The state has ordered the University of Maine System to reduce its current budget by $2.6 million prompting USM officials to initiate a hiring freeze last week and to fill open positions on a case-by-case basis.
Gov. Angus King’s order gives USM less than nine months to cut over $700,000.
“A downturn in the state economy and the slowdown in state revenues creates an increasingly negative outlook,” said USM President Richard Pattenaude. “It’s clear serious budget problems lie ahead. We didn’t create them, but we have to deal with them.”
USM Human Resources currently lists at least 42 open positions at the University, not including those funded through external resources.
“I’ve put the breaks on everything right now,” said Vice President for Student Development Craig Hutchinson, who oversees nine departments.
Hutchinson said he’s not going forward with any pay increases and won’t fill any open positions unless not doing so “would cause significant disruption in service to students.”
“But if I can get by without filling a position, I’m going to do it,” he said.
And while Pattenaude and other University officials say the hiring freeze is temporary, a top UMS official says the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.
“Right now we’re looking at a 2 percent reduction across the board,” said Interim Chancellor Donald McDowell. “But in Augusta they’re working to try to get more . I have a sense they’re shooting for a figure three or four times that.”
And the University has already been told to reduce its operating budget in fiscal year 2002/2003 by $1.5 million because of increased health care costs.
“I’ve been crying a lot,” McDowell said with a chuckle.
McDowell said he should know what further action the governor might take by mid-November.
“We’re trying to make sure we’re in a position not to negatively affect our employees, but it’s tough,” he said. “Seventy percent of our expenses are people.”
Some areas are already short-staffed causing department heads to cringe at the thought of not being able to fill open positions.
Director of University Libraries Stephen Bloom is currently looking to fill five positions, most of which are in access services.
“Those are the people who are at service desks and allow us to keep the library open,” said Bloom. “I can’t say if we don’t have one of the positions filled we won’t be open. But it will mean we’ll have to put more strain on the rest of the staff.”
Pattenaude said USM will issue a document by the end of the week outlining a longer-term budget reduction plan. While University officials aren’t exactly sure what future cuts may be in store, some are optimistic.
“I would say I’m pretty optimistic that we can accomplish this without a serious reduction in services to student or a reduction in staff,” said Hutchinson.
Pattenaude said it will take some time before the University will know what it’s really up against.
“I’d say by mid-to-late January we’ll make some more concrete and final decisions,” he said. And while he’s not sure what those final decisions will be, he said there has been no discussion of any layoffs.
The effect on University projects, such as the proposed parking garage and conference center, isn’t yet known.
Pattenaude added he’s looking for input and advice from the University community.
Executive Editor Steve Peoples can be contacted at: [email protected]