St. Lawrence County legislators asking state to streamline civil service exam program
BY JEFF CHUDZINSKI
North Country This Week
CANTON — As St. Lawrence County struggles to retain and recruit staff, legislators are asking the state to streamline the civil service exam program to reduce the red tape.
Legislators approved a resolution during the County Legislature’s Operations Committee meeting on Nov. 14 that called for broad changes to the system.Other attempts to target the staffing shortage have been made this year with County Administrator Ruth Doyle establishing a small group in February to discuss the issues in an attempt to address hiring and retention issues.
Doyle argued in February the county needed to talk more about the issue and begin “strategizing a little bit better for attracting folks to come to work here.”
Resolution co-sponsor Nicole Terminelli said the system poses a large problem for the county as officials struggle to fill roughly 150 positions annually.
“Our civil service process may not be an antiquated system but for sure it doesn’t keep up with the need to get employees into the market and into jobs,” Terminelli said.
Terminelli argued that the waiting game between available tests, which are sometimes not even scheduled at the time of a job posting, coupled with the extensive wait time for test scoring has led to losses of employees. In some cases it has proven difficult to hire for certain positions with prospective employees being unwilling to accept a job provisionally.
“We leave large gaps between openings and then we have provisional appointments. Whether or not they end up being able to access those appointments or positions permanently is a really big challenge,” she continued.
Terminelli also said the educational component is a large one when it comes to civil service exams, with many applicants unaware of what positions may require a civil service exam.
“It’s tough on people to take a provisional job and have to wait on the results,” she said.
Legislator John Burke, who had previously called on the legislature to end a non-essential hiring freeze back in August, suggested narrowing the scope of the resolution to better assist the county with the issues at hand.
“I’m wondering, here, what are we asking.? It seems like it’s a shotgun approach,” he said.
Burke suggested the county request the ability to score exams locally, saying that some systems allow for local scoring.
As Burke put it, local scoring “would cut out a big piece of the delay.”
Burke suggested the Sheriff’s Office and various county departments scoring exams may be one way to streamline the process and a more specific request such as that would be a better approach than the “blanket approach” the resolution suggested.
Legislator David Forsythe suggested the difficulty in hiring is due in large part to many similar positions in the private sector paying more, saying the cycle has swung towards private jobs in recent decades.
Forsythe said in years past an individual who obtained a positions with the county, psychiatric center, a corrections position or teacher’s position would stay until retirement, however that is no longer commonplace.
“It’s a wide array. Everything comes around sooner or later and it has come around now,” he said.
While most legislators supported the resolution, Kevin Acres was in opposition.
“What you should do is turn the implementation of the civil service testing and scoring over to the private sector,” Acres said.
Acres argued that the reduction of public sector jobs in recent years, totaling 664,000, is “a boon to taxpayers."
Acres also suggested the resolution was too broad and needed refinement.
“Civil service exams aren’t offered enough, that’s all this should say,” Acres said.
According to Acres, many private sector jobs simply aren’t as lucrative as county positions.
“Here in St. Lawrence County, unless you have that skillset or technical skills or that job that’s in demand like a class A driver, you’re not going to be earning what county employees are earning,” Acres said.
Acres said the average household income for private sector employees is $49,000, while the average county employee salary is $55,000 plus a lucrative $30,000 benefit package.
Acres said the board should be addressing how civil service tests are conducted and scored, disagreeing with much of the resolution as written. When offered an opportunity to amend the resolution by County Administrator Ruth Doyle, Acres declined saying he did not wish to at this time.