Maryland government needs more staff to perform mission, analysts say

The executive branch of Maryland’s state government needs to fill 1,200 vacancies and create another 1,200 new positions to carry out essential functions, legislative analysts have concluded.

The Department of Legislative Services has told the General Assembly’s Spending Affordability Committee that abolition of more than 7,700 positions in state government by governors of both parties since 2002 has left the government seriously understaffed.

The department, which advises lawmakers of both parties, said it reached those conclusions after a two-year review of staffing needs based largely on laws, regulations and studies by the agencies themselves. The findings, which echo claims made repeatedly by state employee unions, potentially conflict with efforts by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to contain the size of state government.

Warren Deschenaux, the department’s chief analyst, said the staffing levels have been kept down by efforts over the years to limit state spending. The executive branch, excluding higher education, currently employs about 49,500 workers.

“One of the ways of saving money is not to fill positions,” Deschenaux said. “That becomes a problem when you impair your ability to do the job.”

A spokesman for Hogan disputed the findings, and questioned the legislative analysts’ decision to brief the committee before completing a more comprehensive personnel report expected to be released next month.

“I don’t know how this report was even created,” spokesman Doug Mayer said. “To say there’s some kind of shortfall of state employees is just nonsense.”

David Juppe, senior operating budget manager for legislative services, said the figures given to the committee are essentially the same as those that will be in the report, with a few revisions based on new information. He said the summary and the report were drawn largely from the executive branch’s own reports.

“They would oppose this if they had a report or if they didn’t have a report,” Juppe said.

The analysts said the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the state’s largest agency in the number of employees, also has the highest turnover rate at 9.1 percent. They said the department, which operates state prisons as well as parole and probation services, has 1,750 vacancies out of 10,554 positions.

The department is one of five large state agencies with turnover rates higher than 7 percent. The others are Human Services, Health, State Police and Juvenile Services, which have rates between 7.1 and 7.6 percent. The Health Department has had problems staffing some of its psychiatric facilities. Its leaders have been held in contempt of court for failing to provide beds in a timely manner for defendants who are referred to its facilities by the courts.

The Maryland Department of Transportation, the state’s second-largest agency, has a turnover rate of 4.5 percent and 614 vacancies out of 9,058 positions.

Deschenaux, who is retiring at the end of the month, said that comes closer to the norm for government agencies.

“A normal turnover rate is more like 3-4 percent in periods of full employment,” he said.

Mayer rejected that assessment.

“In a general sense, Warren Deschenaux and DLS tend to be fuddy-duddies and operate more in the 20th Century than in the century that we’re currently living in,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that people do not stay in jobs as long as they did in the past.”

The analysts said the state has been hampered by hiring freezes and salaries that don’t compete with those offered by private sector employers. While Maryland ranks fifth in personal income, they said, state salaries ranked 29th in a 2016 study conducted by the state of Missouri.

In some areas, analysts said, staffing shortages have made it difficult for agencies to achieve their goals or carry out duties mandated in law. They identified the Maryland Department of the Environment as the agency with the greatest need for more staff: 295 positions.

State Sen. Roger Manno, co-chairman of the Spending Affordability Committee, said the report sounds an alarm.

“It’s not only a service delivery problem. It’s a public health and safety problem,” the Montgomery County Democrat said. “The danger of not fixing it, particularly in a correctional setting, is unthinkable.”

Del. Wendell Beitzell, a Republican committee member from Garrett County, said he thinks “there’s some politics involved here” going into an election year. He said many of the concerns about staffing are being pushed by state employee unions that didn’t put as much emphasis on the issue when Democrat Martin O’Malley was governor.

Indeed, the head of Maryland’s largest state employee union welcomed the report.

“The state has got to fill the vacant positions and increase the staffing and fairly compensate their employees if they want to retain experienced employees,” said Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Council 3. The union is now in contract negotiations with the administration.

Moran said AFSCME’s expectations are different for Hogan because economic conditions are stronger than they were during the recession years under O’Malley.

The union leader said it’s easy to overlook staff shortages when they occur in such places as prisons and psychiatric hospitals.

“You’re not going to see the public up in arms until something absolutely horrific happens,” he said.

Mayer called Moran a “national political operative,” and said the union’s public complaints about safety conditions have made it more difficult for the state to recruit workers to fill its vacancies.

Another challenge for recruiters, Mayer said, is that the Hogan administration tightened hiring standards in response to a scandal under the O’Malley administration. Dozens of officers were found to be trafficking contraband for imprisoned gang members at the now-closed Baltimore Detention Center.

Gary McLhinney, the public safety department’s director of professional standards, said polygraph tests required by law in the wake of the 2013 scandal now eliminate 78 percent of correctional officer applicants upfront.

But he said the department would not relax its procedures just to fill vacancies.

“We are not going back to the days in the previous administration,” McLhinney said. “We are not going to sit back and let the Black Guerrilla Family run our jails.”

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad