ST. PETERSBURG — Ben Shirley has been working with the city's trash since 1970.
He started out repairing containers and then commanded big rigs before climbing to the rank of sanitation director in 2006.
Among the city's managers, Shirley, 62, has the most seniority of the 41 top bosses. In fact, 22 of those managers each have between 25 and 42 years service with the city.
With aging leaders, St. Petersburg must plan for the day managers leave with intimate knowledge of decades-old projects and insider information needed to keep the city running. They oversee the city's most vital operations like water, sewer, police and fire.
Their parting also will prove costly for St. Petersburg.
The 22 most-senior managers would have been owed nearly $1 million in vacation and sick hours had they retired on Oct. 25. The payouts increase the longer they stay on the job.
Cities filled with legions of longtime bosses, proponents say, typically keep services flowing smoothly to residents. But City Hall critics fear St. Petersburg doesn't have a well-planned succession or a deep bench of mid-level administrators waiting to take over.
Mayor Bill Foster disagrees.
He jokingly called the 22 managers his "old workers" but stressed that taxpayers should not fear their departures. Services, he said, will continue.
"We have plenty of young talent in this organization," Foster said. "I am not worried about retirement."
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Not everyone agrees.
Rick Smith, chief of staff for the Florida Public Services Union, which represents 1,200 city workers, said the graying workforce goes beyond top managers.
It's now common, he says, for workers in their late 60s and early 70s to be on the payroll.
Smith points to 57, the average age of the city's total workforce. He predicts that about 150 workers will retire in 2013 and even more in following years.
He predicts trouble in the sewer and water departments. Difficulties will come when replacing workers who go through years of training to get licenses to deal with specialized machinery, he added. He called the longevity problem a major issue.
"There is no plan on how to do this," Smith said about replacing older workers. "This has finally caught up to where we will have to talk about it."
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St. Petersburg isn't alone with many longtime managers in its ranks. Cities across Florida and the United States face the same battle.
Nowadays, people live longer and don't always retire when they become eligible.
In recent years, the Great Recession delayed retirements by draining savings and investment accounts. Workers also are staying longer because of the rising health care costs.
In fact, the Florida City and County Management Association calls the longevity issue the "quiet crisis" since so many municipal managers are eligible for retirement. The group encourages cities to create succession plans and offer training to lower-ranking managers who could move up the municipal ladder.
"It's the lack of planning that causes problems," said Jonathan Lewis, North Port city manager and past president of the group. "It's throughout Florida."
St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon doesn't see a problem.
Even with the top four leaders each having between 27 and 32 years on the job, Harmon said the agency would run smoothly if they all retired together.
Succession planning, he said, has always been discussed at the agency. After becoming top cop in 2001, Harmon said he gave top managers more responsibility each year to test their leadership skills.
He believes numerous underlings could fill his job when he retires in 2015.
At that time, Foster or any future mayor could hire a chief from the outside or promote from within the ranks. But Harmon said bringing someone in from outside would indicate a need for greater change in the department.
"I think we've done a good job," he said. "We have people ready to step up."
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Some turnover might be good, an expert says.
Robert E. Lee, the executive director of the Center for Florida Local Government Excellence at Florida State University, said plenty of young professionals are trained and awaiting the opportunity to enter public service.
Longevity, Lee stressed, doesn't mean public managers are irreplaceable. Some stay in the same job for decades without learning any new skills, he added.
"It all depends how progressive they were in the careers," said Lee, former city manager in Gulfport and Naples. "Years alone doesn't mean they have institutional knowledge."
Shirley, the sanitation director, disagreed.
The longest-tenured workers, he said, can perform any job and solve each problem as it arises.
He credits the stability to managers who pushed workers in the 1970s to enroll in college classes. They also encouraged workers to learn different jobs so they could rise up the ladder.
Shirley now urges young workers to take classes to advance their careers.
Even with many city employees having more than 30 years of experience, Shirley says residents would never know if leaders retired.
"We're not going to miss a beat," he said. "We have people ready for the jobs."
Besides, Shirley isn't leaving anytime soon.
He added: "I'll work here until I can no longer find my way here."
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.