By Michael Lipsky and Ed Sivak

Presently, the work environments of our state and local public service workers are being crippled by the fiscal crisis in the states. Legislatures around the country face gaps of $260 billion in the next two fiscal years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In Mississippi, we estimate a shortfall of over $500 million over each of the next two budget cycles in relation to needs.

For the public workforce, this fiscal crisis threatens functions critical to our communities’ sense of well-being, as well as the economic status of our workforce. County governments have laid-off workers, and state employees have been asked to accept unpaid furloughs and increase their contribution to their retirement funds. Critical positions will remain unfilled, and caseloads will increase. Once again state and local workers will be asked to do more with less.

In Mississippi, 226,000 people work in state, county and municipal governments, part of a workforce of 15 million in these sectors around the country.

The enduring value of the state and local public service was recently dramatized in the aftermath of the tornadoes that swept through Mississippi this spring.

Within 12 hours, responders from state and local law enforcement and the Mississippi National Guard came from around the state to assist with storm recovery. Within 48 hours, employees of the Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service had deployed over 200 volunteers to the area creating a “volunteer city” that served as a clearinghouse for state employees and volunteers to provide urgently needed relief ranging from infant formula to disaster counseling.

Another example of the dedication of state workers is of course happening daily on the Gulf Coast. As oil from the broken well endangers our shorelines and threatens the way of life for many Gulf Coast residents, state workers tirelessly strive to mitigate the damage to the region’s economy and environment.

Technicians in the departments of Environmental Quality and Marine Resources are monitoring the Gulf’s waters, air, beaches, and commercial fisheries. Specialists in the Department of Employment Security are connecting people to thousands of jobs related to oil spill recovery. Workers with the Board of Animal Health are coordinating efforts to rehabilitate wildlife. As is the case with any disaster in the state, the dedicated people at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency provide the leadership to pull all these pieces together.

To work in public service means that the final decision about what constitutes a job well-done is made by determining that you have met a public need, and knowing that you have extended yourself on behalf of others. In contrast to private sector counterparts, the bottom line for public service workers is not profitability but the public good.

Police and highway patrol troopers, who represent one out of every 25 state and local workers, are never off duty, and teachers, who represent more than one out of every four state and local public employees, are always asking whether they have extended themselves enough with the time and resources available to them. There is always another client to see at a work-training center, or another call that a social worker could make on behalf of an elder requiring services.

In short, public sector work requires deep commitment to the service ideal.

Our state and local public service workers deserve better. Mississippi must ensure that we not only recognize the admirable work of our public service workers, but also find revenue sources to properly staff and fund these services for the good of Mississippi.
Sivak is the Director of Mississippi Economic Policy Center. Lipsky is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Dēmos. An expanded 30th Anniversary edition of his book, Street Level Bureaucracy, was recently published.
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