The following article by Karen Coffee was originally published in IPMA-HR’s Public Personnel Management, Volume 25, No.2, Summer 1996. The full text of the article is provided below as reference to our series on Candidate Reduction Strategies.
As the fiscal crisis in public agencies deepens, many jurisdictions are considering the establishment of some type of applicant fee program. This paper summarizes the types of fee programs which currently exist nationwide, and reviews issues which agencies must consider before embarking on an applicant fee program.
With apologies to William Shakespeare, to fee or not to fee may well become one of the major questions of the mid 1990’s. Everyone is well aware of the sad state of the United States economy. Governmental jurisdictions in particular have suffered from extensive fiscal problems. In fiscal year 1991/92, the State of Massachusetts was in dire straits financially. Butte County, a rural county in northern California, contemplated bankruptcy. The situation had not improved in fiscal year 1992/93. The State of California was approximately $9 billion in debt, Los Angeles Unified School District was $580 million in debt. Many others experienced similar budgetary shortfalls well into the millions.
Fiscal year 1993/94 was not particularly better for California agencies. Los Angeles County’s budget was short by $1.6 billion in revenue, an amount equal to 8,800 jobs. The City of Sacramento, a much smaller governmental agency, needed to reduce their work force by 513 positions. San Joaquin County, California, was $17 million short of a balanced budget. In other parts of the country, governmental jurisdictions reported similar problems.
The fiscal crisis continued through 1994/95 and even into 1995/96. Once again. the City of Sacramento will experience a budgetary shortfall. They are $10 million short of a balanced budget and are potentially looking at a staff reduction of 52 positions. Numerous other agencies are reporting similar fiscal problems.
Efforts to balance budgets
Public agencies’ annual budgetary process is a basic equation with revenues on one side and expenses on the other. The two must be equal to have a balanced budget. If a budget is out of balance, there are two possible solutions: cut expenses or raise revenues (or some combination of both).
Governments have tried a number of options for cutting expenses including reducing personnel or services, or eliminating some functions altogether. For example, some governmental agencies are no longer open on Fridays. To raise revenues, agencies have increased fees for existing services such as gas, electric, garbage collection, plan checking and permit fees. Some jurisdictions are instituting new fees for services. A few fire departments are charging to put out fires. And ghoulish as this may sound, some coroners are charging for the removal of bodies. One county (Calaveras, California) is charging a $20 per month per child fee for children to ride the school bus. Other proposals abound, including a fee to raft the American River and a fee to cross the United States border.
Personnel departments have also explored methods to cut costs and/or raise additional revenues. Many have eliminated staff and services. At the California State Personnel Board, the former information counter where staff assisted the public with questions regarding state employment has been replaced with a self-help center where only print information is available.
Decisions regarding the use of selection strategies used to be made primarily on technical merits. Other considerations have now become important. Attempts are being made to utilize less costly selection techniques; unfortunately, this is often done at the expense of validity and reliability. For example, an assessment center might be the best choice of a selection device from a technical perspective but fiscal constraints can result in the use of a less valid, but less costly strategy such as a supplemental application and/or interview. Another option is to try to reduce the size of the candidate pool for exams. Still other strategies include grouping classifications together for testing purposes, testing less frequently and reducing the number of communications (notices) to applicants. Finally, some agencies are renewing their interest in testing cooperatively with neighboring jurisdictions, thus sharing the costs of recruitment and/or the examination process.
The State of California is currently experimenting with some of these techniques. Many costly oral examinations are being replaced with less costly scannable supplemental applications. Examinations for large servicewide classifications are not being given nearly as frequently as in past years, (legislation now enables departments to extend the life of eligible lists to six years). Despite the public relations problem both for promotional and open examinations, many departments are utilizing this option.
The flip side of the equation is to raise revenues. Again, several available options are being utilized by personnel departments. Some are charging departments for the costs of administering part or all of a recruitment and examination specific to that department. On a more modest basis, some human resources departments are charging line departments for exceptionally costly features (eg. wide scale recruitment) or for costly examination components (eg. an assessment center). Richmond, Virginia, for example, indicates that they charge departments if they have to print an excessive number of application forms for any given examination.
Another option is to create reimbursable cost centers within the personnel department. This strategy has worked successfully at the California State Personnel Board. The Test Validation and Construction, Training and Examination Services units all operate on an entrepreneurial basis within state government. It should be noted, however, that these options raise revenue for the personnel department, but they do not change the fiscal picture for the organization as a whole.
