalent positions that had been vacant 12 months or longer. Of those, though, 15 positions had been accepted by a job candidate who had not begun work.
Next, the council voted to eliminate two full-time equivalent positions in the Public Works Department and a part-time position in the Building Services Department. The council also froze one full-time equivalent position in the Public Works Department. The money budgeted for these positions, totaling $365,113, went to the ending balances of various funds, which the council allocated to other purposes in the $3.5 billion 2015-16 budget. The council left the other 13 vacant positions intact.
As instructed, city staffers returned on March 24, 2016, with a list of seven positions that had been vacant for at least 12 months. Van Eenoo told the council the city was posting, had already posted or was interviewing candidates for all the jobs. The council then voted not to redirect the funds budgeted for the positions on a 7-2 vote. Troxclair and Zimmerman voted against; Gallo and Council Member Greg Casar were absent.
Bottom line: Adler participated in efforts that cut a few vacant positions. But the vacancy rate hasn't dipped to or below 5 percent, as he promised to accomplish.
One budget account?
What about Adler's pledge to keep funding for vacant positions in a single account?
Long story short, there is no such account.
There was $174.1 million in the 2015-16 budget for salaries and benefits for all the vacant positions as of April 30, Green said. That money is spread among the personnel funds of various departments, Van Eenoo said.
The city may save money when positions go unfilled, but it's usually a limited amount because the department may use overtime or a temporary employee to do the work assigned to the vacant position, Van Eenoo said. Also, the city budgets less than the full cost of funding the new positions in each budget because it knows some of those positions will be vacant, he said.
Department directors have discretion to spend vacancy savings for other purposes; otherwise, the money falls to fund balances that then get re-allocated in the next year's budget, Van Eenoo said.
We rate this an Adler Promise Broken.
Promise Broken – The promise has not been fulfilled. This could occur because of inaction by the executive or lack of support from the legislative branch or other group that was critical for the promise to be fulfilled. A Promise Broken rating does not necessarily mean that the executive failed to advocate for the policy.
Emails, David Green, media relations manager, City of Austin, May 20, 2016 to May 25, 2016
Emails, Jason Stanford, communications director, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, May 25, 2016 to May 31, 2016
News stories, Austin American Statesman, "Martinez questions vacant jobs in Austin budget plan," Aug. 13, 2013; "Will Austin City Council take a closer look at vacant positions?" Austin American-Statesman, June 9, 2015
Phone interview, Ed Van Eenoo, deputy chief financial officer, City of Austin, May 26, 2016
Web document, Exhibit A: 12 Month Vacant Positions Report for March 24 Council Agenda, City of Austin, accessed May 25, 2016
Web document, FY 2015 Vacancy Report, City of Austin, accessed May 25, 2016
Web document, Ordinance No. 20150618-007, City of Austin, accessed May 25, 2016
Web document, Resolution No. 20150611-012, City of Austin, accessed May 25, 2016
Web page, "An Affordable New Way Forward," adlerforaustin.com, accessed May 25, 2016