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    On commissioners' agenda: efficiency

    Among the proposals: Letting the county administrator approve higher priced items without first getting the board's approval.

    By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 3, 2002


    When the clock strikes 9:30 a.m. this Tuesday, there will be an unaccustomed silence on the fifth floor of the Pinellas County Courthouse.

    That's because commissioners won't be there for their weekly meeting.

    And that's because they no longer have a weekly meeting.

    As part of an effort to make county operations more efficient, commissioners are switching to meetings every other week. They're also studying ways to delegate more activities to county staffers, removing several routine tasks from their agenda.

    Commissioners stressed that the changes are designed to make the county operate more smoothly, not remove important business from the public eye. Some items would be moved from the commission's regular agenda to its consent agenda, the items that commissioners approve without discussion. Commissioners would receive regular reports on other staff activities.

    "I think it makes sense, as long as we've got the appropriate checks and balances in place," said Commissioner Bob Stewart.

    Commissioner Calvin Harris said he thinks most residents want commissioners to spend time on more weighty issues than "looking over the administrator's shoulder to say how many rolls of toilet paper he can order."

    That's an exaggeration. But one of the items on the commission's consent agenda last week was approving a $115 refund check to a county taxpayer.

    "What I think the public wants us to do is use their money wisely, live within our means, and make sure we get the best value for the dollar," Harris said.

    Chief among the proposed changes: allowing the county administrator to buy higher-priced items without the board's approval.

    Under current county policy, County Administrator Steve Spratt can sign off only on items up to $25,000. A staff task force has recommended that the commission raise the limit, and most commissioners agree.

    "He's the CEO of our corporation," said Commissioner Ken Welch. "You give him a certain level of authority when you hire him as county administrator."

    Welch said that when he worked at Florida Power, he studied the levels of purchasing authority at several companies and governments. He called $25,000 "ridiculous."

    But how high should it be? The task force recommended $250,000. That level would be comparable to other Florida counties, and lower than Miami-Dade's $500,000, said Pick Talley, county utilities director and chairman of the task force.

    While $250,000 is a lot of money, it's a small part of the county's $1.5-billion annual budget. Talley said approvals under $250,000 make up 90 percent of the commission's purchase approvals, but only 10 percent of the county's total purchase amounts.

    Still, many commissioners balked. Commissioner Karen Seel said she wasn't ready to make such a drastic change, and suggested $100,000 instead. Commission Chairman Barbara Sheen Todd agreed with Seel.

    "I'm a little more conservative than a lot of people when it comes to money I know I'm going to ultimately be responsible for," Todd said.

    Seel suggested that after a year or so, the commission could raise the level if the first increase works well.

    Other commissioners said they would be comfortable with the full increase, but accepted Seel's level of an incremental change.

    County staffers say that such changes won't just make commissioners' jobs easier, but will make county work flow more smoothly. Right now, many county projects are delayed because commission approval is required to advertise for consultants, make certain project changes, or other relatively minor details.

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