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Pinellas County Administrator LaSala's first-year grades good, but incomplete

As Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala wraps up his first year at the helm, many credit him with steering the county through deep spending reductions with only minor stumbles.

Within weeks of being hired last fall, LaSala began focusing on cutting and rearranging the budget after the financial crisis caused revenue to dive. It became his primary test.

The county administrator who emerged — after nearly $78 million in cuts and 300 layoffs — showed he was more of a listener and more prone to delegate work than his predecessor, Steve Spratt.

"I look back and say we didn't have a meltdown. We didn't find ourselves thrown into a chaotic situation," said LaSala, 60, who is paid $225,000 a year.

Fundamental change in the county — hammered by the Jim Smith scandal that took down its top two leaders in 2007 — has yet to happen.

But LaSala says change is coming. Pinellas County government, previously more aggressive and active, is shrinking and rearranging priorities. But he acknowledges the budget sucked up most of his time.

Starting off, LaSala asked commissioners and other community leaders for lists of people he should meet.

St. Petersburg Mayor-elect Bill Foster made it to the list before he announced, but LaSala has yet to sit down with him. He's completed only about half his list of roughly 150 people — another item sidetracked by the financial crisis.

"I do think that Bob does listen," said former Commissioner Ronnie Duncan. "Bob does ask people and genuinely wants to know their opinion."

LaSala keeps a neat office on the sixth floor of the courthouse in Clearwater. He sometimes trades his chair for a large workout ball (better for posture). Nearby, he has the oath of the citizens of Athens hanging on the wall. Keen on technology, he likes to communicate via e-mail.

The differences between LaSala and Spratt largely involve tone and approach.

Spratt had a folder for every issue, said Ray Neri, leader of the Lealman Community Association. LaSala has just a few, delegating more work to others.

LaSala is "less combative," Neri said, and avoids going "face to face" as Spratt did.

"We ask a question to him; I get an answer. It's a refreshing change," said Don Ewing, president of the Council of North County Neighborhoods, a watchdog group for communities in unincorporated Pinellas.

But it may not always be the answer they sought.

While Spratt was an aggressive advocate for unincorporated areas — and a protector against unwanted annexations by cities — LaSala is less so, Neri said. "I think he's getting an earful from everybody, and I think what he wants to do is calm down everything," Neri said.

LaSala said he is still working on what the county's approach should be — a decision for the commission on a topic ripe for rift among cities and Pinellas.

While his first year is lauded, LaSala's work history includes leaving city manager jobs in two California cities and Boca Raton due to political friction.

But it appears he's ready to put down roots. He said he intends to close on a home in Pinellas by December's end.

Recycling stumbles

LaSala's biggest trouble has been starting a countywide curbside recycling program.

Once slated for a January start, the plan has run into delays because of questions from the commission over its cost. Twice this year, LaSala brought the proposal to the board only to field more questions instead of move it closer to starting.

It now looks like the program may have to be implemented in phases to get it going, instead of the June start date, said Commissioner Ken Welch. A workshop that was planned in December to discuss the county's options has been delayed.

Some commissioners have criticized LaSala and his staff' for inadequately fleshing out the strategy, and moving ahead faster than the board was ready.

"Maybe he didn't look at the past because he was so busy keeping up with what's going on today," Commissioner Susan Latvala said. "That was started before he got here. He should have backed up to square one."

LaSala said the recycling problems are due to assumptions that were made before his tenure. For example, the first- year cost originally was pegged at $10 million, but ended up as $25 million in the budget because staffers under LaSala factored in startup costs.

More issues he tackled, such as adding computers in the court system, avoided snags and better represent how the county tackles problems, he said.

Looking back, LaSala acknowledged a need to "revisit" the program, though he blamed the holdups on discovering new information.

That's not the only thing he wishes he could do over.

In one of 60 meetings with employees in October, he told a group of about 25 planners that he wished he could change one decision.

In January, he had a chance to seek a change on the rating system used to determine which employees have to shift to new jobs when their positions are eliminated. He didn't.

That seniority-based system has "bumped" people to departments where they have little experience. In the first days operating a new budget, some departments were befuddled over who was where.

He wouldn't do that again. He would change the system to allow shifts based on workers' job skills.

Time for change?

Overall, Latvala and other commissioners give him high marks for his first year. His next job review is in April.

"He jumped into at a big moment in time with such a large cut, and he did very good — very good," said Commissioner Nancy Bostock, a critic of his handling of the recycling program.

The board and LaSala spent last week in daylong meetings to discuss long-term priorities and ways to work together better.

A top administrator in the 1980s, LaSala arrived to find a much bigger government operation than the one he left two decades earlier. Environmental programs had started, and recreation activities increased.

Now, LaSala leads a government that is shrinking. Already, some residents have complained over cuts to parks staff and maintenance. There also was outcry about Eagle Lake Park in Largo, which was finished five months early this summer but remains closed because the county says it can't afford to open the $23.6 million park before April.

LaSala thinks one solution for parks might be to expand the county's volunteer program to include more residents. Now the program lines up enough volunteers whose help amounts to $2 million worth of labor. LaSala wants to increase it to $20 million worth of free work.

The county's financial crisis offers opportunity for change, he said. But changes will take time, he cautioned.

"It's creative destruction."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas County Administrator LaSala's first-year grades good, but incomplete 11/28/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 1, 2009 12:35pm]

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