Officials say new state employees fill needs

2013-06-16T12:15:00Z Officials say new state employees fill needsBy NICK SMITH | Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune

 BISMARCK, N.D. _ Officials of state agencies with high numbers of new staff say the additional help will enable them to address spiking workloads.

During the recently-completed legislative session, lawmakers approved a net increase of 141 1/3 staff members among dozens of state agencies.

Large increases in several departments were offset by decreases in others as well as in the shifting several staff to other departments.

The 141 figure is close to what was proposed in Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s 2013-15 executive budget, which called for 171 new staff. A large majority of the positions are for law enforcement, public health and safety.

The new staff number is an increase from the 129 approved by the Legislature for the 2011-13 biennium, according to Office of Management and Budget data.

In the past five years, the S state has jumped from the ninth-largest oil producing state to the second. A sagging economy in the rest of the country has helped fuel an influx of workers and families.

Sheila Peterson, director of OMB’s Fiscal Management Division, said the state has had large increases in staff before.

“I don’t think this was out of the ordinary given the growth in our economy,” Peterson said. “I think it was conservative, actually. I think the agencies were as conservative as possible.”

Historically, Peterson said, most large increases in state employee numbers have come from programs shifted from the county level to the state level. One example of that was the overhaul of the court system, bringing county court employees under the state, she said. Another example was moving the Child Support Enforcement program to the state.

Peterson said the need for further expansion of state staff in 2015 is anyone’s guess.

“It’s just going to depend … on (the) level of growth,” she said.

North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources spokeswoman Alison Ritter said the department will be hiring 23 new staff: inspectors in oil patch communities and additional help in the Bismarck office.

“Ten of them are for working out in the field,” Ritter said.

Five of the positions were sought immediately after being given emergency status by the Legislature. As of last week, four of those positions have been filled.

The ongoing challenges are finding qualified staff, providing housing and offering competitive wages.

“Part of the problem we’ve had in filling them is in finding affordable housing, just like everyone else,” Ritter.

With the additional staff, efforts to keep up on paperwork and inspections should improve, she said. However, the current staffing additions won’t be the last.

“I’ve heard our director say we’re looking at us going to need the same number of staff requested (again) next session,” Ritter said.

Capt. Lori Malafa, training director for the North Dakota Highway Patrol, said the patrol is still accepting applications for the 15 new troopers approved by lawmakers.

“It’s about a six-month process,” Malafa said of the testing process.

Candidates who make it through the testing process and background check will begin training on Jan. 6, 2014.

Malafa said the majority of the troopers will be stationed in oil patch counties, although the specific locations for each trooper haven’t been determined yet.

“Having the additional 15 officers is going to lead to a noticeable improvement,” Malafa said.

The patrol also finds housing to be a major issue to deal with in attracting new hires, Malafa said.

Another issue is the size of the pool of applicants. When the economy is strong, she said, the patrol has a tough time getting as many applicants. When informed many new hires are going to be stationed out West, the number declines further, she said.

“Even though the number of applicants has gone down we have managed to hire very high-quality candidates,” Malafa said.

Peggy Anderson, communications director for the North Dakota Department of Transportation, said the department is thankful for the 16 new staff that were approved.

“I think this is the most we’ve received in recent years,” Anderson said.

Five new engineers are to be hired to oversee projects around the state. Four new equipment operators will be hired specifically for the Williston area. The others will work in motor vehicle and driver’s licensing in Bismarck, Dickinson and Williston.

With the state’s growth rate, the department’s workload has risen exponentially. Between 2010-12 traffic increased 22 percent statewide and 53 percent in the west. DOT spending also has risen nearly 375 percent from only a few biennia ago, she added.

Another issue, like other departments, is hiring and retaining employees.

“Our employees have the skills that the agricultural and oil industries are seeking,” Anderson said.

One of the programs used to retain staff is an oil patch add-on to employee salaries of $484 per month. Staff can individually apply for a housing allowance to help subsidize rent.

Those programs were enacted during the 2011-13 biennium for the DOT’s Williston, Minot and Dickinson districts.

“The department continues to monitor our needs in the western part of the state to ensure that we can provide a transportation system that safely moves people and goods,” Anderson said.

Reach Nick Smith at 250-8255 or 223-8482 or at

Copyright 2015 Bismarck Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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