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Civil Service Board could be severely downsized, and soon

— Hillsborough County’s Civil Service Board faces severe budget cuts and workforce reductions in the wake of a bill passed Friday in Tallahassee.

The legislation allows agencies such as the clerk of court and the county administrator to opt out of some or all Civil Service human resource functions, such as recruiting and hiring workers. The agencies have to make those decisions by July 31 so Civil Service can make the appropriate changes in its budget and staff by the start of the fiscal year Oct. 1.

One likely result is that Civil Service will be a much smaller agency with a correspondingly smaller budget. Chief Deputy Jose Docobo said Monday the sheriff’s office has already decided it will no longer use Civil Service to recruit and screen applicants for the sheriff’s 900 or so civilian positions. That action alone will subtract about $1.2 million from Civil Service’s $3.2 million budget.

Docobo said the sheriff has already been recruiting and screening applicants for the 2,600 sworn officer positions for years.

“The only real involvement (Civil Service) had was on the civilian side,” Docobo said. “We feel comfortable that we have the resources to take that on.”

Tax Collector Doug Belden and Clerk of Court Pat Frank have also sounded in past statements like they wanted to handle most or all their human resource functions in-house.

Frank said Monday it was premature to comment on whether she will continue to use Civil Service because Gov. Rick Scott has not signed the bill yet. Complicating her decision, Frank said, is that her staff is in the midst of major computer changes.

“We’re going to be reviewing things (regarding Civil Service), but it’s going to take a while,” Frank said.

The law creating the county Civil Service Board was passed in the early 1950s as part of nationwide “good-government” reforms. The idea was to have an independent board, free of partisanship, to handle hiring in a consistent, unbiased manner.

But last year, some county officials started complaining the board was outmoded and was hampering their ability to be flexible and efficient.

It was Belden and Frank, along with County Administrator Mike Merrill, who decided to push for a local bill that would get them out of Civil Service’s regulations. They agreed the bill would retain Civil Service’s grievance procedures for employees who are fired, suspended or demoted.

Merrill said Monday he’s not in a hurry to decide which services, if any, the county government will continue to get from Civil Service. First, he wants to reach out to employees and county commissioners to get their input.

Merrill said he’s got several options he wants to consider. He might decide to leave the county’s relationship with Civil Service alone this year. The bill passed Friday would allow county agencies to revisit their decisions each December. If they decide to make changes, those would take effect the following fiscal year.

The county also might want to collaborate with other external agencies on human resources to reap savings from shared services.

“We want to be able to step back and give it some thorough thought before we make a decision,” Merrill said.

The county administrator’s office is Civil Service’s largest client with 4,600 classified employees subject to Civil Service rules out of the total county workforce of 4,900. The sheriff is second with about 2,000 classified employees, followed by the clerk of court with 750 and the Aviation Authority with about 500, said Civil Service Director Dane Petersen.

With the sheriff already out, it’s hard to imagine a viable Civil Service Board should Merrill and Frank also take their employees, and the money that goes with them. Civil Service is funded based on a rate of 0.65 percent of the payroll of an agency’s classified employees. Classified employees are usually paid at an hourly rate.

“By July 31, everybody’s going to make those decisions,” said Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez. “Then you have to figure out whether (Civil Service is) going to be able to ramp up and still do the job.”

Henriquez said there are still too many questions for him to decide whether to opt out of Civil Service. With 150 employees, the property appraiser’s office is one of the smaller agencies that use Civil Service for recruiting and hiring.

“I’m not going to say, ‘We’re out,” and then we’re stuck and it ends up costing a lot of taxpayer money to either do it in-house or contract it out,” he said.

Other agencies also are taking a wait-and-see attitude. The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority has “no immediate plans to opt out of anything,” said spokeswoman Janet Zink.

“There were other groups that were chomping at the bit to get out from under Civil Service, but we were not one of them,” Zink said.

Probably the most uncertain person in the wake of the bill’s passing is Petersen, the Civil Service director. He angered several agency chiefs, including Belden and Frank, by lobbying state legislators against the bill. His efforts stood little chance with the county commission and all the county’s constitutional officers backing the legislation.

Now, he’s faced with re-engineering _ and probably downsizing _ his organization within the short window between the July 31 opt-out deadline and the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year. Petersen said he’s already lost several employees who left because of the uncertainty surrounding the bill. He didn’t replace them for the same reason.

“I don’t think they would have been looking if it weren’t for this bill,” Petersen said. “They were really good people and a lot of my clients are going to miss them.”

Petersen said he will send out a communication to all the agency’s clients this week.

“We’ll be encouraging them to let me know sooner rather than later,” he said. “It doesn’t leave me with much of a planning window.’’

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