in Houston, Texas
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Texas state payroll shrinks, though not in higher ed or at the DMV
Thursday, Nov 01, 2012, 12:10PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
plate

Social services, criminal justice and education were largely responsible for reducing the state payroll by ½ a percent in the past fiscal quarter in Texas.

The reduction of 1,620 full-time positions, bringing the total down from 297,502.9 positions, was nearly offset by the addition of 1,587.6 positions in the state’s institutions of higher education, according to a new report by the state Auditor comparing employment in the previous quarter to the same period in 2011. (See a chart tracking the change here.)

While total higher education staffing increased by 1.1 percent to 148,557.9 full-time equivalencies, the number of administrators jumped by 2.4 percent over the same period a year ago to 3,023.6 positions.

The Department of Aging and Disability Services reduced its staff over a year to 16,878.8 positions. The reduction of 721.2 positions was the biggest single loss for a state agency, according to the study.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Juvenile Justice Department dropped a combined 1,101.7 jobs from the end of August 2011.

The Texas Education Agency, which began laying off employees during a tough legislative session on public education in 2011, reduced staff by 226.2 to 701.6 positions, a 24.4 percent drop, the highest percentage decrease among major departmental employers.

The Texas House under Speaker Joe Straus and the Senate, headed by Lt. David Dewhurst, both conservative Republicans who have called for smaller state government, made double-digit percentage reductions, shedding more than 100 employee positions each.

It is important to note that in June through August of 2011 the Legislature was just completing a session and in the same quarter this year the Legislature had been adjourned for more than a year.

The Department of Public Safety, in the midst of a $63 million spending spree to open driver’s license megacenters across the state, brought its staffing to 8,692.8 positions by adding 347 jobs, more than any state agency.

Texas state employees


The Department of Motor Vehicles grew its staff by 151.3 positions to 730.2 positions or 26.1 percent, the highest percentage increase of any major state agency.

Governor Rick Perry, another high-profile, small government conservative, added 3.9 positions in a year, bringing his staff to 264.1 positions.

Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose staff handled a Supreme Court challenge to Obamacare that was not upheld and a Supreme Court redistricting fight this year, increased his office’s staffing by .3 percent, 13.7 positions added to a staff of 4,057.2 positions.

The General Land Office, headed by conservative Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who is running for lieutenant governor in 2014, boosted his staff by 20.9 positions or 3.6 percent to 600.9 positions.

However, Patterson’s agency was called on in August of 2011 to take over nearly $3 billion in federal funding that had not yet been distributed in relief for the victims of Hurricane Ike in 2008.

The Department of Rural Affairs, one of the agencies criticized for its handling of the Hurricane Ike funding, was abolished by the Legislature, a reduction of all of its 70.6 positions, the Auditor’s report says.

The other agency with Ike responsibilities, the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, lost 52.2 or 14.4 percent of its staff during the same period. Michael Gerber, the executive director of the agency, resigned at the end of August of 2011.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of Texas state Capitol dome by flickr user victorfe places, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

Austin taxpayers could get dinged if city shifts from contractors to salaried employees
Monday, Apr 16, 2012, 10:51AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
money

Imagine, as the Austin Social Engineering Council does altogether too much of, how the quality of life in Das Kapital city would improve if taxpayers paid more for services performed by a new legion of city employees.

If you can’t imagine, and you’ll find you are in the company of many sane people who live outside the city limits, an Austin American-Statesman story is here to help.

A short time ago, city staff recommended the council extend the contract of a private cleaning service employed by Austin Energy at an estimated cost of $2.9 million for the next five years.

But why do that, the council reasoned, when you could create 10 new city janitor jobs and do the same work for $4.1 million over the same period?

Never mind. You should have been here for the extra $650 million they spent putting in the commuter rail system the vast majority of the public doesn’t use. And if you don’t flee to a suburb you’ll be here for the ban on plastic bags next March passed in spite of cleanup estimates inflated incorrectly by 366 percent.

At any rate, the council found its unanimity on the janitorial hiring spree so exhilarating it is asking city staff to calculate how much taxpayers could be dinged by replacing all outside service contracts with city employees.

