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HILLSBOROUGH WORKERS IN FLUX

As governments across Florida trim their employee ranks, Hillsborough County is introducing a change that is sending waves of anxiety through its work force.

County government employees were told this week that some of them will soon be forced to reapply for their jobs and compete against outside applicants.

The jobs, about 120 in all, are getting new titles and new responsibilities as part of a broader reorganization of county government, County Administrator Mike Merrill said.

Some of them will be eliminated altogether. Though the county won't know the exact number of job cuts until later next month, it is expected to be between 30 and 45.

Merrill said the approach aims to give the public what it wants - more efficient government - while treating employees fairly. It could also serve as a model for future job cutbacks, he said.

The announcement touched off panicked e-mails and phone calls among county employees and their families.

The e-mails say that those hired back will get offered wages at the bottom end of a smaller pay scale. They also contend that it is an end run around government employees' Civil Service protections.

They contend the affected employees are being subjected to a cruel workplace version of musical chairs. It will force 20-year veterans of county government to justify their existence.

"We're putting together an information request for exactly what is being done," said Hector Ramos, director of the regional office of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents many of the county's blue-collar workers.

The county is looking to consolidate the back shop operations of about a dozen offices, including Health and Social Services to Fire-Rescue, as property tax receipts continue to fall. It affects employees who do such things as purchasing, bookkeeping and grant writing that are not always visible to the public.

Historically, each department has employed its own clutch of such workers. Now they'll be housed under one roof, with employees asked to serve various aspects of county government.

"We're really trying to satisfy two needs here," Merrill said. "There's the need to be cost effective and responsive to taxpayers. But on the other hand we're trying to be sensitive to employees, a lot of whom have worked here awhile."

County employees will be given "first consideration" in filling the new positions, Merrill said. But in some cases, they may be forced to look at a broader pool of applicants.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

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