WFAA newscast from Mar 6
A news report by WFAA/Channel 8 that compares the possible contract with GP&L's director, Ray Schwertner, following his expected retirement, and emergency sirens, is typical of today's so-called fly-by media. It is full of inaccuracies and does virtually nothing to actually inform the public. Compounding the errors are the televised comments by Katrina Pearson, the self-appointed spokesperson for the Garland Tea Party.
The story asserts these inaccuracies:
- "Tornado sirens...many in Garland are not being replaced or repaired this year because of budget cuts; however, the city did find $1 million to pay a retiring city employee to stay on as a consultant"
- "That deal was slipped into the Council agenda at the last minute and nearly passed until critics caught that plan"
- "You can't tell the public we can't protect you in the event of an emergency but we can afford to, essentially, pay two people to run Garland GP&L [sic]"
- "...will be paid $333,000 per year; that's 50% more than his current salary."
- "The city manager's proposal was added last minute to last week's council agenda, raising red flags for Peirson. The mayor delayed that vote, which now takes place next week."
- "What I think is that if we need someone to manage GP&L, maybe we should find someone to manage GP&L, and not just hand pick someone because they [sic] are our friend. There's just not one person in the country that can do these kinds of things."
Of course, that's most of the story, verbatim.
Comparing emergency sirens to GP&L personnel is like comparing global warming to ice cream; it's a stretch by any standard and a fiscal impossibility. Garland currently has about twenty functioning emergency sirens. They have outlasted our ability to find spare parts and to maintain them. A consultant told the city it would take 90-some new-generation sirens to cover the whole city. About half that area would be simply rooftops where most residents wouldn't even be able to hear the nearest siren. Contrary to the story, the Council approved the purchase and installation of almost 50 new sirens a few weeks ago that will be installed to cover outdoor areas where residents may not have easy access to television, radio, telephone prompts, or weather radios. So, the number of working sirens in Garland is actually being more than doubled and there was never an issue about or mention of budget cuts, other than the continual refrain to operate within our means. There was an issue as to whether spending a half million dollars was in the best interest of taxpayers when so many new, technological layers have been added to the safety net. That's still a good debate but in the end the Council chose to err on the side of caution and safety for residents, even though there has not been a tornado death in Garland since 1927. It could happen but there are so many methods that give much earlier warnings today. For a half million bucks, we could have subsidized a whole lot of weather radios, which in most cases would be more effective and a lot more useful, like for hail or thunderstorm/lightning warnings.
Expenses for sirens and for GP&L personnel come from totally different funds and different type of funds. The new sirens will be bought using debt and repaid with tax dollars from the General Fund. GP&L employees and consultants are paid from GP&L revenues. Corporations and the city cannot mix capital dollars and operating dollars. It's even harder for a city; in city government, the number of buckets (separate funds) go up, as do the restrictions on use. There is simply no fiscal way to link sirens and salaries. Even if it were possible, most electric customers probably do not want to be buying sirens as a condition of getting electricity and most residents probably don't want their tax dollars paying utility employees that are already being paid in their electric bill. It's apples and oranges. It should be as plain as the nose on a reporter's face.
There never was a "last minute deal slipped into the agenda" and all delays have had nothing to do with critics but rather flaws and abuses with internal processes. These statements are nothing but creative reporting or, as it is called in some publishing segments, fiction. The real story is far uglier, not anywhere in the news story, and the subject of a subsequent post.
No Garland Council in the last several decades has ever told the public we won't protect them. Garland has police, fire, ambulance, and other emergency services that equals any city from our area and surpasses most. We train many emergency personnel from area cities, we have the finest facilities and equipment, and we are often called upon when other cities need assistance for situations beyond their capabilities, including search and rescue, helicopter pilots, and swift water rescue. We spend more on fire, police, and emergency protection than everything else in the General Fund.
There is no situation of two people running GP&L. Mr Schwertner has long been the corporate equivalent of a CEO and Jeff Janke has been the equivalent of a COO. If the contract does go forward, Mr Schwertner would continue the role he has long filled and Mr Janke would continue in his role. While he would inherit the "director" title, there would not be significant change in his duties. No new personnel would be hired to back fill any positions.
The annual figure stated in the report is not factually accurate, just a rounded number from numbers thrown in the air (although any final number would probably be in that ballpark). I don't know that the number quoted is 50% more than his current salary, but let's assume it is. That would make Mr Schwertner one of the lower-paid utility directors in the state, about half of San Antonio's director and far behind Austin's. And as even junior managers at any company can tell you, the overhead for any employee well exceeds 50%. By the time you add the expenses of payroll taxes, matching contributions, medical coverage, special insurance policies on executives, a computer, and portion of a copy machine, accountants and HR managers, most companies are in the 70% range or higher—so 50% is a bargain anywhere except on television and on-camera interviews. What is not mentioned in the story, if Mr Schwertner were hired to continue representing GP&L from Austin, he would have pay for his medical coverage, self-employment taxes, payroll taxes, rent an office, hire someone to be there, hire accounting services, and maintain his own office equipment, plus the many other expenses businesses bear. That would all be included in whatever he were to receive. For Garland, we could be reimbursed for much of his salary by the state, depending on what he is asked to do. Without his continued service, we stand to lose millions and millions either as opportunity costs or as the consequence of not having his expertise and leadership.
The Mayor did not delay a vote and I don't know when we will next discuss the item but I can guarantee it won't be next week. The media doesn't know either. So far, there is no contract to present to the Council for approval. That wasn't clear earlier and goes toward the inept way this situation has been handled. (Read that subsequent post.)
I can't make much sense of the a statement that if we need to manage GP&L, that we should manage GP&L. GP&L has been managed incredibly well for five years, taking us from the stone age of the power industry to being a leader in the industry, with other utilities and potential partners beating a track to Garland. Instead of the projected rate increases, we've had rate decreases. No one on the Council or the city manager seeks the services of Mr Schwertner because he is a friend; the statement is imaginative and ludicrous. Certainly Ms Pierson has zero knowledge of how many people in the country could effectively replace Mr Schwertner or even come close to matching his industry knowledge, expertise, and experience, or his in-depth knowledge of GP&L. I invite her or WFAA to name just one. I'll be happy to run the name by Mr Schwertner's peers and see if they agree and to let you know the results.
I don't ever fault a citizen from asking the difficult questions or suspecting that something stinks. Too often it does. There is plenty that stinks this time but it isn't in this news broadcast. I don't mean to disparage Ms Pierson but this situation is rich with irony.
Sirens have been discussed in the last three Capital Improvements budgets. I received hardly an email on the fate of the sirens over that period. I receive Tea Party broadcasts and not one mentioned sirens. A few citizens that describe themselves as Tea Party members questioned the expense of new sirens but there was no official GTP position, for or against. Nonetheless, I don't make decisions based on the pro or con positions of a few people; I make decisions based on the merits, which in most cases is the right decision for most citizens. Now, after new sirens have been approved, the Council is suddenly chastised by the spokesperson for something that didn't happen and for a GTP position that didn't exist. Mention of the sirens could only have been a red herring but WFAA swallowed it.