Hillsborough County hoarding money that could be used for public services, union says

TAMPA — Hillsborough County government is holding on to excessive reserves that could be used to keep workers in their jobs and maintain services, a top public employee trade union says.

The group's analysis also says rank-and-file workers are disproportionately bearing the brunt of layoffs compared to their bosses.

"It's a question of budget priorities," said Ed Ramthun, a research specialist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who helped produce the analysis given to county commissioners last week. "Our concern is services are going to continue to suffer, and frontline people are going to pay for it."

The report notes that in the next two years the county is planning to build its overall reserves from roughly $706.1 million to $798.4 million, or roughly 14 percent. At the same time, County Administrator Mike Merrill's budget calls for eliminating some 450 full- and part-time jobs.

A voluntary early retirement buyout offer that proved popular this summer will sharply reduce the number of actual layoffs. And by holding vacant positions open and shifting employees receiving pink slips from their current jobs into them, the county hopes the actual number of people shown the door will be in the low dozens.

Still, by tapping some of its reserves, the county could lessen the need to eliminate people and jobs that provide important public services, AFSCME contends. The union represents roughly 1,000 county employees, spokesman Joe Lawrence said.

The county maintains a series of financial reserves spread throughout many service areas. Some are required when the county takes out loans. Others can be used only for specific purposes or are built up in anticipation of planned construction such as new drain pipes.

County officials are still reviewing the AFSCME report, but didn't dispute the overall numbers used.

Tom Fesler, the county's director of business and support services, said he conducted a cursory review of the union's findings. He found that much of the reserve growth will occur in areas where the county has little discretion in how the money is used, such as for utility departments and within a program that provides health care to the poor.

Those utilities charge customers a fee for things like drinking water or garbage pickup, but that money can't be used, for instance, to keep parks employees on the payroll. The sales tax for indigent health care can be used only for that purpose.

Ramthun noted that many millions of dollars are in "rainy day" or other contingency accounts that could be tapped.

Merrill, with the blessing of county commissioners, has steadfastly refused to use reserves for ongoing expenses. He said those reserves help maintain the county's strong credit, which enables it to get the lowest interest rates when borrowing. Plus, it needs to keep cash on hand for emergencies.

More importantly, there's no telling how long the economic downturn will last, he said. It's more important to restructure government to deal with what could be an extended period of flat revenue than deplete reserves to hold on to employees a little longer, he added.

"This is going to be a continuing problem," Merrill said. "This is the very time you would not release reserves."

He said he is trying to shrink his workforce in ways the public doesn't notice much.

The AFSCME analysis further says that the people weathering cuts the hardest are lower-level workers who actually provide services. In department after department, it highlights layoff margins that suggest more bosses are keeping their jobs than people they supervise.

Ramthun said he used lists of positions cut by department, noting how many unclassified positions — generally, though not exclusively, upper-level managers — were eliminated compared to those who are classified and enjoy civil service protection.

County officials say they have looked at that issue themselves, because commissioners have asked similar questions. They found the numbers to be skewed because many employees have titles that sound like they supervise others, even though they don't.

They said it stands to reason that there are more frontline positions getting cut because there are more of them.

Fesler, the county's business services chief, said an analysis of positions eliminated since 2007 showed that 25 percent of the county's unclassified — or upper-management — workforce has been eliminated vs. 17 percent of classified workers.

Commissioner Les Miller, who has challenged some of the administration's layoff plans and more recently the treatment of dismissed employees, said he'd like to see further analysis. He said he has been seeking a response to some of the union's observations.

"I'm asking questions," he said. "I'm going to keep a watchful eye on it."

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

Hillsborough County hoarding money that could be used for public services, union says 09/04/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 4, 2011 8:21pm]

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