TAMPA — Most Hillsborough County employees haven't gotten a merit pay increase in more than five years as the nation weathers a battered economy.
Cost-of-living increases were shelved four years ago, and employees have since been asked to pay part of their pension costs.
But two county employees have fared better than others.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe gave both his aides raises of more than 10 percent — $6,240 each — in recent months. That's on top of the $1,500 one-time "economic salary adjustment" all county employees got this year to partly offset their frozen wages.
The raises are particularly notable coming from Sharpe, who hammered former County Administrator Pat Bean for secret raises she gave herself and other top employees in 2007 as the budget began its implosion. But Sharpe was unapologetic about his decision, saying he should have made it earlier.
As the commissioner with the second-longest tenure, his employees have worked longer on the second floor of County Center than all but two of the other 12 aides. Yet as of August, when he awarded them the raises, they were two of the lowest-paid staffers.
Commissioners elected since Sharpe took office have brought in their own assistants and started them off at higher pay. The raises Sharpe's aides got simply caught them up to the $65,811 most of the others make.
"I felt very comfortable doing it," Sharpe said. "It's only fair. It's a matter of fairness."
Sharpe said both aides, Sandy Chan and Eric Larson, tried to talk him out of it, fearing a news story. Sharpe decided to do it anyway, with Larson holding on to the paperwork that made it happen until October.
"It was not something I went looking for," Larson said.
Chan declined to comment.
Each of the county's seven elected commissioners have two aides whom they hire and whose pay they set. They serve at the will of the commissioner.
The aides serve as secretaries to commissioners, filing their papers and fielding phone calls from constituents. Increasingly, they are tasked with performing analyses of important issues before the board, meeting with constituents and receiving briefings from county staff.
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In years past, when the County Commission behaved in less partisan fashion, aides often moved between offices when their bosses left due to term limits or election defeat. That's less common now, with aides generally leaving when their commissioner departs.
Sharpe is scheduled to leave the commission in two years due to term limits. He said he partly felt compelled to give the raises as an inducement for both of his employees to remain until his term expires rather than begin seeking new jobs.
Under the county's pay scale, aides to commissioners and executive-level employees are eligible for salaries that range from $45,677 to $85,946. The high range in part takes into account the tenuous nature of the jobs, at least for commission aides.
More recently elected commissioners said they solicited information about other aides' salaries when they were elected to determine the appropriate pay for the people they hired. Most opted for an hourly wage of about $31.64, the exact midpoint of the scale.
For one recent hire, Les Miller's assistant, Alphanette Jenkins, hired away from another county department and paid $31.25 an hour, that more than doubled her prior pay.
"In interviewing her, I thought she was underpaid," Miller said. "I wanted to bring her in at the same level as the other aides."
The one exception on the floor is Al Higginbotham. He hired aide Deanna Hurley in late 2006 just as the economy was tanking, at the minimum wage for the job, $21.96 an hour. Her pay has remained frozen since then, with Higginbotham opting not to give her a raise.
Sharpe said he does not believe his decision is analogous to the ones Bean made.
The former administrator received harsh scrutiny when it was revealed she gave her top six deputies — already some of the top-paid employees in county government — hefty raises in 2007 as other employees' pay was frozen. Bean then quietly awarded several department directors 1 percent pay raises for proposing budget cuts, a hike she accepted herself. Commissioners later used that issue to justify firing her. Sharpe led the charge on that front.
He said the comparison is "apples to orangutans." Bean gave pay raises to already highly paid employees. Then she awarded herself a raise without telling commissioners, who set her pay, Sharpe said.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.