TAMPA — Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill earned rave reviews from county commissioners again Thursday, reinforcing his stature as one of the most powerful nonelected public officials in Tampa Bay.
Commissioners asked Merrill, 61, to stay on the job until 2018 and re-evaluated his $217,360 salary, implying he could be in for a significant raise. Merrill's contract was not set to expire until December 2015, but commissioners didn't want to wait.
"Hillsborough County is fortunate to have you here," Commissioner Ken Hagan said.
"We all know that Mr. Merrill has done an exemplary job," Commissioner Les Miller said.
The effusive evaluations cap a year in which Merrill restructured Hillsborough's leadership team by adding several well-paid deputies, allowing him to focus on larger issues, such as transportation, economic development and homelessness. The hires include Deputy County Administrator Greg Horwedel, who makes $180,000, and Chief Communications Administrator Liana Lopez, who makes $165,000.
Commissioners unanimously approved those hires, as well as raises Merrill gave to several other high-ranking county employees.
Merrill's predecessors would have had a harder time reshaping county government, but since taking over the job in 2010 amid controversy — and over protests from some commissioners that a nationwide search was needed — Merrill has gained the unanimous confidence of a board that will have only one new face for the next two years. (Commissioner-elect Stacy White joins next week.)
Commissioners gave Merrill ratings in six different areas of his job, grading him on a scale of 1 (unsatisfactory) to 5 (exceptional). His overall rating was 4.61, reflecting a gradesheet of almost entirely 4's and 5's. Commissioner Sandy Murman gave Merrill 5's in every category. Commissioner Al Higginbotham did not submit a rating sheet.
Commissioners gave Merrill all 5's for "judgment in decision making." His lowest overall rating, 4.17, came in "responsiveness."
Although Commissioner Victor Crist thought Merrill deserved one 3 — in "leadership" — it was Crist who proposed reassessing Merrill's salary.
"Thank you for all of your support," Merrill told commissioners. "I'm only as good as the board and my staff."
As county administrator, Merrill reports to the County Commission and is responsible for running the operations of county government. The former debt manager for Hillsborough government, Merrill took over the top job on an interim role in March 2010 and dropped the interim title later that year.
He inherited a government in turmoil. His predecessor, Pat Bean, was fired after commissioners discovered she had given herself and several executives secret raises in the midst of the recession, while other county employees were losing jobs and experiencing pay cuts.
"You've brought respect and dignity to this county," outgoing Commissioner Mark Sharpe told Merrill. "It's been inspiring watching you work.
Contact Will Hobson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @TheWillHobson.