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Empty seats save jobs

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While job losses mount across the country, Missoula officials have found a way to cut positions without actually handing anybody a pink slip.

The city and county government has basically decided to wait this year to hire replacement workers. When an employee leaves due to attrition or retirement, officials assess whether they can finish the fiscal year without replacing the person. Between the county and the city, at least a dozen vacancies have been intentionally left open after officials figured they could make do with smaller staffs.

Missoula County Chief Administrative Officer Dale Bickell says he’s holding six vacancies, all of which relate to the construction industry.

“We have two vacancies that we’re not going to fill, and I think that’s going to be permanent for FY 2010,” he says. “We’re hoping to be able to hold the line on the rest of them.”

Bruce Bender, the city’s chief administrative officer, says the policy has saved at least three employees from being laid off from the Building Inspection Division. The city has less budgetary control over the division, Bender says, because it must support itself through building fees. If work declines, revenue declines and workers must be let go. The city retained the three employees by transferring them to vacant positions in other departments—two took similar front-office jobs with the Finance Department and the other, a building inspector, was hired to replace signs and paint traffic lines for Parks and Recreation.

“Otherwise,” Bender says, “we would have had to lay people off.”

Another benefit of vacancies comes at budget season. Some departments will be forced to shrink in 2010, Bender says, and an open position is easier to cut than a full-time worker.

“The Police Department is a prime example of that,” Bender says. He believes some current vacancies will become permanent cuts in next year’s budget.

“We’ve made it one of our priorities is to try to retain positions,” says Bender. “And we’re hopeful that going into next year’s budget, we’ll be able to cut other costs rather than eliminating people.”

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