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Turnover, budget cuts take toll on La Plata County’s Human Services

Positions go unfilled, programs are backlogged and institutional knowledge is lost
Martha Johnson, left, director of La Plata County Human Services, talks in her office with Gina Tyler, senior legal tech, Friday in the county building at the Durango Tech Center. Human Services has experienced fierce turnover and budget cuts in recent years.

High turnover and a dwindling budget are taking a toll on La Plata County’s department tasked with helping the community’s most vulnerable populations.

It’s a problem every La Plata County department is feeling: with property tax revenue falling 50 percent since 2010, mostly as a result of the downturn in the local gas industry, the county has been forced to cut its services and staff.

One cost-cutting measure was offering county employees an incentive to retire early, thereby eliminating the salaries of longtime workers and replacing them with typically entry-level positions and wages.

Between July 2017 and June 2018, six people at Human Services took the incentive, taking 154 years of experience with them, said Martha Johnson, director of the department.

“That was a big loss of experience,” she said. “It was great for our financial goals, but it seemed like that also triggered people to think about leaving.”

In 2018, Human Services saw 23 of its 63 or so staffers leave, a turnover rate of about 30 percent.

“We’re definitely seeing that continue this year, though we’re hoping it’ll stabilize,” she said.

Johnson said it’s rare someone leaves Human Services because they don’t like the job. Instead, a combination of life factors – such as family reasons, a partner finding a job elsewhere or other work opportunities – seem to be the predominate reasons why people leave.

Johnson said a wage analysis to compare salaries with other Colorado counties hasn’t been conducted in years.

But high turnover can be particularly troublesome. It can take three months to a year to train someone to be truly independent on the job, Johnson said. And during that time, other staffers have to pick up the slack or take time out of their own work day to train the new employee.

“People here are driven to do the best they can to meet the needs of families or individuals at risk,” Johnson said. “So it’s stressful for them if that response is delayed.”

Human Services performs a number of tasks aimed at helping the county’s most vulnerable populations, including children who are victims of abuse, adults with physical or cognitive disabilities, and veterans in need of things like food assistance.

Unlike other county departments, the services that Human Services provide are mandated by the state and federal government. As a result, the state covers about 80 percent of the departments $6 million operating budget.

But La Plata County struggles to cover the cost of the remaining 20 percent, which has ripple effects on the department.

For starters, Human Services would ideally have 69 workers, but Johnson said six positions have remained vacant because of budget cuts and another six positions remain vacant because of turnover.

A caseworker position at the day-treatment program at the Big Picture High School has not been rehired, forcing the therapist in that program to take on the additional roles. As a result, the therapist treats fewer children.

As another example, a position in child support remains unfilled, resulting in the department not being able to provide as many individualized services to families to help them become more self-sufficient.

“And that’s always our goal,” Johnson said. “To have these families and people not be involved on the system.”

About 10 percent – or 5,500 – people in La Plata County live in poverty. Johnson said there are more than 6,600 households with Medicaid assistance and about 1,860 households that use the food assistance program.

In 2018, there were more than 1,000 reports of child abuse, of which about 250 met Human Service’s criteria to become ongoing cases. Also last year, Human Services served about 120 adults with cognitive and physical disabilities.

Because the services are either state or federally mandated, the department can’t cut programs, Johnson said. The only alternative in the face of dwindling operating budgets is to cut staff, which creates a backlog on services to people in need and more stress on Human Services workers and ultimately feeds into the cyclical nature of what drives turnover, she said.

La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff said she has received calls from residents frustrated with how long it takes to get applications processed for things like food assistance. And she understands the department is trying to get more work done with fewer people, she said.

“It’s important services to members of our community, and if we’re not able to perform them as quickly as possible, there’s real consequences to families and individuals affected,” she said.

La Plata County has one of the lowest property-tax rates in the state, but residents in recent years have turned down proposals for a tax increase. Westendorff said she doesn’t see a way out of the county’s budget woes, which materializes in Human Services, without a tax increase.

“We as an organization have cut as much as we can cut,” she said. “It’s just not sustainable.”

Calls to the state Department of Human Services were not returned for this story.

“The state is aware we’re struggling financially,” Johnson said. “But they haven’t really offered any ideas we weren’t already aware of.”

Given the circumstances, Johnson said the department has implemented measures to make employees feel valued and participate in a better work environment. Employees are offered things like flexible work scheduling. And the agency is always looking for grant funding.

But the work itself is taxing. Human Services works with people who are consistently in crisis, whether it is emotional, physical or financial.

“It can be hard for people to keep doing this work for a long time,” she said.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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