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Hillsborough commissioners like what they see during administrator's absence

TAMPA — Commissioners have had nearly two months to see what life without suspended Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean is like.

Unfortunately for Bean, they like what they've seen.

Commissioners placed Bean on 90 days of paid leave March 23, along with County Attorney Renee Lee, over allegations of secret pay raises and e-mail snooping involving both. A palpable calm has descended over County Center since then.

More important, commissioners say acting administrator Mike Merrill has capably filled the void and then some. Rather than serve as a placeholder, he is pursuing sweeping changes that would reshape county government in response to the lingering economic doldrums.

In short, he's doing what some commissioners say they've been asking Bean to do for years.

"From my perspective, we've turned a corner," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, Bean's most persistent critic.

Bean's future with the county is scheduled to take center stage again this week. Commissioner Rose Ferlita plans to ask fellow board members Wednesday to revisit Bean's employment status, saying that the uncertainty has lingered too long. Looming budget decisions also lend a sense of urgency regarding Bean more than Lee.

No return for Bean?

She said the changes offered by Merrill make it difficult to imagine Bean returning.

"Personally, I don't think that should be on the table," Ferlita said. "I think we have to finalize and stabilize county government."

Merrill has been meeting with each commissioner to lay out his ideas, as well as sharing them with county managers and directors, during the past week. His ideas are somewhat revolutionary compared to Bean's approach during the most recent two years, when property tax revenue fell sharply.

Bean has repeatedly asked her department chiefs for across-the-board cuts to meet a bottom line. Merrill is rethinking county government — or in his words, seeking to "rebalance" it by deciding what programs county government can afford, doing those better, farming out others and getting rid of bloat.

The goal is to fill a more than $50 million hole in next year's budget while changing government for good in anticipation that the economy may remain rough for years.

"There is a sense of urgency that I've tried to instill around here," Merrill said. "There's just things that need to get done and they need to get done right away.

"People want to know that there's some goal and direction."

What has resulted is a four-pronged approach, details of which will emerge as the formal budget is unveiled in June. These are the general ideas:

• Merrill is proposing a series of practical measures, from eliminating overtime pay except in emergencies to changing the way documents are printed, no longer paying for employee uniforms and limiting who gets county cell phones.

• He would create a team — mimicking a program of Sheriff David Gee's — of three employees with accounting or analyst backgrounds that will visit every department looking for savings. Rather than rely on department directors to find savings, these outsiders will seek to ferret out duplication and routines that create red tape.

• A plan to consolidate departments, or at least the back shops of those offices, that have little to do with the services they provide. For instance, the county has departments that run programs for children, the elderly and health and social services. Each department has employees who work on personnel, accounting and purchasing. Another idea involves phasing out other programs over the next year and seeking bids from private firms.

• A wholesale examination of the rules, procedures and organizational makeup that mainly create more government rather than serve people. Merrill said there will be fewer layers of management at all levels, aided by several high-level retirements expected in the next year.

Ex-seminarian takes over

Until recently, Merrill, 56, oversaw the county's debt management department, a six-person shop he ran for two decades. In 2008, Bean promoted him to one of six deputy administrator posts created during a reorganization.

Each of the new administrators, a few of whom previously had similar posts but different titles, each quietly got pay raises ranging from 7 to 17 percent as other workers got pink slips. That revelation, made months later, heightened the scrutiny of Bean by commissioners.

For years, Merrill has been considered one of the board's most trusted advisers. Even-tempered, he speaks in the soothing tone of the seminarian he once was.

"I think the board has always had the utmost respect for Mike, from his demeanor to his knowledge of our debt and financial issues," said commission Chairman Ken Hagan. "I think he's done a very good job, as I was confident that he would."

Hagan, Ferlita and Sharpe have been among commissioners who have been pressing Bean to step down, for varying reasons.

The question now: Have the other commissioners been swayed to act after a glimpse of Merrill's work? Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Kevin Beckner have so far endorsed holding on to Bean. Both agreed the mood at County Center has improved and said they like Merrill's direction. Bean could not be reached for comment.

Higginbotham said he thinks commissioners should let the suspension conclude before acting. Beckner wants to wait for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to finish an investigation into the pay-raise and e-mail snooping allegations. He said the results could give commissioners justification to fire both without having to pay them guaranteed severance packages.

But he said that his stance should not be interpreted as support for Bean's return.

"I think it would be extraordinarily difficult for her to come back," Beckner said. "Unless she, in her time off, has assembled her own game plan."

Commissioner Kevin White could not be reached, and Jim Norman, widely considered Bean's biggest ally, declined comment.

As for Merrill, he said there's no point dwelling on the immediate future.

"I can't control if Pat's coming back," he said. "So why worry about it?"

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

Hillsborough commissioners like what they see during administrator's absence 05/15/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 15, 2010 10:50pm]
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