The number of vacant Luzerne County Children and Youth positions has decreased from 59 last year to a current 26, but attracting caseworkers remains a challenge, agency Director Joanne Van Saun told council during her budget presentation this week.
Twenty of the 26 vacancies are caseworker jobs, Van Saun said.
The agency has struggled with caseworker shortages for years — a problem encountered in many other jurisdictions across the state, according to a recent state Auditor General’s Office report.
Caseworker vacancies have been blamed on low compensation and the high on-the-job stress of investigating alleged child abuse and neglect.
Van Saun has publicly called for an increase in caseworker compensation. Entry-level caseworker I positions start at $29,371 annually in the county, while caseworker II jobs requiring less supervision and training begin at $31,764. The union contract covering caseworkers expires at the end of this year and is in negotiation.
County officials had optimistically predicted in April that caseworker vacancies would be reduced to 10 openings. At one point, there were 40 open caseworker jobs.
Achieving full staffing of 108 caseworkers would reduce caseloads and allow employees to spend more time on each assignment, officials have said.
“You’re still working on getting those vacancies filled in a timely manner?” council Vice Chairman Tim McGinley asked Van Saun in the budget briefing. She said she was.
The remaining six vacancies are for two clerks and a management, supervisor, aide and fiscal position, Van Saun said.
Under the proposed 2018 budget, the county would contribute $6.7 million to Children and Youth, which is $846,286 less than this year’s payment.
When state funding and other outside revenue are factored in, the agency’s total 2018 budget is $40.2 million.
Including the Children and Youth allocation, the county’s proposed 2018 budget earmarks $8.3 million toward the largest human service branches, or a decrease of $563,615 from this year, a review shows.
The other proposed county allocations: human services administration, $1.2 million; Drug and Alcohol, $175,850; Mental Health and Developmental Services, $153,796; and Aging, $32,000.
Adding in outside funding, these five human service departments have combined total budgets of $105 million in 2018, compared to $104.4 million this year, the analysis shows.
The other total proposed budgets: human services administration, $21.2 million; Drug and Alcohol, $5.1 million; Mental Health, $23.86 million; and Aging, $14.7 million.
The county Veteran Affairs Office also falls under the human services division. Its proposed budget is $358,633, or an increase of $812.
Overall, the human service division employs approximately 412.
Lynn Hill, who was hired to oversee the human services division in February, included a new $70,000 program director position in her proposed budget.
Hill told council she based the request on her assessment of the division’s structure and diverse programs.
The program director would review data and services to streamline existing programs and develop new ones, Hill said. Added programming assistance would allow her to focus more on finances, increased community outreach and education.
“So then combined, hopefully we’ll be able to help the community better and improve services that we offer,” Hill said.
Her division also wants to fund four new deputy sheriff positions at $28,200 each — three assigned to Children and Youth and the fourth at other human service departments.
An alleged fire bombing that damaged Children and Youth offices on Pennsylvania Avenue in Wilkes-Barre in March demonstrated the need for additional security, according to Luzerne County Manager C. David Pedri.
Security guards currently stationed at human services will be reassigned to bolster coverage in other areas, Pedri said, predicting that security overtime would be reduced as a result.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.