M. Norman Oliver M.D., Virginia Health Commissioner

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

The Northam administration has just had an embarrassing case of managerial incompetence exposed.

A series of articles by the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Patrick Wilson (here, here, and here) sets out the story of the Department of Health laying off 14 state employees who monitor drinking water systems across the state, including six field directors with a combined 180 years of experience, due to “budget error.” This office monitors water quality across the state, enforces state and federal drinking water standards, handles inspections and permits, and assists with lab testing.

The sad tale has its beginning in 2019, when the Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water, being advised by agency administrators that it had the funding to do so, provided salary increases to 55 employees in the office and opened a field office in Richmond with four people. It turned out that advice was wrong, with a resulting shortfall projected to be $1.4 million this fiscal year. So, now, almost halfway through fiscal year 2022, the agency, facing a budget shortfall in that budget line item, tells these 14 people they are going to be laid off, effective January 9.

Let’s look at the current situation:

  • The Commonwealth has a $2.9 billion revenue surplus from FY 2021.
  • The Commonwealth is projecting multi-billion-dollar revenue increases over the next biennium.
  • The Governor’s office approved a 2020 study required by the legislature that recommended adding staff to the Office of Drinking Water.
  • The Governor has proposed an additional $3.2 million in the new budget for the first year for activities related to the Office of Drinking Water.

In addition, the Department of Health had a total $1.7 million unspent general fund appropriation at the end of FY 2021, with $121,000 of that in the Office of Drinking Water. Appropriations can be transferred between programs, with authorization from the Department of Planning and Budget (DPB). That is a mechanism that is used often. Large agencies such as the Department of Health have enough flexibility in their budgets to take care of problems like this. When I was at DPB, I often worked with agencies to move appropriations around to fix such problems.

In fact, the Governor’s office announced Saturday that the Governor has reversed the layoffs and directed the Department of Health and DPB to “fix the Office of Drinking Water’s budget shortfall now so that no one will lose their positions — this office and these individuals are too important to do otherwise.”

The Commissioner of Health, Dr. Norman Oliver, did not inform the Secretary of Health and Human Resources of the layoffs nor did he inform the Governor’s office. The Governor’s office learned of the layoffs from the story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Oliver acknowledged that the Office of Drinking Water had been given bad information by the department’s budget office. However, he also tried to blame “flat” revenues from fees and even tried to shift some of the blame to DPB.

The Department of Health did not submit a budget request for the “caboose” budget bill or the budget bill for the upcoming biennium for an appropriation to fix this problem. When asked why the engineers were being laid off, he replied, “And when we make bad decisions, like increasing our expenses beyond our revenues, it’s on us to resolve that issue without going to the governor and saying, ‘Help me out. Give me more money to resolve a bad decision.’ ”

In other words, in order to avoid the embarrassment of having to go to his superiors and admit his agency had made a major mistake, he was willing to lay off 14 employees, at least six of whom were long-time employees, who had done nothing wrong, in the middle of the largest revenue surplus in state history.  Those employees and their families must have had some agonizing moments going into this holiday season. If it had not been for the newspaper getting hold of the story and telling it, he would have gotten away with it.

The Governor should fire Dr. Oliver immediately.

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27 responses to “Embarrassing Managerial Incompetence”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Still not clear what happened and not likely to get more clarity because it does truly sound like one or more people screwed up. And hard to believe it was of a size that long-time employees were going to be laid off – for no good reason other than there was a screw-up and apparently no effort to fix it, just fire career employees.

    I agree, the folks responsible for this need to be held accountable, including Mr. Oliver who apparently bailed on his leadership responsibilities. geeze.

  2. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    Dick, did you mention this key point? When an agency overspends its allotment, the manager is personally on the hook for the shortfall. Personal funds. Really keeps you focused. I remain unconvinced we’ve heard this whole story. Firing 14 people would get plenty of attention all around the square.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      The agency director’s personal responsibility only kicks in at the end of the fiscal year and that applies to the whole budget, not just one line item. But, you are right, that is an incentive for an agency director. I know one budget director who would tell his agency head when the agency head wanted to start up something new, “It is not my name on that letter of financial responsibility.”

      1. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        For four years it wasn’t Mark Earley’s either. 🙂 As Director of Admin I signed the letter for that office every year, trying to protect the boss if anything was screwed up.

        1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          You were a good soldier.

    2. how_it_works Avatar

      Exactly how much do you think anyone is going to get out of some government bureaucrat that is most likely one or two paychecks away from defaulting on their mortgage?

    3. LarrytheG Avatar

      Well, that makes it clear. If the manager has a choice between his own money and firing others to get the budget balanced.

      That actually sounds like a bad policy that incentivizes irresponsible conduct.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        No, it is a good policy. It helps to remind an agency head to be responsible. I have never heard of it kicking in but I have heard of an agency head being fired for spending so much so quickly in the fiscal year that the agency was in such a hole that it had to be bailed out.

