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Amid layoffs, Pinellas County seeks people to work for free

Dan Postman, a volunteer tour guide at Heritage Village Museum, chats with visitors Heather Curry and her 6-year-old daughter, Alexandria, about Pinellas County history.

LUIS PEREZ | Times

Dan Postman, a volunteer tour guide at Heritage Village Museum, chats with visitors Heather Curry and her 6-year-old daughter, Alexandria, about Pinellas County history.

LARGO

Dan Postman of Seminole, a guide at the Heritage Village Museum, is an ideal worker. He's great with people, he's a quick learner and he's enthusiastic.

"He's got a lot of information in his head," said Heather Curry of Lakeland, who recently visited the county museum with her daughter, Alexandria, 6. "Otherwise, I wouldn't know what I was looking at."

Most importantly: Postman, 77, works for free.

In a time of budget cuts and hiring freezes, the county is stepping up efforts to add volunteers to its ranks.

From clerical workers who answer phones to tour guides and workshop leaders at parks and preserves, volunteers have been around for years. But at a time when 211 employees are being laid off to meet an $80 million budget deficit over the next two years, the county is preparing to get more aggressive in seeking out people who will work for free.

In the parks and recreation departments, where volunteers have been filling holes for years, the county is considering rearranging staff to create two coordinators to oversee recruitment of volunteers at 19 parks and preserves, county Commissioner Karen Seel told a group of park advocates last month.

"We have asked the county administrator to dramatically expand our use of volunteers in every capacity that we can," said Seel. The two jobs will be discussed at a budget meeting Tuesday.

Last month, 23 people were laid off from the Culture, Education and Leisure Department, which includes parks. The county is considering a $5 per car entrance fee at Fort De Soto Park and a $3 surcharge at other county parks.

Across the county, there are about 3,700 volunteers, according to county human resources manager Laura Berkowitz. They contribute about $2 million a year in services, she said.

Most work three-hour shifts one to three days a week. Many first go to the county's human resources office, where they are placed according to interest and skill. Others go directly to parks or agencies.

The human resources department's own volunteer organizing is bare-bones but effective, Berkowitz said.

"We have orientations … Most of those are conducted by a longtime volunteer," Berkowitz said. "We have a volunteer newsletter which is written by another volunteer. They are some of our absolute best recruiters because they are passionate about what they do."

Most parks and preserves have no volunteer coordinator. But even those that do say they would benefit from a voice on the county level. Some say a countywide volunteer coordinator could help with morale.

"It's very important because they are doing things for you and they are not getting paid," said Phyllis Kolianos, the manager of Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center, who helps oversee 150 volunteers there and at Brooker Creek Preserve. "They want to feel like they're wanted."

Heritage Village, the 21-acre living history museum run by the county, relies heavily on its revolving staff of about 500 volunteers, said Paige Noel, an educator there who added coordinating volunteers to her duties. Some Heritage volunteers are former part-time employees who were laid off, she said.

"We have gone from a staff of 20 to a staff of three in the last three years," Noel said.

Noel encourages everyone to be productive. A receptionist, for instance, is encouraged to keep things tidy. A grounds worker is asked to keep an eye on visitors.

There used to be a master craftsman at Heritage Village who repaired the many historic structures. That person was let go during an earlier budget reduction. So a trained volunteer will soon fix damaged window shutters on the second floor of the 122-year-old Wesley Lowe House.

Another unpaid worker is being sought to fill the role of curator for the Pinellas County Historical Society's vast collection of documents at Heritage Village. President Fran Johnson said the county's hiring freeze has left that position vacant since the last curator recently left for another job.

"We have over 9,000 pictures alone that belong to the archives," said Johnson. "We have researchers coming in daily and we really have to depend on our volunteers. The volunteer we have to depend the most on is 86 years old."

Heritage Village is also relying on its junior docent program, in which children 12 to 17 years old contribute hours in exchange for class or scholarship credit.

Berkowitz said that larger workforce trends have made volunteering attractive to career-minded people. Some are too old to be unpaid interns, but find they can learn on the job as a way to break into a new career.

"We are looking at volunteers, not to replace these people who are laid off, but for whatever they can do to enhance the service delivery to our citizens," Berkowitz said. "We see a great future for volunteers in our organization long term."

Reach Luis Perez at (727) 892-2271 or lperez@sptimes.com.

>> Fast Facts

Interested in volunteering?

Call the county's human resources department at (727) 464-3945. For volunteer opportunities on the web: pinellascounty.org/volserv/opportunities.htm

Amid layoffs, Pinellas County seeks people to work for free 07/06/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 6, 2010 3:05pm]
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