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Hillsborough clerk defends using federal money for bonuses

TAMPA — Over the past three years, her employees have seen their paychecks shrink and their colleagues let go.

So when Hillsborough Clerk of Court Pat Frank got a $1.1 million windfall from the federal government, she knew how she wanted to spend it:

One-time bonuses of $1,500 for each of her 784 workers.

"The morale has been very low here," Frank said Tuesday. "We don't pay a lot of money to people, and the economy has hit them hard."

The money comes courtesy of a settlement between the state's clerks offices and the federal government over how much the offices were due for processing child-support payments between 1998 and 2005. The state had argued the federal government had underpaid for the work.

Clerks offices racked up varying amounts in the settlement. At $1.1 million, Hillsborough's take was by far the largest among local clerks.

The other amounts included $141,000 in Hernando County; $33,000 in Pasco; and $97,000 in Pinellas.

Frank is the only local clerk using the money for bonuses.

She acknowledged she could return the money to the county, which finances nearly $19 million of her total $66 million budget. Frank said she felt that was inappropriate, given that her employees did the work to earn the federal settlement.

"I knew there'd be some reaction to this," she said, "and I think it's mainly from people who wished they'd gotten it."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist broached the subject during a budget workshop Tuesday. He expressed concern that the state or Legislature could retaliate against Frank.

The Legislature this year passed a new requirement that public employees pay 3 percent of their salaries into their pension plan. County clerks are banned from using state funds to give raises or bonuses.

"When no other clerk in the state is doing this, it makes Hills­borough County stand out at a time one of their primary funders has set policy for cutbacks," Crist said.

Frank noted that her workers earn on average about 2.25 percent less than county employees. That's because she began freezing salaries in 2008, before the county did, and her employees had to take a total of six furlough days in 2008 and 2009.

On top of that, her staff has shrunk from a little more than 900 in 2008 to 784 today.

Because of civil service rules adopted by the county, she said, the bonus must go to all workers, including the 60 employees who make $70,000 or more.

But she added that roughly half of her employees earn less than $32,000 a year.

In Pasco, Clerk Paula O'Neil said her office received $33,000 from the settlement. She hopes the money can help offset higher health insurance rates and keep workers from paying more in premiums.

"There's not enough money there to do much of anything else," she said. O'Neil also noted that Hillsborough clerk employees have had six unpaid furlough days in recent years while their counterparts in Pasco have only had to take one.

Hernando Clerk of Court Karen Nicolai said she would use the $141,000 to "help offset the unfunded mandate to redact court records that must be completed by next year."

Pinellas Clerk Ken Burke said he, too, would use his county's share for the redaction project.

Frank said she already has the money set aside for that work and didn't have any other uses for it.

"I'm firmly convinced it was the right thing to do," she said. She said her employees have sent her "wonderful e-mails and thank-you notes for it."

Times staff writers Bill Varian, Lee Logan, John Woodrow Cox and Curtis Krueger contributed to this report. Reach Jodie Tillman at jtillman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

Hillsborough clerk defends using federal money for bonuses 06/14/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 14, 2011 11:38pm]
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