The Hiring Freeze That Wasn’t

Think the city and the county have reduced staff? Think again.

In November 2000, King County Executive Ron Sims announced that the county was faced with a grim and difficult decision: Excise millions from the county’s budget or be faced with increasingly onerous shortfalls in 2002 and 2003. The solution was unpopular but seemingly necessary: Effective immediately, the entire county would be under a hiring freeze.

Less than one year later, in September 2001, then-Seattle Mayor Paul Schell followed suit, announcing a freeze on all full-time and temporary positions with the city, a category that included everyone except uniformed fire and police officers.

But as the budget crunch at both governments has deepened into a crisis, total employment at the city and the county has barely suffered a blow. And hiring, supposedly frozen solid, has, in fact, continued almost unabated.

Since announcing its freeze last fall, the city has found room for 335 new employees, reducing its total workforce by just over 1 percent. In 20 months, the county has hired nearly 1,800 new workers, 971 of those at Metro Transit. Meanwhile, projected budget shortfalls have continued their precipitous climb—to $50 million each for the city and the county.

What’s going on here? Is the hiring freeze in meltdown? Or is the prospect of freezing employment a practical and political impossibility, like shutting down city pools in the summer or implementing an income tax?

To get a waiver from the city’s hiring freeze, department heads have to plead their case before an appointed “waiver panel,” an influential triumverate of finance director Dwight Dively, personnel director Norma McKinney, and Mayor Greg Nickels’ operations director, Andrew Lofton. Three categories of waivers are generally granted, according to Dively: those that are funded with noncity money, such as summer youth programs paid for by federal grants; those that aren’t paid for out of the general fund, like public utilities; and jobs in which a service “can’t continue to be provided unless they get to fill the position,” like lifeguards, park staff, and some human services positions.

The county, according to Sims’ spokesperson Elaine Kraft, has a similar policy; positions that aren’t funded by the county and jobs that fill “emergency needs” continue to be filled. “Emergency” positions, according to Kraft, include jobs in public health, law enforcement, and county jails and anything related to ongoing capital projects.

So what does that leave? Not as much as you might think, numbers provided by the city and county reveal. In the four months before King County imposed its hiring freeze in November 2000, the county averaged 77 new hires a month. During the 20 months since hiring was frozen, the county’s per-month average actually increased to 86 new hires a month. Removing Metro (funded by taxes, fare box revenues, and grants) from both totals decreases the county’s monthly average only slightly, from 53 to 40 new hires per month.

The city made deeper overall hiring cuts, taking on an average of 33 people each month during its freeze, compared with 55 a month in the preceding year. Total employment at the city declined 1.4 percent, from 10,645 to 10,496. (Current figures for the county weren’t available. News reports from spring 2002 set the total at around 13,000; in 2001, according to numbers provided by the county, total employment was 13,370.)

McKinney, the city’s human resources director, acknowledges that “the majority of requests are approved” by the waiver panel. But she says that’s only because city departments “have done a great job of scrutinizing their business needs” before they ask to fill a position. Joe Valentine, deputy director of the city’s human services department, says his department has avoided asking for frivolous waivers. Still, he says, “they almost always grant” the department’s requests to fill positions. That could mean the city is filling requests arbitrarily. But, more likely, it means the city is starting to acknowledge the primary rule of government spending: Cuts, even necessary ones, can only go so deep before services suffer.

Case in point: the county parks system, much of which has been “temporarily” shut down since last winter. The city, though it has no plans to close parks or community centers, may not be able to forestall service cuts forever. Layoffs are becoming increasingly common; Kraft says the county has had “a lot of layoffs” already, and she expects even greater cuts in the upcoming budget cycle. But even those layoffs have resulted in few real reductions in the county’s workforce, because most of those who lose their jobs get shuffled into vacant positions. Those positions “have been both places to put people who’ve been let go and also to cut” at budget time, a bit of logistical magic that allows the county to balance its books without putting people on the street.

The city’s budget writers are performing similar tricks, creating a “pool” of vacant positions so that when layoffs come—potentially 300 of them sometime next year, according to the mayor’s office—people who lose their jobs “know there will be some vacancies that they can apply for,” Dively says.

All of this juggling, balancing, and massaging of the numbers has managed to save some money, although no one can say precisely how much. That’s because neither the city nor the county has implemented an audit or evaluation of how well the hiring freezes have been working, relying instead on budget figures to estimate their savings. Dively estimates the hiring freeze saved the city a million dollars or more last year, allowing his department to balance the 2002 budget. Kraft couldn’t put a number on the county’s savings, but said they were substantial enough to avoid even greater cuts.

One thing is certain: There’s no end in sight. And as long as the financial crises at the city and county continue to deepen, the hiring-freeze waivers that have been the rule may become, increasingly, the exception.