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Pinellas Commissioner Harris' pay-cut idea brings criticism of his record

In his re-election campaign, Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris has revived his old calling card: creating more well-paid jobs.

That is, unless those employees work for the county.

Harris, 69, a Democrat, recently told the St. Petersburg Times he wants every worker under the seven-member commission who makes $100,000 or more to take a 1 percent pay cut. Harris, who built a reputation on hawkish fiscal views and backing corporate programs during his 13 years on the board, complained that salaries rose too much in the mid 2000s.

"It just went out of whack," Harris said, projecting a $500,000 savings to taxpayers.

That amount of savings would be relatively small for a county with a roughly $80 million shortfall predicted over the next two years.

But a closer look at county salaries showed that a 1 percent cut for six-figure earners wouldn't come close to $500,000, an exaggeration that Harris later acknowledged.

Finance records show that the county has 93 employees under the board who make more than $100,000 a year. If those workers — including some slated to be let go next year — took a 1 percent pay cut, it would save $115,000.

The figures exclude most independent agencies like the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Harris said he received his figure from a top county official, and it "sounded very scientific." But pressed by a reporter, he later acknowledged that the $500,000 savings included cutting the pay of every worker. He said he doesn't want to do that.

That would include seven salaries he has resisted cutting — commissioners like himself who each make nearly $91,000 a year.

Harris opposed voluntary pay cuts the commission approved for itself this year and next. He has maintained the board doesn't have the authority to adjust commissioners' pay, which is set by a formula in state law.

"It's a different situation," Harris said.

That fuzziness, however, dovetails with the kind of criticism Harris is facing from his Republican opponent in the Nov. 2 general election for the District 2 seat, a countywide race.

• • •

Norm Roche, a former county employee from Clearwater who changed parties after losing three commission races as a Democrat, said the county needs a "fresh" eye on the board to handle spending. A run-up in spending until 2008 contributed to the deep reductions and layoffs the county is now enduring, he said.

Though many Republicans don't see Roche as a serious contender, his critique isn't an outlier.

Democrat Bob Hackworth, a former mayor of Dunedin seeking a north Pinellas commission seat, has echoed Roche's assessment of the group's performance.

The county's shortfall this year and commissioners' failure to find other ways to pay for government services beyond property taxes is a "complete abdication of their own responsibility," Hackworth said.

Harris acknowledges that in hindsight, the board could have done better when the economy was humming.

"We did everything at the height of the economy. Had we not prioritized at the peak of our growth, there were some things that might not have happened," Harris said of spending hikes.

Still, he insists that deeper cuts and park admission fees are unnecessary — prompting Commissioner Susan Latvala recently to question whether they read the same proposed 2011 budget.

Latvala — Hackworth's Republican opponent — also suggested Harris hadn't understood the deep financial problems that will have long-term effects on the county.

Harris said he was "disappointed" with the budget process.

"I thought there were more short-term shifting that could be done to balance the budget. But all we did is cut, cut, cut," said Harris, a former teacher and St. Petersburg College administrator.

He has continued to support the county's economic development programs, notably taxpayer-paid incentives for companies to move and expand here. Its budget won't be cut in 2011.

Harris supports keeping secret the identities of companies seeking incentives before they agree to invest in Pinellas.

Since 2007, the county's incentive programs have added 2,500 jobs and "saved" 3,400 more — a record he touts in the campaign. But overall, Pinellas County has lost 40,000 jobs since Harris began his last term.

Harris has backed corporate breaks so much that when the Nielsen Co. wanted to end a $3.1 million incentive agreement as it fired Oldsmar workers in 2008, Harris was the lone vote against ending the deal.

Incentives are even more important as the county tries to overcome the recession, he said.

"Nobody wants to come to a place where the only potential employees are retirees," Harris said.

That view has helped him build support from business interests and Republican leaders. Along with Harris' genial demeanor, that backing has come in handy to blunt damage from past votes. His low-key approach netted just $39,000 in fundraising by August, but it's still more than four times what Roche raised.

For instance, he voted for buying land from former county property appraiser Jim Smith in a 2007 deal that led to a scathing grand jury report against the county, ripping the board's oversight. Harris defended his vote, saying he made the best decision he could without being briefed by top officials on the deal.

Harris supporters include St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who said Harris supports city causes and works well with them. Harris also has the backing of the Pinellas Realtor Organization.

"There are lots of Republicans supporting Calvin Harris," said Jack Latvala, a Republican state Senate candidate, whose business donated $200 to Harris' campaign and printed materials for him.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas Commissioner Harris' pay-cut idea brings criticism of his record 09/21/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 4:42pm]
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