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Consultant's fee gets wide-eyed reaction from Pasco officials

The experts promise a new economic strategy to recruit more industries instead of homes to Pasco County, and a leaner government that will be easier to use while saving taxpayers' money.

County officials want to get there, but not for the consultant's first suggested fee: $347,000.

"I cannot see the commission spending anywhere near that much money for a facilitator," said Commissioner Ted Schrader.

The County Commission agreed last week to begin negotiations to hire ICMA Consulting Services, a branch of the International City/County Management Association. The unit is supposed to help the county improve strategic planning, its operations and its long-term vision.

Talks begin today. The board could be asked to approve a contract in January, said chief assistant county administrator Michele Baker, proponent of the deal.

ICMA, based in Washington, D.C., was rated as the best choice by a committee of county officials. It initially proposed a three-year project with 2,400 hours of work by its consultants.

The total cost would depend on what Pasco orders up. Its proposal noted it has done work from $15,000 to more than $100,000. Specific improvements for the county have not been drawn up.

"Am I surprised that people would say that's a lot of money? Of course not. That is a lot of money," said Craig Rapp, director of ICMA Consulting Services.

"As we look around the economy today, it's in tough shape," he said. "I'd like to believe that their investment they're considering is one that leaves them lean, mean and focused."

Baker said the county intends to spend less than the suggested $347,000 fee, because Pasco has already begun some of the work on its own and doesn't need all of the services proposed. For a year, Pasco has pursued a program called LEAP — Lean, Efficient, Accountable Pasco — to pare costs and run agencies better.

Coming off the real estate boom years that filled the county's coffers, Pasco now faces state-mandated property tax cuts and declining tax revenue. Additional spending cuts are expected to be deep when the commission puts together its next budget in the summer.

But the Urban Land Institute, another consultant, recently reviewed the county's economic development program and options. That panel found that Pasco needed to reorganize its government, because the cumbersome nature of permitting and reviews created hurdles for new businesses trying to set up shop.

The solutions involve changing departments and rewriting the county's development laws — a potentially dramatic shift in a time of possibly dramatic spending cuts.

Putting that together will require expertise and opinions by people who don't have a stake in the fight, Baker said. ICMA was appealing because it is a large group with experience dealing with national and state programs designed to make agencies work better.

One client, Coral Springs, became the only government agency to win a national efficiency award. Pasco would seek to win Florida's version, the Sterling Award, which is given to public and private organizations that come up with better ways to be effective and competitive. In Pasco's case, it could mean not having to hire expensive experts in the future, such as for growth management planning, Schrader said.

"We're not giving them a fish, we're teaching them to fish," Rapp said.

And it has to be done quickly because the tough financial times will demand decisions starting in 2009.

"I could get that expertise in a couple of years by going to classes," Baker said. "But we don't have a couple of years to get us there."

Schrader and the other commissioners say they are open to hiring ICMA, but they're skeptical of paying too much.

"I'm going to have to hear a whole lot more to justify spending all of that, just because of the grim economy we're having right now," Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said. "You've got to take care of basic services."

A year ago, they balked at Commissioner Michael Cox's push to hire a consultant to help them cut spending. This proposal would do the same, though county officials say it would be a bigger, broader effort. Cox half-joked his idea was "ahead of its time."

"In my humble opinion, there are no sacred cows anymore," Cox said. "If there's a way to deliver services, smarter and more efficiently, then that's what we need to be heading toward."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6232.

Consultant's fee gets wide-eyed reaction from Pasco officials 12/21/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 23, 2008 11:13am]

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