Panel gauging county's needs

Overburdened agencies to develop projections of desired staffing, service

August 01, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Staff shortages, increased work and persistent demand for services are taking such a toll on Carroll County government employees that the director of management and budget has organized a committee to look at long-range hiring and service needs.

"We are asking agencies to provide information on what they need to provide the same level of services over the next six years," said Ted Zaleski, budget director, at a commissioners' Cabinet meeting last week. "We have to decide to provide the people or change the level of service, and we have to understand the consequences. Less people implies less service."

At the Cabinet meeting Thursday, department chiefs refrained from complaints but let the numbers speak for them.

The county roads department, for example, has added nearly 80 miles of roads to its maintenance schedule since 1993 but has one fewer employee than it had a decade ago.

The department of general services has more than 600 pieces of equipment to oversee, up by about 200 machines from four years ago, and there are two fewer employees on its staff.

The overall number of county employees dropped last year to 612, down by one employee, while most metropolitan counties have added staff, officials said.

"We can't maintain the level of services with the level of staff we have now," said Benton Watson, director of the Carroll County Bureau of Roads Operations.

In 2000, roads crews handled 1,360 service calls, mostly for drainage problems, tree trimming and mowing. Those calls had nearly doubled by last year and could go higher this year, Watson said.

"The service calls are outstripping our abilities," Watson said. "We are not getting to routine maintenance. We haven't started patching roads yet this season."

Steven Powell, the commissioners' chief of staff, handed Watson several letters from residents requesting road work before he left the meeting.

"We understand the workload is becoming almost unmanageable with present staff," Powell said. "There are impacts to the good job we have done managing money."

Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said he has heard the grim numbers repeatedly and is aware that the shortages are happening nearly everywhere in county government.

"All we can tell employees is that as soon as the road clears ahead, we will meet those needs," Minnich said. "We have to keep an eye on the long term. Right now we are trying to catch up so we can keep up."

Statistics like Watson's reflect what is occurring in most county agencies, said Carole Hammen, who took over Carroll's human resources department five years ago.

"Our staff numbers are not up in any substantial way," she said. "We have held the line fiscally, but we have suffered for that."

While working on the committee with Zaleski, she has asked each county department to create a wish list of staffing and services.

"We want at least a five-year projection of what is needed and a justification for those needs," Hammen said.

The projections should evolve over time and become integral to the budget process, said Zaleski.

"The idea is to encourage conversation," he said. "If we can't afford more staff, then we have to decide what is the new level of services we can provide."

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said she is concerned the increased workload will lead to the loss of good employees who will seek less-demanding jobs.

"We are not fussing at our employees, who are all doing a lot," Gouge said. "But our citizens have come to expect certain services. The county is a service-oriented organization, but there comes a time when there is only so much we can do. We have to have more people, and we hope to bring them on slowly."

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