TAMPA — Many Hillsborough County government workers will soon get something they haven't had in almost five years: pay raises.
And some of them will be sizable, with a select few, including three of the county's top executives, getting hikes topping $20,000 and the fire chief getting a nearly $30,000 bump. A few of the raises reach 29 percent.
County Administrator Mike Merrill told commissioners in a memo Friday that he intends to award raises immediately to select employees: those at the lowest end of the pay scale, some at the top and many somewhere in the middle. The pay hikes would apply to 357 county employees, or about 7 percent of the county's workforce that reports to Merrill, and would be retroactive to March 1.
Most other employees would get "equity raises" of 3.5 percent starting Oct. 6 under Merrill's planned budget for the next fiscal year. Those who got recent promotions or are at the top of their pay grade would be excluded. Merrill hopes to reinstitute merit raises the following year, after his department directors craft new evaluations that more closely tie pay to measurable performance standards.
In the memo, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, Merrill said it's time to reward employees who have absorbed pay freezes and added duties as large numbers of their coworkers got laid off. Those employees ensured that the county continued to deliver quality services to residents, Merrill said, adding that he fears losing some of them as the economy recovers if he does nothing.
"On average, the salary adjustments I have described above represent a relatively small percentage of the annual operating budget," Merrill wrote to commissioners. "But they have immeasurable value to employees who have stepped up to the challenge and helped me deliver on my promise to the Board and community to transform the culture, values and services of the organization.
"This is a significant step to reaffirming our key organizational value of fair and equitable compensation."
For now, employees at the lowest pay levels — 135, including some currently making minimum wage — would see their hourly pay rise to $10.06. That's a little more than the $9.63 per hour Hillsborough Civil Service says would be a "living wage" for a single person in this part of Florida, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculator.
Another 222 employees, including some who already are among the county's top wage earners, would get raises ranging from $280 a year to $29,248. They include Merrill's chief administrative officer, Helene Marks ($26,098), and deputy county administrators Sharon Subadan ($26,098) and Lucia Garsys ($21,979), each of whom would see their salaries climb to $165,000.
Merrill said the raises are based on a market study of salaries for comparable jobs and reflect added duties many of those employees have taken on as the county shaved 1,600 jobs in the past five years. In some cases, the hikes correct situations in which supervisors are making less than subordinates.
Another factor affecting the raises Merrill is awarding to some of his top employees was the commission's recent vote to hire a new auditor who will supervise two people and make $150,009. Merrill said the amount is not too much but rather an indicator of the market. It is significantly more than some of his top directors make supervising hundreds of employees and overseeing millions in tax dollars.
"Part of it is so I can retain high-quality people," Merrill said. "The biggest difference is these folks have proven themselves and we've made substantial changes in the way we do business and in the way we serve customers."
And yet they are not getting paid commensurate to peers with similar jobs, Merrill said.
In all, the cost of the immediate, tailored raises will be $768,350 in the current fiscal year, though that reflects a partial year of salary and benefits and the cost will be recurring. Merrill said that amounts to .09 percent of the county's operating budget.
Other than a one-time, $1,500 payment county workers got last year, which didn't affect their base wages, government employees have actually seen their wages decline in the past five years. That's because the state began requiring state workers, and by extension county employees, to contribute to their pension costs.
Merrill is not required to get permission from commissioners to enact the targeted raises since they won't require a budget amendment. He has the authority to set salaries for his employees under the county's charter though commissioners set the county's budget.
Still, raises have been a sticky subject at County Center. Secret raises former County Administrator Pat Bean awarded herself and other top employees in 2007 ultimately led to her dismissal when commissioners learned of them. Her predecessor stepped down in part when commissioners realized he had been doling out generous raises to county employees for several successive years.
But Merrill has been slow-walking his plan both publicly and to commissioners for months, saying that restoring raises for county employees is a top priority this year. Commissioners reached Friday morning, most of whom had not seen the memo and its details, were guarded in their comments.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe said Merrill has signaled his intentions for months, and he generally supports them in concept, though he hadn't yet read the details.
"What I've been saying to Mike is that, for our rank-and-file staff and those who are doing the bulk of the work under pretty extreme circumstances in the past few years, I want to make sure we're compensating them for their work," Sharpe said. "I don't mind paying people as long as there is performance."
Victor Crist, who voted Thursday to award the Tampa International Airport CEO $500,000 in bonus retirement money if he stays on the job for five years, said he also had not seen the memo. But like Sharpe, he said he's amenable to paying people who do good work.
"Mike will need to not only show me but prove to me the value of doing this and I will need to see a fair rate of return on whatever investment we choose to make," Crist said. "At this point, productivity and quality of work are incredibly important."
Other commissioners either declined to comment because they had not seen the memo or could not be reached.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.