What are tens of millions of dollars extracted annually from taxpayers in comparison to the general well being of a new generation of public workers buffered from life’s hardships by generous city retirement and health plans?

Sort of like they had in Rhode Island before the state nearly went bankrupt, or in Stockton, Calif., which doesn’t look to be so lucky.

But that would never happen in Austin, where solar energy is thought to be free and continues to run when the sun goes down solely on the power of the council’s biggest ideas.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of money by flickr user 401K, used via a Creative Commons license.

Departing Texas state workers collecting tens of millions annually as they cash out vacation time; other states look to curb practice
Thursday, Mar 15, 2012, 11:43AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
beach

The next time you are in line at the Texas Department of Public Safety, having ordered out for pizza while moving on to the second of the Lord of the Rings trilogy on your iPhone, summon just a little empathy for the folks who are, if you are lucky, less than three hours from waiting on you.

Five hundred and six million dollars says at least some of these overworked and underloved state employees will at retirement be collecting a fat check for vacation time they were somehow not able to use, according to a story today by the Texas Tribune.

This is the total amount the state paid out to retiring state employees over the past decade, $66.5 million of it last year alone, the interactive bar graph accompanying the story says.

This policy is perfectly legal in Texas and in nearly every other state. Vacation time here can roll over from year to year to a maximum of 13 weeks pay, which can be taken as a single payment or put toward an early retirement.

But it has begun to concern your elected officials who get mightily peevish when running out of your money to spend.

Minnesota is considering ending payments to retirees for unused vacation and sick time. A $3.6 million payout to New Jersey Transit retirees last year spurred Gov. Chris Christie to call for a new policy for all state employees.

The governors of California and New York, in their efforts at pension reform, have decried the practice of adding in unused vacation and sick time to fatten the calculation of a state retiree’s pension.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of beach by flickr user Vaughan, used via a Creative Commons license.

Texas state government executive salaries roundup: CourTex
Thursday, Oct 20, 2011, 01:08PM CST
By Steve Miller
dollar bill

The CourTex blog posted a few state salaries for public consumption recently, and it's nice one-stop-shopping for what the top officials running state government are earning. CourTex cites these salaries from a 2010 report:

  • Employees Retirement System executive director: $300,000
  • Health and Human Services executive commissioner: $210,000
  • Department of Transportation executive director: $192,500
  • Texas Education Agency commissioner: $186,300
  • Department of Criminal Justice executive director: $186,300
  • Department of State Health Services commissioner: $183,750
  • Department of Information Resources executive director: $175,000

Blogger Carl Reynolds (who makes no secret of his day job as state court administrator) points out that the state pays lofty-ranking bureaucrats more than its top judges earn.


"The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, and the Presiding Judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, are paid $152,500," he writes.


The salaries for judges in Texas are set by the Legislature, whose members stand to benefit via their own pensions from judicial raises. Lawmakers have nearly tripled the salaries of Texas trial judges since 1981, a recent USA Today story pointed out.

 

***

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.
 
Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpaceDiggFriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of money by flickr user athrasher, used via a Creative Commons license.

Worker in Dallas Co. District Clerk's office accused of stealing $130K; audit from 2002 pointed to weaknesses in cash handling
Friday, Oct 14, 2011, 06:03PM CST
By Steve Miller
handcuffs

In 2002, the Dallas County Auditor found weaknesses in how the district clerk’s office handled cash and made some recommendations on how to make the money safer.

But the safeguards were never implemented, and this week, the former criminal records manager in the Dallas County District Clerk office was arrested and charged with stealing $130,000 from the office.


Florretta Hampton, who resigned in August, is charged with theft by a public servant. Hampton's boyfriend, Dax Williams, was also charged.


The money was discovered missing in early April, then made public a week later. A week after that, Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons fired three top office managers, including David Danielsthe criminal manager for the office.


report from the CBS affiliate in Dallas reports that “Investigators believe Hampton and 41-year-old Dax Raymone Williams took the money from a vault in the clerk’s office. “


Hampton has been a supervisor at the criminal records desk at the county courts building since 2008 and is a former corrections officer for the state before being hired at the district clerk’s office. Her last reported pay was $35,019 a year.


