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Amid staffing shortages, Cuyahoga County questioning how many jobs actually needed

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 9/27/2022 Kaitlin Durbin, cleveland.com

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Is Cuyahoga County’s payroll larger than it needs to be?

That’s the question at the heart of a new proposal to re-evaluate the county’s operational and organizational structure amid significant, and in some cases long-standing, staffing shortages — and right before a transition of power. The assessment will consider the number of employees in each department, the supervisor-to-staff ratio, and other operational functions and recommend changes to improve efficiency.

The county wants to know if it can do more with less, Executive Armond Budish’s Chief of Staff Bill Mason said, noting that the county was down 1,200 employees earlier in the year and currently has more than 800 vacancies. He suggested the assessment to determine how many of those positions the county actually needs to fill.

“We’re down a lot, and we’re still functioning,” Mason said. “There are going to be a lot of positions that are on the books that have been on the books for just a really long time, and maybe we won’t have to fill them all.”

The county employed 4,818 people in 2019 across its executive agencies, the county’s request for proposal says. Those workers, either through direct services or internal support, are responsible for administering county functions in health and human services, public safety, justice services, infrastructure maintenance and improvement, economic and workforce development, sustainability, tax collection, and diversity, equity and inclusion.

In some of those departments, the county has been aggressively trying to recruit more staff. Council increased pay for corrections officers to help support the jail, and Executive Budish is planning to propose raises for social workers to improve conditions and operations at the Division of Children and Family Services office.

But Mason questions whether other departments already have the staffing needed to perform the expected duties. He couldn’t point to any specific jobs that might be superfluous, but he said based on the number of vacancies currently, he assumes there are many.

Cutting those positions from the county payroll wouldn’t lead to much job loss, he said.

The proposal comes as the county is about to transition to new leadership, either under executive candidate Lee Weingart, a Republican, or Democrat Chris Ronayne. The results of the potential two-year study could help them decide how to build their team, Mason said.

The candidates aren’t completely opposed.

“I like it. I think it’s the right way to go,” Weingart told cleveland.com on Tuesday. “This RFP speaks to a lot of what I’ve been saying on the campaign trail for 20 months.”

Weingart has been promising to shrink county government, and part of his plan already included cutting about 800 jobs to save the county money. He specifically commended the county’s request to re-evaluate supervisory roles.

Last he knew, the county’s treasury department staffed 27 frontline workers and 9 supervisors, “which strikes me as a pretty outrageous supervisor-to-frontline-worker ratio.” He thinks three supervisors might be more appropriate and hopes that’s one of the recommendations the review will make.

Ronayne has proposed creating several new county offices to address housing, transportation, and immigration, and a county ombudsmen office to handle complaints and connect residents to available resources. To that end, he’s already planning a “budget neutral” realignment of county resources and says there is merit in reviewing government operations after 12 years under the new charter, but not if it excludes direction from the county’s next leader.

“It’s just too close to the transition to lock in on an organization that’s going to advise on the future of the next chapter of county government,” Ronayne said, noting the election is a little over a month away. “It’s yet another initiative that’s going to get launched prior to the new exec taking their seat, and the last thing you want is to waste taxpayer monies on change orders.”

Ronayne wouldn’t say whether he believes there are areas for workforce reduction, but he criticized Weingart for taking that position.

“I think my opponent has talked a good game about reducing staff and improving services,’ Ronayne said. “Those two ends don’t meet.”

As part of the assessment, the proposal asks vendors to also recommend how to improve staff retention and succession planning. The candidates already have some of their own solutions in mind.

Weingart aims to improve the work environment through better communication and attract new applicants with added benefits, like providing free parking and onsite childcare. He said he also isn’t convinced that every job posting should require a college degree and would like to review the prerequisites for some positions.

“If we can loosen those requirements a little bit (for) people who have some college or maybe no college but real-world experience that substitutes for college, we might be able to attract more folks to the county government,” Weingart said.

Ronayne also isn’t opposed to relaxing some of the licensing barriers that limit qualified candidates, but he also proposes increasing training incentives, addressing reliable transportation, and locating more government services in the communities they serve, rather than asking staff and residents to come downtown.

The staffing crisis, he said, “it’s showing.”

It’s not clear when the proposed assessment might become a reality. The county still needs to vet proposals and recommend its preferred vendor to council. Councilmembers would then consider the contract and decide whether to approve it.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit cleveland.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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