TAMPA — Hillsborough County’s Civil Service system, created to ensure a professional government workforce free of political interference, has become an impediment to modernizing county government, several local officials say.
County Administrator Mike Merrill met recently with Clerk of Circuit Court Pat Frank and Tax Collector Doug Belden to discuss ways to change civil service rules that limit how supervisors deploy workers. Under complicated job classification formulas, supervisors can’t give workers new duties or raise their pay above a certain grade without permission from the civil service.
“It makes it hard to manage the organization when you need to be more flexible having people doing a variety of things,” Merrill said.
Merrill sent a memo Friday to employees attempting to quash rumors that he wanted to eliminate civil service. The letter got the attention of officials at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents many county workers.
AFSCME Local 167 President Juan Basso said he has scheduled a meeting Tuesday morning with Helene Marks, the county’s chief administrative officer, to discuss Merrill’s plans.
“They have to come to us if they’re going to reclassify (the workers) or they’re in violation of the union contract,” Basso said.
Merrill, Belden and Frank said they are not out to abolish civil service, which, among other services, protects workers from arbitrary firings and demotions.
“Traditionally we are the third-party arbitrator for employee-employer disputes,” said Dane Petersen, director of the Civil Service Board. “Fired workers can come to the Civil Service Board and have their day in court.”
Civil service also recruits and tests candidates for job openings at the 20 different county agencies that use the civil service system. Civil service processes about 115,000 job applications and fills 1,300 jobs a year, Petersen said.
The county’s Civil Service System was created in the 1950s, part of a nationwide movement to provide continuity in government workforces by protecting them from wholesale firings after a new political party took power.
Merrill, Frank and Belden say they have no problem with the recruiting and grievance functions civil service performs and would not eliminate those. But as government agencies strive to be more like the private sector in terms of efficiency, overly rigid civil service job classifications can stifle flexibility, they said.
In the clerk of court’s office, for instance, a new computerized case management system is being phased in that will eliminate paper records. Under the old system, Frank said, an employee worked in one department, such as felony crimes, for their whole career. Now, with the ongoing technological changes, employees may work in several areas, such as child support, or family law.
“I want to be able to do that with flexibility,” Frank said. “I don’t want civil service telling me what the classification should be.”
Civil Service rules require each employee to have a number that each county agency must track, said Kathy Meloy, director of human resources and organizational development in Belden’s office. The tax collector’s office has its own employee number for payroll, she said, so tracking the civil service code just creates more paperwork.
“We don’t even use their number, but we still have to track it,” Meloy said. “There is something we’re doing that is totally meaningless to us. That is work that could be streamlined.”
Any changes to the civil service rules would require the Florida Legislature to amend the law that created the agency, Merrill said. He and the other officials who met recently are still in the talking stage, he said, and nowhere near having concrete changes they could present to the County Commission and the local legislative delegation.
County Commissioner Victor Crist, who spent 18 years in the Legislature, said he thinks the local delegation would be amenable to civil service changes if they increased efficiency and were reasonable. Abolishing the agency would be a heavier lift, he said, especially in an election year like 2014.
“If somebody came in and wanted to abolish it, that would raise a lot of eyebrows,” Crist said. “I don’t think it would be impossible, but it would be a challenge.”