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Hillsborough commissioners reach deal on administrator's contract

TAMPA — A divided Hillsborough County Commission finally approved terms of a two-year contract with Administrator Mike Merrill on Wednesday, nearly three months after giving him the job.

While commissioners still must approve the contract language, the board did bless its key terms, which included a far less lucrative severance package than Merrill's predecessor, Pat Bean. Based on the sting from that deal when the commission dismissed her, severance was a major sticking point.

The vote was 4-3, with Commissioners Mark Sharpe, Ken Hagan and Les Miller voting no, each for different reasons.

The contract, once approved, will set Merrill's initial salary at $195,000, retroactive to Dec. 10 when he was made the full-time administrator. If fired for reasons not involving wrongdoing, he is entitled to a half-year's pay, but not benefits.

Additionally, Merrill, 57, would receive $22,000 annually in a deferred compensation account for retirement, the maximum allowed by law. He also will get a car allowance equal to that given other top county managers — currently $236 a month.

Another item settled Wednesday: Merrill must re-establish residency in Hillsborough County by the end of the year, after moving to Clearwater last summer to assist in a family matter.

Merrill and supporting commissioners said the deal was more favorable to taxpayers than what the county likely would have had to pay had it conducted a national search for another administrator, based on comparisons with pay and benefit packages for other executives in similarly sized counties.

"I think it's fair," Merrill said. "It was a healthy discussion, and we got to a place where most people were satisfied."

Coloring the negotiations was the prior contract with Bean, whom commissioners fired last summer. Under her contract, she was entitled to a year's worth of back pay and benefits, including pay for unused sick and vacation time, valued at $488,000. That was if she was fired without cause, which under terms of her contract meant largely that she had to commit a crime. Commissioners did find cause by saying she improperly gave herself a raise. A state attorney's investigation released last month concluded the raise might have shown poor judgment but did not rise to a criminal level.

Merrill's contract will have a looser "neglect of duty" justification for termination and excludes the benefits payout if he is fired without cause.

Sharpe sought a slightly lower salary he said still provided a substantial raise from what Merrill now makes — about $155,000. He also wanted a three-month severance provision.

Hagan supported an earlier Merrill contract offer, which would have given him the right to return to a lower management position in county government if terminated before he reaches 62.

Miller objected to Merrill's deferred compensation payments, and to the time to re-establish residency.

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

Hillsborough commissioners reach deal on administrator's contract 03/02/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 10:51pm]
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