Spending, ‘rebranding efforts,’ raise questions about Hillsborough’s soon-to-be-gone Civil Service Board

The public agency has just eight employees, but its director is paid $220,000 a year
Published June 17

TAMPA — It was supposed to be a watchdog, an independent agency anchored in Florida law to keep cronyism and political patronage out of Hillsborough County employment decisions.

But Hillsborough’s Civil Service Board has been hollowed out in recent years, with most of its key functions stripped away. Come October 1, the 68-year-old agency will be abolished completely, courtesy of Florida lawmakers.

So why did a public agency that was serving fewer county workers every year — just 2 percent in 2018 — spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to reinvent itself despite warnings that would overstep legal bounds? And why does its director still have one of the highest salaries in Hillsborough government when the number of employees under his charge has dwindled to just 8?

Kevin Beckner, the Civil Service Board’s executive director and a former Hillsborough County commissioner, said his agency had a legal imperative to keep spending it’s $1.93 million annual budget in a way that would serve county employees.

“We were actually finding ways to save the county money,” Beckner said. “And now all of that time, all of those investments that could have provided such value to taxpayers — it’s all just been a tremendous waste.”

Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden said the bigger waste would be to let the agency continue searching for new ventures in an attempt to justify its existence.

“My own opinion is they knew the writing was on the wall and they needed to find a way to justify these jobs with salaries that are just astronomical, unprecedented in local government,” said Belden, a key architect of a 2014 amendment that allowed the county’s largest agencies, including his own, to “opt out” of relying on the Civil Service Board to perform human resource functions.

The Tampa Bay Times reviewed five years of budgets and board invoices to see how the agency spent public money. The records show it was wide-ranging, especially following Beckner’s hiring as director in April 2017.

Some examples:

• Beckner is paid an annual salary of $220,300, including benefits. That’s the fifth-highest salary in Hillsborough government and more than what is paid either Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister or Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins, both of whom oversee thousands of employees.

• When it moved last year to a different floor in County Center, the agency spent $20,273 on new furnishings, including “bariatric” office chairs and a granite conference table. New name tags cost $365, professional framing and nameplates cost $1,182 and outfitting the space with state-of-the art technology cost more than $75,000.

• The agency spent $34,250 on strategic planning sessions inside St. Petersburg College’s “Collaborative Lab.” The sessions were part of an effort at “rebranding,’’ and happened despite warnings from county attorneys and the state Attorney General that the agency could not legally change its mission.

• The agency paid $22,260 to let staffers attend multiple human resources workshops and conferences, including a week-long program Beckner attended at the upscale Four Seasons Resort and Spa in Dallas.

And though its official demise is less than four months away, the agency continues to spend. If it didn’t, state law requires any money left over at the end of the fiscal year to be returned to the Board of County Commission’s general fund. For the past decade, Civil Service has returned about 20 percent of its funding to the county.

In 2018, the first full fiscal year under Beckner’s leadership, the agency only returned about 5 percent of its funding.

•••

For the better part of seven decades, Hillsborough’s Civil Service Board has screened applicants for county openings, created job classifications and signed off on employees moving from one job title to another. It has a seven-member board appointed by the governor that arbitrates grievances brought by county employees.

Hillsborough’s is the only such board codified in state law and has long been a target for elimination. But its doleful death march didn’t get underway until Sept. 30, 2013, when Hillsborough Clerk of Courts Pat Frank wrote a memo expressing frustration at having to jump numerous bureaucratic hurdles just to secure her employees a pay raise.

“That complication started my thinking that perhaps Civil Service — one size fits all — didn’t completely fit us in the Clerk’s office,” she wrote.

Belden agreed. If county agency heads were allowed to handle their own personnel needs in-house, he said, they could get the work done faster, better and cheaper.

The result was an amendment that granted their wish — with one caveat. The Civil Service Board had to stay. County employees still needed the security of knowing their Constitutional right to appeal unjust employment decisions would be protected regardless of where they worked.

