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Pinellas County's fiscal watchdog loses his job, a victim of budget cuts

CLEARWATER — Bob Melton exposed bad accounting in the Penny for Pinellas construction program. He showed that county building inspectors were ineffective, and deemed judges intransigent.

But budget cuts have done what the targets of Melton's audits could not — strip Pinellas County's top watchdog of his job.

Melton, 53, is being laid off by Pinellas County Clerk Ken Burke.

After Burke told him Thursday that two auditing jobs had to be eliminated to balance the budget, Melton said he decided that he should be the one to go. His July 6 departure was announced to employees by e-mail this week.

"I certainly was not asked," Melton said Tuesday. "We had known … for some time that someone in our department was going to have to get laid off. We hadn't received the word."

Burke said Melton's decision surprised him, but that he did not try to talk Melton into staying. Melton had a good reason to leave, he said. "It's the county or God. Who's going to come first?" Burke said.

Melton, a minister, said he plans to do mission work with his wife, Lorita, in Costa Rica — a career change he envisioned making a year or so from now, not this summer as he approached nine years as the county's top auditor. He earns $140,600 a year.

The couple own a home in Costa Rica, and visit often to do Christian outreach.

"I just feel now it's time," Melton said. "I spent basically 30 years being battle warrior for the taxpayers and looking out for their interest. Now I feel like I'm going to be a battle warrior of the Lord."

It's not the first sharp turn in his life.

In December, his Palm Harbor home was foreclosed with nearly $598,000 in principal unpaid, court records show. It's unrelated to his job change, and a sign the bad economy affects lots of people, Melton said.

In 2000, he left his job as the city auditor in Dallas to take the Pinellas post without telling his bosses in Texas, using vacation time to bolt. Melton, who took a pay cut to come here, said he had exposed deep problems in city departments, creating enemies and prompting investigations there.

He didn't make loads of friends in Pinellas, either. County officials complained that Melton went beyond spending to look at their intentions and operating decisions.

This spring, Chief Judge Robert Morris blasted Melton for overstepping his legal authority by trying to audit court spending. In 2004, former County Administrator Fred Marquis called an audit "bunk" when it found the county exaggerated how much sales tax money actually was spent on Penny for Pinellas construction projects.

Though he leaves the payroll after July 10, Melton probably won't be out of sight. Burke and Melton are discussing a deal paying him $50 an hour to be a consultant for a year.

A deputy, Hector Collazo, will take over for Melton in July as chief of internal audit. Melton's job will be gone, along with an auditor's position.

That means two fewer sets of eyes watching the county as it cuts tens of millions of spending for 2010.

"You're going to lose a little step obviously when you have less people doing auditing," Burke said.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Bob Melton's favorite audits

Penny for Pinellas: Rebuking county statements that $741 million went to construction projects from the tax, a Melton-led audit in 2004 showed only $448 million was spent — less "bang for the buck" than advertised.

Building inspections: A 2003 report found that the county's building inspectors failed to inspect 22 percent of projects, from roofs to air conditioners. County officials vowed improvement, but a 2006 report found 16 percent still went unchecked.

Healthcare: A May report found the county's health insurer paid $550,000 too much in claims, prompting county officials and United Health Care to make changes to reduce some overpayment.

Pinellas County's fiscal watchdog loses his job, a victim of budget cuts 06/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 11:44pm]

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