Hampton has no criminal record in Dallas County. Williams has prior charges of assault and aggravated robbery

 

***

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.


Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpaceDiggFriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of handcuffs by flickr user The.Comedian, used via a Creative Commons license.

Texas state workers take five-figure buyouts as agencies implement budget reductions
Friday, Oct 07, 2011, 11:19AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Texas state Capitol

Rather than lay off state employees to meet budget cuts ordered by the Legislature, some agency supervisors have taken it upon themselves to distribute brass parachutes, retirement packages paid for with millions of taxpayer dollars.

In the sourdough pretzel logic of government so aptly expressed in a story by the Austin American-Statesman this morning, sometimes you have to spend money to save money.

The story questions the “have to” part of the equation, saying agency officials were given wide berth in how they went about cutting 5,700 positions as part of $15 billion in cuts for the 2012-13 budget.

As Texas Watchdog has reported some didn’t actually get rid of any real employees at all, but announced they were shedding vacant positions.

While under no obligation, the General Land Office bosses have run up a bill of $1.3 million handing out $25,000 to eligible employees who volunteered to retire.

The Department of Agriculture’s $12,500 retirement incentive cost $637,500, but will save the agency $2.5 million a year, the story says. The nine Texas Water Development Board employees awarded $10,000 retirement packages will save the state $556,000 a year.

There is precedent for these government buyouts, the story says. The Legislature in 2003 thought it could save some serious cash and so offered every eligible state worker a package equal to 25 percent of their current salary as an incentive to retire.

That started a run of about 7,000 retirements. Many of those workers came out of retirement and back to their old jobs when the budget crisis passed.

Sometimes you have to spend money to be able to spend more money later.
 
***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of Texas state Capitol by flickr user Matt Rife, used via a Creative Commons license.
Texas state government payroll shrinks -- a bit
Tuesday, Sep 27, 2011, 10:07AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
time card

State government in Texas shed almost 3,700 full-time and 970 part-time employees over a year ending in May 2011 in anticipation of the Legislature’s $15 billion in cuts to the 2012-13 state budget, the Texas Tribune reports.

Agencies trimmed just less than 1.2 percent of the state payroll of 310,941 full-time equivalent positions in state government in fiscal 2010.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice dropped more than 2,000 full-time positions from the state’s biggest agency, according to the Tribune analysis of all agency reports submitted annually to the State Auditor’s office.

The agency lost 1,000 of those jobs because the funding for them wouldn’t be there, Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the department, told the Tribune. The other losses were counted by not filling vacant positions, she said.

Several state agencies reduced their full-time employment counts in this way, according to an earlier Texas Watchdog report. At Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, where just eight people were actually laid off, 372 full-time positions were either vacant or filled by temporary help. Another 100 positions in investigations and information, also dropped, were also vacant.

Of the 172 full-time equivalent positions dropped at the Texas Department of State Health Services, 104 of those positions were already vacant, and 68 others were offered different  jobs in the department at their current salaries.

The Tribune said the Department of Rural Affairs reduced its workforce by the biggest percentage over the one-year period, expected because the Legislature abolished the troubled agency and split its responsibilities between the Department of Agriculture and the General Land Office.

And while its report to the auditor will show those job losses over the past year, many of those employees are now getting General Land Office paychecks.
 
***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of time card by flickr user TheGoogly, used via a Creative Commons license.
Salary information for Texas utilities’ workers made public
Monday, Aug 29, 2011, 12:50PM CST
By Lee Ann O'Neal
power lines

Salaries of workers at public power utilities can no longer be withheld based on the flimsy excuse that disclosure could harm the utilities’ competitive position, following the Texas state Legislature’s passage of a bill this year.

The Denton Record-Chronicle had a solid overview of the issue this weekend, including highlights of the six-figure earners at Denton Municipal Electric.
Salaries of other city employees were already subject to release under the Texas Public Information Act.

