When we lose good public employees, we all pay

Outgoing Hernando community development director Jean Rags saved the county millions of dollars during her tenure.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Outgoing Hernando community development director Jean Rags saved the county millions of dollars during her tenure.

The $5.6 million neighborhood stabilization grant arrived when Hernando County needed it most and was spent where it was needed most.

Starting in 2009, this federal money helped 90 county families buy and fix up foreclosed houses. It prevented neglected properties from dragging down neighborhoods. And the repair and remodeling work helped contractors get by in some very tough times, said Dudley Hampton, owner of BJH Construction of Ridge Manor.

As a registered Republican and former president of the right-leaning Hernando Builders Association, Hampton is not necessarily a fan of government stimulus packages.

"But this one worked," he said.

Yes, some government programs do work and so do some government employees, and maybe none of them worked harder and more efficiently than outgoing Hernando community development director Jean Rags, whose ability to navigate bureaucratic mazes allowed the county to become one of the first in the state to win a stabilization grant.

"People can say what they want about the raise thing, but she did a fantastic job procuring that money, and she did a fantastic job administering the program," Hampton said.

That's the amazing, misguided thing: People did complain about the "raise thing." Rags, by prevailing in a sex discrimination complaint, forced the county in June to increase her salary by more than $16,000, to $93,500, and our story about this on tampabay.com drew several sarcastic comments about poor, underpaid government workers.

If you agree, then you need to listen to the only other county employee as highly regarded as Rags, environmental services director Joe Stapf, who, unfortunately, is also leaving; in his resignation letter, Stapf said that if the county wants to keep good people, it needs to pay decent salaries.

Maybe county employees don't have a lot to complain about in this market, and I know for a fact a few of them fit the worst stereotypes of public workers, hiding in their cubicles and counting the days until retirement.

But if we don't give public employees the wages and respect they deserve, we'll have more of these under-performing workers and fewer like Rags and Stapf, who, if you look at it closely, save and even bring in a lot more money than they cost us.

In Rags' case, there's the stabilization grant and, over the years, $6 million in community development block grants. Consider also that the county is required to share the cost of several social programs, from Medicaid to indigent burials. By sifting through these bills and contesting the ones it doesn't really need to pay, Rags' Health and Human Services Department saved the county $10.9 million between 2003 and 2010, a period when the department's total budget came to $1.9 million.

Maybe you don't like the idea of spending tax money helping people who should be able to help themselves. Maybe you hate the very name of the department Rags ran for the past 12 years. And maybe its mission — helping residents gain access to programs such as food stamps — is enough to give you chest pains.

Okay, but if we in Hernando are all paying into the federal pot, isn't it good to have somebody around to make sure our many struggling residents — and our economy as a whole — take out their share?

Also, not all of this money is tax money. For example, most large drug companies run programs to help patients with chronic illnesses stay on their medications. And that's exactly where Rags' office sends people who can't afford their monthly prescriptions.

What if nobody helps these indigent patients? Well, they might need hospitalization, which is partly a county expense, and, of course, a potentially huge one.

So, more savings. And if that's not enough for you, here's a list of operations Rags has supervised as a member of the county's leadership team:

Libraries, Veterans Services, the Housing Authority, Public Health, the Cooperative Extension Service. For a while — before she received her raise — she was also in charge of Code Enforcement and Animal Services. A pretty good deal for taxpayers, don't you think?

Rags, 55, is leaving at the end of this week to take care of her ailing mother, and said the pay and working conditions at the county had little to do with her decision to retire.

So it's up to me to tell you what everybody who spends any time in county offices has known for a while: Morale stinks, and not just because of benefit cuts, furloughs and wage freezes, but because these contribute to the feeling that county leaders and many residents don't value their work.

This won't drive away all of our county employees, of course. Just the valuable ones.

When we lose good public employees, we all pay 10/15/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 15, 2011 4:04pm]

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