Feb. 11, 2004, 10:43PM
City layoffs all but certain
Other cost-cutting ideas in the works, official says
By KRISTEN MACK
"I don't say that to scare anybody, but the pot of money is finite," Anthony Hall told the City Council's Fiscal Affairs Committee.
Other cost-cutting ideas also are in the works, Hall said, but layoffs will have to be part of the effort to overcome the expected $150 million shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Among the other proposals is one that Hall detailed Wednesday, a plan to save about $13 million by passing much of an increase in the cost of health care coverage to city employees. Still, he said, more will have to be done.
"It will not take off the table the reduction of city employees," Hall said. "That's the reality of it, unless we miraculously find new money: Employees will be impacted in this budget cycle."
Representatives of the employees' union declined to comment on the possibility of job cuts until they see a specific plan. Hall said it is too early to say how many of the city's roughly 20,000 workers may be let go, how the layoffs will be determined or when they will take place.
The union leaders were critical, however, of the plan to shift more of the health-coverage expense to the workers.
"The administration is doing this to satisfy the taxpayers. We have no way of fighting it," said Kimbal Urrutia, executive director of Local 1550 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
"We can just keep demanding that they have more of a discussion with us," Urrutia said.
City officials warned recently that the cost of providing health care benefits to city employees, retirees and their dependents will jump by $40 million this summer -- a 24 percent increase that mirrors a nationwide trend of higher costs in health care.
Although the city has absorbed the full brunt of such increases previously, it can no longer afford to foot 88 percent of the cost, Hall said.
The administration requested Wednesday that the city's portion of the tab decline to 80 percent while employees pay 20 percent. The proposal is expected to go before the full council for consideration within two weeks.
Under the city's proposal, the monthly rate for city employees who carry insurance only for themselves would increase by 72 percent, from the current $11.76 a month to $20.25.
The monthly cost for retirees in that same category would go up 125 percent. For those under age 65, that would mean an increase from the current $33.98 per month to $76.32. Those who are 65 and older would see their monthly costs rise from $115.12 to $258.56.
Union leaders maintain that raising the employees' share of the costs from the current 12 percent would be the equivalent of a pay cut.
"We are already underpaid," said AFSCME representative Thomas Webb. "It's unaffordable."
Urrutia said he believes the workers have no choice but to accept the increase. He added that White is running the city like a business, not a government entity.
"This is not a private enterprise. You are not running it where you make the final decision," he said. "In the business of politics, they have to deal with their constituents. And in this case, constituents and city employees are the same."
In another effort to help control costs, the administration is asking the council to approve adding the option of a preferred provider organization to its health care plan.
Although workers typically pay more for office visits and prescription drugs under PPOs, they have a wider network of doctors from which to choose. Monthly premiums are generally lower than with health maintenance organizations, which offer more benefits.
"It's unfortunate that employees are going to have to pick up part of the expense," Councilman Mark Ellis said Wednesday. "I think it's a generous offer, still."
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle
Feb. 19, 2004, 8:53PM
AFL-CIO pledges support for Kerry
Labor leader calls for unity
WASHINGTON -- Divided for much of the political season, organized labor got behind the candidacy of Democratic front-runner John Kerry on Thursday, with the president of the AFL-CIO proclaiming that it was time "to unite behind one man, one leader, one candidate."
Bestowing the endorsement on Kerry at an outdoor rally barely a block from the White House, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said his organization, comprising 64 unions representing more than 13 million U.S. workers, would mobilize in unprecedented numbers for the man they figure will be the Democratic nominee.
"John Kerry will lead us in our fight to make creating good jobs America's number one priority," Sweeney said.
All the talk of unity was in sharp contrast to the fate of organized labor in recent months. Unable to settle on one candidate, the AFL-CIO withheld its endorsement late last year, a reflection of the fissures among the unions.
More than 20 of the international unions backed Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, the presidential candidate who had carried labor's water in Congress for nearly three decades.
But the largest unions -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union -- stunned the Democratic race by endorsing Howard Dean.
When the first votes were counted in Iowa, labor proved to be the big loser -- along with Gephardt, who finished fourth and exited the race, and Dean, who was a disappointing third. The political influence of labor and its voter-turnout operations appeared to be waning.
The labor vote has been critical to the Democrats, with union members voting for Al Gore over George Bush by about a 2-to-1 margin in 2000, according to exit polls. Those in labor households made up a quarter of the vote, and they went for Gore by almost as big a margin.
"The lesson clearly is, when we're united we're a lot stronger than when our support is divided among four candidates," said Andy Stern, president of SEIU.
Voters from labor households tended to support Kerry by narrow margins in Iowa and Wisconsin and by substantial numbers in Missouri and Delaware.
Feb. 18, 2004, 11:32PM
Private donation will be requested
By KRISTEN MACK
White said Wednesday that he will sweeten the pot for Ann Travis, his new director of government affairs, because her talents are worth it.
The decision to boost Travis' pay above the $120,000 annual salary she will receive from the city drew hot words from city workers' representatives, who said the gesture is disrespectful to employees whose jobs are being threatened by layoffs.
White said he will persuade a Houston company to donate the money as a "gift to the city."
He said he plans to contact Houston corporations that do not do business with the city, such as oil and gas companies. If he can't find a donor, he said, he will write a personal check.
Travis, who was district director for U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, for seven years, will serve in a newly created post. She will be on White's senior staff and report directly to him.
"We want her to coordinate a strategy for obtaining the maximum possible funding for the city of Houston and our region, from state and federal sources," White said.
Thomas Webb, who represents city workers in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1550, said the mayor's gesture is "appalling and ridiculous."
"This goes to show or reinforce the fact that city employees are being treated as second-class citizens," Webb said.
"What message are you sending to city employees? How dare (White) increase the cost of health insurance and threaten possible layoffs? This is turning city employees into soup-bowl recipients."
The city faces a $150 million budget shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1. White's administration has proposed passing off much of an increase in the cost of health care coverage to city employees, and other cost-cutting ideas also are in the works, including layoffs.
Rather than put the entire cost of Travis' salary on taxpayers, White said, he wanted to signal that he is sparing them by keeping her pay, and that of other senior staff employees, in line with or below salaries in the prior administration.
"We want to do this to send a message that we want to retain somebody we think can help us bring in a substantial amount of money, more than we've been getting," he said.
White said he believes Travis will bring in $10 million in increased funding and will save the city money that would have gone to pay lobbyists. She will begin her new job Monday.
The mayor said he does not intend to supplement the pay of other senior-level employees or directors, including the police and fire chief, who have yet to be named.
White has said that Travis brings 22 years of experience in government and public affairs to help manage the city's relations with other governments.
While the use of supplemental pay to attract and keep top staffers is not new, it has raised concerns among watchdog groups and others.
President George W. Bush established the practice in 1995 while he was Texas' governor, after the state Ethics Commission issued an opinion that it is legal for elected officials to use campaign funds to pay staff.
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle