Looking at the contract Hillsborough County commissioners offered their new chief executive, it's not clear they grasp the state of the economy. Mike Merrill's pay package is less lucrative than what his predecessor, Pat Bean, managed to finagle, but it's still generous, and negotiations over it show that nearly all involved still have a tin ear to economic realities and the concept of accountability. Commissioners should think through the lessons before moving on.
Merrill was the right choice as interim administrator after the board fired Bean last summer over her demonstrated inability to guide the county through the recession. This month, the board agreed to give Merrill the job full-time, paying him $195,000 a year. He'll also receive $22,000 annually (the maximum allowed by law) in a deferred retirement account and a car allowance of $236 per month. Merrill will earn less than what Bean made but more than he does now — $155,000.
The package is more than ample in this economic climate, and it was discouraging that both sides settled on the figure only after exploring even more generous terms. Other proposals called for guaranteeing Merrill a post elsewhere in the county until his retirement at 62 if he did not pan out as administrator. The commission agreed to the terms on a 4-3 vote, with several board members holding out for more concessions.
For a county government that has eliminated hundreds of jobs to cope with declining revenue, the contract talks with Merrill showed a disconnect between top officials and the rank and file. Merrill is competent and a stable force. But commissioners still want to pay their executives a premium for contributing to the same sort of healthy working environment that is expected as a matter of routine from lower-level employees. Merrill needs to watch the message that sends.
On the plus side, the county has put a capable and respected administrator in place on a permanent basis. By putting the drama of the Bean years behind it, county government can begin addressing serious challenges — from improving efficiency in delivering services to addressing transit and job development. With a new Tampa mayor on the way, the county should look for a fresh start with its fresh leadership.