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After years of friction, Tampa and Hillsborough officials find spirit of cooperation

TAMPA — Leaders of Hillsborough County and Tampa's governments have talked for years about combining efforts on things they do in common.

But the talk has largely gone nowhere due to politics, turf wars and a general unwillingness to work together. Until now.

This week, both governments are expected to give their final blessings to a significant collaboration: the joint purchase of a $34.1 million software system. The new technology will power their accounting, budgeting, purchasing and personnel decisions.

It's not particularly sexy, and most of the public will never notice anything different. That may be a large part of why it appears to be coming together where past talk of merging parks programs or centralizing 911 operations has failed to reach first base.

"It's because it's back-room operations. I think that's the key," said Eric Johnson, a former budget director who is overseeing the county's end of the project. "People get territorial when you talk about merging something that's the face of an organization, like firefighters or parks workers."

Not only that, but this is just a merger of technology. Both governments will retain control of their own back-room workforces.

Officials with both governments say there is more to it. County Administrator Mike Merrill says the economic downturn that has erased millions in tax revenues for both governments is encouraging a team approach.

By purchasing the software system together, Johnson estimates the two governments will save a combined $6.5 million. The cost will be split, 59 percent from the county, 41 percent from the city.

More than anything, said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the joint purchase crystallizes a general thawing in the often icy relationship between major players in both governments. That has been made possible by changes at the top in both governments, he said, without naming names.

"I think the level of cooperation between the city and county is at this point unprecedented," said Buckhorn. "The days of rancor and partisanship are over and certainly has been since I took office. I don't have time for the drama."

Both he and Merrill said the technology collaboration is setting the table for further joint ventures. They said they are in serious talks, along with Plant City and Temple Terrace leaders, to merge all or part of the offices that deal with minority and small business contracting, vehicle maintenance and purchasing.

Said Merrill, who has been administrator for a little more than a year: "Last year, we've accomplished more in that regard than in the last 24 years that I've been here."

But they still have to get through the first date, which has already been a bit of a marathon and, at times, threatened to fall apart.

Hillsborough County official got things started nearly six years ago, when they realized the need to replace much of their back-room data management system. They currently use a variety of software programs that don't always function well together. Their budget and accounting management system is some 20 years old and runs off a giant mainframe data processing machine.

The city has similar technology, which Buckhorn describes as being "patched together with spit and duct tape."

The people who reported to Merrill's and Buckhorn's predecessors decided to team up, signing an agreement in 2009 that both leaders inherited. With county approval Wednesday, and the city's blessing Thursday, the whole process could yet take two years or more from here.

The new software will power how each government tracks the flow of money, from budgeting to purchasing and payroll, as well as personnel matters including hiring and tracking employee training.

Officials say the new systems will allow them to better plan and track spending and personnel decisions. It will be like upgrading from a landline telephone to a smartphone.

"We'll be able to do very critical analyses that will help guide expenses and help look for efficiencies," said Santiago Corrada, chief of staff for the city.

One of the more significant areas the software system will help is purchasing, said Dan Klein, deputy clerk to the County Commission. The county will be able to see when the city is getting ready to buy something. If the county needs the same thing, it can join forces with the city.

"Like eBay in reverse," Klein said.

The system is expandable, so smaller agencies, such as the Tampa Sports Authority, could join up later. County Commissioner Al Higginbotham likened the process to how the military's Central Command functions, with different branches of the armed forces coming together.

"This is just a great opportunity for government to combine forces, save money and provide better services to the public," Higginbotham said.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@tampabay.com.

After years of friction, Tampa and Hillsborough officials find spirit of cooperation 02/18/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 18, 2012 11:16pm]
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