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Nevada worker soured by state efficiency award

CARSON CITY — A program of cash awards for state employees who come up with ways to save taxpayer money has turned out to be an ordeal rather than a positive experience for Department of Health and Human Services analyst Theron Huntamer.

In comments that appeared to leave state lawmakers at a loss for words, Huntamer said in an appearance before the Interim Finance Committee last week that he is seeking whistle-blower status to avoid retaliation after presenting his money-saving idea to a state panel.

Citing backlash from fellow workers, he said he would not recommend any state employee seek a similar award through the efficiency program.

Huntamer, a health resource analyst with the Division of Public and Behavioral Health, said his money-saving idea was to have counties send vital records information in a digital format rather than send paper copies for digital data entry by state employees.

His proposal, which already has saved the state $266,000 and will save much more in the years to come, resulted in Huntamer being recommended for a $25,000 cash award.

Verification of the savings came from Marta Jensen, deputy administrator of the division, who provided her analysis to lawmakers.

The committee unanimously approved the award to Huntamer in two $12,500 installments.

The “Good Government, Great Employees Award” program was created in 1967 to reward people for money-saving ideas and to recognize efforts and contributions to increase the efficiency and productivity of Nevada. It was revised by lawmakers in 2011.

Huntamer said that while his idea was publicly supported by his fellow employees, comments made to him in the hallways of the Technology Way office in Carson City were a different matter.

He said that were it not for a grievance he filed against an agency employee, he would not be in front of the committee to receive his award approved by the state Merit Board Award.

“Had my experience to this point been a positive one, as you and the others in both houses unanimously intended, then this would truly be a wonderful occasion,” he said in a prepared statement to the committee. “Unfortunately this has not been my experience.”

Huntamer, who works for the HIV/AIDS surveillance program, said he pursued his idea both to save the state and taxpayers money and to receive a financial award that would help him pay off his college debt.

“Publicly all parties involved have been supportive,” he said. “However, one-on-one in the halls and through the grapevine, I have been subject to the contrary statements and actions. I truly believe the only reason I am here is because I have filed a grievance.

“Had I known then what I know now, I never would have put myself into a position of compromising my future with the state of Nevada,” Huntamer said.

Huntamer said he would not recommend any employee take advantage of the program. He offered to provide documentation of his concerns should lawmakers want to conduct an investigation.

In a telephone interview, Huntamer said the backlash he has experienced appears to be due to the fact that his money-saving idea pointed out that the agency’s Office of Vital Statistics was not fulfilling its duties under state law because the paperwork being sent in was not being entered into the state database as required.

But Huntamer also has issues with the Merit Award Board, noting that some members of the panel had indicated in meetings that he was not deserving of the award.

State Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, chairman of the committee, said the concerns raised by Huntamer would be reviewed.

Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, thanked Huntamer for his candor in his comments to the committee.

Huntamer said he decided to speak publicly about his experience because the merit program is a good idea that could benefit the state if it was administered properly.

But the program sets employees up for failure, he said.

“I’ve been trying to get someone to listen to me for six months now,” he said. “I figured the only way I could be heard is if I won the merit award.”

In a statement from agency spokeswoman Mary Woods, Huntamer was congratulated for his successful submission to the Merit Award Board.

“We appreciate his initiative to bring forward an idea that creates better outcomes,” she said. “The new process allows us to be more efficient and responsive to our customers and better stewards of our resources. We applaud the Legislature for establishing a mechanism to encourage and reward employees to find better ways of doing business.

“We regret Mr. Huntamer’s disappointment in the submission review process which required many levels of consideration. Because the focus of the merit board is on process improvement, we are very open as a department to improve the application review process.”

Woods also encouraged other employees to offer their ideas “and continue to provide their perspective and valuable insight to help identify inefficiencies and provide solutions for the benefit of our customers, clients, co-workers and ultimately themselves.”

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900. Find him on Twitter: @seanw801.

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