Tennessee officials seek to restore vacant state positions

photo Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

FEWER STATE POSITIONSSince the 2008 recession and its aftermath, there are fewer authorized full-time positions in Tennessee general government and in the Transportation Department. Figures include vacancies.• July 1, 2008 -- 52,129• July 1, 2009 -- 49,760• July 1, 2010 -- 48,576• July 1, 2011 -- 47,532 Excludes part-time and seasonal state workers as well as higher educationSource: Finance and Administration Department

NASHVILLE -- State agencies are scrambling to save hundreds of long-vacant positions set to be axed next year, warning that abolishing some could harm services for Tennesseans most in need and, in one case, risk federal penalties.

The move comes in response to a directive from Gov. Bill Haslam that state departments eliminate frozen positions vacant for more than a year unless they can "buy" them back by making cuts in less vital areas.

Four years of budget cuts and hiring freezes, a lagging economic recovery and higher demand for services have taken their toll on the state, some commissioners have said.

The upcoming 2012-13 budget proposal will be the first shaped entirely by Haslam, a Republican who succeeded Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen last January. The current 2011-12 budget that went into effect July 1 was built largely on Bredesen's recommendations.

In his 2010 campaign, Haslam spoke of the need for a "leaner and more efficient, effective and accountable state government."

After taking office, Haslam ordered department heads to conduct "top to bottom reviews" of operations to determine how effectively the state is providing services, whether the state should even be providing a particular service and, if so, whether it can be done more cheaply or outsourced.

During Haslam's public budget hearings in November and earlier this month, commissioners offered a variety of cuts to save long-vacant jobs they say are essential.

Human Services Commissioner Raquel Hatter told Haslam the department needs to preserve 214 of 226 positions vacant for more than a year.

If the positions are eliminated, the state risks violating federal standards for providing timely services in areas such as family assistance services, she said.

Family assistance counselors make eligibility determinations for the state's Families First welfare program, TennCare and food stamps. Thirty-five positions in that area alone have been vacant for more than a year. Hatter is asking to restore them.

"It is typical for each of our eligibility counselors to manage caseloads of 1,500 and some exceeding 3,000," she told Haslam.

She said the department has used money from vacant positions to pay existing staff overtime.

"To add further pressure," the commissioner said, "nearly every activity these counselors execute has a corresponding federally regulated timeline for completion."

Meeting those timelines "is necessary to maintain funding and avoid penalties," Hatter added. "Relinquishing these positions further reduces our ability to meet federal performance guidelines and continued [federal] funding and, again, to avoid penalty."

Efforts to learn from Human Services officials what normal caseload standards are, one of a series of information requests made by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, were unsuccessful last week. Officials said they were still compiling information on all the requests.

Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, a retired sociology professor and one-time human services worker, was shocked when she heard of caseloads of 1,500 to 3,000 for eligibility counselors.

"We call it dehumanizing," Brown said. "If you have this high a level of cases, it becomes an automatic process."

Overworked counselors could "just automatically reject people who have to reapply and reapply" even as they struggle with difficult situations, she said.

Tennessee State Employees Association Executive Director Robert O'Connell said employees in various areas of state government have been trying to take up the slack left by vacancies.

"You can push people [employees] and push people, and it may work for a while," O'Connell said. "Grind and grind. But you can't tell them that's the permanent way to operate. ... People's heads will explode."

Meanwhile, Labor and Workforce Commissioner Karla Davis is asking to keep what she said are 128 positions out of 142 jobs left vacant for a year or more.

Most are funded entirely by the federal government, which reimburses states for what they spend.

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Among Davis' requests in her presentation to Haslam was $1.8 million to retain 41 full-time and 12 part-time employment security interiewer positions.

"The U.S. Department of Labor has recommended that Tennessee fill these positions to meet peak unemployment claims periods," Davis said.

Department of Children's Services Commissioner Kathryn O'Day is seeking to save 58 long-vacant positions at a cost $1 million that officials consider key in the areas of administration, child and family management and juvenile justice.

But another O'Day idea has triggered a war of words with area legislators who object to her proposal to shut down the Taft Youth Center in Pikeville, Tenn. O'Day says the facility is inefficient and requires $37 million in repairs and upgrades. She has proposed shifting youthful offenders to one of four other centers the state runs. Shuttering Taft would save about $4.4 million annually.

Lawmakers dispute several of O'Day's assertions. The center has 167 employees.

Human Resources Commissioner Rebecca Hunter recently told Haslam at her department's hearing that 22 percent of the department's positions are vacant.

"We do realize continuing with our vacancy rate at this level is not sustainable in the long term, and we're making strategic decisions now about mission-critical positions we need to fill immediately," she said.

How many positions have been left vacant for more than a year is unclear. Finance Department spokeswoman Lola Potter said the agency does not have a list of the positions.

A budget-related document issued by the Haslam administration earlier this year estimated there were 4,813 vacancies among the authorized 48,587 full-time positions in the 2010-11 fiscal year. That left 43,774 filled positions. The document doesn't say how many vacancies were more than a year old.

In 2008, there were 52,129 authorized positions and 47,714 of them were filled.

Figures obtained Friday from the Finance Department show the number of full-time authorized positions, which include those paid for out of the general fund and positions paid out of fuel taxes for transportation positions, were 47,532 as of July 1, the current budget year. That includes vacancies.

It represents a 4,597-position decline or 8.8 percent decline from fiscal year 2008, which was passed before the recession, according to Finance Department figures.