The salary of the county administrator has long been a hot-button issue in a community where many residents are concerned about high-ranking officials' compensation and where county commissioners are trying to keep costs down.
But the realities of finding a qualified administrator to succeed David Hamilton in Hernando may soon come home to roost.
Commissioners this week saw a listing of administrator salaries in Florida counties with similar populations and budgets to Hernando. Using that information, the county's administrator search firm, Colin Baenziger & Associates, recommended advertising the Hernando administrator's job with a salary range of $120,000 to $150,000.
In a memo to the commission, Baenziger suggested some language to accompany the mention of the salary range: "In these times of tight budgets, less is always better but the commission also realizes that highly qualified administrators should be compensated commensurate to their credentials.''
At first, several commissioners balked at the range.
Commissioner Jim Adkins has been hoping to find a new administrator for about $100,000. Hamilton's salary was $135,000 when he was fired last fall.
Adkins suggested making the low end of the range $110,000.
Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said of Baenziger's salary suggestion: "I don't have a problem with the bottom number, but I do have in the top. ... You all know the environment where we are right now.''
Dukes added that when he had talked one on one with Baenziger this month and a high figure of $165,000 was mentioned, "I about fell out of my chair.''
Interim administrator Ron Pianta told commissioners there needs to be a range mentioned in the advertisement for the job. The final negotiations over pay and benefits, however, would rest with the County Commission.
Dukes said he was worried about a high figure on the upper end of the range, which could lead some candidates to apply because they think they can walk into the job at the top of the range. He also said it didn't make sense to hire someone at a higher salary than the last administrator's since Hamilton had been with the county for more than 31/2 years.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins suggested lowering the top end of the range.
Pianta said language could be added to the advertisement that makes it clear that the approved salary is subject to negotiation with the board.
County Attorney Garth Coller said there was another common way to alert potential applicants: adding language saying that the commission intends to fill the job at the low end of the scale.
Anthony Palmieri, a former Planning and Zoning Commission member, warned the commissioners not to go too low.
"You're not going to get anybody for less than ... the $120,000s,'' Palmieri said.
Commissioners finally agreed to the $120,000 to $150,000 range, with language making it clear that they want to hire at the low end.
Through county staffers, Baenziger also asked commissioners to decide how they wanted to handle public input in the selection process.
Commissioner John Druzbick said he wanted to allow interested residents to have input with the search firm at the beginning of the process. But other commissioners had different ideas.
Commissioner Dave Russell said he liked the option of an informal public reception for the finalists. He said he thought in that kind of setting, residents could learn a lot about the candidates.
Druzbick said the problem with that plan was that the list would have already been narrowed prior to any interaction with the community. There have been several individuals who have told commissioners that they would like to have some input in the process, and Druzbick said he wanted to honor their request.
Pianta suggested that commissioners could submit names that would be passed along to Baenziger and he could talk to those individuals. But the commission didn't bite on that idea after Coller suggested it might violate the state's open meetings law.
Russell said he wants the public to have a role. But after talking to Baenziger, he said, he's confident that Baenziger can find the county a good administrator.
"I'm going to rely heavily on the short list he brings to us,'' Russell said. "They know what we need.''
Commissioners voted unanimously to have an informal public reception for finalists.
Baenziger has predicted that a new administrator could be in place by early April.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.
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A county survey included the salaries of administrators in Florida counties with populations between 130,000 and 200,000:
Indian River $184,826
St. Johns $170,000
Santa Rosa $129,187
Source: Hernando County