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Remote work and staffing shortages color lawmakers' capital budget discussions

Eli Chen/Delaware Public Media

Staffing shortages impacting nearly every state agency – and the simultaneous shift to remote work for many state employees – are coloring lawmakers’ discussions about the state’s capital spending.

That discussion was most vivid during last week’s capital budget hearing for the Department of Health and Social Services. The agency operates out of 68 buildings statewide, and Secretary Molly Magarik told lawmakers deferred maintenance for those buildings could cost an estimated $32 million.

That total is rising as DHSS surveys damage from a broken sprinkler system at its main New Castle office last Christmas, which left extensive water damage, and forced repairs that revealed lead paint and asbestos.

But with the majority of DHSS staff working from home several days a week, some lawmakers like State Senator Dave Wilson wondered whether the state should consider how frequently state office buildings are used when making decisions to spend millions on repairs.

“When we’re spending this kind of money for maintenance and we’re letting people stay home, at some point, we’ve got to figure out where there’s a compromise," he said.

Other members of the General Assembly’s Bond Bill committee noted building maintenance could improve employee morale, which might contribute to efforts to stem high attrition from agencies like DHSS.

“While we’re trying to promote other projects in other areas, this is our first site of contact for some of our most vulnerable populations," said Senator Nicole Poore. "It also is a way to drive morale for our employees.”

The proposed 2024 capital budget includes just under $5 million for repairs and maintenance at DHSS buildings; it also includes proposed funding for upgrades to other state offices, including the Carvel State Office Building in downtown Wilmington.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.