In Hillsborough County, brain drain has its benefits

TAMPA — Headlines have chronicled the many rounds of public-sector layoffs in recent years.

But Hillsborough County government has experienced an added feature: The near wholesale departure of its upper management ranks.

Of 26 department or agency heads who reported to the county administrator in the middle of 2009, just eight remain in the same jobs. Many had already planned retirement dates, while others have stepped away to try other things. A few were forced out or assigned different tasks, while some say their jobs were no longer as enjoyable.

The turnover has gotten little pushback from the public, or even commissioners who oversee the stew of county government.

"I've always had concerns about brain drain and what the legacy plan is for continuity," said Commissioner Kevin Beckner. But he and some of his commission colleagues say the timing of so many defections may be fortuitous.

It's allowing new leaders to rise, and gives fledgling County Administrator Mike Merrill a chance to pursue a remake of county government that would have been more challenging otherwise.

Asked whether he shared any of Beckner's concern about the loss of top talent, Republican Commissioner Mark Sharpe answered with an emphatic "no."

"Sometimes you can have the opposite phenomenon where people stay too long and you have calcified thinking," Sharpe said. "We need as much fresh, outside thinking as possible.

I welcome their service, but also I welcome the change."

• • •

Communications director Lori Hudson periodically distributes a quick reference list of contacts for top county officials.

Within weeks of passing out the latest iteration earlier this summer, Hudson had to recall it. It was already out of date.

"Frankly, there had been a lot of changes," Hudson said. "So we had it called back and issued a new version."

Gone was animal services director Bill Armstrong, who oversaw that department for about a dozen years. Out was Gene Gray, the economic development chief with 34 years at the county who decided to speed up his retirement.

Longtime top lobbyist Edith Stewart joined him on the exit ramp as did human resources director George Williams, who headed off for another job.

Other departures were expected. Emergency management director Larry Gispert, made clear he was ready to stop worrying about everyone else when hurricanes threaten. Public works director Bob Gordon, Real estate director Mike Kelly, fire rescue chief Bill Nesmith — each left with dozens of years under their belts.

For health and social services director Dave Rogoff, it was not the crush of new responsibilities added to his already heavy workload. He had long planned to try out academia. When he got a call from the University of South Florida, it sped up the timetable.

"In my case, it was a personal decision," Rogoff said. "It was not a reflection on management."

Gray, the county's top economic development official, already was enrolled in a state program that signaled his planned retirement. When Merrill offered buyouts, Gray decided to leave a year early.

He knows it sounds hokey, but for most of his career Gray said he felt like he had the kind of job that helped people. That gave him great satisfaction.

"In recent years, with the challenges that the economy has brought to local governments, it's made operating in that environment much more difficult and much more challenging," Gray said. "One of the many downsides of that is it took a lot of the joy out of being able to accomplish the things you want and feel like you need to do."

Armstrong, the animal services director, said, if anything, he wishes he had stayed just a little longer. By announcing his retirement when he did, he missed the buyout offer.

He said his timing was driven by a desire to spend more time with family, particularly a young grandchild. But he acknowledged changes at the county under way now would have been hard to accept.

"I think the way things were going, and how quickly things where changing, I think in terms of timing I made a good decision," Armstrong said, "because I probably would have been tough to deal with."

• • •

Armstrong's old department illustrates the way county government is evolving. Before he left, he had presided over changes that at last were lessening the number of dogs and cats euthanized each year.

In recent years, the county has stopped picking up roadkill and is responding mainly to calls about strays only when a loose animal poses a danger.

Now Merrill is proposing to farm out animal adoptions to the Humane Society of Tampa Bay as part of a privatization push.

Merrill is consolidating offices that handle building permits and zoning changes, seeking to hand off Section 8 housing to the Tampa Housing Authority and scaling back where the county offers after-school programs.

Back-office jobs housed in individual departments such as those in accounting, bookkeeping and technology are getting centralized. Job descriptions are getting rewritten and employees are being asked to re-apply, with no guarantee they'll be rehired.

Merrill said he is not concerned about losing so many people, and said his personal experience speaks to why. A few years ago, he headed the county's debt management office, supervising a handful of employees.

Today, that department no longer exists and Merrill is administrator. Of six deputies who reported to his predecessor, only two remain, including himself.

"It's a struggle a little bit," Merrill said of the transition. "But there's some really good people out there and they're just waiting for their chance.

"I've kind of gone through the same thing. I just feel invigorated about it."

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

In Hillsborough County, brain drain has its benefits 08/07/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 7, 2011 12:07am]

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