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County government responds to hard times by reinventing itself

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SOUTH COUNTY — If South Hillsborough citizens find themselves talking to more voice mails when they call county government these days, it may be because the administration is undergoing its most radical ‘retooling’ in recent history.

Edith Stewart, Public Affairs Administrator
Driven by drastic reductions in revenues attributed to several factors and spanning several budget cycles, the administration has cut jobs, increased fees, instituted furlough days for remaining personnel. As the recession persisted and projected income still fell short of projected needs, top level leaders began planning what many residents have become all to familiar with at home -- they’re eliminating and consolidating functions on a comprehensive scale, trying to squeeze maximum efficiency and wring more expense out of the system.

The result is a merging of departments unlike anything undertaken in recent memory. County government has ‘shrunk,’ acknowledged Edith Stewart, public affairs administrator. Notably, long term employees and middle managers, ‘perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall,’ are moving into retirement or simply moving on, she added, and positions vacated by such attrition are not being filled.

For instance, the high level staff of six Assistant County Administrators which has been a fixture for years under the top administrator who interfaces most with Hillsborough’s elected Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) has been cut in half. The new county org chart now taking shape is likely to have just three ACAs, Stewart indicated.

Similarly, a number of county services and departments are coming together under new banners as others are disbanded or given to other areas of government. A case in point was the Debt Management Department which was transferred in October to the office of the Clerk of Circuit Court, a constitutional office entirely separate from the county administration, where debt management functions are to be integrated with investment management functions performed in the Clerk’s domain.

On the other hand, whenever possible without incurring heavy overhead, governmental activity is being transferred to venues closer to citizens, Stewart added. Keeping pace with a growing national trend to expand uses of public libraries, the administration is encouraging scheduling certain functions in the county’s outlying libraries, she noted, with extension service programs being an example. And, although it is not yet known when a full complement of services again can be delivered from facilities such as the Southshore Services Center on 30th Street, certain services continue to be fielded from senior centers in the South County and from facilities such as the Joyce Ely Health Center, she pointed out.

What’s more, the tight financial situation also is driving greater reliance on newer technology. As county government has contracted, drawing services back to the County Center in downtown Tampa in order to eliminate space leasing costs and achieve economies of scale with services and personnel, the administration has turned to a new means of interacting with citizens, Stewart noted. The Citizen Request Management System (CRMS) is being designed to give every Hillsborough County citizen a central point of contact where complaints can be registered, questions posed, issues raised, either by telephone or email or fax, with replies then provided, she said.

Communications also is one of the largest new departments emerging from the consolidation efforts. It is bringing together in one location community relations coordinators and public information specialists from such areas as code enforcement, water resource services, parks, recreation and conservation, as well as public works under the same department banner as the county’s television broadcast people and website personnel.

Another new administrative unit is to support the Planning and Infrastructure Services Team by combining portions of Public Works, Real Estate, along with Planning and Growth Management. Eventually, this area is to include what formerly was known as the surveying section and now is called Geomatics, with expanded responsibilities.

The new Business and Support Services area merges the Department of Management and Budget plus Human Resources and Procurement Services.

Newly configured Public Utilities and Commerce combines Water Resources, Solid Waste Management, along with the Affordable Housing Department which also is to include the Section 8 Housing Assistance section, formerly part of Health and Social Studies.

Health and Social Services itself is joining with Children’s Services and Aging Services to become the new Department of Family and Aging Services. This section will include such operations as Head Start and Veterans’ Services.

And how much can this rearrangement of county government be expected to save in dollars? Stewart said this week she did not have a reliable dollar figure to quote. But the 2011 budget recommended by interim County Administrator Mike Merrill noted that operating costs in Fiscal Year 2011 should decline by $36 million. Merrill went on to state in his budget message to the BOCC that public safety spending would increase in both of the county’s primary operating funds but added that spending in other program areas would be either flat or in decline.

Merrill also pointed out that FY2011 will be the fourth year that property tax revenues to the county have been reduced. In budget years 2008 and 2009 the loss of revenue is attributed to Florida tax reform, he added, and in the fiscal years 2010 and 2011 the situation was worsened by ‘sharp declines in values’ brought on by the recession and the housing downturn. Slow improvement in gas tax and sales tax revenue anticipated during 2011, he added, would not be sufficient to offset other shortfalls in the near term.

These conditions, coupled with the facts that neither the state nor the federal governments are in any position to lend helping hands to financially strapped county administration, mean that “we’ve got to help ourselves,” Merrill told The Observer recently, “we have to find the ways to cut costs.”

The “retooling to rebalance our government so it reflects our resources and permits the best level of service,” Stewart said, “is expected to continue into 2011.

© 2010 Melody Jameson

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