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  1. Pinellas

What is Pinellas County government focused on? The 'new kid' Barry Burton weighs in.

Barry Burton, who became Pinellas County administrator in October, has earned good marks from county commissioners so far. He said he started the job in listening mode. “I learned a long time ago, you’ve got two ears and one mouth. Use them proportionately,” he said.
Barry Burton, who became Pinellas County administrator in October, has earned good marks from county commissioners so far. He said he started the job in listening mode. “I learned a long time ago, you’ve got two ears and one mouth. Use them proportionately,” he said.
Published Jul. 9, 2019

Earlier this year, Pinellas County commissioners set out to grade their new county administrator. A "1" meant he "needs improvement." A "2" indicated he "meets expectations." The highest grade, a 3, was for areas where he "exceeds expectations."

No commissioner gave the self-described "new kid," Barry Burton, a grade lower than a 2 in any category.

"I think I have the lowest ratings on there, and that was not indicative of what I think of Barry's performance," commissioner Pat Gerard said at a June work session. "I think he's doing a great job."

Burton, who left his administrator job in Lake County, Ill., for the Pinellas position in October, oversees a county staff of 2,000 and a $2.2 billion budget. In an interview this week at a Largo Dunkin', the new administrator talked about how he's gotten to know Florida's most densely populated county — and its many challenges.

Burton said he started the job in listening mode.

"I learned a long time ago, you've got two ears and one mouth. Use them proportionately," he said.

When asked to discuss the most pressing concerns of the community leaders he's met, Burton said mental health funding is at the front of many minds.

The county commission in particular is concerned with a lack of funding from the state. In an interview last month, Gerard said Tallahassee has been "falling down on the job for a while with mental health."

The county finalizes its budget each October, so Burton has not yet been through that yearly process in Pinellas. But he said the county is weighing how to expand options for people in crisis. One proposal, by commissioner Kathleen Peters, would create a "central receiving facility" for people struggling with mental health issues and drug addiction.

Navigating the county's various baseball stadium funding issues is also at the top of Burton's to-do list. The Tampa Bay Rays' years-long stadium saga took a surprising turn recently when the team announced it would explore a season-sharing plan with Montreal.

READ MORE: Rays to explore splitting home games with Montreal

"I've talked to our commissioners about it. I think everyone's in a fact-finding mode," Burton said of the Rays' announcement. "They're obviously surprised and I think disappointed."

Clearwater has also asked the county for about $40 million in bed tax money to help with renovations to Spectrum Field, the spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies. Even if county commissioners deny that request, Pinellas committed last year to $41.7 million for the ongoing renovations of the Dunedin Blue Jays stadium.

Another challenge for Burton has been filling the top position at Visit St. Petersburg-Clearwater, the county's tourism organization. Its director, David Downing, left suddenly in January for the private sector amid questions about how he used and recorded vacation days. (Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater has racked up record tax receipts for the county in recent years.)

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In May, Burton named three finalists for the director position. But last month, he announced he was re-opening his national search for a new director.

RELATED: Despite naming three finalists, Pinellas County has reopened the search for its next tourism chief

"This is such a key and important position, I want to really be comfortable in that selection," Burton said.

Even at this early stage, Burton has already made several high-profile hires. None may turn out to be more important than that of Hank Hodde, the county's new sustainability and resiliency coordinator.

Studies show that Pinellas is uniquely threatened by climate change. Burton said he hopes Hodde can bring consistency and performance metrics to the county's sustainability efforts.

"When you come to me and you say 'I need this amount of dollars to do X,' I want to be able to measure the effectiveness on when we make those choices," Burton said.

READ MORE: Here's how much Florida cities may have to spend to blunt the effects of climate change

Contact Kirby Wilson at kwilson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8793. Follow @kirbywtweets.

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