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New posts sought, though 153 are vacant

The safety net for the nation's second-poorest city is held open by a department that needs about 150 more pairs of hands.

At peak strength, the Erie County Social Services Department has about 1,700 employees. But it is never at peak strength.

So far this year, 89 workers have departed, and since department officials need about 12 weeks to fill a job, there's always a list of empty posts. Right now, it numbers 153.

The workload never goes away. The numbers of people served by Medicaid, welfare and food stamp programs has climbed steadily this decade. The staff consumes about $200,000 a month in overtime expenses, Social Services Commissioner Michael Weiner said.

Weiner testified Friday before a County Legislature committee examining the county budget for 2008, and his message couldn't help but highlight one of the oddities of government.

Even though his department suffers from dozens of empty jobs, he wanted lawmakers to go along with the plan, endorsed by County Executive Joel A. Giambra and his budget staff, to create 52 more posts in the Social Services Department.

Officials budget for jobs that will lie vacant for some part of the year. Then they treat the savings from unpaid salaries as a revenue that helps them balance the budget or provide an operating cushion.

"Phantom jobs," former Comptroller Nancy A. Naples called them when then-County Executive Dennis T. Gorski used the practice in the 1990s.

It didn't go away under Giambra. Time will tell if it ends under the next county executive, Christopher C. Collins, who criticized the practice while on the campaign trail.

In any large organization, employees come and go, and jobs lie vacant for a time. Erie County banks on the savings. County officials assumed $2.8 million in savings this year, which they are likely to meet.

But Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz, in his critique of the 2008 budget, worried that the government might fall short of next year's $3.8 million target.

Weiner intends to fill the 52 jobs that will be added to the 2008 budget and cover them mostly with federal and state aid. Lawmakers seemed to agree the jobs were needed in the critical areas that Weiner identified.

He also stressed that, without the new posts, it will be difficult for him to keep roughly 160 jobs vacant throughout the year and meet the "turnover savings" that budget officials expect from his department in 2008.

Weiner didn't come right out and say it, but Legislator Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst, did: Only in government do you add jobs to make it easier to keep jobs open.


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