Efforts get underway to find savings in state government
Hartford - For years, it was common knowledge among some Connecticut state employees that they were administering social service programs that could be paid for with federal money rather than precious state funds.
But union leaders contend the higher-ups didn't want to hear about it.
"The line workers had been saying it for years," said Patrice Peterson, president of the CSEA/SEIU and a Connecticut Department of Developmental Services employee. "But they hadn't been allowed to say it with each other and to the administration that would actually support doing something about it."
Communication now between labor and management is changing, albeit slowly, Peterson said.
Since unionized workers in 2011 ratified an agreement reached with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, labor and management have been encouraged to share ideas on saving money in state government. The agreement promised $180 million in savings ideas to balance last year's fiscal budget.
Since then, Peterson said, committees made up of labor and management have been reviewing ideas for 10 state agencies and their work is moving toward becoming a permanent avenue for streamlining government operations. Eventually, they would like the initiative to reach all state operations.
"We believe that this is the way we should be doing business," Peterson said.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield, who's announced plans to seek the Republican nomination for governor next year, said it makes sense to consider ideas from what he and fellow Republicans call "the employee suggestion box." But he and other GOP lawmakers doubt the $180 million in savings proposals ever materialized as promised in the Democratic governor's agreement with union workers.
"I've never been provided any evidence or seen any evidence that they got $180 million from the process," McKinney said. "It was a gimmick in the budget, and it remains a gimmick in the budget."
McKinney said he expects the overall $1.6 billion labor-savings agreement reached with the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition will be an issue in the governor's race. Malloy has not said whether he plans to seek a second term.
State officials couldn't provide an exact accounting of the $180 million in savings. But Karen Buffkin, deputy secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, says the goal was met.
"It was certainly put in the budget as a bottom-line lapse that we were required to meet," she said, referring to the savings built into fiscal years 2012 and 2013. "We did achieve those savings."
As evidence that state government is becoming more efficient, Buffkin points to a September report from the state comptroller that shows a 3.8 percent drop in payroll spending from the same time a year ago.
She also produced a list of savings initiatives - some realized, some not - in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Associated Press. The list included:
• $1.52 million in annual energy efficiency savings;
• More than $3.3 million from renegotiating vendor contracts;
• More than $2.1 million in savings from reducing the number of telephone systems and numbers in state government;
• About $21 million in savings over two years by maximizing federal reimbursement for programs, such as services for people with autism and home care for the elderly.
Buffkin said the state Department of Labor saved $50,000 in fiscal year 2012 by moving some staff from leased space to state-owned properties - a suggestion made by a state employee.
Meanwhile, employees in information technology are working on a list of savings initiatives. Those include moving to an Internet-based phone system for an expected savings of about $11 million and using fraud detection and prevention software at the Department of Revenue Services for a possible savings of $8.5 million annually.
"Yes, there was an immediate $180 million that we were required to achieve as a result of the SEBAC agreement, but we look at this as a long-term (project)," Buffkin said. "This is about changing the culture of how the state does business and how our employees work together to find efficiencies and savings."
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