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Hernando County considers voluntary buyout program to cut its higher-paid staff

BROOKSVILLE — Having already approved a new structure for county government, county commissioners last week took their first look at another major downsizing policy.

Human Resources director Cheryl Marsden presented preliminary details of the county's early leave incentive plan, designed to entice higher-paid supervisory and management employees to consider leaving their positions. Officials believe it could save about $500,000 in salary costs.

The plan would not only save salary costs by allowing continued downsizing of the county staff and replacing higher-paid workers with lower-paid workers, but also reduce the number of employees who might have to be let go later as the county grapples with falling revenue from reduced taxes and fees, Marsden explained to commissioners.

This offer does not include Sheriff's Office employees.

The plan, which still requires formal approval by commissioners on Feb. 24, would target county employees who earn $50,000 or more per year and who will have at least six years of service by May 15.

Those who choose to take the early leave would receive one week of pay for each year of completed service up to a maximum of 18 weeks, and the county would continue to pay medical premiums for the employee for up to 18 months through COBRA.

The employees would also be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Officials estimate that there are 119 county employees who would qualify for the early leave program. Employees wishing to participate in the plan would have to notify the Human Resources Department in writing by March 13.

Human Resources would notify employees of acceptance or denial by March 20. All employees who have been accepted for the program must end their employment with the county by May 15 unless some other arrangement is negotiated.

And employees who take the early leave will not be able to work for the county again until 18 months after they leave.

The estimated cost of the plan would be a one-time expense of $286,000.

Approval of the applications would be based on available funding and, if too many applications are received, they would be approved based on the application date.

Marsden asked commissioners whether they thought that was the best deciding factor, or whether decisions should be made based on the county's needs related to an employee's skills, knowledge and competencies.

At first, Commissioner Jeff Stabins said he favored the idea of basing the decisions on an employee's skills, but later in the discussion Marsden pointed out that offering the incentive on a voluntary basis and then pulling it back could be a problem.

Commissioner John Druzbick asked how it would be perceived if someone is kept around because of his or her skills, then dismissed later if layoffs are required.

Basing a decision on who applied first, "it's less subjective,'' said Commission Chairman Dave Russell.

"I had not thought about that unintended consequence,'' Stabins said.

Stabins also questioned whether county workers would have any sense of how many positions must be shed to balance the county budget, information that might help them decide whether to take the incentive.

But Marsden said those decisions will come after it is seen how many people take advantage of the plan. And telling people up front that their positions might be eliminated "would be considered coercion,'' she said. "This is strictly a voluntary plan.''

Druzbick also asked whether the county should consider lowering the eligibility salary, possibly down to $35,000. Marsden said various numbers had been considered. Originally, the county was looking at a salary cutoff at $65,000. At some point at the lower end of the scale, the county realizes less and less of a savings, she said.

County Administrator David Hamilton said that the numbers were discussed by his leadership team and there was not a consensus. The $50,000 figure was settled on primarily because it includes higher-level managers as well as supervisory staff.

Hamilton said the early leave policy was "the first of likely many policies over the next few years'' to shrink the size of the county staff. "Essentially,'' he said, "we're staging our downsizing.''

Human Resources will present the plan to eligible employees Feb. 25 through 27 if it is approved by the commission.

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

By the numbers

Preliminary details of Hernando County's early leave incentive plan include:

$500,000 Estimated amount the county could save in salary costs.

$286,000 Estimated one-time expense to cover the cost of the plan.

119Estimated number of eligible county employees. Sheriff's employees are exempt.

18Maximum number of weeks' pay an employee who takes advantage of the plan would get.

Hernando County considers voluntary buyout program to cut its higher-paid staff 02/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 16, 2009 9:38pm]
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