Amid another tight budget year, Hillsborough will hire communications guru

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill says government doesn't always do a good job explaining what it does and telling people how to use services.

So, amid four years of layoffs and frozen or reduced wages for county employees, Merrill is planning to hire someone to do what sounds like marketing county government.

But don't call it marketing, says the new employee's boss. The position, which will pay $51,147 to $76,731 annually, is called public outreach coordinator, even if the word "marketing" is used seven times in the job posting.

"We need to be able to develop strategies to make sure we're constantly improving in delivering services to the community however possible," said Helene Marks, the county's chief administrative officer. "The highest value at the lowest cost.

"We're onboarding someone who will help work in conjunction with those needs," she added.

Since this person is not on board yet, Merrill was asked for a translation.

He said the position is not being created to promote or "sell" the county. It's being created to tell people what they get for their tax dollars and to make it easier for people to find services, whether nature tours at parks or meals for shut-in seniors.

"If we want our citizens to trust us and understand us better, we need to communicate better what we do," Merrill said.

Merrill said he anticipates the new employee will inventory what the county does and figure out better ways to describe it to the public.

"Someone who can convey a complex idea very concisely, in 10 seconds and in a way that people can grasp, there's a real art to that," he said.

The coordinator will help form focus groups as the county creates a strategic plan for future spending priorities. And Merrill hopes the employee will create a better guide to understanding and tracking government spending.

"What's the show on cable — Mad Men?" asked Merrill. "We're not interested in one of those guys."

Still, the job description includes "branding" as a central responsibility.

Merrill also notes the job will be created by converting another vacant position, meaning it will not add to the payroll.

That does little to appease Juan Baso, a truck driver for the county's solid waste operation and president of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He said his union is considering declaring an impasse to annual salary and benefits negotiations if county employees can't win a pledge of at least 3 percent average pay raises for next year.

"To be honest with you, I think that's a waste of money and time," Baso said of the new position. "That's money they could throw back to the blue-collar workers."

At least one county commissioner says the plan, which he hadn't heard about, is a bad idea.

The county already has a $2.1 million communications department with 25 budgeted employees.

Director Lori Hudson said only six of them are devoted to public information, with most of the rest working for the county's television station. The public information workers account for about $675,000 of her budget, Hudson said.

"To say we're creating another position for public relations to tell our story is ridiculous," said Commissioner Al Higginbotham. "That's what they have commissioners for. Be sure to say I was shouting when I said that."

But the idea appears to have germinated in part over concerns voiced by other commissioners, particularly three newer members who are former state legislators. All expressed frustration with the county's failure to market services better.

Victor Crist repeatedly asked last summer for the county to do a better job of informing the public about changes to the after-school parks program. He also said there is a need for one person to work with other agencies to develop a common identity for Hillsborough. It should be used to help crystallize why entrepreneurs should open a business here or to create a lasting image for visitors to the Republican National Convention this summer.

Ideally, the public outreach coordination will help residents tell the county and commissioners what they should be spending their time and money on. That's particularly true in lean times, he said.

"We film and document everything we do," Crist said. "But there is a disconnect in getting the right information to the right people in a way they can understand."

Sandra Murman has voiced that same sentiment, expressing frustration that more people have not taken advantage of an incentive program she advocated that helps small-business owners pay for new hires. The county put out news releases and aired public service announcements on its television station, but Murman said it seems like not enough people who might benefit have taken advantage.

"We're just not getting enough information to the public on a timely basis," Murman said.

Even Les Miller, who has repeatedly stated his displeasure about county layoffs and the workload for those who remain but haven't gotten raises, said there is merit to adding the position. He said the county needs to do a better job of getting information to people about programs that could help them through tough times.

Like the other newcomers, he has often talked about how the county's spending plans are tough to understand, even for people who have spent years working in government.

"I do believe if we bring one person on board to get the message out about services we offer, I think this might be money well spent," Miller said.

The county got more than 80 applications for the job. Marks said she has no timetable for making a hiring decision.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

Amid another tight budget year, Hillsborough will hire communications guru 04/22/12 [Last modified: Sunday, April 22, 2012 12:44am]

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