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Bilingual budget amendment controversy

Given the budget situation we’re in, there’s been a surprising lack of overt controversy about how to deal with it. Council members submitted their budget amendments last week, and one of them has generated a stir. KUHF reported on the amendment in question, which would eliminate a stipend given to bilingual city employees, proposed by CM Anne Clutterbuck.

Clutterbuck says the city absolutely needs bilingual employees, but paying a stipend is unnecessary.

“The City of Houston, of course, is amazingly diverse and we need people available to be able to speak and communicate. But I don’t think that we should be paying extra for it. It should be part of the original job description.”

There’s no aptitude test required to get the stipend. Clutterbuck says it’s given to anyone who fills out the bilingual pay form, even if their job duties don’t require a second language.

“It’s kind of an honor system. There’s a one-page form that every individual fills out. In my office, I’ve had two employees that have completed the form and asked me to sign it and I did so, but in the District C office there’s not necessarily the need to speak more than one language.”

About 1,400 non-classified civilian employees get bilingual pay, costing the city an extra $1 million a year. Clutterbuck’s amendment would eliminate the stipend. She says if other councilmembers aren’t willing to eliminate it altogether, the city should at least require a proficiency test and only give bilingual pay to those whose job duties require it.

The Harris County Tejano Democrats have put out a press release criticizing this amendment, with a press conference set for today to protest it.

Harris County Tejano Democrats (HCTD) advises Council Member Clutterbuck to rescind her amendment. “In an attempt to score political points in an anti-immigrant climate, Council Member Clutterbuck’s misguided amendment will lead to a reduction of basic city services to taxpayers with limited English proficiency,” said Frumencio Reyes, Jr., HCTD Legal Advisor. “We ask Mayor Parker to join us in opposing this amendment. It’s a bad idea and Council Member Clutterbuck should pull it immediately.”

WHO: Harris County Tejano Democrats, community and labor leaders

WHEN: Monday, June 21, 2010

WHERE: Houston City Hall, South Steps (in front of the Reflection Pool)

TIME: 12:00 pm

The amount of money is fairly small in context of the full budget, but the politics of this are clearly large. I have not seen any responses from anyone yet, so I can’t say how this may play out. My guess is that the amendment will not go through as is, but something like the proficiency test could happen. We’ll see. Mary Benton has more.

UPDATE: Here’s a report from the press conference.

Whether it was in Spanish or in English, the message at City Hall was clear.

State Representative Ana Hernandez said, “This is an international city, an international city that prides itself on the businesses we’re able to attract. Well, this sends the wrong message. It sends the message that we only do business in English.”

[…]

Frumencio Reyes of the Harris County Tejano Democrats said, “I see this as an affront to us as a community and certainly based on the Republican platform, she’s falling right into it.”

As the story notes, CM Clutterbuck has amended her amendment.

After hearing concerns from the public and administration, Clutterbuck has offered substitute language to her amendment that reads: Eliminate bilingual pay for all non-classified employees unless the employee is in direct contact with the public, demonstrates proficiency and there is a reasonable expectation that the language will be used in the normal course of their job duties.

Clutterbuck says she was simply trying to save taxpayers more than $1 Million annually when she proposed making the change.

Meanwhile Mayor Parker has also issued a statement:

“We met with the council member. She clarified her intent and that intent is accurately reflected in the substitute language. It addresses her budgetary concerns without hindering our ability to adequately meet the needs of our diverse population, and it reflects what has been long-standing city policy. I anticipate the council member will offer the substitute at Wednesday’s council meeting.

Stace is not impressed.

I mean, c’mon, how many of us bilingual folks get called in to translate on a moment’s notice–even if it’s not in our job description just because we’re the Mexican in the room?

Perhaps a Human Resource audit is needed to determine exactly who are these employees that would be targeted before a vote is taken by council. In addition, perhaps they can also determine what is meant by proficiency because whether someone can pass a standardized test or not, an attempt at Spanish is still better than the usual way that non-Spanish speakers would communicate with those constituents: IN LOUDER ENGLISH.

The argument is that this could save over $1,000,000; however, during a time in which the economy continues to hit all employees, taking away pay is that last thing that should be on Council’s agenda, much like furloughs and lay-offs. And there would definitely be questions of fairness if one “type” of employee is targeted over another.

Those are good points. I’d just add, are there any other types of “special skills” pay that the city offers, and if so are they being reviewed in the same fashion? Or is this something that is unique?

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