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Reducing positions without losing employees

Creative cutting techniques for times of tight budgets

By Luke Whyte

Amid drastic budget cuts over the last two years, the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office in Nashville, Tennessee has succeeded in eliminating 100 positions and balancing their finances without laying off a single employee or reducing effectiveness.

How did they do it? At the 2010 ACA summer conference in Chicago, Chief of Administration John Hudson — along with the administrator at their maximum security detention center, Daniel Weikal — hosted a workshop to explain.

Step I: Crunch the Numbers
“The first thing we had to consider is, what is the amount of reduction that we’re going to have to absorb?” said Hudson. “Once we did that, we had an idea of how many positions that was going to be.”

“Security had been cut all it could be cut,” Weikal said, “and for the first time we had to look very closely at making cuts in the upper echelons; the administrator level, chief of security level.”

“We even cut a chief,” Hudson said.

Step II: Get Everyone Involved
In order to get a well-rounded understanding of what positions could be cut, DCSO chiefs tasked their facility administrators with developing a proposal to cut 10 percent from their individual budget.

“So we, the administrators, sat down with our managers and told them to cut 10 percent out of their staff,” Weikal said. “You had to figure out what you could afford to do without.”

This gave the agency a list of positions to look at and choose from.

“It was a somewhat lengthy process,” Hudson said, “but it was well worth it from a standpoint of making sure you are doing the right things for the agency as well as getting buy-in from everyone.”

Step III: Do an Efficiency Study
Along with the administrators’ proposals, DCSO did something called an efficiency study to identify what positions they could afford to cut. Agency chiefs charged a single employee with the task of going into areas of operations that they were not familiar with to look at to try and find positions that could be cut without reducing efficiency.

“We chose our records manager to do this,” Hudson said. “He would come back and say something like, ‘you know, in our warrants division we’ve got eight data entry people and there is only enough work to keep three people busy for eight hours a day’.”

Thus, by combining the administrators’ lists with the results of the efficiency study, a list of positions were made that the agency planned to cut.

Step IV: Set up a Reverse Bid
Now that DCSO had a list of positions to cut, they needed to find a way to erase them without laying employees off. This was achieved through something they called a reverse bid.

The agency took a look at their monthly attrition rate — the amount of employees that leave on their own will (or are promoted) on a monthly basis. Looking at these numbers they found that, on average, about five positions per month open up naturally in the agency as employees are fired, take other jobs,or get promoted.

Thus, whenever a position opens up in the agency due to natural attrition, those whose jobs had been listed for elimination through the efficiency study and/or administrator proposals were given the opportunity to bid for whatever new position was opening up.

“If a position came open, we would know the list of employees whose positions were going away and we would say, ‘you now have an opportunity to bid on this position that we are planning to keep.’”

This process never results in a salary reduction. If a staff member is forced to bid for a position lower than their current, disappearing position, they still received the same salary they had received under their old title.

Step V: The birth of S.T.E.P
The last piece of the puzzle in cutting positions at DCSO was the establishment of something they called the Starting To Enjoy your Pension (STEP) program. This program allows employees who are eligible for retirement with a full pension to start working part-time with the agency.

“(In our system) all of your money and benefits once you go into retirement comes from a pension fund,” Weikal said. “It ceases to be the obligation of the Sheriff’s Department.”

So, when an employee signs up for STEP, they are reduced to 19½ hours of work per week but with no reduction in pay rate, allowing them to begin enjoying retirement without feeling completely idle.

“(STEP employees) still have a reason to get up three days a week to go to work and, by and large, really enjoy having all that extra time off, too,” Weikal said.

From the perspective of the agency, positions are reduced — because four people are now filling the role of two — thus saving money, financial burdens are shifted onto the pension fund and veteran employees’ years of knowledge to stay on staff.

“You hate to lose somebody who has 25 years of service, who knows your process and knows the people, to bring in somebody brand new who doesn’t know either and has to be trained all over,” Weikal said.

Through STEP, reverse bidding, and their efficiency study, DCSO has been able to achieve something quite remarkable for these trying times.

“We have spent the past couple of years working on these programs,” Hudson said. “It has come with a lot of hard work, a lot of trial and error, but we think this has worked for us and that it could be beneficial for others as well.”

If you are interested in learning more about Davidson County’s system, you can contact them here.

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