That was a “middle ground” solution that Beckner, then a county commissioner, supported. But the man Beckner would soon replace as Civil Service Board director, Dane Petersen, warned staff that if the provision passed “it’s reasonable to expect that, within just a few years, the Civil Service Board will cease to exist.”

“Each time an agency opts out, a portion of the economy of scale that Civil Service now provides will be lost,” Petersen wrote to the Civil Service board. “Eventually, Civil Service will ... have too small a client base to be viable.’’

Five years later, Petersen’s prophecy seems to have come true. But Beckner says it’s not that simple.

While the county’s largest agencies have taken on their own human resources functions, Beckner said many still rely on Civil Service to recruit employees, review job applications and do training and counseling.

“They’ll tell you this is all about money, but I don’t buy it,” Beckner said. “It isn’t about efficiencies. It’s about gaining control of the hiring and the firing process and getting rid of any accountability.”

•••

In many ways, Beckner was an unlikely choice to take over the Civil Service Board. He didn’t meet all of the minimum qualifications for the job, which include “completion of a major course of study in business administration, public administration, psychology or a related field.” He had no experience in employment law or in human resources organizations.

But in April 2017, fresh off a bruising political defeat at the hands of Pat Frank, Beckner managed to beat out more than 200 applicants for the executive director job. He says his eight years on the county commission, coupled with his background as a small business owner and financial advisor, made him the right person to make the beleaguered agency relevant again.

The first step was investing in the 2017 brainstorming sessions that resulted in a new strategic plan for the board. The agency’s arbitration work would stay the same but its human resources arm would be spun off into a new business entity called HR Trust.

It was a fresh name for services that already were up and running and funded by the nearly $2 million the county was legally required to provide the board each year. And if the county commission agreed to a partnership, and HR Trust could get support from the county’s Department of Economic Development, the new spinoff would take a shot at the private sector.

Housed under the Civil Service Board, HR Trust would "provide local entrepreneurs, small businesses, non-profit entities and other governmental entities with human resource solutions and related services." County commissioners were initially on board, and in 2018 told staff to explore the idea.

But under state law, the Civil Service Board is prohibited from launching a venture like HR Trust, entering into a new inter-agency partnership or even offering services to new clients.

That's when things went south.

HR Trust already had a website. County officials began seeing its name on polo shirts, banners, lanyards and name tags.

Civil Service's headquarters were outfitted with new computers, and then a video conferencing system, flat screen TV's, stereo equipment and hover cameras. According to invoices, the technological upgrades and upkeep has totaled nearly $75,500 since Beckner was hired.

The expenses raised red flags to county officials like Deputy County Attorney Mary Helen Farris, who said the agency appeared to be going beyond the mission outlined in state statutes.

“If an entity is created by law they only have the powers that the law gives them,’’ she said. “That’s all they can do.”

The proposed changes were enough to convince agency heads like Belden to pull the plug.

“We tried to work with him,” Belden said of Beckner. “We tried to go back and forth with him on the language of these changes to come up with something we thought would benefit the taxpayers and justify the cost.

“But I felt — we all felt — that HR Trust should not be funded by taxpayers,” he said. “And that’s what blew the whole deal up.”

•••

This year, Belden and other county officials helped draft an amendment abolishing the Civil Service Board completely, including its responsibility for employee appeals — the piece that had saved the board from previous attempts at elimination.

The non-partisan bill, filed by Sen. Darryl Rouson and Rep. Jamie Grant, won unanimous support from local legislators and all but two votes in the House and Senate. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the legislation into law May 23.

Now county officials have until Sept. 30 to come up with their own uniform employee discipline and appeals process for all 20 county agencies.

A team of county attorneys, department heads, accountants and human resources directors said they could duplicate the Civil Service Board’s functions for only $500,000 a year, plus an estimated $50,000 to cover the cost of transitioning next fiscal year.

If correct, that would save taxpayers about $1.3-million a year.

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