County workers plead for jobs as Hillsborough faces more belt-tightening

TAMPA — Members of one of the main public employee unions pleaded with Hillsborough County commissioners Wednesday to preserve their jobs as a final vote nears on the budget.

Roughly 80 people wearing green T-shirts of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees dominated the crowd that showed up for the second-to-last public hearing on County Administrator Mike Merrill's budget proposal.

They urged commissioners to show compassion for them and to consider the likely decline in public service that will come with layoffs.

"I wish you could feel the pain of the employees when they tell their families that they might lose their jobs," said Mark Carranza, a 33-year veteran of county government and a wastewater treatment plant supervisor. "I wish you would think with your heart, just for a moment."

Merrill's budget calls for a fourth year of belt-tightening, with county parks workers facing particularly sharp cutbacks. The budget proposal calls for farming out parks maintenance to private contractors and scaling back after-school programs. Many of the full-time employees who run the programs would see their jobs become part time.

In all, the original proposal from Merrill contemplated eliminating more than 400 positions. However, he has said that thanks to an early-retirement incentive program and efforts to hold open positions as long as possible, enabling transfers, the number of layoffs will be far fewer.

Gayle Sikes, a 24-year veteran of the county who maintains county softball fields, said after the meeting that she has been on three interview for transfers so far, without success.

"So if I'm going next week, nice to know you," she told commissioners.

Workers held signs reading "Stop Slashing Services!" They told commissioners that employees who opted for a career in public service are more dedicated to community good than contractors hired for even lower pay and without benefits.

A week ago, AFSCME issued an analysis that argued the county was hoarding millions in reserve accounts that could be used to retain employees. The union also has argued that a greater proportion of front-line workers are getting their jobs eliminated when compared with supervisors.

Merrill's administration has presented commissioners with its own analysis refuting the latter and says it can't now tap reserves to address what may be a long-term decline or flattening of tax revenues. In all, his proposed operating budget is projected to decline by roughly $50 million next year, largely due to flagging property tax receipts.

The budget also contemplates postponing $128 million in building projects, more than half involving road work.

It calls for lowering the property tax rate by a sliver of a percent to about $10.76 for each thousand dollars in taxable value so commissioners can say they've lowered the rate 18 consecutive years.

The county's budget director said the savings to someone with a $200,000 house with a homestead exemption is 25 cents, lower than the 75 cents the county has previously stated.

A final public hearing and vote is scheduled for Sept. 22.

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

County workers plead for jobs as Hillsborough faces more belt-tightening 09/14/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 15, 2011 12:06am]

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