One option which does impact the organizational picture as a whole is providing services to other agencies on a contractual basis. The Los Angeles Unified School District has successfully employed this strategy. They have developed an extensive bilingual testing program for their own use. Smaller agencies which do not have the fiscal or staff resources to develop their own programs find it cost effective to contract with the school district on those infrequent occasions when this service is needed. Likewise, the school district profits from the additional revenue generated from this arrangement.
A final option which is being implemented in a number of jurisdictions and considered by many more is to pass on some or all of the costs of an examination process in some form of an applicant fee. This idea has great merit and is the focus of the remainder of this paper.
Applicant fees as a source of revenue
Applicant fees appear to be an attractive option considering some of the pressing monetary problems faced by today’s selection staff. However, prior to implementing a fee struclure, several issues and potential problems should be carefully considered in light of agency constraints and the prevailing political and economic climate.
In many instances, it is easy to justify the need for an applicant fee. First and foremost, agencies have less available money in their budgets for recruitment and examination activities. The number of applicants for the reduced number of job openings has skyrocketed in recent years. Numerous applicants are processed through examinations who do not realistically have an opportunity to be considered for employment. This results in great expense to agencies and frustration on the part of applicants.
Second, many examinations have multiple parts requiring several independent communications with applicants. Direct costs such as postage are therefore high.
Thirdly, despite the job market, many agencies are reporting very high “no-show” rates for examinations. This results in needless expense for unnecessary and unused test booklets (regardless of whether the agency prints their own or obtains them from a test publisher), unnecessary proctors and test facilities and idle oral boards.
Finally, with the advent of the Americans with Disabilities Act, numerous court challenges, and the growing emphasis on filling limited vacancies with maximally productive employees, public agencies find that there is an increasing need for more sophistication and accuracy in selection procedures. And, of course, sophistication costs money.
In 1992, this author was asked to review a proposal to charge applicants a fee to participate in examinations, a practice not commonly utilized in California. As part of this review, I elected to research the fee practices of public agencies across the country. I began by contacting the one agency I knew which charged a fee, the State of New York. I also contacted the International Personnel Management Association to access information contained in their bi-annual member agency survey. From there, I simply began following each lead I developed until I was satisfied that I had located most, if not all of the public agencies who were charging a fee at the time this project was undertaken.
By the conclusion of the project, I had contacted more than fifty agencies. Thirty of these were currently charging some sort of a fee and several others had developed proposals to do likewise. A number of interesting points surfaced during this research. First and foremost, there is nothing new about the concept of fees. There are many precedences. Fees to obtain occupational licenses have been common for many years. Applicants expect to pay fees to obtain licenses enabling them to work as a real estate agent, cosmetologist, chiropractor, doctor of medicine, building contractor, court interpreter, and many other occupations. In many cases, these fees are quite high. As an example, the fee to become licensed as a Probate Referee in the State of California is $60.
Other fees are also common. Applicants expect to pay a fee to take the Graduate Record Exam or the Law School Aptitude Test. Private industry also provides some examples of long standing fees. Applicants for positions with American Airlines are required to submit a fee of $10 simply to obtain an application form. America West charges a $10 fee to obtain an interview, $50 for a physical and drug test and $45 for a government required background check.
In the public sector as well, the concept of fees is not new. There are several notable historical examples of applicant fees.
For many years, the City of Chicago charged a fee to take an examination; initially it was $3 but was later raised to $5. In 1981 an evaluation of this process revealed that the revenue being generated was only one tenth of one percent of their budget. This money did not offset personnel examining costs per se; rather it went into the general fund. Additionally, the general impression at that time was that this practice had a negative impact on the recruitment of disadvantaged group members. Consequently, the fee was abolished. (It is interesting to note that upon abolishing the fee, they did not experience a dramatic increase in the number of applicants, nor did the proportion of disadvantaged group applicants increase significantly.)
In the past, the City of Los Angeles also had an application fee. Prior to 1965, the City had a charter provision requiring that all candidates pay a fee of $1 to participate in civil service examinations. Their process required candidates to file applications in person. The application was reviewed and if accepted by the receptionist, the applicant then paid the fee to a cashier and obtained a receipt which would admit him/her to the examination. It was the general impression of the City staff, however, that this process was not generating much revenue. In fact, it did not generate sufficient funds to cover the cost of the cashier that was collecting the money. Like the City of Chicago, they feared that this practice might disadvantage the unemployed at a time when they were actively seeking to increase the number of applicants for jobs. In 1965, a ballot measure was passed which eliminated the fee.
