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Internet helps county official fight rumor

A flashing red arrow has surfaced at the top of the Pinellas County Web site. Beside it, an "Important Message to County Employees."

What's behind that icon? A frank letter from County Administrator Steve Spratt denying he's pocketing kickbacks in exchange for cutting jobs and benefits.

Spratt, who is responsible for keeping the $1.5-billion government enterprise rolling, has taken an unusually public route in responding to random charges by an unknown group.

"We have heard again from those anonymous voices . . ." writes Spratt in his second letter to the staff in two months. But this time, he has posted more than a letter on the county's Web site, www.pinellascounty.org. On the Web, alongside, he offers a copy of his contract with county commissioners.

If Spratt appears to be slightly defensive, he says he has good reason. He wants to clear the air. Since April, Spratt has been the target of a small union movement unhappy with the county's largest reorganization effort in almost two decades.

"Warning! Your benefits are being dumped," reads one such anonymous flier. The flier shows a Dumpster with a caption above it suggesting raises, benefits and job security are being thrown away. The vehicle carting them off? A garbage truck nicknamed the "Sprattmobile."

Weeks later, another flier surfaced accusing county commissioners of offering Spratt a piece of the action for every dollar _ and job _ he cuts.

"They stated that I have a contract with the county that calls for a 10 percent kickback to me personally for every dollar I cut from the county's budget," Spratt writes in his response. "They also say that the county has plans to lay off more employees in the future, above and beyond any reorganization that has already been discussed with you. These are complete fabrications, with no basis in fact."

Spratt and the commissioners say the fliers appear to be the work of a few individuals.

The voices behind the fliers remain unknown and their numbers undetermined. They are signed by a group called PEACE, for Pinellas Employees Against Cuts and Erosion of benefits. Their message is clear: Employees need a union to manage Spratt's reorganization.

Spratt was hired in 2001 to streamline county operations and in recent months he has announced plans to slash $3-million from the budget, including 53 jobs. Spratt oversees more than 2,600 employees as county administrator.

In March he laid out a plan for merging several departments. Many of the targeted jobs were vacant, he said, and all but two of 33 displaced employees have been reassigned to new jobs. He said he's confident the others will be reassigned, too.

Some people are not convinced.

"YOU NEED TO GET WITH THE PROGRAM:" a recent flier warned. "TELL YOUR NEIGHBORS HOW BAD SPRATT IS AND FOR THEM TO VOTE OUT ALL INCUMBENT (commissioners). AND MOST IMPORTANT, GET YOUR UNION STARTED!"

Spratt said he anticipated some anxiety among employees. So when the first round of fliers circulated in April, he was not surprised.

They arrived on car windshields, in e-mail baskets and by hand in the days preceding Employee Appreciation Week. The authors played with irony, using a mock calendar to highlight potential events.

Monday May 5th, Special recognition of all the fellow employees (who) will be losing their jobs in the planned future cuts _ maybe you!

The fliers, like others that followed, included a phone number for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union that could represent them. But they added a disclaimer, saying AFSCME has not officially endorsed the flier. PEACE claimed responsibility.

"Whoever is doing this is very talented," said Richard Thetonia, organizing director for AFSCME's Council 79. Thetonia helps government workers organize unions in the Tampa Bay area. But he said he has had no part in this one.

Thetonia became aware of the fliers after he received some calls from county managers, who wanted to know if this was a legitimate campaign.

"Apparently, they are pressing the county's buttons," Thetonia said. He sees some valid issues and marveled at the campaign staged by the unknown group of amateurs. He suggested they form a committee and get more people involved before taking the fight to Spratt.

"When they do that, they should give us a call," he said. "We will definitely show them how to do it."

The county has not had a major union push in 20 years.

Spratt thought he allayed concerns about the reorganization in his memo in March and again in a May 2 letter to staff, shortly after the first fliers began circulating. He made the rounds, talked with groups of employees and determined any effort to unionize was minimal, at best.

Then came the jab that pushed him into a defensive crouch: the kickback accusation.

He decided to post his letter and contract online. He hopes that will satisfy those in question. Amid controversy, his motto is to "overcommunicate," he said.

"That means just getting the word out as often as you can, as clearly as you can, to get the facts out," Spratt said. "I've had workers come up to me after and say, "Don't worry. We are not interested,' " Spratt said.

Commissioners say they are not surprised there are some disgruntled employees.

Commissioner Bob Stewart said the reorganization has "shaken up administration and the structure to an extent I can't recall. That, by itself, is difficult for some people. It raises the question, "What's next?' "

Added Commissioner John Morroni: "I think it was the right thing for Steve to do, to respond to some of the employees' fears and allegations. When he was hired, he was asked to cut the fat and waste, and he's doing that."

Employees also fear sweeping changes to health insurance and retirement benefits. Sensing growing anxiety, commissioners postponed making those decisions for at least a year.

Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel said she understands the climate of fear that comes with any major reorganization. But she said county employees might talk with people who work in the private sector or for other cities as a benchmark.

The average salary for a county employee (excluding managers, directors and some technical staff) is $37,500, said Assistant County Administrator Steve Carroll. That does not include benefits, which raises the average compensation package to almost $47,000.

Seel said county employees can expect average raises this year of 4 percent, with some earning more based on merit, and they still enjoy a benefits package that is "hands above what's happening in the marketplace"

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