TAMPA — Hillsborough County government is turning to a tactic many private-sector employers have relied upon in recent years to trim costs:
Buyouts as an incentive for employees to retire early.
Commissioners approved a program Wednesday that would allow the county to offer its retirement-eligible employees 12 weeks of pay — up to $25,000 — if they leave by the end of June. Those who accept it also are eligible for up to three years of continued county-paid health insurance for themselves, but not their families, or another $10,000 in cash in lieu of coverage.
The proposal was added to the commission's agenda at the last minute as an emergency measure. County officials fear a bill working its way through the Legislature that aims to curb severance pay for government employees could prohibit a buyout program.
County Administrator Mike Merrill said his proposal has nothing to do with enriching government employees, but will save money by encouraging high-wage employees to leave. He said he anticipates many of the jobs vacated will go unfilled, or get filled by people who make less.
"The whole idea behind it is savings," Merrill said.
Further, with property tax collections continuing to fall, county officials are expecting to implement another round of layoffs this summer. Merrill's chief administrative officer, Helene Marks, said the program should lessen the number of layoffs.
Most employees with 30 years of experience or who are age 62 with more than six years of employment would be eligible. Special-risk employees, such a firefighters, who have worked with the county or state for 26 years or are age 55 with six years on the job, also qualify.
County officials said 660 employees are eligible but said they were unable able to provide a projected savings, not knowing how many will accept the offer.
Commissioner Victor Crist expressed concern that legislators may see the quick passage as an effort to thwart a state measure and try to retaliate.
"To the state, this could look like we're giving away golden parachutes," he said.
Merrill said that was not his intent — that he had wanted to roll out the program later this summer, before learning of the severance legislation. It only sped up his timetable, he said.
Commissioners voted 6-0 to approve the measure, with Ken Hagan leaving before the vote.
In other action:
• The board decided not to hire a consultant to assist redrawing commission district boundaries. Chairman Al Higginbotham had pitched the idea to curb political tinkering, but moved Wednesday to scrap the idea.
• Some commissioners voiced concern over a poor audit of the Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department. The review showed sloppy or lacking accounting in several areas, lax collection of money owed to the department by program users and a failure to ensure families charged a reduced rate for programs due to low income actually qualify. Some of that contributed to a $868,000 shortfall for the department. Parks director Mark Thornton accepted responsibility and pledged to get the problems rectified quickly.