But the state had allowed cities to withhold electric employee salaries since 1999, when lawmakers voted to deregulate the state’s power market. …
 
The new law, filed by Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, includes categories of information that qualify as competitive matters, meaning cities no longer have discretion in deciding what to withhold. The law lists employee salaries among the categories that don’t qualify as competitive matters.
Ogden’s hometown utility had gotten downright cocky with the public’s information over the last few years --- so much so that even the Bryan city manager couldn’t get a straight answer when he asked for money numbers needed to plan the city’s budget. The (Bryan-College Station) Eagle has closely followed the ins and outs there, where rates are set to increase 12 percent over the next two years and the general manager earns almost $250,000 in salary and incentive pay.
 
***
Contact Lee Ann O'Neal at 713-980-9777 or leeann@texaswatchdog.org. Follow her on Twitter at @texaswatchdog.

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Photo of power lines by flickr user shannonpatrick17, used via a Creative Commons license.
Despite boom in health savings accounts, political opposition keeps HSAs off the table for state workers: Texas Health Care Report
Thursday, Aug 11, 2011, 08:50AM CST
By Lee Ann O'Neal
wallet

Have you been over to Texas Health Care Report, Texas Watchdog's sister site?

If not, head over and check out our latest featured report:

Despite the growth in the number of consumers signing up for health savings accounts, skepticism of the health plans runs deep.

Legislation which would have offered health savings accounts as an option for Texas state workers for the first time failed in this past session, and the story by Texas Watchdog’s Mark Lisheron explains why. HSAs are tax-sheltered accounts for medical bills that are paired with a high-deductible insurance plan.

Their structure has drawn criticism from policymakers who say they only appeal to wealthy people with few health problems, and that offering them could ultimately marginalize poorer, unhealthy workers in an expensive risk pool.

But in Indiana, which first offered health savings accounts for its state workers in 2006, more than 8 out of 10 workers have signed up for them, saving taxpayers as much as $23 million last year, a study commissioned by the state of Indiana said.

Read more at Texas Health Care Report, a website powered by Texas Watchdog. And be sure to check Texas Health Care Report daily for a roundup of the most relevant and compelling health care news. Follow @TXRXreport on Twitter or Facebook.
 
***
Contact Lee Ann O’Neal at 713-980-9777 or leeann@texaswatchdog.org.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us onYouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpaceDiggFriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of wallet by flickr user docpop, used via a Creative Commons license.
HISD spends $18 million in stimulus cash to pay salaries of 200+ workers it doesn't need
Thursday, Oct 21, 2010, 07:22AM CST
By Lynn Walsh
Chalkboard

Houston’s public schools are spending $18 million in federal stimulus money to pay the salaries of more than 200 employees the district admits it doesn’t need.

That’s because the Houston Independent School District is getting more federal money than ever for special education, even though it has nearly one-quarter fewer special ed students than five years ago.

Much of the extra special ed money HISD is getting from the federal stimulus program -- starting last school year and running through next year -- is paying workers such as teachers’ aides and occupational therapists for special ed students.

But while the number of special ed students plummeted in the past few years, mirroring a national trend, HISD didn’t cut employees’ jobs, leaving roughly as many people working in that department today as there were in 2005, when the district had nearly 5,000 more special ed students.
Fever charts

“Perhaps that was something that was not looked at over the last several years, and we are trying to straighten that out,” said Sowmya Kumar, HISD’s new assistant superintendent for special education. She spent more than a dozen years as a regional administrator for HISD’s special ed programs before being promoted this summer.  

“We have a fresh new team here and some fresh new eyes,” she told Texas Watchdog. “When you take a fresh new look at things, you start to ask questions about data.”

The 200-plus workers will be laid off at the end of this school year, she said. A district-wide special education audit, intended to identify the overstaffing, is underway and is expected to be completed by December.

“We need an overhaul in our special ed department, and we need to be a lot more receptive to what parents need,” HISD trustee Manuel Rodriguez said.

