By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County's government was put under a hiring freeze this week by the county's Board of Commissioners, as a way to help deal with the possibility of a multi-million-dollar budget deficit, when the current fiscal year ends this summer.
The five-member commission unanimously approved the freeze in a resolution, which mandates that "no position, exempt or non-exempt, which is currently vacant, or which becomes vacant, will be filled" by any department in county government.
There are provisions which allow departments to hire people, but they will be required to get the commission's approval beforehand, as stipulated in the hiring-freeze resolution.
Officials in the county's human resources department could not be reached Wednesday for comment on how many vacant positions the county had when the freeze was imposed.
"We have a budget shortfall of some $8.5 million, as reported by our finance director, and we must do something about that," said Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell. "Sixty-six percent of our costs go for employees, and so, we've got to take a look, a strong look, at what we can do to rectify that, because, next year, it will be even worse."
While the hiring freeze has been approved, and put into place, members of the commission are caught in an impasse on exactly how to proceed with it. The resolution that established the freeze does not include a date for when the freeze will be lifted, and it does not specify how much money will be saved by putting the freeze into place.
Bell said he believes a hiring freeze is needed, but he plans to bring it back to the commission at its next meeting, on March 8, to get further instruction on how long the freeze should last.
The commission chairman said the freeze was not well-put-together, even though he voted for it. "I think we approved this hiring freeze too hastily," he said.
Commission Vice Chairman Wole Ralph and Commissioner Sonna Singleton said the freeze was Bell's idea, however, and they are waiting for the chairman to provide them with guidance on how long the freeze will last. "It's the board's expectation that he will continue to keep us abreast of his recommendations," Ralph said.
On the question of how much money the county will save from having a hiring freeze in place, Bell said he plans to look into getting an answer to that question. "I'm going to charge the [county's] finance director with looking into that," he said.
This new hiring freeze will be the second one implemented by the commission in fiscal year 2011, which began eight months ago. Last June, the county approved a three-month hiring freeze, as part of the fiscal year budget, which went into effect in July 2010.
At the time, county officials took the step of instituting a short-term hiring freeze as part of an effort to eliminate the possibility of a $9 million hole in the budget.
But, at a board of commissioners retreat on Feb. 18, county Finance Director Angela Jackson told commissioners that property tax revenues were lower than expected, and some departments, particularly the Clayton County Sheriff's Office, were expected to exceed their allotted budgets.
She told commissioners the figures added up to the county facing a more than $8 million projected budget deficit this summer.