A review of present day applicant fees
Today, a wide variety of agencies are charging different types of applicant fees. These range from very modest fees to comprehensive efforts to recoup the cost of testing programs. On the modest end of the spectrum, the City of Sacramento and the City of Santa Rosa (both in California) have a type of application fee in that they will not mail an application to anyone who does not provide a self-addressed stamped envelope. In addition, the City of Santa Rosa is contemplating charging applicants a fee to attend an orientation workshop for prospective fire fighters. Many cities utilize study booklets or guides for examinations, particularly for entry level police and fire tests. Some agencies such as Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and Clark County, Nevada charge a fee to obtain this guide.
The City of Miami, Florida charges a fee to all applicants who have a positive result on their drug test. (In point of fact, everyone is charged a fee for the drug test; those who test positive do not receive a refund.)
Figure One: Types of Applicant Fees Currently Being Assessed by Public Agencies
- Submit a self-addressed stamped envelope to receive an application
- Fee to obtain or file an application
- Fee to obtain a study booklet (generic or occupation specific)
- Fee to attend a workshop/orientation session to get information about the job testing process
- Fee for fingerprint processing, background checks, drug testing
- Fee to test out-of-area applicants
- Fee to obtain a typing or other skills certificate
- Fee for no shows at the test site (fee refunded to those who take test)
- Fee to cover cost of test rental, facility rental or outside agency administration of test
- Fee to cover entire cost of testing and processing of applicant
Los Angeles Unified School District has implemented several types of fees. In addition to their local civil service rules, the district must comply with the provisions of the California Education Code. The code includes provisions for collecting a $50 fee from individuals who have a conditional job offer to have their fingerprints evaluated by the Department of Justice. There is also a $25 fee for a full background check for applicants for positions working with children. If the applicant is subsequently hired, this fee is then deducted from the employee’s first three paychecks. Finally, all individuals who work in a classroom have to successfully pass a high school proficiency test in addition to the regular civil service exam. The code allows school districts to charge up to $7 for this proficiency examination.
By far, the most common type of fee is a modest per candidate charge, primarily aimed at recovering the cost of test rental and less frequently to cover the cost of facility rental or test administration by an outside agency. Most of the agencies listed in Figure Two are charging fees of this type.
And finally, at the grand end of the continuum, a few agencies are attempting to recover a large portion (if not all) of the per candidate costs of administering a selection process. Included in this group are a few local agencies who recoup the fee they are required to pay to their state for test development/administration. In some cases, the local agency levies an additional fee to cover local costs.
Implementing an applicant fee in your agency
Prior to implementing an applicant fee program, agencies should carefully consider a number of critical issues. Consideration of these issues will largely determine the type and amount of fee to be charged, and some procedural aspects of administering the process as well.
1. Do you have the legal authority to charge a fee?
Some agencies including the State of California and the City of Tacoma, Washington either have rules or charter provisions which specifically prohibit the charging of an applicant fee. Others such as the City of Bellingham, Washington have permissive rules that allow discretion in deciding whether to charge a fee or not. A few such as Jackson, Ohio have permissive rules which they have chosen to interpret as allowing for the charging of a fee. Jackson’s rule allows the Personnel Director to implement any activity which he or she feels is necessary to run an effective civil service system. Still others have very specific rules that indicate the precise amount and manner in which a fee will be assessed.
The majority of agency’s rules are silent on the subject of applicant fees. This silence can be interpreted two distinct ways. Some believe that if the rules do not specifically allow a practice, then it is not permitted. Others believe that if the rules do not specifically prohibit a procedure, then it is permissible. Several agencies whose rules are silent have opted to take the issue to their Personnel Commission or City Council and obtain their approval to charge a fee.
Clearly, this is an important issue. It is highly recommended that agencies seek the advice of their legal counsel and determine the status of their authority to charge a fee before proceeding.
2. What is the purpose of charging a fee?
Applicant fees can serve many purposes. Is the goal to reduce agency incurred direct costs? Perhaps the aim is to eliminate all but the seriously committed candidates. Or the aim could be to recoup the out-of-pocket costs of examining such as study booklets, test rental, etc. A final objective could be to recover a portion of the overall costs of exam administration.
