Positions Unfilled, Funds Unspent at DLNR

posted in: April 2008 | 0

Stand in the halls of the Kalanimoku Building in downtown Honolulu long enough, and you’re bound to overhear staffers with the Department of Land and Natural Resources complain over the lack of money or personnel that prevents them from carrying out the many tasks they’re charged with.

A look at the budget figures given to the 2008 Legislature bears them out.

Although the department’s approved operating budget for fiscal year 2006-2007 came to $92.247 million, the department’s expenditures for that period fell short of the mark, by 3 percent ($2.56 million), according to the so-called “Variance Report” prepared by the state Department of Budget and Finance. The report reflects each state department’s expenditures at the end of the first three months of each fiscal year.

When it comes to personnel, the discrepancy is even greater. According to the Variance Report, as of September 30, 18 percent, or 140, of the 775.5 authorized permanent staff positions in the DLNR were vacant. As in years past, the DLNR’s vacancy rate is far above the rates seen in other state departments. On average, across all departments, the vacancy rate stood at 6 percent, with 2,666 unfilled positions out of more than 45,000.

Viewed in another light, the vacant posts at the DLNR represent more than 5 percent of vacancies statewide – this despite the fact that the department’s operating budget accounts for less than 1 percent of the overall state budget.

Since then, the DLNR’s position count has of course changed, but many chairs continue to remain unoccupied. DLNR administrator Laura Thielen insists, however, that the department is working aggressively to fill them.

“The vacancies are not intentional,” she said. “We have been talking with managers about this since I started, about six, seven months ago. We want to fill these positions. The managers want to fill these positions. We’re not intentionally keeping positions vacant to achieve savings.

Clerical positions account for a large number of the vacancies, Thielen said. “It’s extremely frustrating not to be able to find people to fill these positions. The Department of Human Resources Development is trying to help by aggressively recruiting clerical workers. As the pace of Hawai`i’s economic growth slows, we may find that the state is a more attractive employment option, and may be a bit more successful” in recruiting for these posts, she told Environment Hawai`i in an interview responding to a written list of questions.

Within the department itself, the vacancy rates among divisions fluctuate widely. “The vacancies tend to be concentrated in three divisions,” Thielen said, naming the divisions of State Parks, Boating and Ocean Recreation, and Forestry and Wildlife.

In the case of State Parks, which as of late January had 41 empty spots (28 permanent, 13 temporary), most of the vacancies are paid for out of the State Parks special fund, Thielen said. “During the economic downturn of the 1990s, the Legislature shifted general-funded positions to become special-funded. Now we’re at the point where the ceiling on special funds expenditures, which includes these positions, is far higher than the revenue stream that State Parks generates. So we cannot afford to fill some of these positions.” (Thirty-one of the 41 vacancies are paid for out of the parks special fund.)

Thielen acknowledged that the parks special fund had been raided in recent years, and said that the Legislature is poised to make another raid on the fund this year. “We’re trying to point out to the Legislature – help us out by not raiding our fund, give us more general fund positions, and support us when we take steps to increase revenue streams. We’re also pointing out to the Legislature that if they cut these positions, they won’t save any money.”

As far as the vacancies in the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation (DOBOR) are concerned, she noted that most of them are difficult-to-fill clerical posts, “and when we do get folks, they take advantage of promotional opportunities within the department and move up to higher-level jobs.” (All of the DOBOR personnel are paid from the boating special fund. As of late January, 19 permanent positions were empty.)

Thielen attributed DOFAW vacancies (37 as of late January) to “a combination of reasons. They’re our biggest division, so they have the biggest movement” of personnel. Once more, she cited problems in hiring clerical positions. Another factor, she said, is that “DOFAW is an interesting division. The management philosophy there is they want to have a lot of responsibility and accountability at the local level. They’ve taken some steps by redescribing or recreating new position series through civil service procedures. Take someone like a laborer. Instead of having them listed as a general laborer, you put them in as a forester, so they’re held responsible for independent duties…. But this process takes time. In my opinion, DOFAW is one of the better-managed, better-run divisions.”

The Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement was not on Thielen’s top-three list for vacancy problems. However, in recent years, it has had trouble filling its positions. Asked about that, Thielen attributed many of DOCARE’s vacancies to the fact they were for positions authorized by last year’s Legislature, “and in creating new positions, we have to go through a series of paperwork steps – create the job, get approval to fill it, and only then can we hire.” A further confounding factor that slows down the hiring process for DOCARE enforcement officers is the fact that minimum qualifications for most positions include law-enforcement training and for all officers an extensive background check. A recent recruitment drive for more senior-level officers, Thielen said, ended after “we didn’t find anybody who met the minimum qualifications … or, in some cases, in their background, they had incidents which disqualified them from law enforcement.” Despite the problems in recruitment and the fact that for three clerical positions vacant since 2005 there has been no appropriation made for two years, the department is requesting in this year’s supplemental budget an additional 15 positions (11 officers, four clerks).

Another issue that arises on examination of the DOCARE spreadsheet are five vacant enforcement-officer positions paid for by the boating special fund. “I think these are the five positions created a couple of years ago under a legislative budget proviso to provide cruise ship security at small boat harbors in Maui and Kona,” Thielen said. “DOBOR was going to be doing that security, but as the time neared, the decision was made by the prior chairman [Peter Young] to have it temporarily assigned to DOCARE…

“When the auditor did an audit of DOCARE, the division was criticized for mission creep. One criticism was that the focus on things like cruise ship security was not appropriate. So the department began taking steps to revert the security to DOBOR, since this was always supposed to be a temporary measure.

“DOBOR has picked up security duties in Maui and is phasing in in Kona. But because the [Department of Budget and Finance] has these positions listed under DOCARE, we’re asking the Legislature in our supplemental budget request to transfer these lines back to DOBOR.”

The actual work involved does not require enforcement officers, Thielen said, but will be done by planners to be hired by DOBOR. “They’re not doing security. They’re doing administration of cruise-ship security,” she said. “They’ll manage schedules, tendering, working with the Coast Guard, and handle contracts with private security companies.” If security is elevated above the current level, DOCARE would be involved, but even so, Thielen said, “day-to-day involvement would be significantly less than it is now.”

A Historic Problem

The Historic Preservation Division has been under fire in recent years, with charges of incompetence, inefficiency, and mismanagement being just a few of the accusations leveled against the agency. Recently, Thielen appointed a committee to look for a new administrator to replace Melanie Chinen, who resigned late last year.

According to the Variance Report, as of September 30, 2007, 12 of the 13 permanent, full-time positions in Historic Preservation were filled. Notes accompanying the report, however, stated that five positions “were being actively recruited” as of that date.

According to the spreadsheet information provided to Environment Hawai`i, as of January 25, 2008, the division had nine vacancies. Of those, six were reported to have been vacant as of September 30, 2007 (five of them empty since 2006).

Environment Hawai`i asked how the Variance Report, with its one listed vacancy, could be reconciled with the spreadsheet.

As of press time, no response had been received.

— Patricia Tummons

Volume 18, Number 10 April 2008