Federal law prevents the school district from spending the extra $18 million on anything outside special education -- a sadly ironic situation for school employees, as HISD earlier this year laid off employees in other departments. And a program to try to fix the system's most troubled schools, called Apollo 20, is still short by $6 million, forcing HISD officials to ask for donations from private foundations.


Kumar isn’t the only HISD official saying that some workers should have gone years ago. HISD’s top financial officer, Melinda Garrett, gave school system trustees a presentation in June, saying stimulus funds would pay for positions in special ed “which should have been reduced based on prior years’ declining enrollment.”

While HISD administrators say the 200 workers aren’t needed, to people in the special education community, having additional staff on hand these past couple of years has been helpful.

“Some people may say it is a waste of money, but these 200 teachers are a drop in the bucket,” said Jimmy Kilpatrick, a member of a Houston-based group that provides national advocacy and research on special education issues.

“You need quality teachers, especially with special-needs children, and it presents an opportunity for less of a workload for the teachers ... The problem is, sometimes an autistic child needs three adults around them at once, and that requires a high level of expertise.”

Said Rodriguez: “These past two years have been relatively quiet. I have not been getting the calls from parents who think their child is not getting the proper special education services they need. It could be that the parents have moved on, but I hope it is that the situation has been alleviated.”

More than $11 billion of federal stimulus money went to the states for special ed programs. Calls to the federal Education Department, which distributed the funds, were not returned.

However, DeEtta Culbertson from the Texas Education Agency -- which was in charge of funneling the federal education stimulus money to the individual school systems -- said the amount of money HISD received was based on a formula set by the feds, not by the state.

(See the HISD presentation on federal funds. June 2010,)

“In looking at the funding that HISD received, it is pretty much based on a formula that was laid out by the stimulus,” Culbertson, a spokeswoman for TEA, said. “We had to just provide the money as it was dictated to us.”

The Houston district’s drop in special ed enrollment, now at about 16,500 students, didn’t factor into it either, Kumar said.

“It is based on the population and poverty of the district,” she said. “Every district across the state received stimulus money; it was a big pot of money that was awarded to the state.”

Nearly four out of every five of HISD’s 202,000 students are considered economically disadvantaged, which the school system defines as qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

HISD has not been able to create new jobs using the stimulus funds, but as Kumar is quick to point out, creating jobs was not the only goal of the stimulus.

“We were able to save jobs with the money,” Kumar said. “The two goals of the stimulus were to create or save jobs.”

Fewer students in HISD and across the country are being enrolled in special ed programs today, in part because of better screening procedures. At the same time, more federal cash is flowing in to the district’s special ed programs than ever before, Garrett said.

The school system is also using some of the stimulus money to buy big-ticket technology items, like a new computer system to manage special ed student data and white boards.

“We’re buying things that, after we are done buying them, they will continue to create dividends for the district,” Kumar said.

The new computer system will manage student evaluations and assessments made by psychologists, Kumar said. It will be updated and tracked through a student’s entire career in HISD and will help the school system submit necessary data to state and federal education authorities.


In addition to the $42.7 million in stimulus funds, which must all be spent by December 2011, HISD is getting unusually big checks from the main federal program that helps school systems pay for special ed, known as IDEA. This year, the handouts from IDEA are currently running about $1.5 million more than last year.

But the district suggests that the extra federal money will, in the end, save HISD taxpayers money.

In addition to the federal and state money HISD gets, the district regularly uses some local money -- largely from property taxes -- to cover special ed expenses. Under the law, a school district cannot cut its local funding for special ed unless it loses special ed students or gets a boost in its IDEA funding -- both of which have happened.

Aside from the 200 workers being laid off at the end of the school year, there are also 40 positions in special ed currently being funded by stimulus money that Kumar says will be needed next school year -- when their costs will be borne by the district and its taxpayers.

Contact Lynn Walsh, Lynn@TexasWatchdog.org, 713-228-2850 or on Twitter @LWalsh.

Chalkboard photo illustration by Jennifer Peebles; graphics by Lynn Walsh, based on HISD data.

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