Of the thirty jurisdictions charging fees, seventeen indicated that their objective was to cover their hard costs (out of pocket expenses). Another five agencies indicated that their purpose was to cover some or all of the internal costs associated with conducting an exam.
3. What types of exams will be subject to fees?
A large number of agencies restrict fees to police and fire examinations (by far the most comprehensive and consequently expensive examinations). Many further restrict the fees to open, entry level examinations (where they are not a subject of bargaining). A few others, including the State of New Jersey charge a fee for all open and promotional examinations.
4. What will happen to the money that is collected?
Will it be turned over to the State or other agency responsible for administering the test? Will it be given to either the Personnel Department or to the Police and Fire Commission? (This is usually the case when the purpose is to defray direct costs such as test rental.) Will the money become part of the general fund or will it be distributed to both personnel and the general fund? Assuming that the purpose is not to defray direct costs, the idea of generating money to supplement the personnel department budget is attractive. However, there are some distinct advantages to placing the money into the general fund. First, it eliminates accusations of being self-serving; i.e., administering examinations simply for the purpose of generating revenue for the department. Secondly, as Paul Kaiser, State of New York noted, it is very advantageous in today’s political climate to be perceived as a revenue generating agency.
5. What type of fee will be charged?
Will it simply be a self-addressed stamped envelope to receive an application? Will the fee be required to file an application or obtain a study booklet? Perhaps the fee will cover the cost of presenting an orientation workshop. Or, will the fee cover the costs of test or facility rental or outside agency administration? Another option is a fee for “no-shows” at the test site (the previously collected test fee is refunded to each candidate who appears at the written test site). Perhaps it is desirable to charge a fee to obtain a skills certificate such as typing or shorthand proficiency. A final option is to structure the fee to cover the entire cost of processing and testing applicants. Clearly, there are many possible alternatives. Each jurisdiction should consider the choices carefully before making a decision.
6. How much should the fee be?
The answer to this question is tied directly to the purpose and type of fee to be charged. The dollar amounts charged vary considerably. On the small end of the scale, one agency is charging a sliding scale fee between $.50 and $3. Many jurisdictions are charging $5. Most are charging $10 to $20. Two were charging $25; one was charging $32 and one agency was charging based on a sliding scale between $25 to $50.
7. When is the fee to be paid?
When the fee is to be paid will in large part determine whether refunds will be granted. If the fee is to cover the cost of obtaining an application and is paid at the time the candidate is provided with the form (or if they pay at an orientation session where the form is distributed), then in all likelihood no refunds will be possible unless the sponsoring agency subsequently cancels the exam.
Most agencies have established an “examination” fee. The fee is submitted by the final filing date along with the application form. Some require that the fee be submitted as part of a “file in person” process. Other options are to require that the fee be paid before the first formal selection device, that it be paid at the first formal selection device, or to require that it be paid before an individual is certified to a list.
8. Under what circumstances (if any) will refunds be made?
Most agencies contacted for this project do not provide any refunds unless the agency itself cancels the test. Some (approximately eight) agencies provide a refund if the individual is determined not to meet the minimum qualifications, A few avoid this problem by utilizing a file in person process and reviewing the application for minimum qualifications as part of the submission process. One employer indicated that they only give refunds in the case of unexpected military duty or a death in the family. Most jurisdictions refund the money if it is received after the final filing date; however, several do not grant a retired even in these cases. One agency is exceptionally customer oriented; they refund an applicant’s money if he/she does not appear for the written test.
9. How is the fee to be paid?
The usual forms of fee payment include: personal checks, money orders, cash, and cashier’s checks. Various agencies have differing policies; however, they seem somewhat related to the amount of money being collected and the general nature of the clientele. For example, in the small, semi-rural cities in Washington state, fees are accepted in any form. They indicate that collection problems for bad checks have not been a problem to date. Several agencies do not accept personal checks due to the problems caused if they do bounce. Cook County (Illinois) indicates that they accept cash only (they are also the agency that only charges a $3 fee). The State of Massachusetts and the City of New York only accept money orders or cashier’s checks. New York City has a provision in their labor agreement that their employees do not accept any cash due to safety concerns.
