When Bob LaSala arrived in October for his first day as the new Pinellas County administrator, the economy's downward spiral was accelerating and local governments were just beginning to glimpse the depth and breadth of the financial crisis that would confront them in 2009.
So while LaSala may have arrived in Pinellas filled with optimism and fresh ideas for new ventures, he has spent much of the last six months figuring out what he must dismantle because of a shrinking revenue stream caused by mandated tax cuts, falling property values and the widespread economic meltdown.
"I don't think anybody could have appreciated how intensely this was going to cascade through the public sector," LaSala said Friday, "especially in Florida with our foreclosure problem."
Considering the uncertainty about the future and the depressing nature of his tasks these days, LaSala, 59, was surprisingly upbeat last week. That is likely due to two factors.
One is that his six-month evaluation by county commissioners on Tuesday went very well. Evaluated on a 4-point scale in eight performance categories, LaSala averaged above a 3 in every category. Commission Chairman Calvin Harris gave him an excellent, which equated to 4 points, in every category. The most critical evaluation, if you want to call it that, came from new commissioner Neil Brickfield, who gave him a "good," equaling 3 points, in nearly every category. The lowest mark LaSala got was a 2, "satisfactory."
The second reason LaSala can approach his work with such equanimity may be that he has been in tight spots before this.
He took a job as the assistant city manager of Niagara Falls when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy. He was a city manager in California's Silicon Valley when the dot-com industry imploded. Though people lost their shirts, their homes and their livelihoods, LaSala said the dot-com bust was different from the country's current economic woes.
"It was more isolated — it wasn't so far-reaching and catastrophic," he said. "There were reductions in force and cutbacks in services, but it felt more localized.
"Silicon Valley was a one-trick pony, but now the whole wagon team has collapsed," he said. "We've not faced anything quite like this."
With a projected 2009-2010 budget shortfall of more than $80-million, LaSala must figure out what cuts to recommend to the County Commission. Layoffs and reductions in services are on the table. A county government that only a couple of years ago was in expansion mode, adding services such as recreation programming for residents of the unincorporated area, now is dropping those initiatives and cutting deeper into traditional services.
Because of the economic challenges and the need to stretch resources, LaSala has tackled the complex, politically sensitive project of modifying the countywide Emergency Medical Services. County officials, who don't want to raise the countywide EMS tax, are trying to reduce the cost and size of Pinellas' expensive dual-response EMS system. Some of the cities that deliver that service under contract with the county, and the firefighters and paramedics on the street, are upset and fighting back.
"The complexity, intensity and genuine seriousness and concern of that issue, I wouldn't have expected," LaSala said, comparing the situation to "a four-way intersection where there are no stop signs."
Despite the difficulties he's encountered, LaSala said he feels good progress has been made in his first six months back in Pinellas, where he was chief assistant county administrator during the 1980s. He and his family feel comfortable here.
His biggest frustration, he said, is that so many things need attention and he can't get to them all at once. He's working to build ties to Pinellas institutions, thinking about partnerships, and wishing for more time to work with the faith community and neighborhoods to help them figure out where they can fit in and best contribute. He said he's also "working very hard to forge a thoughtful, honest relationship with seven very different people" — his bosses on the County Commission. He's made progress on an early goal to make county government more transparent. He's trying, one step at a time, to make peace with city governments, even St. Petersburg City Hall.
Most of all, LaSala said, he wants to prove he is trustworthy.
"I'm very appreciative of the support and candor I'm getting from the commission, and the support of the staff, and the very warm reception from the community," he said. "There is much to do, and room to continually get better."
Diane Steinle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.