TAMPA — In Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill's mind, public libraries won't be where people just check out books or surf the Internet in the future. They'll be places to request a building permit or pay a water bill.
More county services would be available online. County employees would be encouraged to telecommute where feasible. County government would get leaner, but serve residents better.
As a symbol of the sort of change Merrill is proposing, County Center in downtown Tampa could largely get vacated at some point in the future, much of its office space leased.
"More efficient. More responsive," Merrill said. "I think that's what people want from their government. I'm a taxpayer. That's what I want."
Merrill unveiled this strategic vision for county commissioners Thursday during their annual retreat, which in past years has been their goal-setting session for the year. On Thursday, it was Merrill laying out the goals, testing them before commissioners to see if he was heading in the right direction.
They liked what they heard. In fact, the more longtime commissioners among them said they've been waiting for just such a presentation and debate for years.
In fact, during the meeting, one of them made a motion to give Merrill the job permanently, citing his presentation as evidence that the county is in good hands. It was approved 5-2.
"This is my ninth retreat," said Commissioner Ken Hagan. "To be candid, I never thought these were productive. The way he's approached this retreat says it all."
County government has seen its property tax revenue fall by nearly a quarter billion dollars in the past four years. Things are not looking up for next year.
In recent past retreats, commissioners have spent much of their day discussing ways to rein in unruly public speakers at their meetings and heard presentations of customer surveys. Those topics got mentioned Thursday, but as footnotes to a larger, meatier discussion.
Merrill started it by laying out his argument for a rethink of county government and his plans to set it in motion. In short: Times will remain tough, so a more fundamental change is needed to the way county government serves the public than the simple across-the board layoffs of the recent past.
The broad themes:
•Identify services residents want the most and do those well. Either jettison other programs that are not considered essential or farm them out to the private sector. Team up with other governments on some programs.
• Make important services available closer to where people live by offering them at the county's many other buildings, such as libraries, community centers and fire stations. Use technology better to make it happen.
• In rating priorities, give weight in the short term to services that have potential to encourage job creation.
• Cut red tape and walls between department — not regulations that protect the public, but the wait-in-one-line-only-to-get-sent-to-another bureaucracy.
• Cross train employees to do more than one job. Eliminate the sort of rules that can make government hiring, job duties and promotional criteria inflexible.
Merrill already has put some of this in motion in ways that his predecessor, Pat Bean, resisted. He was sharing the next steps with commissioners Thursday. Much of it remains conceptual, with more specific plans to be hashed out then implemented in the coming two years.
Among the more concrete ideas discussed, Merrill said he foresees an emphasis on placing employees who interact with people closer to them. And he said he anticipates an emphasis on technology upgrades that allow county employees, and the public, to track a problem from beginning to resolution.