Hernando commissioner questions county staff's ability to handle projects in-house

BROOKSVILLE — For the last several weeks, as county officials have prepared to shuffle office space in the downtown government center, county commissioners have been assured that the work could be done with in-house staff.

They had the skills. They had the time, even if some routine maintenance chores wouldn't get done immediately. And they would save the county money and time by not having to bid the work.

Proof was as simple as taking a look at history.

Gregg Sutton, who oversees the facilities maintenance staff, used a list of previous projects done in-house over the last several years. These jobs ranged from moving the recording office of the clerk of the circuit court into leased space to renovating offices for the supervisor of elections and code enforcement.

These types of jobs were routine, Sutton said, and there were no problems at all.

But he didn't mention one critical fact.

Those jobs were done after hours, and the staffers were paid overtime.

Overtime isn't an option today, as the county considers how to make up a $10 million shortfall in the general fund.

County Administrator David Hamilton, who just learned Friday that the previous projects had been done on overtime, said he now wants the entire issue reviewed again and plans to bring commissioners a more complete report so they can consider their options, likely later this month.

"Working to save money by paying people to work overtime is probably not something I'd suggest," Hamilton said. "These are practices that clearly might have been thought through differently in the past."

Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who has questioned the wisdom of using in-house staff for the projects for weeks, said he plans to raise the issue at Tuesday's commission meeting.

Stabins was opposed to the commission's recent action to use in-house staffers to build a new courtroom in the government center to create more judicial space. He wanted to see the work go to one of the community's many work-hungry private contractors.

He questioned whether the county staff had the expertise for a project of that scope. And he asked how the staff could both maintain county facilities and do the major project at the same time.

But county officials made a strong pitch about the monetary and time savings of doing the work in-house. And Sutton displayed his list of recent projects to seal the deal.

"This is not an extraordinary project," he said at the time. "It's one of many projects that have been done in-house."

Stabins was alone in his opposition to the plan.

'Better and cheaper'

Then last week, Stabins stepped up his questioning as a member of the commission's Budget and Finance Committee. That group was considering recommending two more in-house projects: moving the property appraiser and the clerk of the circuit court recording office back into the government center.

He questioned Sutton extensively about what work would be lost if the in-house staff was busy doing these kinds of moves and construction projects. Sutton responded by describing the logistics of moving offices around in the government center. Stabins asked the question again.

Ultimately, Sutton answered by showing the budget committee the same list of projects done over the last few years by the facilities maintenance staff.

He downplayed any impact of deferred maintenance work. Ultimately, the committee agreed to move the clerk, using in-house staff, but rejected the property appraiser project until more information could be gathered about the cost of breaking the lease the appraiser has to occupy the third floor of Brooksville City Hall.

And the committee asked for the County Commission to reconsider its vote to do the courtroom construction project in-house.

After that meeting, Stabins said, he learned that Sutton's project list comprised work done on overtime by staffers after hours.

Stabins was shocked because it was an option he hadn't considered. His argument had been that, if the staff has time to do the construction and renovation projects, then what are these employees normally doing with their time? Did it mean the staff was too large and didn't have enough to keep them busy?

Stabins, who met with Hamilton on Friday afternoon to share his concerns, said he still worries that he hasn't been shown proof that the in-house staff has the skills needed to do a project like the courtroom construction.

"I told him that I'm holding him accountable for getting to the bottom line here," Stabins said.

He also noted that even before he learned that the county paid time-and-a-half to workers to accomplish other similar jobs during off hours, he wondered if an outside contractor couldn't do the job for less. Government workers do earn more than their counterparts in the private sector on straight time, he said.

"I have a hard time believing that the private sector couldn't do a project of this magnitude better and cheaper," Stabins said.

"We need far more answers to some of these nagging questions," he continued. "We need to get better information brought forward — complete information."

Stabins also noted that part of the reason he raised so many questions about the information brought forward on the in-house work was the source: Sutton and his boss, public works director Charles Mixson.

'Legitimate questions'

Several years ago, when Stabins was new to the commission, "Mr. Sutton and Mr. Mixson came to me and convinced me that the Manuel property was the best and most cost-effective place to dump the spill from the dredge," he said. "They were wrong, and I was wrong."

Stabins was referring to the recent action to move the Hernando Beach channel dredging project forward, with spoil material going to a different site than the one owned by the Manuel family, a move that could save the county more than $2 million.

"I have a little more jaundiced view of what I hear from them," he said of Sutton and Mixson.

Hamilton acknowledged that part of his full report to the board will include answering the question of whether the staff presented accurate information to the commission. He also said that examining the issue closer, doing a cost analysis of the work done by the county's maintenance and custodial staff, might result in changes to make those operations more efficient.

"Mr. Stabins has asked very legitimate questions that can't be just left out there unanswered," Hamilton said.

On Friday, Sutton acknowledged that he should have mentioned that the his list of in-house projects should have included the disclaimer that many had been done on overtime and during off hours. But he said believes the county staff is fully capable of doing big projects while continuing to maintain county facilities at an acceptable level.

Sutton also said he wanted the chance to tell commissioners more about what his facilities maintenance staffers do with their time. He said he was preparing a report to do just that.

As for the questions Stabins has asked about the viability of doing the courtroom construction and office-moving work in-house, Sutton said, "We owe him an answer, and we will get him an answer."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando commissioner questions county staff's ability to handle projects in-house 05/09/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 1:57pm]

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