TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Civil Service Board this week will consider hiring a lobbyist to stave off efforts to sharply cut its powers over hiring and promotion decisions in local government.
Civil Service chief Dane Petersen will ask his board Tuesday for permission to spend up to $75,000 to lobby legislators, who ultimately would have to approve any changes to his agency.
Some of the officials seeking the changes are questioning whether Civil Service has the legal authority to use tax dollars to engage a lobbying firm. Whether it does or not, they say it would not be proper.
"If it were legal, we still have a real problem with them taking the money we pay them to lobby against us," said County Administrator Mike Merrill, whose organization is Civil Service's biggest client. "It's like you wanting to change accountants and your accountant goes out to hire a lobbyist to work against you."
If its board approves, Civil Service would be the second agency in recent months to hire lobbyists to thwart plans to dismantle some of its operations. The county's Public Transportation Commission approved spending $70,000 on a lobbying firm this summer under threat of legislation that would do away with the agency that regulates for-hire vehicle operators.
The difference is that Civil Service gets most of its money from tax dollars, while the PTC derives its revenue from fees it charges cab, limo, tow truck and ambulance companies to regulate them. Merrill said the county attorney and clerk's offices are looking into whether Civil Service can use tax money to lobby.
Petersen said he will welcome any analysis. But he said his agency is seeking ways to tell legislators that the proposal before them is a bad idea.
He said he believes it will drive up human resources costs for the 21 local government agencies his office assists — affecting some 9,400 public workers — and lead to nepotism and political patronage hiring.
"We think it's bad for the citizens of Hillsborough County, bad for the employees of Hillsborough County and bad in terms of the process they have followed to come up with this proposal," Petersen said.
County commissioners voted unanimously earlier this year to ask the Legislature to let local governments opt out of much of what Civil Service does.
The county's Civil Service Board was created by the Legislature in the 1950s. The board posts advertisements for job openings — largely for rank-and-file workers — and screens applicants for minimum qualifications.
It also establishes job descriptions, sets pay ranges and signs off on promotions or transfers of employees between positions, while also hearing workplace grievances.
Under legislation being crafted by County Attorney Chip Fletcher, regulated agencies could opt out of most of what Civil Service does, except the grievance process. They would be on their own to make hiring and promotion decisions, or could hire private companies or even Civil Service, to do some of that work.
Merrill and others, such as Tax Collector Doug Belden and Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank, say Civil Service is an anachronism. They say its rigid rules make it unnecessarily difficult for them to make personnel decisions in an era that requires flexibility.
Each said they have been appealing to Civil Service for years to make changes. While it has made some, they say persistent problems left no option but to seek legislative change.
"Really, they just don't think other people can manage their own affairs," Belden said recently. "My frustration is, we've reached out to them. They did nothing."
Petersen says his office has made changes. During the current discussions, he said no one from his office has been included. He has drafted a list of possible changes that could be implemented without seeking legislation, but has said none of the officials have shown a willingness to hear him out.
Petersen said his agency helps ensure that public employees are treated equally and fairly. And he said his office does it cost effectively. While legislative formula sets his budget at a small percentage of the collective salaries of the people his agency serves — about $3.3 million last year — it billed just $2.5 million for the work of his 30 employees.
"Why, when companies all over world are consolidating to save money, in this case we're going in the opposite direction?" he asked.
So to make that case, he thinks it's prudent to hire a lobbying firm and said he's not yet recommending a particular one.
County Commissioner Sandra Murman, an advocate for allowing Hillsborough County government agencies to opt out of Civil Service, said Friday she was surprised to hear of Petersen's seemingly adversarial response.
"I just thought it was peculiar that he would use our taxpayer dollars that we fund his agency with to get a lobbyist to go against something that we unanimously supported at the county," said Murman, who said she wasn't sure of the details of Petersen's proposal. "If it's true, that just seems strange to me."