Editorial: Hillsborough Civil Service Board a waste of public money

No wonder a new state law will abolish the agency Oct. 1. The Civil Service Board kept on spending even as its fate became clear.
MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
Hillsborough Civil Service Board Executive Director  Kevin Beckner. Times (2016)
MONICA HERNDON | Times Hillsborough Civil Service Board Executive Director Kevin Beckner. Times (2016)
Published June 17

The Hillsborough County Civil Service Board should have seen the writing on the wall. Yet as other local government agencies were finding new ways to manage their employees, the civil service board kept spending taxpayer money to reinvent itself. This waste of precious resources further validates the effort to dismantle the agency and speaks to why so many citizens sour on government.

Dating to the 1950s, the Civil Service Board was designed to act as a single portal for screening and hiring employees at nearly two dozen county agencies. It also heard workplace grievances, giving workers extra protection beyond due process rights under the law. Its well-intended mission as an independent agency was to keep county employment free of cronyism and political patronage.

But the operation has been hollowed out in recent years, in response to complaints by local officials that the office was slow, unresponsive and ill-suited to accommodate the county’s modern workforce needs. Come Oct. 1, the 68-year-old agency will be abolished completely, courtesy of the Florida Legislature. Yet as the Tampa Bay Times’ Anastasia Dawson reported Monday, the agency continued to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to reinvent itself - despite warnings that it would overstep legal bounds. This agency’s last day cannot come soon enough.

Kevin Beckner, the Civil Service Board’s executive director and a former Hillsborough County commissioner, claimed his agency had a legal imperative to keep spending its $1.93 million annual budget in a way that would serve county employees. After being hired as executive director in 2017, Beckner pursued a new strategic plan; its arbitration work would remain but its human resources arm would be spun off into a new business entity called HR Trust, which would also seek business with the private sector. But county officials eventually abandoned the idea over concerns the plan conflicted with state legal restrictions.

That didn’t stop the civil service agency from continuing to spend. It doled out $20,273 on new furnishings during a move to a different floor at County Center. Outfitting the space with state-of-the art technology cost more than $75,000. The agency spent $34,250 on strategic planning sessions that were part of a “rebranding” effort, and $22,260 for conferences and travel.

This is an all too common practice in government - spending what you have until the party ends. State law requires that any money left over at the end of the fiscal year to be returned to the county commission’s general fund. For the past decade, the Times reported, 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 returned about 5 percent of its funding.

This year, Hillsborough Tax Collector Doug Belden and other county officials helped draft legislation abolishing the Civil Service Board completely, including its responsibility for employee appeals. That legislation was adopted almost unanimously this year, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law last month. Now county officials have until Sept. 30 to come up with their own uniform employee discipline and appeals process for all 20 county agencies. Officials estimate the move could save taxpayers about $1.3 million a year.

Belden, Hillsborough Clerk of Courts Pat Frank and other county officials were right to move on from the Civil Service Board. The agency’s final years show a lost sense of public purpose, which only reinforces criticism of self-serving government bloat.

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