TAMPA — A lucrative year for Hillsborough County government's top brass continued Wednesday.
County commissioners confirmed the latest six-figure addition to County Administrator Mike Merrill's executive team — Liana Lopez, the new chief communications administrator, who will earn $165,000 a year.
Her hiring comes after the March hiring of Deputy County Administrator Greg Horwedel at $180,000 and pay raises for Merrill (to $217,350), County Attorney Chip Fletcher ($212,175) and Merrill's entire executive team.
This new era of county government largesse is a massive shift from years past, when executive raises prompted heated, hours-long discussions among commissioners and contributed to the ouster of Merrill's predecessor.
The executive hires and raises do not require adding to the county's budget, Merrill has said, because of the elimination of vacant positions and other cuts. The executives oversee a county workforce of more than 4,500 and a yearly budget of about $3.5 billion.
"There's a much higher level of trust for Mike than there was in 2010," said Commissioner Sandy Murman. "He was kind of under the shadows of the old administration for a while."
Lopez, 40, will oversee the county's communication efforts, including marketing, the county's website, social media, citizen complaints and media relations. Most recently director of communications for Visit Tampa Bay, the county's tourism agency, Lopez previously was director of public affairs under former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.
Two ongoing stories from last year that generated negative attention for the county — problems at the animal shelter and a scandal that ended the Homeless Recovery program — prompted Merrill to start looking for someone else to run the county's communication efforts.
"I always felt like we were not proactive enough," Merrill said. "We need to be getting out ahead of stories … or at least not being behind the curve."
Lopez's job duties were formerly done by a few different people, but she effectively replaces Helene Marks, Merrill's chief administrative officer.
Marks, who earns $165,000, will leave the county by the end of the year, Merrill said Wednesday. Merrill is still looking for someone to fill another new position — chief information officer — which will finish out his new six-member executive team, up from four.
The quick, unanimous votes to approve Merrill's hires this year stand in stark contrast to the first time he tried to reorganize his executive team.
In 2011, commissioners lengthily debated the team of four he wanted to hire and promote, questioned whether one position was necessary, and nixed raises.
Much of the angst then was probably due to circumstances surrounding County Administrator Pat Bean's firing the year before.
In the midst of the recession, Bean had given several executives raises — and, secretly, one for herself — while other county government employees lost their jobs or saw their wages frozen.
This year's raises, meanwhile, were not held secret and came in an improved economic climate.
"I don't mind paying a person well, as long as that person performs," said commission Chairman Mark Sharpe. "He'll pay them (executives) well, … but he's not shy about moving people if they don't perform."
For Merrill, the reason for the raises and well-paid hires is simple: He wants good people working for him.
"Its been important to me to be able to hire and keep good people," he said. "You get what you pay for."
Will Hobson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.