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More layoffs for Pa. state workers

HARRISBURG - Blaming the tough economy and deep budget cuts, the Rendell administration announced yesterday it would lay off 319 more employees across 10 state agencies, bringing to 769 the total number of government jobs cut over the past year.

HARRISBURG - Blaming the tough economy and deep budget cuts, the Rendell administration announced yesterday it would lay off 319 more employees across 10 state agencies, bringing to 769 the total number of government jobs cut over the past year.

The lion's share of the latest cuts are in environmental protection and state parks.

Administration Secretary Naomi Wyatt said the Department of Environmental Protection will see the greatest reductions, losing 138 positions, or about 5 percent of its workforce, while the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission will lay off 85 workers - more than 25 percent of its staff.

The cuts come out of a state payroll that is still more than 77,000 employees.

"Today's news is grim, but we are grateful that the number isn't bigger," Wyatt said at an afternoon news conference in the Capitol.

The layoffs, effective this Friday, are expected to save the state $17 million over the next year. The reductions were negotiated as part of the budget agreement approved last month after an unprecedented 101-day delay.

In all, 34 jobs in the five-county Philadelphia area were lost, state officials said.

David Fillman, executive director of AFSCME Council 13, a union that represents public employees, lamented that the state was "balancing the budget on the backs of its workers," especially when the legislature had not cut its own staff in the process.

Erik Arneson, spokesman for the Senate Republicans, said his caucus had actually trimmed its own staff by 40 positions over the last five years in response to state budget cuts.

The reductions follow two rounds of layoffs earlier this year, including 250 cuts announced in August. About 50 of those workers found jobs elsewhere in state government, Wyatt said.

Wyatt said the cuts, the result of the state's initial $3.2 billion budget shortfall, could have been worse - up to 1,000 layoffs - under some proposals the legislature considered before the budget impasse was resolved.

She said measures such as eliminating travel budgets, deferring new equipment purchases, and not filling vacancies helped reduce the number of layoffs.

Cuts to the Department of Environmental Protection will not affect oversight of increased natural gas exploration in the so-called Marcellus Shale reserve, the rich vein of gas that underlies most of the state, agency secretary John Hanger said.

He said the 120 salaried staffers who review applications for permits to drill for gas or oil and inspect drilling sites are covered by fees paid by the industry and aren't affected by the cuts.

Hanger said the layoffs, plus unfilled vacancies totaling an additional 120 jobs, would reduce the agency's overall staff complement from 3,011 to 2,760. He said sparing the inspection and enforcement staff was "the highest priority" but said the reductions might lengthen the permit-granting process for certain construction projects.

Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware), who unsuccessfully fought for a tax on natural-gas extraction, said such a tax could have prevented the DEP layoffs.

"DEP will have to endure the largest number of layoffs of any department within the state," Vitali said yesterday in a statement. "This comes at a time when ensuring our environment is protected, and that we are moving forward with important clean and renewable energy initiatives, is more important than ever."

Staff reductions at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the agency taking the greatest proportional loss in its workforce, will mean suspending services at six historic sites, closing the state museum in Harrisburg two days a week, and eliminating all new exhibit spending. The state archives also will close Mondays and Tuesdays.

Educational programs and other services at historic sites, including Graeme Park and Hope Lodge in Montgomery County and Washington Crossing Historic Park in Bucks County, will be discontinued and buildings there "mothballed," Wyatt said.

Kirk Wilson, spokesman for the historical commission, said the agency is hoping local "friends" volunteer groups that support the parks will step up to keep activities going. The agency has nearly completed a deal with the Friends of Brandywine Battlefield Park in Delaware County to help keep that site open.

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, losing nine staff posts, plans to reduce services at state parks by cutting back on educational programs and shortening seasonal hours at pools, beaches, and campgrounds.

'Operating With Duct Tape'

At Brandywine Battlefield State Park, the site of the largest land battle of the Revolutionary War, yesterday's news of state budget cuts was met with dismay.

"We're not on life support; we can't afford that," said Linda Kaat, president of the volunteer group Friends of Brandywine Battlefield. "We're operating with duct tape."

The park, which hosts dozens of school and reenactment groups each year, has already had a near-death experience because of the state's budget woes. It was shuttered Aug. 14 after its staff was terminated, but reopened 10 days later with volunteers, Kaat said.

Kaat said funding from at least one government entity - state, federal, or local - is critical to keeping programs going. She said the state has been paying for utilities and one maintenance employee; the friends' group has covered other costs.

"It's a sad story that such hallowed ground got caught up in politics and budget cuts," said Kaat. "There are so many states that wish they had our history, and we're abandoning it."

She said that she was grateful to officials at Valley Forge National Historical Park, who have supported efforts to keep the Brandywine site open, and that she had suggested a plan to combine the two parks into one comprehensive historic site.

"It's the American Revolution we're protecting," she said. "We're so proud and honored to care for this history; we'll do what it takes."

In Montgomery County, Beth MacCausland, who heads Friends of Graeme Park, a 42-acre Horsham historic site, said she, too, was distressed to hear of the latest cuts but was "guardedly optimistic" that her volunteer group could stave off a total shutdown.

"I can say that we have a very strong 'friends' group," she said, "but I don't know financially what we'll have to do to prevent the building from being mothballed."

Graeme Park features the Keith House, the only surviving residence of a colonial Pennsylvania governor, Sir William Keith. MacCausland said volunteers run the site, paying one part-time clerk to handle correspondence and help with programs; the state has been paying for utilities.

"I would assume we would have to have a meeting with the state," said MacCausland, who said she learned of the latest cuts from a reporter.

State officials said the cuts will also affect two other popular sites - Washington Crossing Historic Park in Bucks County, and Hope Lodge in Fort Washington, a Georgian mansion that features period rooms and gardens. Officials and support groups for those sites could not be reached yesterday for comment on the cuts' likely impact.

- Kathleen Brady SheaEndText