        Another issue I meant to mention, but forgot, involves what are called WTA payments. This is a severance payment an employee receives if his position is eliminated. Those laid off employees would have probably been eligible for WTA payments. If those six regional directors had that much time in the job, they would have been eligible for a lot of severance money which would have come out of the agency’s pocket. The ironic factor is that the total WTA payments may have come close to the agency shortfall.

        1. Timothy Watson Avatar
          Timothy Watson

          I can only imagine the amounts for payout of accrued leave too. They may even qualify for sick leave payments if they’ve been state employees for a long time and haven’t converted to the Virginia Sickness and Disability Program (VSDP) (which doesn’t provide sick leave payouts).

        2. LarrytheG Avatar

          re: ” When an agency overspends its allotment, the manager is personally on the hook for the shortfall. Personal funds. ”

          It makes no sense to me. We’re talking millions of dollars here and supposedly someone is responsible for a shortfall with their own funds?

          Maybe I don’t understand, but I cannot imagine that being the standard. Who would want to be a manager, reliant on others for budget info to a certain extent but personally responsible for financial errors?

          1. Stephen Haner Avatar
            Stephen Haner

            As I said, it gets your focus. And it means you are watching spending v. budget the whole 12 months. As Dick said, if you see a train wreck coming there are ways to get your allotment adjusted. But you gotta crawl to DPB hat in hand and ask. 🙂 Most agencies end with cash to carry over.

    4. Eric the half a troll Avatar
      Eric the half a troll

      Yes, I think there may be more to this story. A manager wanting to clean house and using a supposed budget shortfall as an excuse, for example….

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        That’s a bit of a stretch. Now, he may accomplish his objective, but kind of strange way to do it. But, if he too is on the way out, then hell, why not?

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          I don’t know how the state lays off career employees, but when the Feds do it – they often call it a ‘reduction in force’ and it kicks off a process where job classification and seniority get ranked and last in is often first out.

          I don’t think the state can ethically or probably even legally arbitrarily lay off career employees without cause but I don’t know and Dick probably does.

          1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
            Dick Hall-Sizemore

            The only way the state can do it is by abolishing their positions. If an employee’s position is eliminated, state law entitles him to a severance payment, based on five-year average salary and years of service.

          2. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            I always thought the Fed process involved a promotion to a station in Nome.

          3. LarrytheG Avatar

            That’s the Plan B… for special cases..

  3. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    And prove he is a RACIST!

    But seriously…the error was made by higher ups and higher ups should pay the price. And this isn’t my only bone to pick with VDH, which purports to comply with all laws and all policies, but ignores the Patient’s Rights policies at every single hospital and medical system it oversees stating that the patient has the right to accept or refuse treatment…
    Do you know how many norms were broken for a Fauci funded virus that has minimal effect on 99% of the people who get it?
    There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution, but we are throwing all balance away out of manufactured fear…

  4. The Governor should fire Dr. Oliver immediately.


  5. The only “division” of the VDH I have any significant experience with is the Office of Drinking Water (OWD). I consider it to be one of the better-run state agencies/departments I have encountered. They have a history of hiring engineers and managers who actually know something about drinking water.

    The third of the three RTD articles states: “The Virginia Rural Water Association (VRWA) wrote a letter to the state saying the layoffs were “reckless and irresponsible” and would have “lasting effects” on the state’s ability to monitor drinking water systems.”

    The VRWA represents many of the public and private water systems which are regulated by the Office of Drinking Water, and they oppose the layoffs. That should tell people something, and apparently the message was received.

    I am glad the governor took action to make sure the ODW is not “gutted” by incompetent bureaucrats.

  6. Ruckweiler Avatar

    Firing this incompetent and others involved in this “decision” will be one more agenda item for the incoming Governor. You know this is bad when Governor Blackface rescinds the layoffs.

  7. James C. Sherlock Avatar
    James C. Sherlock

    Agreed, Dick.

    But firing Oliver is nearly four years too late. We have been writing here about the manifest incompetence and lack of supervision in the Department of Health since about 2 months after he took office, went on his “listening tour” and retired from sight until COVID. We could review how he led the office during COVID, but suffice it to remember that the governor had to hire a COVID czar because Oliver was an embarrassment on the regular stage appearances.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    Might be interesting as to who Youngkin will appoint to VDH, eh?

  9. Shannon Noel Avatar
    Shannon Noel

    Severance to these long-term employees would extend through most of 2022 – obviously NOT a budget saving measure. This was a calculated plan to eliminate the most valuable staff ODW has.
    ODW Director Dwayne Roadcap and his boss Robert Hicks need to be investigated as well – they suggested the plans to Oliver and feign ignorance. At best their performance would be incompetence, at worse sabotage of an essential division of VDH.

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