With 15 jobs on the line, the Anne Arundel Health Department is trapped in an odd Catch-22 provoked by state belt-tightening.
Although the county already set aside enough money to fill nine of the department's 15 vacancies, Health Officer Thomas C. Andrews can't interview any candidates under the Schaefer administration's statewide hiring freeze.
Andrews pointed to the hiring dilemma as a striking argument for shifting at least some of the department's 450 state-paid workers onto the county payroll.
"It would eliminate the vagaries of the state merit system and also help us be more competitive in recruiting," he told the County Council, acting as the Board of Health before the regular legislative session Monday night.
Since the department was founded in 1931, nurses, social workers, food inspectors and other public health officers have traditionally been state employees. They still are employed and paid through the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, even though the county is picking up an increasing share of the tab to offer critically needed health services, such as addictions counseling and AIDS testing.
Shifting public health workers to the county payroll was a major recommendation from a six-month management audit of the Health Department last year, said Budget Officer Marita Brown.
The move could take at least five years and cost $1.5 million if all employees agreed to switch.
A second long-range recommendation calls for gradually consolidating some of the 14 community health centers scattered across the county. The audit determined the county eventually could be served by four regional centers.
"One theme throughout what came out of the audit is the need for greater county control," Brown said. "We would like to tailor services to respond more directly to the needs of the community."
By converting some state positions to county jobs, the Health Department could offer higher wages to compete for scarce food inspectors and hygienists.
Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which already switched to locally paid health departments, now have their pick of highly sought addictions counselors and environmental inspectors, Andrews said.
"With the low state-level salaries, they go to one of the neighboring counties," he said. "The difference in compensation can be as much as $13,000."
The shift would not only bolster recruiting, but also permit creating specific jobs instead of funneling requests through the maze of state channels, he said. And the department could avoid the pinch in another state budget crunch.
All 15 positions at the Health Department are likely to remain vacant during the general hiring freeze on state employees, which is expected to last at least a year. Gov. Schaefer introduced the emergency measure this month to help offset an anticipated $150 million budget deficit.
The proposed move to convert public health workers to county employees won a tentative nod of approval from the council Monday night. Andrews and Brown said they plan to present a more detailed blueprint for phasing the switch to a county-paid system during budget talks next spring.
While calling the proposal "a very good idea," Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis, expressed concern that the department might lose its state support.
Andrews reassured her that the state doles out financial aid to each county health agency based on case ratios, which would remain unchanged if employees started receiving their paychecks from the county. The county, which has chipped in a greater share to run the Health Department each year, currently shoulders about 46 percent of the agency's annual $12 million budget.
Inspectors and addictions counselors are the first group targeted to receive county paychecks if the council approves the plan next year. Other employees would follow on a voluntary basis until much of the department is shifted under the county's control.
"It may be hard for a long-time employee of one system to change to another, so we definitely would have to phase it in over a long period," Brown said.