CLEARWATER — Pinellas County leaders started warning of a budget crisis in January.
In the months that followed, they talked about how to cut more than 300 county jobs and shrink services to overcome an $85 million deficit.
But the dire discussions didn't prompt the county to curb spending in one area: salaries.
Nearly 1,200 county workers received raises since Jan. 1, mostly in the 3 percent range, though a few received higher bumps, according to county records.
The raises cost the county at least $2 million, and would have saved about 50 jobs had they not been given, according to county estimates.
"I regret employees had to leave, obviously. Had we known the same facts, I would have advocated no pay raises this year," said Clerk Ken Burke, whose office doled out raises that included increases for at least four top staffers who earn more than $90,000 a year.
Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala unveiled a proposed 2010 budget of $1.66 billion, a 17 percent drop, or $340 million, from a year ago on Tuesday. It contains no raises for the coming year, which starts Oct. 1.
But it's likely too late to do anything about the raises already given, including at least 98 that were given to workers who are slated to be let go.
"This is the first I've learned of these raises, and I'm going to be interested in finding out more about these," County Commissioner Neil Brickfield said. "We're in tight times. That's why we had the hiring freeze."
Governments around the Tampa Bay area have pared workers or are preparing to cut — triggering debates over raises and wage freezes.
In Hillsborough, County Administrator Pat Bean faces a brushback for giving some of her top lieutenants hefty raises. In Pasco County, standard increases were suspended this year, though employees who were promoted can receive more pay, budget director Mike Nurrenbrock said.
Last summer, Pinellas' seven-member personnel board set raises for this year based on performance reviews of up to 3 percent, less than the 5 percent maximum in previous years, said Peggy Rowe, the county's human resources director.
The board oversees employees supervised by the commission, and elected county officials besides the sheriff. It also doesn't set pay raises for salaried workers.
Rowe said she didn't think the number of people getting raises this year seemed unusual.
At the sheriff's office, non-executive members of the sheriff's office got raises in October 2008, but none since, sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said.
After budget forecasts darkened in January, top elected officials decided against suspending raises because other employees had received recent pay hikes and they worried about morale, Burke said.
"On the merit side, I wish we could have saved those dollars. That's all I'll say. But that decision was not mine to make," County Administrator LaSala said.
At least 35 workers received more than the standard 3 percent. That's because they were promoted or took on added duties after cutbacks, county officials said.
As tourism revenue dropped, the county promoted its public relations director to be the second in command at the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
David Downing received a 20 percent raise to make his salary nearly $97,000 in January, putting him among at least three tourism officials who received raises of 10 percent or more.
Like the others, Downing was promoted and picked up much more responsibility, LaSala and tourism chief D.T. Minich said. Downing replaced Lee Daniel, who left as assistant director while making $120,000 a year.
"I didn't receive a raise. It was a new job — it was a promotion to a new job," Downing said.
The agency cut four jobs this year, but expects to keep its staff of 32 people in next year's budget.
Top officials under in the Clerk of Circuit Court Office also got pay bumps. Despite his regrets, Burke said the raises were justified because people took on more tasks.
Myriam Irizarry, a chief deputy director for Burke, received a 1 percent bump to earn $140,600 — making her the highest-paid employee since Jan. 1 to get a raise.
Burke also hired new executive director Suzanne Mucklow and gave her a 14 percent raise in January, saying she took on much more responsibility. Two other top officials in Burke's office making more than $90,000 got 3 percent raises by May 10.
Ten days later, budget officials again warned it was time to rethink how government does business — with 51 pages of cuts, new proposed park fees and hundreds of jobs eliminated.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4167.