Hillsborough elections chief takes over office's finances

According to a release, Johnson's chief reason for taking over financial functions is to end the three-week delay in getting checks to the 3,000 poll workers employed at election time.

Times file photo

According to a release, Johnson's chief reason for taking over financial functions is to end the three-week delay in getting checks to the 3,000 poll workers employed at election time.

TAMPA — Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson is transferring control of payroll, contracts, bill-paying and other financial functions from the clerk of the circuit court to his own office, and he says the change won't cost taxpayers a dime.

Some officials have their doubts about the plan.

"I don't see any rationale for it," said Hillsborough budget director Eric Johnson. "It makes much more sense to keep the financial tasks centralized."

Johnson would not respond to questions about his take-over of financial functions. Instead, his general counsel, Kathy Harris, wrote a 630-word release saying, in part, that "the transition will have no financial impact on taxpayers."

According to an outside auditing firm, the clerk of the court spends $10,914 to handle all the financial needs of the elections office.

Yet Johnson's first step in taking on those duties was to hire certified public accountant Michelle Stacie Poppell, 48, a former accounting manager for the Hillsborough sheriff who is paid $88,691 and has a benefits package costing $24,400.

That doesn't sound like a money-saving move to Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank.

"In the austere times we're facing, I'd say it's illogical to incur additional costs when you can keep these functions consolidated," Frank said.

Harris said in her release that Poppell was able to fill a position created by attrition, noting she played "a key role" in reducing the elections office personnel costs from fiscal year 2008 to 2009. Those costs will drop from $3.5-million to $3.48-million, a half-percent reduction of $20,475, according to budget records.

Around the state, some elections offices handle all of their own financial tasks while some handle none.

Pinellas Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark has administered payroll and other financial functions in-house for more than 20 years, though she relies to a degree on Pinellas County's personnel information system.

"It works for us," she said.

In Manatee, Supervisor Robert Sweat believes he saves money and manpower by letting the clerk of the court do those tasks.

"I have no idea why you'd do it yourself," Sweat said. "I don't need the financial staff, and the clerk has these services. It's always a good check and balance, I think."

Johnson's chief reason for taking over financial functions, according to Harris' release, is to end the three-week delay in getting checks to the 3,000 poll workers employed at election time.

But in the agreement to transfer services from Frank's office, Johnson won't take over the payroll function until Jan. 1, 2009 — too late to help poll workers in the primary and presidential elections this year.

In the press release, Plant City poll worker Jean Weaver is quoted as saying she is "happy to hear poll workers will receive checks faster," and believes Johnson "continues to make good improvements in all areas of the office."

Weaver, 81, said in a phone interview Thursday that she doesn't remember things well anymore but does recall Johnson calling her recently to talk about "something new he was going to try.

"I told him I'd be for it," Weaver said. "I've known Buddy and his family for a long time. I have confidence in him."

The transfer of financial functions also will help prevent outsiders from second-guessing his actions. County officials chastised Johnson when he would not follow rules for using government credit cards, and a bigger dustup occurred in 2006 when Frank questioned Johnson's payment of nearly $25,000 to terminated elections PR director Steve Holub.

When Frank learned Johnson wanted to pay Holub $24,142 not to sue or say anything about what he had seen in the elections office, she initially balked at cutting the check, saying there was no authority to do it because Holub enjoyed no civil service protection.

Johnson never publicized the payment to Holub or the unusual confidentiality agreement. The media found it at Frank's office, and it became news.

"The public needs access to records, and we have provided that," Frank said this week. "Only Buddy knows if that will continue."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can reached at (813) 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com

Hillsborough elections chief takes over office's finances 05/29/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 30, 2008 7:57pm]

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