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Honesty, humility define Mike Merrill, interim chief in Hillsborough

TAMPA — Since he was tapped to fill in for now-fired Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean, Mike Merrill has been asked if he was interested in taking the job permanently.

His answer: not really. Sure, the intellectual challenge has some appeal, he said. And he'd do it for as long as county commissioners feel his presence serves the greater good. But, he said, it's not his life's ambition.

"To be perfectly honest, I don't have a passion for it like someone who has aspired to do this job," he said.

His answer would make a headhunter cringe. But it just may reflect what county government needs right now. Honesty. Humility. And, yes, a sense of the greater good.

They're traits that define Merrill, say those who know him.

He immediately settles the organization as a steady hand whom commissioners have long relied upon for advice when the choices were too hard, the issues too complex. His stated lack of interest in being the county's chief executive frees him to make hard decisions, and he has taken on the challenge with a plan to recast county government.

And with a ballot proposal looming to potentially replace the administrator with an elected mayor, which would likely weaken the pool of applicants to replace Bean, Merrill represents a sturdy bridge.

"He's a blessing in disguise," said former County Commissioner Jan Platt. "He's a calming influence."

County government is in turbulent waters. Property values are falling, and county coffers shrinking. Commissioners are approving layoffs and trimming programs that help their most vulnerable constituents most.

Yet the prevailing headlines out of County Center for the past year have involved secret pay raises, e-mail trolling and infighting among the people commissioners rely on to steer the ship.

Because of this, commissioners on Wednesday made Bean their first fired administrator — weeks after sacking their performance auditor. And they asked Merrill, who was acting administrator for the past three months while Bean was suspended, to remain as interim chief indefinitely.

In Merrill, they have installed a man who, for the better part of two decades, has been one of the most trusted advisers for a succession of commissioners.

Until about two years ago, when he was made assistant administrator, Merrill, 56, supervised a low-profile, five-person team that managed the county's debt. While overseeing a small staff, the job forced him to understand the how the broader government works.

In that role, he talked commissioners and the public through the complicated financial markets while overseeing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of indebtedness that pays for things such as sewer lines and Raymond James Stadium.

As venerable giants steered their corporations into bankruptcy with risky investments, Merrill, a onetime seminarian, preached the value of conservative bets and timely moves. He did so in the soothing voice of a guidance counselor, expressing calm and confidence.

Those who have worked with Merrill in the financial arena say he has saved the county millions of dollars through the years.

"He is intelligent. He is ethical," said Bonnie Wise, the city of Tampa finance director who previously served as a private-sector financial adviser to the county. "Partly, the reason why he's not a household name is he's not one of those guys who makes things about him."

While he is quick to give credit to others, those in the industry say he plays a critical role in Hills­borough being one of only a few dozen counties in the nation that enjoy the highest, AAA credit rating. That means when the county takes on debt, the interest is lower.

"Mike is very thoughtful, very deliberate and very analytical," said Frank Fleischer, a lawyer with Gray Robinson who serves as bond disclosure counsel for the county. "He handles the county's money like it's his own."

Merrill, a native of Beaver Dam, Wis., attended seminary in his high school years before majoring in political science at Marquette University. He got a master's in religious studies at the University of South Florida before pursuing a career in banking that taught him the skills needed later for government debt management.

If there is any meaning in the seeming disparate pursuits, Merrill says his interest in religion reminds him to step back.

"You can get real focused on the numbers and on the technical finance part of things," Merrill said, "and sort of miss the bigger picture and not see how things fit together and how they work in the larger world."

Even before Bean was fired, Merrill began making plans for changes at county government. His vehicle is the county's budget for next year. It proposes collapsing departments, eliminating management and duplication.

The big picture behind the details is slimming county government while trying to do a better job of serving the public. Or as he says in his budget message, making government "nimble and swift in getting the job done."

Commissioners are singing his praises now. Tensions at County Center have noticeably calmed.

But as the proposals get turned into action, with more employees laid off and whole programs privatized, his honeymoon could be measured in months, if not weeks. Merrill said he is worrying about what he can control.

"Pat's primary focus was her survival on the job," Commissioner Mark Sharpe said. "Mike's not thinking with every move, 'Oh, my God, if I make a mistake or I lose this bloc of support, I might lose my job.' He's here to get a job done. It could be exactly what we need."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Honesty, humility define Mike Merrill, interim chief in Hillsborough 06/17/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 17, 2010 11:24pm]
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