10. Will the presence of a fee have a negative impact on an agency’s affirmative action efforts?
Almost all respondents indicated that they did not believe that the presence of a fee negatively impacts their affirmative action efforts. One indicated that it has a very slight negative impact. The New York State Unified Court System conducted a comparative study of representation before and after the implementation of their fee. They found that the fee was actually beneficial to their efforts. The overall number of applicants was significantly reduced, but the representation figures remained the same, or improved.
11. Will there be a process to waive the fee for those persons who are unable to pay? Is the waiver process publicized? Are individuals required to provide proof of their inability to pay?
The answer to these questions are directly related to the previous issue. Approximately one third of the respondents indicated that they did not have a waiver process, largely because the issue has never come up. However, of this group, most indicated that they would consider it when the need arises. Seventeen agencies indicated that they have some type of waiver process. Of these, eleven do not require any verification and six indicated that the information must be verified and/or notarized. All indicated; however, that the percentage of people requesting a waiver is very low (approximately 5%).
12. What will be the public reaction to the implementation of a fee?
Agencies who are contemplating the establishment of a fee are often fearful of the public’s reaction. Surprisingly, those who have implemented fees indicate that they have had very few complaints. The reaction of employee groups must also be considered if fees will apply to promotional exams. In a few cases, employee associations have negotiated for the employer to pay their fees for promotional exams.
13. Does the existence of a fee affect the “no show” rate at examinations?
“No-show” rates for agencies with fees varied widely. One agency indicated that they lose only one out of every one hundred twenty applicants while others reported “no show” rates as high as 10%, 20%, or even 30%. The State of California, which does not charge any type of fee frequently experiences “no show” rates of 20% or 30%, depending on the type of examination and classification.
Thus, it is difficult to draw any meaningful conclusion on this issue.
Clearly, however, there is a reduction in the overall numbers of applicants who participate in an examination process. Only those who have a reasonable amount of motivation for the job are inclined to pay a fee.
14. How much money is generated from a fee process?
The amount of money generated depends, of course, upon the size of the fee and the number and size of exams where the fee is applicable. Some small agencies reported generating $800 to $3,000. Chemung County reports generating $15,000 to $20,000. The State of Oklahoma projects revenues of approximately $469,000. The State of New York generates $350,000 from their local program and an additional $650,000 from their state examining program. New York City generates several million dollars in revenue from their fees. (They generated $700,000 alone from their Transit Police Officer exam.)
15. How long have jurisdictions been collecting fees?
The answers to this question were evenly distributed from zero to 10 years. The notable exception was Cook County which indicated that they have been charging fees since 1897.
Examples of current applicant fee programs
Let us now turn our attention to some of the fee programs that have been implemented by various jurisdictions. There is considerable variety in types of programs and many include interesting features.
Examination fees are a common feature for some of the smaller, semi-rural cities in the State of Washington. Contact was made with the cities of Renton, Bellingham, Puyallup, Pasco, Lynwood, Montesano, and Issaquah as well as Pierce County. In addition, they noted that the cities of Fife, Olympia, Auburn, Tukwilla, Kent, Redmond, and Yakima also charge fees. Currently, all of the contacted agencies charge a fee of either $10 or $15, except Pierce County which charges $5. Their objective is to cover the cost of the rental of test booklets. Six of the agencies collect fees only for police and fire tests, two of them collect fees for any classification where they rent test material, and one charges a fee for all entry-level classes. Most have been charging fees for the past five to ten years. Because of the purpose of the fee, the revenue remains within the personnel department and is used to offset out of pocket test rental fees. The money can be paid in any form and is due by the final file date. To date, they have not had any serious problems with bad checks. Payment procedures are fairly casual; competitors may bring the fee to the test site if they have not submitted it with their application. In the event that a check is not good, the competitor cannot proceed in the exam process until the payment is current. One city indicated that they had never had a check bounce, but if they did, the person would be removed from the current exam and prohibited for taking any future exam.
All except one of the Washington State agencies had a waiver process. Of the eight who have a process, seven do not verify the information and the other requires a notarized statement. The waiver process varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Generally if an applicant indicates that they are unable to afford the fee, then it is waived. Some allowed waivers for those who are currently unemployed and one makes decisions regarding fee waivers based on a scale of income per number of individuals in the household.
In terms of refunds, policies varied. Three agencies give no refunds for any reason; four give refunds for failure to meet the minimum qualifications. Most refunded the fee if the application is received after the final filing date, except Pierce County who tests regularly and simply puts the application into the next testing cycle.
