After cutting thousands of jobs during the recession, city and county governments in the Sacramento region are slowly starting to hire again.
The region's four county governments and its four largest city governments recently approved budgets that collectively authorize another 280 jobs this fiscal year, according to a Sacramento Bee review of their budgets and interviews with municipal leaders.
That 1.2 percent growth in full-time equivalent positions will barely chip at the 20 percent decline in city and county government jobs seen across the region during the last five years.
But it is an important sign that a job sector that has continued to shrink even as most others recovered may have hit bottom, said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
"It's higher than I would have expected at this point," Michael said. "I would consider that positive."
Local governments contracted at an unprecedented pace during the recession. The cuts about 7,000 lost jobs at cities and counties in the four-county region between 2008 and 2012 dropped municipal staffing back to levels last seen in the late 1990s.
The number of county public safety workers in the region fell about 20 percent from 2008 to 2012. The number of county health and sanitation workers dropped 30 percent. The number of county recreation workers fell 35 percent.
This year should be different.
The new budget numbers are not infallible: Just because a position is authorized in a budget doesn't mean it will be filled. But the figures illustrate the changing fiscal outlook for most local governments.
Property and sales tax revenue is starting to grow as the housing market rebounds and the unemployment rate drops.
For example, the region's largest local government, Sacramento County, just approved a budget predicting a $9 million, or 2.2 percent, rise in general fund tax revenue this year.
Pent-up demand for government work is enormous.
In Sacramento, where taxpayers recently authorized Measure U, a tax increase to bolster public safety, the city will add about 90 authorized positions, mostly in the police and fire departments.
The city has received thousands of applications.
"It's unbelievable," said Geri Hamby, director of the city's Department of Human Resources. "It's overwhelming."
"There's so much demand here because the city of Sacramento gives you a fair salary, good benefits and, unless there is a budget crisis, it's pretty secure."
Besides hiring for new positions, most area cities and counties are also filling vacancies as they come open, several officials said.
Still, no municipal official was declaring victory. Most instead downplayed the significance of the improved budget outlook and said staffing levels wouldn't change much in the coming years.
Job growth, they said, will be tempered by rising employee costs.
Many cities are negotiating with employee labor unions that haven't seen significant raises in years. Now that revenues are rising, leaders will be under pressure to pay more.
And several city leaders noted that employee benefit and health care expenses will likely continue to increase, limiting the potential for new hires.
"If you are talking about returning to pre-'07 levels of staffing, that may never happen at all," said John Spittler, human resources director for the city of Folsom.
His city, unlike most others in the region, plans to shrink its staffing slightly this fiscal year.
Officials are particularly concerned about rising pension costs. The California Public Employees' Retirement System continues to review and revise its investment-return assumptions, hoping to shore up a large unfunded liability. That means higher contribution costs for cities starting in a couple of years.
"We're just getting ourselves out of this," said Leyne Milstein, the city of Sacramento's finance director. "And now PERS is making all of these changes."
Hiring may also be a tough sell to taxpayers made weary by the financial setbacks of recent years.
"I think it is good that they had to cut back in the recession," Bob Blymyer, executive director of the Sacramento County Taxpayers' League, said of local governments in the region. "They just got bloated."
Blymyer said local governments still face too many liabilities for them to confidently expand.
"It scares me a little bit," he said.
Michael, the UOP economist, said he expects to see up to 1 percent growth in the local-government sector over the next few years. Not outstanding, he said, but better for the local job market than deep cuts.
Call The Bee's Phillip Reese, (916) 321-1137. Follow him on Twitter @PhillipHReese.