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Hillsborough County budget plan envisions government makeover

TAMPA — Acting Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill presented a 2011 budget proposal to commissioners Thursday that offers more cutbacks but includes his blueprint for rethinking county government.

The proposal reflects another $65 million drop in property tax collections and the elimination of roughly 240 more full-time jobs — with the prospect of more later. If approved by commissioners, the latest job cuts will have thinned county employee ranks by one-sixth over the past four years.

Merrill's proposal also lowers the tax rate by an eyelash margin, to about $10.76 per $1,000 of taxable value for property owners in unincorporated areas. That saves most homeowners pennies, but allows commissioners to say they have cut the rate for 18 consecutive years.

Far more significantly, the budget proposal outlines the framework for a wholesale makeover of county government in expectation that the economy is not likely to bounce back soon. It marks the starting point of a top-to-bottom examination of the way county government serves residents, with a focus on doing the basics and doing them well.

"This is a 180 (degree) different approach than we have had in the past," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "No gimmicks. Straight to the core."

During the next 15 months, under Merrill's plan, departments would get merged, management ranks would get culled and the county will look to team up with other local governments that provide similar services.

Several types of programs, from day care for the elderly to maintenance of the county's 315 properties, could get farmed out to the private sector.

Merrill has been filling in for Pat Bean, who has been suspended with pay while investigators look into allegations against her of secret pay raises and e-mail snooping. He has spent the better part of the nearly three months she has been gone preparing for Thursday, saying the times required an aggressive rather than passive approach to crafting next year's budget.

He said he and his staff will be meeting with people the county government serves, as well as private providers, to chart a course of action, program by program.

"It's going to be hard work," Merrill said. "We're not always going to agree. But I believe in the process we will be having a conversation we need to have."

Starting today, Merrill plans to issue a series of administrative orders to combine the back shops — things such as accounting and human resources — of several county departments. It's the first step toward what could be full departmental mergers.

And he will also set in motion the layoff process. While 240 positions have been identified, only 73 are currently occupied and some of those employees may get shifted to vacant jobs.

This year's budget hole is filled in part by cuts to spending on such things as overtime and printing, while shifting more of the cost of health care to employees. For the second year, employees will not get pay raises but won't have to take unpaid furlough days.

The county will also tap $18 million from a pool of cash set aside for building maintenance.

That is being done to buy time for the larger organizationwide examination, effectively lessening the need for layoffs this year.

Ultimately, he anticipates the possible merger of departments that provide social services; the water and garbage shops; and offices that deal with growth management, public works and county real estate.

At the same time, there will be efforts to seek bids from private providers for some of the work those departments do, from surveying and road maintenance to operating the animal shelter.

Merrill said he will initiate talks for merging the county's affordable housing efforts with those of the city of Tampa and the Tampa Housing Authority. Similar talks would begin in areas such as Parks and Recreation and emergency dispatch, even though such efforts have failed in the past. "I want to try to achieve this if we can," Merrill said.

Commissioner Kevin White expressed concern that several black county department chiefs could see their jobs diminished or eliminated. Merrill said they might have different titles, but will keep the same pay and responsibilities.

Generally commissioners were receptive, while reserving the right to poke holes later.

"It's certainly refreshing to see what you've presented," said Commissioner Rose Ferlita. "These are new times."

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

Hillsborough County budget plan envisions government makeover 06/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 11, 2010 12:21am]
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