TAMPA — For hundreds of Hillsborough County government employees, it was a summer of anxiety as they awaited word on whether they would survive budget cuts.
Eleven employees in the Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department, who only recently were told they were safe, found out Thursday they were back in limbo. And 11 other employees who believed their walking papers were final learned they could stay with the county after all.
County officials are blaming a procedural error in determining who stays and who goes.
"Regrettable," is how Communications Director Lori Hudson described it.
"It was a horrible situation," acknowledged County Administrator Mike Merrill, who visited the department Thursday morning to explain what happened. "It's emotionally distressing for everyone, including me."
What happened is complicated.
For the past four years, the county has undergone a series of cutbacks — including multiple rounds of layoffs — due to declining property tax revenue in the down economy.
The parks department got hit hard this year as the county scaled back after-school programs for elementary- and middle school-age children and privatized maintenance of park lands.
This summer, 60 parks employees got notice that their jobs could be eliminated, representing nearly a third of all county workers who got such notices. As part of a department reorganization, 33 parks positions were created with new job titles and duties.
Those who got layoff notices were told they could apply for the new jobs. The problem was with how those applications were screened.
Parks and county human resource officials were supposed to follow a rather mathematical process.
It rated applicants numerically based on their performance in an interview, their seniority and past evaluations, with downgrades for a record of disciplinary problems.
Instead, applicants who scored highest in that round were subjected to a second interview panel.
They survived or were rejected based on their response to a variation of one question: "How do you feel about the direction of the department?"
And so 11 employees who scored high in the first round were passed over based on their answer to that one question.
Parks department employment procedures don't contemplate such a screening element, or even a second interview.
They specify a process that considers applicants consistently and objectively.
County Commissioner Les Miller brought the deviation to Merrill's attention last week, along with allegations that employees were being treated rudely during the layoff process.
"If you're a taxpayer, you want to have people in government doing the best job they possibly can," Miller said. "If your employees are treated properly, they're going to do a good job for the citizens of your county."
Merrill found the procedural question had merit.
He said he has promised the employees told their job offers had been rescinded that he will attempt to find them other work at the county.
He said he has not determined why the problem occurred.
Parks Director Mark Thornton did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Merrill said it is not unreasonable for county supervisors to take steps to ensure, particularly at a time of cutbacks, that employees who remain want to be a part of moving forward.
But he said in this case, the process wasn't followed.
"Anybody who's hiring someone wants to know if that person is going to be someone who can work within the system or within the organization and is willing to be part of the team," Merrill said. "How you go about determining that is the question."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.