Spokane County commissioners will freeze most hiring for 30 days while they figure out why the number of county employees is growing three times faster than county population.
It took nearly 100 years - from 1889 until the mid-1980s - for the county to reach 1,000 workers.
The number of positions now is 1,803.
The county has added an average of one new position every five days since 1987, when the number of workers was 1,213. That’s an increase of 50 percent.
County population during that same eight-year period grew 15 percent, from 350,000 to nearly 400,000.
“All this growth has been consistent with our philosophy, which has been if we have the money, let’s provide the service,” said Commissioner Steve Hasson, who initiated the study of county employment.
Many county employees hired in recent years are fulfilling state or federal mandates, and some of them are paid with grants from the Legislature or Congress. They include eight planners hired in three years to work on growth management issues and some of the 64 new positions in the prosecutor’s office.
Hasson said the number of workers has increased so rapidly, “we just don’t have a handle on it.” He spent three weeks trying to determine exactly how many people are on the payroll.
A commissioner since 1988, Hasson said he’s partly to blame for the growth. Commissioners approve all new positions, and did so without considering the total increase in employees, he said.
Bill Keenan, staff representative for the Washington State Council of City and County Employees, said that despite the growth, employees are working harder and longer hours than ever to keep up with new construction, new regulations and increased crime.
The prosecutor’s office, juvenile detention center and assessor’s office are among several that are “critically understaffed,” Keenan said.
Commissioners, who imposed the freeze Tuesday, gave county administrator Jim Lindow authority to override it when he sees fit. The freeze doesn’t include additions commissioners already have approved, such as a replacement for retired county utili ties director Bill Dobratz.
But most of the 127 vacant positions - they are among the 1,803 authorized positions - will go unfilled at least until the 30 days is up.
While most of the unfilled positions were vacated recently or newly created, others have been empty for months or years, said Margaret Smith, county financial analyst. Either way, county agencies receive money for the positions, and often use it to pay overtime and other expenses.
Commissioners said they will consider cutting that money and eliminating many of the long-empty positions.
“If they’ve been getting along without those people, they don’t need them,” said Commissioner Phil Harris.
Commissioner Skip Chilberg called the freeze “very timely,” since by the time it is over, the county may have to lay off workers, rather than add more.
If Spokane Valley voters decide May 16 to form their own city - and a new poll suggests they will - the county would lose a big chunk of its budget.
No one know exactly how big the hit would be, but the biggest loser would be the $14 million road fund. County engineer Ron Hormann predicts the fund would lose at least $6 million in property taxes collected in the Valley.
The road fund pays the salaries of 295 county workers.
ILLUSTRATION: Chart:Spokane County hiring freeze