Sunday, December 17, 2017
Politics

Remember raises? In Hillsborough, spring has sprung

It has been the proverbial long winter, economy-wise.

Building cranes slowed and homes were foreclosed and jobs disappeared. Government budgets got cut to the bone and more, and then —

Wait — did somebody say "spring?"

Technically, it has been spring for a while now — look at our jacaranda trees in full, purple bloom. But economy-wise, there are signs, too.

Suddenly you notice buildings going up around you again, and the headlines say consumer spending and local home sales are both up. All of which sounds suspiciously like happier days to come.

And here's a headline: Over in Hillsborough County government, employees are getting raises after nearly five years. (Oh wow, they must be saying to each other — remember raises?)

This is most interesting.

Crafted by County Administrator Mike Merrill, the raises range from modest to most impressive — as in, three top executives getting hikes of more than $20,000 each and nearly $30,000 for the fire chief.

Outrageous! Right? Shades of a previous county administrator and those secret raises she awarded herself and others that effectively ended her county career.

Right?

Well, no.

First, it would be hard to argue against the hikes that bring the county's lowest-paid workers up to $10.06 an hour, or above what's considered a living wage in these parts.

It's also hard to quibble with a 3.5 percent "equity adjustment" for other employees in October, if the County Commission agrees.

But then there is a group of employees throughout the organization who, like others, absorbed more responsibilities following layoffs. And who are judged by the current marketplace. "The private sector is recovering," Merrill says. "And they're looking for good people."

For proof that yes, there really are other jobs out there, just ask the city of Tampa, which recently lost both the mayor's chief of staff and the city attorney. Ditto the U.S. attorney in Tampa, soon to leave for a much higher-paying gig in the private sector.

Those raises range from a few hundred a year to $26,098 for Merrill's chief administrative officer and $26,098 and $21,979 for two deputy county administrators, bringing them up to $165,000 a year.

Big numbers. So did Merrill hear a great hue and cry?

"It's been good feedback," he says. "No complaints or criticisms."

Part of this must speak to the calm-and-steady Merrill's relationship with the board, which in past incarnations has been described as someone trying to satisfy a seven-headed monster. Today it seems more trustful. Merrill said he had to be able to prove they could reduce costs and improve service before they could ask for raises.

At this week's County Commission meeting, citizens showed up to talk feral cats, not pay hikes.

Which must be a sign of the times, economy-wise, and also of an unfamiliar sense of harmony in county government. And maybe spring.

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