None of these agencies believe that the presence of a fee structure has been detrimental to their affirmative action efforts. It should be noted, however, that these are all small, non-major metropolitan agencies without large minority populations.
Most of these agencies are experiencing the same no show rate with and without fees. Their rates are constant at about 15% to 20%.
Table 2: Public Agencies Charging Fees
- City of Sacramento
- County of Sacramento Superior Court
- City of Cleveland Heights
- City of Jackson
- City of Las Vegas
- Clark County
- Washoe County
- Chemung County
- New York State Unified Court System
- City of New York
- City of Rochester
- City of Renton
- Pierce County
- City of Bellingham
- City of Pullayup
- City of Pasco
- City of Lynwood
- City of Montesano
- City of Issequah
- New York
- New Jersey
- Oklahoma (proposal)
- Cook County
- Village of Schaumburg
- City of Lake Forest
- Vernal City, Utah
- Denver Council of Governments
- Raritan Township, New Jersey
The City of Lake Forest in Illinois has a unique fee program. For the past seven years, the city has been charging a $5 fee for both entry police and fire exams. The purpose of their fee is specifically to address the wasted resources resulting from “no shows” at exams. The city sponsors a mandatory candidate orientation session. At the session, candidates obtain an application form and pay their fee. Applications are reviewed later for minimum qualifications. Those who do not qualify are not given a refund. (Their philosophy is that the minimum qualifications are clearly stated on the job announcement and discussed at the orientation session. It is up to the candidate to determine whether he/she has the necessary background skills, education, and experience to qualify.) Applicants next appear for and complete the written examination. When they turn in their test papers, their examination fee is refunded. Thus, the only individuals who have paid the fee are those who did not qualify and those who did not appear for the written exam.
Cook County, Illinois also has an interesting fee program. Since 1897, the county has, by state statute been charging an application fee for all exams including promotionals. The fee is $.50 to $3 and depends upon the salary of the position.
Applicants purchase a filing fee stamp which is affixed to the application form. Personnel cancels the stamp when the application is filed.
The Village of Schaumburg (also in Illinois) illustrates another type of fee process. For the past five or six years, they have been charging a fee for entry police and fire exams because they utilize a testing service to administer their exams. Their purpose is to defray the costs of this service. This is a true application fee. Candidates pay $10 at the time they pick up the application and there are no refunds for any reason.
The City of Cleveland Heights in Ohio implemented a fee program in 1987 because they were interested in testing only truly motivated candidates for police and fire exams. The $5 fee is paid in person by the final filing date. Applications are reviewed on the spot and if they meet the minimum requirements, the application and the fee are accepted. Candidates are then given a study guide. It is the cost of the guide which is paid for by the fee.
The City of Jackson, Ohio has had a unique fee program for approximately eight or nine years. Their fee structure is designed to offset the total costs of their testing process for most classes, including promotional classes. The unique feature of their program is that they have both an application and an examination fee. Candidates first pay a $5 fee to file an application. If the application is accepted, candidates then pay an additional $28 to take the written test. Those who achieve list eligibility have thus paid a total of $32.
The idea of applicant fee programs is just beginning to take hold in California. Several years ago, the City of Woodland implemented a $5 fee for their entry fire fighter exam. On the advice of their city attorney, they established a “test material charge”. The city does not currently have a rule that specifically allows them to charge an examination fee. They were hesitant to establish a rule because they felt that this would lock them into routinely charging a fee. Rather, they preferred to have discretion in this matter.
The City of Sacramento, Sacramento County, and the Sacramento Superior and Municipal Courts have formed a cooperative venture for clerical testing which involves candidate fees. They have worked out an arrangement with a local test publisher to transfer the processing and testing of candidates to the test publisher, which in turn collects fees directly from the applicants for this service. Notices are posted in each of the participating jurisdictions informing applicants that if they are seeking a clerical position, they must go to the test publisher, pay a $10 examination fee and a $5 typing proficiency test fee. Upon completing the tests, applicants are given a card which lists their score on the overall test as well as the subparts of the test. When a particular agency is interested in hiring, they post a standard notice of testing. Candidates send in their application forms with a copy of their test scores. At the close of filing, the agency arrays the test scores of those who applied, establishes a cut off score, and issues an eligible list. From the agency perspective, the advantages of this process include not having to schedule an exam, print test booklets, locate a facility, pay proctors, schedule candidates or score the exam. This is all covered by the candidate fee paid to the test publisher. Scoring by subtests allows the participating agencies to differentially weight the subtests and use the test battery for a wide variety of clerical classifications.
