Inside the Capitol

Saturday, October 06, 2012

10-17 Fewer state workers occupy more space

101712 office space

SANTA FE – How can fewer state workers take up more office space? That's what the state Legislature's interim finance committee wants to know.
Gov. Susana Martinez's administration began operations last year amid announcements of eliminating employees and closing offices.
The move didn't please a number of state employees who had to move from closer to home or closer to the people they serve. But, hey, with fewer people there was more room in the main office so it made sense.
Now we're hearing that the state workforce has been trimmed by 14 percent in the past four years. There again, state employees aren't happy about having to do the work of other employees who have been shed but at least they still have a job.
But what's this we hear now? The amount of office space has been increased by six percent over that same four-year period? Maybe there is a good explanation but it probably isn't that state employees now have bigger offices.
There are two kinds of state offices -- those which the state owns and those which it rents. Money people almost always figure it is better to own than to rent. Of course, real estate agents don't think that way. Parts of Santa Fe would look like ghost towns if the state were to move out of rental spaces.
But that isn't going to happen. The money to build state buildings comes from bond issues, state budget surpluses and severance taxes on oil, gas and other minerals. Property taxes aren't popular, budget surpluses are a thing of the past and the amount of severance taxes is finite.
So as state government gets involved in more and more pieces of our life, it becomes necessary to rent office space for all the extra agencies that once didn't exist. But the rule of thumb remains to stay vigilant for any rental space that can be eliminated.
Evidently the state General Services Department has been good about saving money on rental space but the Legislature still doesn't like seeing that six percent increase in office space.
One possible problem is that state agencies want to keep surplus space hoping that it eventually will regain its former staffing level. But even when New Mexico's economy bounces all the way back, state staffing levels similar to early 2008 are doubtful.
So the 251 vacant offices found by the legislative auditors may not be completely filled even when the budget picture becomes rosy again. That means filling the vacant space in each department's main office.
But that has its problems. When the department secretary makes the consolidation decision, inconvenienced employees are likely to grumble. When someone outside the department makes the decision, displaced employees and even the department head are more likely to make their feelings known.
It stands to reason that department secretaries are much more likely to understand the needs to have some employees working in field offices. Those needs are obvious in situations such as museums, monuments, parks and road maintenance,
The need isn't as obvious, however, for, say, an Albuquerque office. It hasn't been uncommon for cabinet secretaries from Albuquerque to find a need for a field office close to home. And, naturally, any department employee living in Albuquerque can find a reason to work out of that office also.
That might be an occasion for someone from the outside making a decision about an office in Albuquerque or elsewhere in the state. Albuquerque offices are somewhat temporary. When a new department secretary from Santa Fe is appointed the need for that Albuquerque office sometimes disappears.
The Legislature has more control over these public officials because it has the power of the pocketbook and the power to make laws requiring that its will be done.
So if the Legislature wants to see further consolidation of state offi8ces, it can make that happen.


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