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Understanding job vacancies in county government

This is written in response to the recent News editorial critical of Erie County's 2007 budget for not eliminating enough vacant jobs. As often is the case when reading The News' editorial analysis of county finances, I was both amused and annoyed. But I was not correctly informed -- and neither were readers. So let me try to explain the facts about job vacancies in county government.

Erie County has a full-time work force of about 4,300, most of whom are professional civil servants. At any given time, we run about 300 vacancies -- or 7 percent of the work force. About 40 percent of those vacancies are for staff members who are on extended leave without pay for illness, maternity, military or other reasons -- and who have a right to return to work. The other 60 percent are true vacancies caused by resignations or retirements.

Thus, with a work force of 4,300, about 180 jobs are normally unfilled, temporarily, until someone takes a Civil Service exam, meets the qualifications and is appointed to the position. In formulating the 2007 budget, the administration and Legislature eliminated 39 vacant jobs determined to be not essential to future operations. Why didn't we eliminate all 180 of the vacant jobs?

First, 101 of the vacant jobs were in Social Services -- and are largely reimbursed by the state government, which means that we do not save county tax dollars by cutting those jobs. Moreover, we face numerous client service lawsuits that compel us to maintain adequate Social Service staffing. Why would we risk civil penalties for not filling jobs that are required by the state -- and paid with state and federal funds?

Second, the other vacant jobs -- even though funded mostly with county dollars -- were needed positions in vital service areas. These include 27 for the Holding Center and the jail, where we face state mandates to increase staffing because of inmate overcrowding.

In addition to the issue of vacancies, we have been criticized by the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority for a net addition of 87 new jobs to the 2007 budget. Again, getting the facts straight is essential. Of the new jobs, 59 are in Social Services or other functions that are largely state-reimbursed. The other jobs are mostly in jail management and probation -- where we are under state and judicial pressure to increase staff.

Going forward, we will continue to eliminate nonessential, county-funded positions as new vacancies occur. This process is called "managed attrition" -- which means cutting vacant jobs intelligently rather than arbitrarily. Our plan calls for $2.3 million of such savings in the 2008 budget -- and my commitment as budget director is to identify those jobs during the course of 2007, prior to the 2008 budget formulation.

Given this process, I view the so-called "soft" hiring freeze imposed by the control board to be a publicity stunt with little practical effect. It will not save the county any more money than we plan to achieve ourselves.

James M. Hartman is the Erie County budget director.

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