Pay disputes put changes in Hillsborough government leadership on hold

TAMPA — Two topics give Hillsborough County commissioners heartburn like few others these days: severance packages for their top appointees and executive pay raises.

After all, they fired County Administrator Pat Bean last year in part over raises she gave herself and other county executives, only after fretting for months about a potential $455,000 she was due in severance.

Now both subjects are posing challenges for new County Administrator Mike Merrill as he seeks to nail down a contract and install his executive team.

Merrill, 57, who became the county's full-time administrator in December, entered Wednesday's commission meeting seeking approval of his contract and the blessing of his top staff picks.

He got neither, as commissioners rejected his proposed severance terms and raised questions about salaries for his deputies.

Both topics are tentatively scheduled to be brought back to the board in two weeks and Merrill played down the questions.

"I thought my proposal was reasonable," he said. "It's like any negotiation."

Commissioners first stumbled over the proposed contract.

Merrill is seeking pay of $189,000, less than the $225,000 his predecessor Bean was making before commissioners fired her in June, and less than administrators in similarly sized counties earn. In return, he wants commissioners to guarantee that if they remove him from the post for any reason, he can return to a management position in county government and stay there until he turns 62.

As the former debt management director, Merrill has been with the county for 23 years, so that would get him close to having full retirement benefits. Should commissioners not uphold those terms, his contract draft states that the county pay him $250,000, or the remaining salary due him until he turns 62, whichever is less.

"This appears to be more of a retirement contract rather than an employment contract," said Commissioner Kevin Beckner.

Commissioner Victor Crist noted that the board has asked Merrill to undertake bold initiatives in response to trying economic conditions. He's bound to make enemies, so Crist said it's fair for Merrill to seek some protection from a heat-of-the-moment firing.

Commissioners collectively said they would consider a three-to six-month severance in return for potentially higher pay. They also expect him to move back to Hillsborough County from Clearwater, where he moved only last year, something Merrill now says he is reluctant to do.

In the meantime, he must wait to reorganize his executive team. Merrill wants to make two existing county officials, Lucia Garsys and Sharon Subadan, his deputy administrators and pay them $155,000 apiece. That would be a $18,781 pay raise for Garsys and $22,712 for Subadan.

Garsys held an assistant administrator post under Bean but would be asked to take on additional supervisory tasks. Subadan was fleet management director before Merrill made her an acting assistant administrator.

Additionally, Merrill has recruited Bonnie Wise, the city of Tampa chief financial official under departing Mayor Pam Iorio, to assume the same role in his administration. She would get paid $160,000, which she makes now. He has also named Helene Marks, onetime general counsel to former Clerk of the Circuit Court Richard Ake, as his chief of staff at a salary of $155,000.

The proposed reorganization thins the ranks of his assistants from the current six and shaves nearly $200,000 from the administration budget, Merrill said.

Commissioners must give their advice and consent to the reorganization, according to the county's charter. Some said they wanted more detail justifying the proposed salaries.

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

Pay disputes put changes in Hillsborough government leadership on hold 02/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 17, 2011 9:47am]

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