Undoubtedly, the State of New York operates the most elaborate fee program. To fully understand the fee program requires knowledge of their examination system. The State of New York operates a centralized examination system for most of the local agencies within the State. They administer all tests for many of the smaller governmental entities, in addition to testing for State civil service classifications. For the past six or seven years, the State has charged a sliding scale fee for all open competitive exams based on the salary of the position. The fee must be submitted with the application form by the final filing date. If applicants pay an insufficient fee (which is possible based on the sliding scale fee structure), their automated billing system generates money due notices. Candidates may continue through the examination process, but they will not be included on an eligible list until the fees are fully paid. Fees are refunded if the applicant does not meet the minimum qualifications or if they fail to appear for the written test. Their waiver system is very elaborate. Fees can be waived for a variety of reasons, but all require written documentation which is verified by staff. As mentioned, the fee structure applies both to all open competitive exams for State employment as well as to local agency exams. Local agencies can pay the per person fee to the state and either waive the fee to the applicants or, in turn, collect the fees from the candidates. In a few cases, the local agency adds their own fee to the State fee in order to offset local costs. The $650,000 from State exams and the $350,000 from local exams goes to the State general fund because the testing function wants to be perceived as a revenue generating agency.
Chemung County is a local agency within the State of New York. Since the late 1980’s, they have been charging applicants a $5 fee for both open and promotional exams. Interestingly enough, three of their bargaining units have been successful in negotiating county payment of employees’ fees for promotional exams. At present, the county generates $15,000 to $20,000, which is forwarded directly to the State. They are considering raising the fee to $10 in order to pay for some of their local testing costs.
New York City has tried several different fee structures over the years. Until the early 1950’s they charged a fee. At that time the fee was eliminated. Approximately ten years ago, it was again reinstituted. Their fee structure applies to all open and promotional exams including provisional appointments. To date, their employee associations have been unsuccessful in negotiating employer payment of fees for promotional exams. Fees are due by the final filing date, are assessed on a sliding scale depending on the salary of the position, and can range from $25 to $50. This revenue remains with the City as they are not part of the State centralized examination structure.
The State of Massachusetts program is similar to the State of New York. The State administers many of the local agency examinations. Municipalities inform the State when they have a need for a list for a particular classification; they are then included in the next administration of the State’s exam. Although the State administers the exam, local agencies are provided with a separate eligible list. Currently, the State both collects and keeps the fees; however, they’re considering some type of delegation process to local agencies.
The State of Oklahoma has developed a proposal to implement a candidate fee program. The proposed fee will be $5 to $20 depending on the salary of the position and will include a waiver provision for those on state aid. An interesting feature of this proposal is that the money generated from the fees will be split between the personnel budget and the general fund.
Lastly, there is a very interesting candidate fee program in the Denver area known as COPS (Centralized Organization for Police Selection). COPS is a consortia of eighteen police departments which joined forces about twelve to thirteen years ago to test cooperatively. The program members have cooperatively contracted with a private non-profit agency to administer their testing program. Agencies pay membership dues which generates half of the cost of operating the program. The other half of the costs are funded through an applicant fee of $25. Candidates are enthusiastic about the program. They find it advantageous to be able to apply for numerous agencies simultaneously.
This paper has outlined the many issues that public agencies should carefully consider prior to implementing any type of applicant fee program. In addition, different types (and sizes) of programs have been described.
It should be noted, however, that fees are not the answer for all jurisdictions. Some, like the State of California and the City of Tacoma cannot by law charge a fee. Others like Kern County in California considered a fee program but decided that they still had other preferable options for meeting their fiscal obligations. Some believe that they will have an overwhelming problem with public acceptance. Tulare County (also in California) considered a $5 fee proposal. In discussions, they noted that the county has the highest unemployment rate and the second lowest average income of any California county. Therefore, a fee would probably meet with great resistance and was not adopted.
For many agencies, applicant fees may be a viable program option which provides a workable solution to one or more personnel or fiscal problems. It is hoped that the information contained in this paper will prove helpful to those public agencies who are contemplating a fee program. Finally, any agency which does implement any type of fee program is encouraged to contact this author. In this way, current and complete information on this subject can be accumulated and shared with professional colleagues.