Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Changes needed in Maine Revenue Service hiring

Editorial, Lewiston Sun Journal, Aug. 25:

This is a folo to a column that appeared Sunday, Aug. 22.

Merit should always be the most important factor when state government looks to hire.

Sadly, that's not always the case.Already having a government job can push some applicants ahead of others with better qualifications.

The Maine Revenue Service is in the midst of filling 20 new jobs, including revenue agents, to beef up enforcement of the state's tax laws. Behind the new hiring is the need to catch enough cheats to raise about $5 million in the first year alone in additional state revenue.

Success is unlikely. First, even well-qualified agents take between two and three years to learn the nuance of tax enforcement. Less-qualified revenue agents will take even longer to get up to speed. It remains to be seen whether the state will realize the promise of the new revenue used to justify the hiring.

As it stands, job candidate scoring in the state's Bureau of Human Resources skews jobs toward people who already work for the government. Such patronage makes it harder for new faces - even highly skilled ones - to get into the Maine Revenue Service.Since only the applicants with the top six scores are passed on for interviews, the higher grades for government workers shut out quality people.

Additionally, Revenue Service employees receive a 10 percent stipend, which boosts their pay above other civil servants on the same pay grade, making the posts attractive to transfers.Several things should happen.An applicant's skills, education and training should carry more weight during the screening process than years of government service, and supervisors in charge of hiring should have access to more than six applications.

The decision to award Revenue Service employees an extra salary stipend should be revisited. Originally, the idea was to help the Revenue Service compete for the talent with the private sector. If most applicants for M.R.S. jobs come from within the government, the program isn't working as designed.

A quiz, just now being created, will be given to test an applicant's basic accounting skills. That's a solid improvement, but we question why the test has been missing until now and why it's being rushed when hiring has already begun.

Investigating taxpayers is a serious business. The people entrusted by the state to do that job should meet the highest qualifications. Current hiring procedures undermine that goal.


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