TAMPA — Some of Hillsborough County government's top officials have begun talks to shrink the reach of the Civil Service System, which many public employees regard as the protector of their job security and fair workplace treatment.
Discussions include "separating from or modifying our participation in the Civil Service System," according to a memo Tax Collector Doug Belden sent Friday to employees.
Participants in the recent discussions, including Belden, County Administrator Mike Merrill, County Attorney Chip Fletcher and Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank, described them as "formative." But they are sure to cause anxiety among the county's rank-and-file workers, just now emerging from years of wage freezes, newly mandated pension contributions and added job duties that resulted from falling tax revenues.
Recognizing that, Merrill issued his own memo to employees Friday, saying any "rumors that we are moving to abolish Civil Service" are "simply not true."
But Merrill confirmed last week his participation in talks on the future of Civil Service. He said no proposals are on the table. If changes are made, he said, they likely would apply to new hires in the part of county government he supervises, not existing workers.
At the same time, he also voiced some of his frustrations with Civil Service. They center on what he describes as a lack of flexibility and a level of unnecessary bureaucracy that affects those he seeks to hire and promote, and how he tries to deploy their skills on the job.
At times, he said, the rules seem aimed at protecting seniority over enabling him to find and retain the best and brightest workers and using them in ways that best serve the public. That, Merrill said, puts him at a disadvantage when competing against other governments and the private sector in hiring and keeping skilled workers since few governments in Florida still have a fully functioning civil service board.
"The question is, can Civil Service be reformed in such a way to really help us be prepared for the next generation of government or the next workforce coming through?" Merrill asked. "It's really a fish out of water and why most governments don't have it."
Hillsborough County's Civil Service Board was created by legislative act in 1955. Its aim was partly to keep ever-changing politicians from determining who gets hired and fired in county governments.
It consists of a seven-member board appointed by the governor and staff that screens applicants for county openings, creates job classifications and signs off on employees moving from one assignment or title to another. The panel also serves as an third party that hears workplace grievances from county employees.
Hillsborough County Civil Service covers largely non-management workers in 21 separate agencies from the Tampa Sports Authority to the Sheriff's Office. Of the roughly 10,000 workers in those agencies, 9,400 are covered by Civil Service, which operates on a $3.3 million budget.
It is one of the last fully functioning Civil Service agencies in the state, along with what Pinellas County calls its Unified Personnel System.
In recent years, the agency has worked closely and generally congenially with its member governments as they have been forced to lay off workers and reassign others. Still, frustrations remain.
Merrill met with Belden, Fletcher and Frank on July 22 to discuss some of them.
Belden said much of what Civil Services does has value, such as hearing grievances, and it would be costly for each government agency to create its own entity to do that work. But in other ways, it limits how his customer service employees who issue fishing licenses and auto tags have their jobs classified and are paid.
The result: Belden regularly has workers poached by banks who need people with similar skills and pay better for less complicated jobs. That forces him to train new employees, which takes months.
"My management philosophy in the tax collector's office is, if it ain't broke, improve it," Belden said. "There is not a single process in the public or private sector that cannot be tweaked to make it better, faster, cheaper."
Likewise, Frank stressed that she doesn't intend to do away with workplace protections for employees. She, too, has been frustrated with the slow pace of having job descriptions changed to best reflect the talent she needs, particularly in ever-evolving technology fields.
Frank said her main interest is in having greater flexibility to reward employees who go the extra mile and to move people into different jobs when temporary vacancies or needs arise.
Depending on what is suggested, the county may have to propose legislation to amend the act that created Civil Service. But some changes could come about by modifying rules locally.
Dane Petersen, director of the Hillsborough County Civil Service, said he was not aware of the discussions. He said he is certain there are things that could be changed to help the county make workplace decisions more efficiently. But he emphasized that his office has considerable value by effectively handling human resources for nearly two dozen county agencies that would otherwise have to hire their own staff at considerable cost.
Bill Varian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3387.