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State's hiring freeze melts away 31,684 employees added to agency payrolls since July 30 despite widening gap in budget

With the state's finances souring, Gov. David A. Paterson in July took an important step to control the spiraling costs of government: a hiring freeze for state agencies.

But since the July 30 freeze was declared, 31,684 people have been hired by agencies, according to a Buffalo News analysis of payroll records provided by the state comptroller's office.

The records do not include hiring at hundreds of state authorities whose payrolls are not maintained by the comptroller.

The numbers suggest the difficulties a governor can run into when trying to wrestle with personnel costs, since, no matter the economic challenges, public colleges still have to hire professors, mental health facilities still need nurses, and the transportation department still must have bridge inspectors.

But critics say the numbers also show a state unwilling to make serious sacrifices to close worsening budget gaps by going after one of the biggest cost centers of government: payroll.

"Clearly, it's not a hard freeze," said E.J. McMahon, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative think tank.

He said that unlike previous administrations during sharp economic downturns, the Paterson administration "has not even really scratched the surface" in addressing payroll costs.

In a strongly worded missive, the governor's budget office on July 30 ordered a "hard" hiring freeze. Any necessary hires would have to be approved by Paterson's budget staff, a rare step for the state.

"Until further notice, only absolutely essential positions will be filled," the budget office said.

The explanations for the hiring are many. For starters, the edict did not affect the authorities, which maintain their own payrolls. Next, a handful of others were specifically excluded, such as the State University of New York, the comptroller's office and the attorney general's office. SUNY was left out because state law leaves personnel decisions to the college system.

For all the other agencies, the governor's budget division had to approve every hire. In some cases, agencies were given a blanket waiver for certain jobs. In others, specific job requests had to be individually approved.

The Buffalo News for weeks has unsuccessfully sought to obtain the waivers granted by the budget office and civil service department. The waivers justify the hirings.

The hirings run the gamut: lawyers, nurses, road workers, janitors and a new scheduling director for Paterson.

Three-quarters -- 24,730 -- of the people hired since the freeze were within the state and city university systems at the start of the fall semester. The round of hiring included professors and thousands of adjunct professors, student assistants and teaching assistants. The University at Buffalo listed 3,326 new hires or rehires; in some cases, there were duplicates in the hiring list, showing a person being hired as a lecturer and a couple of weeks later as an adjunct professor.

David Henahan, a SUNY spokesman, said the payroll records are "misleading." He noted SUNY hired or rehired 14,710 students after July 31 and that 4,750 of those are supported by federal aid, not by the state.

Henahan said SUNY made $210 million in cuts this year and had to hire enough faculty to handle a record number of enrolled students -- 231,269. It rehired 4,002 faculty and hired 1,037 new faculty.

"SUNY campuses are taking action in the short-term, such as imposing hard and soft hiring freezes, cutting purchases of supplies and equipment, canceling faculty recruitment efforts and, in some cases, limiting spring acceptances to match funding, therefore denying New Yorkers of access to the public university," Henahan said.

The next biggest hiring agency was the agriculture department. It brought on 1,730 people, but all but 32 of those were temporary workers at the summer's State Fair.

What is "essential" hiring varies from agency to agency. Among its own hires during the period, the governor's budget office brought on a secretary and a budget fellow. The Office of General Services paid for hourly services of stagehands, while the State Police hired a helicopter pilot. The comptroller's office hired 28 people, including accountants. The attorney general's office brought on 122 workers, but all but a handful were student interns whose positions rotate each semester.

A horse racing regulatory agency hired a veterinarian, another regulator hired a boxing inspector. At the tax department, 38 hires were recorded, including attorneys. A child welfare agency hired cooks and teachers, while the Legislature hired 114 people. A housing agency hired an artist, while the civil service agency hired dozens of test "monitors."

The information provided by the state comptroller did not include specific salary information for the state employees.

The Paterson administration defended the hiring.

"All hiring done since the hiring freeze was implemented has been done for the narrowly defined purposes of ensuring the health and safety of the public, generating revenue or providing essential staff to support agencies' core missions," said Jeffrey Gordon, a spokesman for the budget division.

Gordon said hiring commitments made before the governor's announcement were honored. He could not provide a number for that category. He added the state projects the size of the work force will be 1,770 fewer positions than budgeted for in April.

At the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 448 people have been hired, including nurses and patient aides. Agency spokeswoman Nicole Weinstein said waivers were received from the budget office for positions affecting health and safety. "We are concerned, obviously, about the safety of the people we care for," she said.

McMahon, the head of the conservative think tank, recalled big cutbacks in payrolls during previous economic downturns in the early 1990s and mid-1990s. "It showed how much you can do when you put your mind to it," McMahon said. Of the Paterson administration, he said, "I would say they're not putting their mind to it."


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