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Hillsborough administrator proposes complete restructuring, layoffs

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's top administrator has presented commissioners a plan to dramatically remake the government by merging departments, privatizing programs and handing out pink slips.

Over the course of a year, acting Administrator Mike Merrill envisions reorganizing the county's roughly two dozen departments into fewer than half that.

Programs ranging from mosquito control to adult day care could get turned over to private groups. And county government would work harder than ever to explore ways of teaming up with other local governments that provide the same sorts of service, from parks to 911 operations.

Layoffs will begin June 11, though county budget officials are just now in the process of identifying which positions to cut. More layoffs are likely later.

"We're talking about, from the bottom up, a complete restructuring of how we provide services," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "He's doing exactly what I think we have to do and should have been doing for the last couple of years."

Merrill, filling in for suspended and likely departing Administrator Pat Bean and facing a shortfall of at least $50 million, is putting the finishing touches on a budget proposal for next year. It would sharply cut overtime and hand employees another increase in health insurance costs. But that budget, to be presented to commissioners June 10, would be balanced by tapping into about $10 million set aside for upkeep of county property.

The infusion will spare programs such as adult day care and regional parks from previously planned cuts in service in the short term. It should also lessen the immediate number of layoffs that were expected, said budget director Eric Johnson.

By using the maintenance money, the county essentially buys a year to figure out how to prioritize what sorts of services it will provide in an era of depressed property tax receipts.

"He's very methodical and he's not just looking at 'How are we going to pass this juncture?' " said Commissioner Rose Ferlita.

Merrill said the year will be spent figuring out what government services are priorities. The focus will be on reorganizing the government to emphasis work at County Center that directly serves taxpayers while centralizing support staff.

"It's putting service first and support where it belongs and not the other way, of having bureaucracy wagging the dog," he said.

There will be a significant thinning of management, aided by the planned retirements of several department directors, he said. Merrill said he hopes the public will have ample time to offer views on what should be the priorities of county government.

"The way I'm looking at this is this isn't just a Band-Aid," Merrill said "It's really more, 'What do we consider essential services, and how can we better provide them?' "

Merrill gave department directors a presentation Wednesday, which he shared with commissioners the same day and a citizens advisory panel Friday. It lists about 20 departments that would be affected — almost all except Fire-Rescue, Library Services and the Environmental Protection Commission.

It indicates several potential mergers or partial mergers, including Aging, Children's and Health and Social Services; Planning and Growth Management, Public Works and Real Estate; Water Resource Services and Solid Waste Management; and Budget, Human Resources and Procurement.

Some are likely to happen sooner than later, such as in the social services area, as well as in Budget, Human Resources and Procurement departments. Others may take more time.

Paul Vanderploog, director of Water Resource Services, said he is starting to look at combining parts of his department that are similar to waste management.

"I applaud the boss for taking a step forward to have the county operating agencies take a look at themselves not only as themselves, but as part of a broader operating scheme," he said. "We may gain a whole hell of a lot, we may not. I think you have to look at it."

Merrill will attempt to reignite talks with the county's three cities and the school district to see if there are ways to team up in the areas of housing, parks and recreation and emergency dispatch. Such efforts have collapsed in the past, but Merrill said he thinks headway still can be made.

The county will evaluate privatizing programs in social services, parks and animal services.

In Animal Services, for instance, Merrill said the county likely would continue handling public safety concerns such as capturing dangerous dogs. But other things the department does could be eligible for partnerships with nonprofits.

Nearly a dozen county departments have their own public relations employees, who field media calls and handle outreach to residents. They would be centralized and their number cut.

Merrill will be among the first affected. He is recommending that the department he supervised for nearly 20 years, Debt Management, be disbanded. Its duties largely would be absorbed by the Clerk of the Circuit Court.

"If I'm going to make everyone else do it, I might as well be the model for it," Merrill said.

Commissioners would have to approve his plan for it to take effect.

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

Hillsborough administrator proposes complete restructuring, layoffs 05/29/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 29, 2010 12:57am]

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