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State hiring freezes allow numerous exceptions

Hidden Hiring
Groundkeepers Gordy Lowe, left, James Tonner, right, and Zach Woodrow at Deer Creek state park golf course in Mount Sterling, Ohio. They were hired for state-run courses despite limits on adding new staff. The state's six golf courses bring in nearly $2 million a year in greens fees and these workers are critical to maintaining that revenue stream, said Natural Resources spokeswoman Beth Ruth.Kiichiro Sato / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Financially strapped states that have announced a freeze on all but essential hiring have made thousands of exceptions for zookeepers, dog wardens, golf-course groundskeepers, boxing inspectors, state fair workers and the like, an Associated Press review of hiring records has found.

"What's the point of the order if you're not going to follow it?" grumbled Ohio state Rep. John Adams, a Republican and owner of a furniture store. "In this economy, honor your hiring freeze. I don't know any businesses that are hiring right now."

In ordering the hiring freezes, several governors said that the dire economy required tough choices, and they promised that exceptions would be made only to fill the most crucial jobs, such as police officers and prison guards.

State officials say that while some of the thousands of non-emergency hires they have made since then — such as dog wardens or zookeepers — might seem questionable, the employees are necessary to keep basic functions of government running, are required by law, or are necessary to bring in the revenue that states so desperately need.

For example, in Ohio, which just hired two greenskeepers, the state's six golf courses bring in nearly $2 million a year in greens fees, said Ohio Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Beth Ruth.

"These are people who are critical to maintaining that revenue stream," she said.

'Prudent stewards'
An April report by the National Conference of State Legislatures found at least 43 states are projecting deficits totaling more than $121 billion next year. The nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington said at least 27 states have imposed hiring freezes to deal with budget problems.

"In the current uncertain economic climate, we must be especially prudent stewards of Pennsylvania's resources," Gov. Ed Rendell said in ordering a hiring freeze last September.

Since then, Pennsylvania has brought in more than 1,000 new employees, including a fiscal director making $128,000, a press secretary earning $84,000 and seven clerk typists at salaries from $24,000 to $28,000.

The AP found the exceptions in records requested from seven of the biggest states with hiring freezes, including New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Even in tough times, states generally continue to hire prison guards, nurses and other critical employees. But Connecticut also hired part-time boxing inspectors, and New York hired temporary state fair workers.

Alaska allowed 384 exceptions to its four-month freeze that ended in May, including the hiring of eight state geologists and nine state fisheries biologists.

Ohio's hires during the freeze included — in addition to the two golf-course groundskeepers — 11 environmental scientists and 39 tax collectors.

"We have approved some positions that fall into the category of kind of keeping the lights on and the doors open," said David Ellis, Ohio's deputy state budget director.

Six-figure incomes
Ohio's 777 new hires also included 17 administrators earning six-figure salaries, according to AP's records review. The highest paid, at $160,014 a year, is the chief operating officer for Ohio's insurance fund for injured workers, a new post required by state law.

Ohio also allowed its natural resources agency to hire eight officers to patrol state lakes and rivers. Among them is Dawn Potter, who is not taking her new $33,800-a-year post for granted.

"I know how lucky I am," said Potter, 30, based at a 1,900-acre state reservoir outside of Columbus. "Everyone everywhere is getting cut."

Other states made similar judgment calls, for such positions as a veterinarian and two dog wardens hired in Pennsylvania. A new law cracking down on shoddy dog kennels known a "puppy mills" required the additional dog wardens, said Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo.

Even with the exceptions, many states are still saving money and reducing their workforces. Workers are retiring or resigning, and some of those jobs are going unfilled.

Ohio, which has 60,000 state workers, has hired about 2,000 employees since the restrictions were ordered in January 2008. But overall state employment has dropped by about 4,200.

Minnesota hired more than 7,400 workers since Gov. Tim Pawlenty clamped down on hiring in February 2008, including 62 workers at the Minnesota Zoo. But almost as many employees left state government during that time.