Rising lifeguard wages further drain city’s reserve fund

(KXAN File Photo)
(KXAN File Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Lifeguards in Austin are getting a pay raise to make more than $13 per hour, but the effort to boost wages and fill positions is also draining money from Austin’s reserves, below the city’s self-set minimum.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll get enough lifeguard availability to open all the pools,” said Cheryl Bolin, a division manager in the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. “We are seeing an influx in applicants, so that’s very helpful.”

The aquatics office had several teenagers applying for lifeguard positions Monday. After past years of delayed pool openings and lifeguard shortages, the Parks and Recreation Department is hoping increased pay will help draw more lifeguards to a summer job with the city.

Earlier this year the city was offering starting wages of $8.00 to $10.25 per hour. Now, all lifeguards will start at $13.03. Still, the city remains short on lifeguards, with an estimated 270 lifeguards as of Monday evening. The city wants at least 600 lifeguards.

The decision to give the raises also comes with a $418,000 price tag for the city, which is coming out of the general fund reserve for budget stabilization. Reserves will dip to 11.9 percent, which is below the city’s own guideline to maintain the funds at least 12 percent.

“We can’t continue to do that. I mean, that’s for an emergency and this is serious, but I don’t think we’ve invited the community to participate in how we can solve this problem,” said city council member Ora Houston in Thursday’s council meeting, after proposing turning to private donors or investors to help fund the wage increase at the pools.

The pools are not the only thing that has caused the city’s reserve fund to lower. According to city staff, the council used $1.5 million dollars of the money to pay for police overtime and another $160,000 to pay for a homelessness program.

“My concern is we are not in compliance with one of our financial policies right now,” council member Sheri Gallo said in the council meeting.

Gallo ended up supporting the measure. Although, she wants the city manager to look for ways to replenish the $418,000 now going to the parks department from the reserve fund.

“Most of the people in this community don’t and can’t afford to belong to a country club or other paid opportunities to swim. And it’s a really healthy activity. It’s an important activity, and we need to make sure that our city tax dollars are being spent to continue that really important service for our constituents,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo. “There’s been some discussion about the reserve fund. I would say this does meet our use of mid-year budget amendments to pay for something that’s unexpected or time-sensitive.”

Ed Van Eenoo, deputy chief financial officer for Austin, said, “We do have financial policies that govern the use of our reserve funds and we did highlight in this item that [spending money for lifeguard raises wasn’t] technically in compliance with council’s policies for use of those funds.”

Van Eenoo also said that city council sets those policies and can exempt spending from following those guidelines.

“I don’t think it puts us in any position that we need to be concerned about,” said Van Eenoo. “We are a little bit below the 12 percent, which is the place that we would like to be. That is a goal though and the funds are there for these types of emergencies, unexpected, events.”

Van Eenoo says this is not the first time the city has dipped below 12 percent of its reserves.

“I think there is a good chance that by the time we close out our books for Fiscal Year 2016, we’ll be able to maintain the 12 percent,” said Van Eenoo.

The city also has a separate for reserve fund for other emergencies.

Austin is still looking to hire additional lifeguards to prepare for this season.

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