Hernando Health Department leader Phil Spence retiring

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County Health Department administrator Phil Spence will retire in December, exactly one year after he arrived with a mandate to get the agency on firm financial footing.

Spence, 65, sent an email Thursday morning informing county commissioners of his decision to retire effective Dec. 1.

"Although my stay has been short, accepting this challenge and helping the Health Department turn things around has been a rewarding experience from which to finally end my working career," Spence wrote.

Spence, who was unavailable for comment Thursday, notified staffers last week, said department spokeswoman Ann-Gayl Ellis.

"Although Health Department staff understood his next move after Hernando was retirement, many were surprised it came so soon," Ellis said.

The administrator's email offers insight into his decision.

"When I committed to accept the challenge of coming to Hernando County, I knew that I would have to be prepared to delay my pending retirement from state employment and I have done that," Spence wrote. "I also committed to myself that I would remain at the Health Department not only until the financial problems were fixed, but also until I felt comfortable that the 'human side' of the department was back on solid footing."

Spence, who is married and commutes from his home in St. Petersburg, said he also wanted to wait until the end of hurricane season.

He credited the "hard work and extraordinary effort" of his staff for bringing the department's reserve fund to 6.6 percent of its $7 million budget by June 30, the end of the fiscal year. The reserve had dipped into the red by 3.2 percent by the time Spence arrived on Nov. 30 to replace longtime administrator Elizabeth Callaghan when she retired.

"The Health Department's future financial health looks very good, and with the continued support of the county it will remain healthy for the foreseeable future," he wrote.

Spence's decision marks the end of a relatively short career in public health.

A retired Army colonel who emigrated from England at the age of 12 and earned the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for service in Vietnam, he would eventually serve as a chief of staff for the Army National Guard headquarters, where he oversaw 1,100 employees and a budget of more than $5 billion.

He landed his first public health job in 2003, starting as administrative services director at the Highlands County Health Department. He held the same post in Manatee and Seminole counties, and was promoted to Seminole's assistant director in 2009.

Last fall, the state's then-assistant deputy secretary for health, Michael Sentman, asked Spence to stand in for the director in Franklin County and come up with ideas to improve the department's financial condition.

He was still in Franklin when Sentman called with the assignment in Hernando.

Like its counterparts throughout the state, the Hernando department has suffered financial hits on several fronts in recent years. Medicare reimbursements and state and federal funding continue to decrease while the county's high unemployment rate drives more residents to seek services priced on a sliding income scale. Callaghan was forced to lay off 10 people before she left.

Spence drafted a plan that aimed to bring in more clients with insurance, Medicare or Medicaid to offset the cost of providing services for indigent patients.

There have been no layoffs or pay cuts since he came on board. Some staffers who previously took a reduction have had their pay restored, Ellis said.

The most significant impact to services came in June, when the Brooksville office started to close three days each week. The office, at 300 S Main St., had provided general clinical services Monday through Friday. Now it's open for services on Tuesdays and Fridays. On the other weekdays, all services are provided at the department's new building on Forest Oaks Boulevard in Spring Hill.

The schedule change meant a longer trip on some days for clients who live in Brooksville and points east. Spence called it a necessary — though likely temporary — reaction to the rough economic climate.

There is no firm date to return to the former hours, but a "loose" target date is the end of this calender year, Ellis said.

Ellis said state officials have indicated they hope to have a successor in place before Spence retires so he can help with the transition.

County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said he was surprised but not shocked by Spence's decision. Dukes praised Spence for being open and responsive when Dukes came to him with questions or concerns.

"I think he did a great job for Hernando County," Dukes said. "I hate to see him leave, but I respect his decision to retire."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando Health Department leader Phil Spence retiring 09/20/12 [Last modified: Thursday, September 20, 2012 9:17pm]

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