As a tropical storm breezed past South Florida late Wednesday, this is a warning Pinellas County residents didn't need: The county administrator isn't sure he has enough frontline employees left to quickly and adequately respond to major storms. Pinellas officials should have considered other options, including raising the tax rate, before cutting staffing levels so deeply the ability to respond promptly to a storm emergency is now questionable.
Since 2007, when the county budget began to be squeezed, Pinellas has eliminated more than 1,600 positions. County Administrator Bob LaSala said he tried to be "thoughtful and balanced" in deciding what to eliminate, but many field and operations positions were cut. Experience and institutional memory were lost, too. Among the departures were longtime county employees with storm experience who knew what needs to be done and what areas of the county are most vulnerable. Now, LaSala isn't certain how the storm response will go with fewer and less experienced people to deploy.
"It's a big unknown," he said. "The people we have are capable and responsive, and they will react and engage as they always do. But our response could be slower, and we will have to rely more on our friends."
Those "friends" LaSala would count on for help are other Florida counties. But other counties also have slashed their budgets and staffs as their revenues have dropped.
Even when assistance from other counties is available, it may take days to arrive. Meanwhile, there will be rescues to carry out, roads to unblock or repair, clogged storm drains to open, and sewer and water systems to bring back online. Without enough people to do that work, recovery will be delayed and risks will rise to the public's health and safety.
Knowing this, county commissioners still didn't raise the county tax rate to prevent another round of layoffs. Neither has the county launched retraining or cross-training efforts so more county employees can be used in recovery efforts. While such training is planned, LaSala said there has been so much disruption of the county staff from repeated layoffs and transfers that he needs to wait for the dust to settle.
Pinellas is one of the most vulnerable Florida counties in a storm and easily cut off from the rest of the state. County commissioners have a duty to maintain an adequate force of well-prepared employees to respond after a storm, even if that means making the politically uncomfortable decision to raise taxes.