Kern County’s top administrator will take control of hiring from individual department heads in a sweeping change to the agency’s power structure, supervisors decided Tuesday.

The county will also move to a hard hiring freeze in general fund departments and eliminate all vacant positions that have been on the books for an extended period of time.

“We cannot sustain the number of employees we have with the revenue we have. We’re going to have to find out how far we can push down (staffing),” said Supervisor Mike Maggard.

Some departments are aggressively controlling their staffing, Maggard said. But, he said, “It is possible that some departments will not manage to the level of general fund cost that we need them to.”

County Administrative Officer John Nilon said the county is in a fiscal crisis and departments must cut 5 percent this fiscal year and another 5.6 percent next fiscal year, with smaller cuts in the two years after that.

“We have to be vigilant and protect every hire because next year we may have to lay those people off,” Nilon said.

He said there are a couple of ways to eliminate vacant positions and control when jobs are filled.

“We have department heads who have decades of experience. You can trust department heads to” make the needed cuts, Nilon said. Or, he said, the board can take more direct action.

“If you want to have a level of control that is cutting and is outside (department heads’) level of control then you have that option, too,” Nilon said. “At the end of the day, if nobody cuts, we won’t fill this (budget) hole.”

Supervisors opted to take direct control.

They directed Nilon to draft a plan to implement the hiring freeze, eliminate all unfunded vacant positions that have been on the books for more than 12 months and eliminate all funded vacant positions on the books for more than 24 months.

All future hiring, they decided, will now require approval from the CAO’s office. Department heads would have the ability to appeal the ruling to the full board.

Several county department officials argued, unsuccessfully, against the idea.

Probation Chief T.R. Merickel said he’s been working very hard to create a lean staffing plan, reworking some positions and eliminating others.

But he depends on vacant funded positions to provide him the flexibility to match staffing to department needs quickly.

Assistant District Attorney Scott Spielman said the cuts Nilon recommended and the reductions in staffing would decimate his office’s ability to prosecute criminals.

“At the end of this year you will have eliminated the misdemeanor unit and worked your way into the felony unit,” he said.

District Attorney Lisa Green will respect the board’s funding decisions, Spielman said, and the board should respect Green’s decision about how to structure and run her department.

Public Defender Konrad Moore said his department is run extremely efficiently.

The board, he said, can’t reduce staffing for services in a growing community without hurting the public.

“I don’t believe you can solve the issues by just shrinking, shrinking, shrinking,” Moore said. “We’re already operating from a position of relative thrift. So the pain of any additional cut is exquisite.”