The Kern County Board of Supervisors will consider big changes Tuesday to the way the county hires staff and manages department budgets, both to save money and add transparency.
County Administrative Officer John Nilon, in a report to the board, is asking supervisors whether to implement an “absolute” hiring freeze and require county departments to get rid of “vacant, funded” positions that have been on the books for more than 24 months.
The move would shift a substantial amount of control over hiring decisions from county department heads to supervisors themselves. Supervisors asked for the report, said Assistant County Administrative Officer Nancy Lawson, who handles county budgets.
“They asked us to come back with information pertaining to how to do a hiring freeze,” she said.
Lawson said the hiring freeze and elimination of vacant positions would make it easier to see what jobs are most critical, save some money and set county departments up to handle budget cuts expected in the next three fiscal years.
County departments are currently allowed to fill any funded position supervisors have approved. But many departments keep some of those positions vacant all year and use the extra money as a cushion against budget cuts and other personnel expenses.
If supervisors approve the hiring freeze plan during their meeting Tuesday, it would be harder for department heads to bring on new staff unless they fill “mission critical” positions. They would be required to come to the Board of Supervisors for hiring approval, Lawson said, though supervisors could delegate that authority to the CAO’s office.
“A hiring freeze would immediately decrease the ongoing cost of staffing” for fire and general fund departments, Lawson said.
That savings could carry over into future fiscal years.
Assistant District Attorney Scott Spielman said the hiring freeze would add a layer of bureaucracy to county operations — something supervisors have said they are trying to eliminate — and make it harder for his office to do its job.
“If there is a hiring freeze put in place, it will reduce our ability to prosecute criminals,” he said.
Lawson said removing both unfunded and funded positions that departments’ haven’t filled for a long time would produce a small amount of savings and add a lot of transparency about who is hired at the county, how much it costs to employ them and where county money is being spent.
She mentioned the Kern County Probation Department, which has about 70 long-term vacant positions, 50 of which are funded.
Probation leaders keep the funded positions open on purpose. Instead of hiring to fill them, Lawson said, the Probation Department uses the money to fund temporary workers under the county’s “extra help” program.
Extra help workers aren’t paid benefits, so they are cheaper than traditional employees.
The system supervisors will vote on Tuesday wouldn’t necessarily get rid of that extra-help work — it would just allocate the money directly to positions that are “mission critical” without the illusion that it is maintaining full-time workers.
Tuesday’s discussion comes as the county struggles to rebound from a massive drop in property tax revenue for the fiscal year that began July 1.
Lawson said the current budget handles only $15 million of the deficit in the county’s “general fund,” its main operational pool of money.
“We still have a $30 million hole,” she said.
Tuesday will also be a precursor to next week’s formal budget hearings, where supervisors will finalize the county’s 2016-2017 spending plan.
That plan holds public safety departments, including Fire, Sheriff, District Attorney, Public Defender and Probation, to the same 5 percent cut other county departments will take this year.
It has been aggressively opposed by Sheriff Donny Youngblood, District Attorney Lisa Green and other public safety leaders.
The Kern Law Enforcement Association, the union for sheriff’s deputies, has posted a request on its website for the public to pressure supervisors to give more money to public safety departments.
“When will county supervisors put a higher priority on the public's safety, rather than on landscaping and libraries?” the post asks.
The Sheriff’s Office budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal year was $217.3 million; the Library budget was $8 million.
Supervisors have rejected the request for more public safety money in recent meetings as Nilon’s office has said protecting those departments from moderate cuts would require other departments to take a 15 percent reduction. That’s because public safety departments use most of the county’s discretionary funds.
Impacts to other departments, county officials have said, would include the closure of seven Kern County libraries.