AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Transit Partnership – the taxpayer-funded corporation in charge of realizing Project Connect – unanimously approved its $90 million annual budget on Sept. 21, after a board member raised concerns about planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on payroll and consultants this early in the project.
Prior to approving the budget, ATP Board Member Tony Elkins questioned paying an estimated $30 million to an engineering consulting firm and expecting to fund 19 communications positions. Elkins said he felt overall spending on the project was high at the current stage, and ATP should be “nimble and lean.”
Elkins budget concerns followed news from April that the cost estimate of the light rail project ballooned from $5.8 billion to $10.3 billion due to real estate increases, inflation, supply chain issues and refinements to the project’s scope. KXAN reported on that cost increase and will continue watchdogging Project Connect’s rollout and construction.
ATP is a local government corporation formed after Austin voters approved Proposition A in November 2020. It is overseeing the construction of light rail lines connecting east, north and south Austin to downtown, including a north-south subway tunnel. It will also build a metro rail line from the city center to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and transfer $300 million in anti-displacement funds to the city over the next 13 years.
“We need to have the right balance of staff and the right balance of consultants,” said Elkins, a former budget analyst and chief financial officer for 30 years. “I feel that ATP’s fiscal ’23 budget is excessive, in my experience, for where the program is at this stage.”
Elkins said his rough calculations showed that all entities involved in Project Connect – including City of Austin, Capitol Metro and consulting firms – would spend about $79 million on individuals supporting the project in the next fiscal year.
ATP said it was “pleased that the Board unanimously approved the 2023 Budget, which continues to advance implementation of Project Connect, including key investments in anti-displacement and community engagement efforts,” according to a spokesperson’s statement. “ATP is committed to transparency and accountability, as evident by this year’s new levels of controls for the Board and additional audit resources.”
A corporation spokesperson said ATP needs the 19 communications positions – including 13 ATP staff and six consultants – to ensure the community is aware of any impacts of Project Connect and is able to provide input.
To address some of Elkins’ concerns at the September board meeting, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who also sits on the ATP board, proposed adding a directive that would give ATP’s board the option to intervene if more staff positions than already approved are added. Elkins ultimately voted to approve the budget and Adler’s compromise.
Regarding Elkins’ concerns, ATP Budget Director Diane Siler told the board the corporation was still negotiating the estimated $30 engineering consultant contract, and money for it was already appropriated in past years. ATP staff also said its consultants submit detailed invoices with explanations of how hours are used. ATP said its latest budget reduces personnel costs by $2 million from the previous year.
Budget and payroll breakdown
“Key to ATP’s readiness for the year ahead, is our level of staffing,” according to its budget.
In mid-September, ATP had 41 full-time employees on its payroll earning $6.1 million per year, not including benefits. Of those employees, 31 received at least $100,000, and eight earned $200,000 or more, according to records obtained by KXAN through the Texas Public Information Act.
ATP’s $6.1 million mid-September payroll does not include seven temporary employees that have been paid between $55 and $250 an hour. The corporation provided an updated payroll Monday that shows four of seven temps, including the individual paid $250 an hour, are no longer used.
$1.2 million was paid to nine Capital Metro employees temporarily assigned to assist ATP, including CapMetro’s Chief Program Officer, David Couch, according to corporation records.
Couch is the highest-paid person listed on ATP’s payroll. His annual salary is over $292,000 – more than almost any City of Austin employee. Only two Austin officials have a higher base salary: Jacqueline Sargent, Austin Energy’s general manager earning $403,000, and Spencer Cronk, Austin’s city manager, who earns $350,000, according to Austin and ATP payroll records.
In total, fiscal year 2023 pay will total $13.5 million to its staff and CapMetro employees, according to the corporation.
The budget passed Sept. 21 authorizes 87 full-time employees, when ATP is fully staffed. There are currently 35 vacancies.
In fiscal year 2023, ATP expects $90.6 million in expenditures – not including $50 million already planned from previous appropriations for existing services and contracts. The corporation budgeted for $192.9 million in total revenue, according to budget documents. Approximately $100 million in leftover funds will be available next year, ATP said.
Austin Transit Partnership
- Responsible for the planning, design, financing, acquisition, procurement, equipping and construction of all light rail elements, including related facilities; and the Green Line
- Transfer $300 million over 13 years to the City of Austin for Anti-Displacement Initiatives
- Construct the MetroRapid, MetroExpress, Neighborhood Circulators, and Red Line components of system plan
- Operate assets once completed and to ensure operational readiness
- Commit revenues identified in the Estimated Long-Term Contribution
City of Austin
- Transfer dedicated property tax revenue to ATP
- Ensure adequate staff resources are available to support the system plan implementation
- Implement the transit-supportive, anti-displacement initiatives