State workers grow in number as demands on Georgia’s government rise

The mother of four boys spent 13 years at Wal-Mart, rising to assistant manager. But she’d grown tired of the irregular hours of retail and never having holidays off, and she was looking for a change. When the Department of Driver Services opened a new office in her hometown, she jumped at the chance to run the place, which is a three-minute drive from her home.

“It’s been just awesome,” said Scott, the manager of the new Paulding County DDS office that opened a few weeks ago. “I took a little bit of a pay cut, but being able to have a work-life balance … there is no price you can put on that.”

Scott is one of thousands of new state and school district employees who have been hired or will be in the next several months as the state of Georgia starts back-filling from years of job and service cutbacks brought on by the recession.

Some lawmakers say that the cutbacks have made state government leaner and forced agencies to focus on what they were originally designed to do. Reducing the size of government is a popular message in many state House and Senate districts, and some are skeptical that all the new jobs are necessary.

“I seriously doubt we need all of the people they are hiring,” said state Rep. David Stover, R-Newnan. “Maybe some, but when the (tax) collections increase, we have a history of spending more because we can. Not because we have to.”

Others say that past cutbacks have brought reduced services at a time when Georgia’s population is growing and Georgians are demanding more from the state.

Agency officials say the new staffers are designed to help cut down on long lines at driver’s license offices, to reduce backlogs at crime labs, to cut caseloads for overworked child protective services staffers, to give the state the manpower to investigate police shootings, to provide more teachers in schools with growing enrollment, and to improve the system of signing up Georgians for government benefits.

Between 2008, the year before the recession began hammering tax collections, and 2015, the number of state employees dropped by about 12,500, according to data from the state Office of Planning and Budget.

Full-time employment grew in a few areas, such as in the University System of Georgia, which added more than 3,000 staffers. The Board of Regents raised tuition to make up for lower state funding during the recession, so it had an alternative source of revenue to pay for the facilities and classes needed to handle growing enrollment.

But many state agencies — and school districts — had to figure out how to provide services to a growing population with smaller payrolls. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution report last month showed that even with a record state budget this year, spending for many agencies is far below what it was in 2008 when population growth and inflation are considered.

School districts and state agencies slashed unfilled positions, laid off staffers and used unpaid furloughs to make up for plummeting tax collections.

The furloughs are largely gone, and Gov. Nathan Deal and lawmakers have begun filling holes in the workforce of more than 300,000 teachers, professors, state administrators, criminal investigators, prison guards, agricultural extension agents, child welfare caseworkers and driver’s license staffers.

“There is no doubt there are fewer state employees than there were 10 years ago,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville. “What a recession does is make everybody go back to their core mission. That thinned out state government.”

This year, Hill said, “There was not a conscious decision where we said, ‘We need to add more people.’ We responded to specific needs.”

Among those needs were in school systems, which have seen enrollment climb. The budget that took effect this month is supposed to fund 2,172 new teaching positions next year, a 1.7 percent increase over 2015-2016.

Another key area was the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The GBI fared relatively better than many state agencies, ending 2015 with about the same number of employees as it had in 2010.

But the workload has greatly increased, so the General Assembly funded five new toxicology scientists, 22 investigators and two analysts to work on investigations of criminal threats and cyberterrorism intelligence.

Longtime GBI Director Vernon Keenan said additional agents were needed in part to work “officer use of force” investigations, such as when a police officer shoots someone. The toxicologists were needed because of a substantial backlog of cases.

“We have had to prioritize what we investigate,” he said. “One of the biggest areas where we are doing less investigating is in drug enforcement.”

Keenan said that last year the Legislature approved eight new agents to help handle crimes committed against the elderly. That, he said, marked the first investigative staff added in a decade. “Before that, we were lucky to be able to fill vacant positions, and we weren’t able to fill all of them,” he added.

The new budget includes money for 175 more child protective services caseworkers and 180 eligibility caseworkers, along with about 30 other Department of Human Services positions. The heavy caseloads for child welfare caseworkers and errors in handling food stamp recipients have been major problems for the state.

Legislators added money for 12 new agriculture extension agents and several new agriculture scientists. Those programs are run through the University System, but the state’s Agriculture Department has seen its workforce cut by about 25 percent since 2008.

The Department of Natural Resources — especially hard hit by cutbacks — has been reopening parks that became essentially unmanned “recreation areas” to save money.

Lesley Mobley became assistant manager of Hamburg State Park, about halfway between Macon and Augusta, in December after graduating from Southern Oregon University. A Fayetteville native, Mobley was happy to come back to Georgia and help reopen services at the park.

“I really like talking to people and interacting with them and explaining nature and fostering their relationship with nature,” she said. “I think they get a little more of a personal touch” than when there were no full-time staffers at the site.

Bert Brantley, the commissioner of the Department of Driver Services, said his agency opened more offices to take the pressure off of crowded sites, such as the one in Marietta.

Little gets the attention of state lawmakers quicker than constituents complaining about long lines at local driver’s license centers.

“During the downturn, they had to let people go and we heard from our constituents that they had a three-hour wait for a driver’s license,” said House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn.

That made adding front-line jobs for the people who provide services directly to Georgians a priority, England said.

Brantley said the DDS battles on two fronts: There are more people than ever getting licenses, and the federal REAL ID security law means his staffers have to view and collect a lot more paperwork to make sure people are eligible for Georgia driver’s licenses. That slows down the process.

While many Georgians use the agency’s online services, the number of transactions at DDS centers rose from just over 3 million in 2008 to 4.26 million last fiscal year.

“Governor Deal and legislative leadership understand the demands agencies such as DDS are facing with growing populations and burdensome federal rules and regulations,” Brantley said. “We are implementing new technology and providing more online services than ever, but the support for facilities upgrades and funding for additional staff have been critical in giving us the ability to meet increased demand and keep wait times as low as possible.”

The Dallas site was meant to relieve some of the pressure on the Marietta office, which Scott said averages about 1,200 customers a day.

Scott remembers when she had to get her name and address changed on her license after getting married a few years ago. “I went to the Cedartown office and it took me four hours,” she said. “Can you imagine sitting in a lobby for four hours with children trying to keep them entertained? It was horrible.”

The Dallas site manager said her new office has served about 250 customers a day in the few weeks it’s been open, and the average wait time is a little more than two minutes.

Scott likes that she gets to see and serve people she’s known her whole life. She’s working a few minutes away from her family, receiving good heath care benefits, and on Memorial Day, she said didn’t have to work on a holiday for the first time in 13 years.

Now Scott wants to make a career out of working for the state.

“I am not going back to retail,” she said. “Now that I’ve got a taste of having a holiday off, I am staying here.”

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