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Three years without raises, Hillsborough County's workers could see bonuses

TAMPA — Hillsborough County government employees could experience something they haven't seen in three years: a bump in pay.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said it is a priority of his for the next budget that takes effect late this year to show employees who have seen their ranks thinned and their pay frozen that their hard work in trying times is appreciated.

More importantly, when county commissioners met for their first budget workshop of the year Wednesday, there appeared to be consensus among them that bonuses may be justified.

That's a key word: bonuses.

Any bump in pay would likely be a one-time payment, not affecting salaries or hourly wages going forward. And the bonuses would be tied to performance, as is required under recent changes to state law.

However, Merrill said, the intent would be to give as many of the county's roughly 5,000 employees as possible bonuses if they've been doing good work.

He said it's too early to give even a range for how much employees might expect, other than to say it will be modest.

"It's going to be enough to be meaningful," Merrill said after the workshop. "But I don't think we will be able to do enough for folks to be made whole."

Merrill said the county has had several valued employees leave in recent years.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe described running into a county employee as she worked a second job, and other board members said the county is at risk of losing talented workers as the economy rebounds.

"People really have sacrificed an awful lot," said Sharpe, a Republican.

Democrat Les Miller noted the time and date in memorializing Sharpe's comments in favor of giving employees some form of financial recognition. "I agree with Commissioner Sharpe. That doesn't happen too often."

"They've taken a beating," Miller said of county employees a moment later. "And we don't need to beat them anymore."

The comments came even as Merrill's budget workers informed commissioners that, for another year, overall tax revenues are expected to fall for the county in fiscal year 2013 — to the tune of $14.5 million.

County economist Kevin Brickey said foreclosures and short sales continue to depress home values, driving down property tax receipts that pay for much of the county's operations.

The good news is he and others at the county level believe home and other property prices may at last be hitting bottom.

So that may allow the county to justify selectively tapping reserves and taking other steps, knowing that the money flow may be leveling out or improving.

Merrill's budget staff also outlined other likely measures to bridge the revenue shortfall.

They include continued elimination of vacant positions, clamping down further on overtime and refinancing some of the county's debt to take advantage of favorable interest rates, among other measures.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or