Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill oversees day-to-day operations for the government that provides services to residents who live in unincorporated areas, from parks to sewer and drainage, fire protection to meals for the elderly. He took over the job full-time two years ago from predecessor Pat Bean, who was fired in part for doling out secret raises, including one for herself. He actually filled in for eight months before that as commissioners grappled with what to do with Bean. He previously oversaw the management of the county's debts. It hasn't exactly been a fun time to lead a local government, as the ailing economy forced layoffs and wholesale restructuring at the county. But county commissioners gave Merrill largely stellar marks during his annual evaluation last month. The Times' Bill Varian spoke to Merrill over lunch last week about the last two years and what lies ahead as the economy shows signs of recovery.
What's it been like being the county administrator during such a challenging period?
Well, I guess you don't have time to think about how bad things are. When I came in, I had to deliver a budget within the next 60 days. I didn't really have a lot of time to think about how horrible it was. I just kind of had to figure out solutions pretty quickly, which is a good thing. Because if I had had time to think about it, I would have said, 'No, thank you.'
The good thing about a crisis is it helps to focus everyone's attention, including my own. I think it kind of crystallizes action and demands that you do something. So I think that was an advantage. But this has been the hardest job I've ever had, by far. And I've had some pretty hard jobs
Some indicators are showing things brightening on the economic front. How do you see your administration changing in response?
We weathered this in really good shape. We're still triple-A rated and have strong reserves at time when it should have been just the opposite. So I think the important thing now is that we maintain the same discipline, that we don't lose sight of the fact that we still make the people we serve No. 1 and we need to do it cost-effectively. And we need to focus on what our core mission is. If the economy is improving, there are likely to be people asking for more services that are not core services. I just feel like I and my folks need to stay the course and recommend to do only what we think is our core mission. And everything else is a premium. People, if they want premium services, should pay premium fees. I think that's going to be the major challenge.
So we're not going to see a ramping up of spending?
No. Now I did tell all the commissioners when I was going around for my evaluation and I put forward my objectives, I said the one thing we all need to realize is that there are a lot of people within the organization from a pay point of view that are out of whack. I have department directors that are making less than some of the people who report to them. So I'm going to have to make adjustments to keep good people. And I might have to reduce some people on the other hand who are being paid too much. (I told them,) 'If that's going to be a problem for you, then maybe I'm not the administrator you need.'
Is that going to be up and down, not just directors?
I'm not starting with directors. I'm starting down the organization.
What do you think is the core mission of a county government?
When you turn the tap, you get water. When you put out your garbage, we pick it up. If you need medical attention, we show up, put out the fire, fix you up. Provide roads. Take care of people who are temporarily unable to take care of themselves, but bring them back to self-sufficiency because that's better for everyone else in the community to have them back in a job paying taxes. And provide decent recreational and cultural facilities. That's pretty much it. It's pretty simple. There's a lot of nuances, but I can't see any need to do any more than that that we should make taxpayers pay for. Again, if someone wants a premium service then there ought to be a premium user fee that person pays.
You're seeking bids for new garbage haulers. What do you see coming from that?
We're going to get lower costs for our customers. Also, there is the possibility of getting automated service. I think we'll also be able to reduce emissions on the road because we'll be moving to hybrid vehicles. The system will be in better shape.
When will the change go into place?
Everything's got to be changed over by September.
Another area of big changes is in development review where you're consolidating. What do you expect people who interact with those offices to see?
We've kind of gotten it right on the permitting side. I think where we need more work is on the site plan/development review side. We can turn that around more quickly and really begin to work with the city and others to make it more uniform. Mainly it's focusing on turn-around. Making sure that everyone from the secretaries typing the letters to the person who does the permits knows that if we're not turning it around in two, three, four, five days, then nobody has done a good job. Everyone should be evaluated from the secretary to the permitter on how we met that goal. We're re-doing our evaluation system. And that's how I want people measured. No more of this loosey-goosey stuff like I did good and I showed up. Everyone's got a part to play and I think that will motivate people. It's really what we have to do. There's no reason to send plans around and have it take 60 days.
Do you foresee any discussion by the county to reprise the 2010 transit initiative?
I think the discussion will start at the board's retreat on (Dec. 7) as part of our strategic planning. It's got to be a community-wide discussion and it's got to be in the context of other choices that people have to make about taxes they have to pay. Transportation is very important but it's not the only thing. So it's unfair and really misleading to ask someone in a vacuum, 'Will you pay an extra penny for roads?' when we may have to fund other things that are also essential, core missions.
Is the county still looking at enacting a no-kill or low-kill policy at the animal shelter and can you tell me where that's at?
The major effort is being undertaken by a task force that was set up. Their main focus is coming up with recommendations for how the county could maximize the live outcomes, which is another way of saying reduce the euthanasias. In the meantime (the new animal services director) can do things that will at least make it easier for animals to be adopted. For example, one of the simple things he did was to extend the hours at the shelter and have adoptions available seven days a week. Previously the hours really didn't correspond well with the times that people can get there, like after work and on weekends.
You recently adopted your second puppy. So how important is this for you?
For me, personally it's a huge issue. Professionally, I think it's an area where I think we can, from a business point of view, do a better job of managing costs, with better outcomes, and provide better customer services. I think it's kind of a petri dish. It also happens to be something I'm passionate about personally.