County a no-hiring zone for now

Despite more than 500 vacant jobs, San Mateo County department heads were directed this week to freeze hiring in order to solve a $25 million overall budget deficit.

County supervisors voiced support for a freeze last week following a report detailing how the cost of salaries and benefits were vastly outpacing revenue. On Monday, County Manager John Maltbie informed each department by memo that with few exceptions, hiring would cease immediately and indefinitely.

Reactions from department chiefs, union officials and employees on Tuesday ranged from approval to dread.

Irma Compton, a public-services specialist in the county’s Building and Planning Department, said she fears understaffed departments will pile too much work on individuals.

“The demand for public service is greater now than ever. To not get the appropriate staffing while being expected to produce a perfect product, you get pretty stressed. This will be a difficult time for us,” said Compton, who is also chief steward for Service Employees International Union Local 521.

But Nadia Bledsoe, senior business agent for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the freeze wasn’t unexpected and would hopefully help current employees hold onto their jobs.

“We’ve been down this road before. Any intermediary steps to avoid layoffs are a necessary evil,” she said.

The county has an overall job vacancy rate of 9 percent, or 524 jobs in all departments. In his memo, Maltbie asked department heads to review each vacant position and prepare to discuss their plans to eliminate, fill or hold them open during the county’s preliminary budget review meetings in March.

Some positions will be filled despite the freeze, such as law enforcement and nursing positions that are subject to staffing ratios. Exceptions may also be made for jobs that would compromise public safety if left unfilled, or positions that generate revenue, Deputy County Manager Mary McMillan said.

The county’s last hiring freeze was in 2002. McMillan said that the freeze was ongoing until a more thorough analysis early next year.

Health Department spokeswoman Beverly Thames said her department would prioritize which jobs could be eliminated, but fight to keep every position that directly protects public health and vulnerable populations, such as tuberculosis officers and social workers.

Representatives from the Sheriff’s Department, Human Services Agency and San Mateo Medical Center on Tuesday all said it was still unclear whether the freeze would affect services.

Budget allocations

Amount allocated for each department in FY 2008 San Mateo County budget

» Health…..$50.1 million

» Probation…..$34.2 million

» Sheriff…..$68.4 million

» Other criminal justice departments…..$36.0 million

» Administrative/fiscal…..$31.4 million

» Community services…..$10.8 million

» Human services…..$25.8 million

» Medical center…..$56.9 million

Source: San Mateo County

tbarak@examiner.com

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