Tens of millions of dollars are appropriated to state agencies for vacancies, many of which remained unfilled for years — skewing the state budget process.
The West Virginia Legislative Auditor Performance Evaluation and Research Division (PERD) reviewed vacancies throughout the state in its latest report to the Post Audits Subcommittee during Sunday’s Interim Legislative Meetings. The report found that there are hundreds of positions open in the state that haven’t been filled, some dating back to 2014.
Lukas Griffith is the senior research analyst for PERD. He said the report found that there were 4,857 budgeted vacant positions, which comprise 12 percent of all authorized positions. The amount appropriated for all budgeted vacancies, including estimated benefits, is $226.9 million.
Some vacancies have been unfilled since 2014, and nearly 500 vacancies have been unfilled since at least 2018. Vacancies originating between 2014 and 2018 alone account for $22.9 million and appropriated salaries and estimated benefits.
A total of 106 different agencies had at least one vacancy, and the Division of Health and the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation had the highest number of vacant positions with more than 800 in each agency.
“The vacancies for the Division of Corrections are especially pertinent considering the governor’s recent state of emergency declaration to deploy the National Guard to fill critical staffing shortages at specific correctional facilities,” Griffith said. “Five hundred of the 812 corrections vacancies are correctional officer positions.”
The Division of Human Services had nearly 600 vacancies and the Division of Highways had 338 vacancies.
PERD also found that a total of 80 positions that have been vacant prior to 2018 were not being advertised to allow prospective workers the opportunity to apply for them.
The point that got legislators attention was that while some of the money for those budgeted, unfilled positions was used to pay for other needs in the various departments, like overtime and salary increases, contract employees and nurses, it was only a small fraction of the total.
Michael Cook, the director of the State Budget Office in the Justice Administration said the annual budget bill provides permissive language that allows those agencies to transfer those funds that the legislature has appropriated for personal services and employee benefits. It allows those cabinet secretaries to use their judgment and latitude to fulfill their mission by moving those funds into other items of appropriation.
“When I read the report, I didn’t want it to have the appearance that there were, as the Legislative Auditor mentioned, just millions and millions of dollars that could be swept into savings,” he said. “That’s not necessarily the case. If it were to be swept, then those positions would have to be deactivated. And then you would budget that money, as it should be reflected, there really wouldn’t be a significant savings at that point, you’re still maintaining that budget at the total legislative appropriation for each of those funds.”
“Are there actually savings to be had by eliminating the vacancies?” House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, asked. “Or is the aggregate dollar value of that amount being used elsewhere? And it just doesn’t reflect reality?”
Cook agreed it was the latter.
“They’re not in the budget bill itself, and the appropriations are not accurately reflected, but the bottom line is not changing,” he said.
Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, questioned that assertion and noted that even with those transfers, there is a lot of money being given to agencies that isn’t being spent.
“If I’m reading this right, table five is the reallocation. It’s only $15 million out of $216 million,” he said. “That’s $200 million we’ve got floating in the wind out there. And I don’t know how often people are looking at the news, but $200 million dollars roughly covers everybody’s disagreement with taxes these days. So if I’m reading that, right, where’s the other $200 million bucks?”
Hanshaw agreed with Steele’s concerns.
“In other words, you’re telling us the budget process, as we know it, just doesn’t reflect reality,” he said. “In four years of sitting on this committee, this has to be one of the most informative reports I’ve ever received. I think it’s fair to say we will ratchet this up to the Joint Committee on Government and Finance for further consideration.”
An additional point raised by the report was that approximately 400 state employees qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.