County enacts freeze in hiring

Published May 30, 2007

TAMPA - Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean has imposed a hiring freeze at County Center to brace for potentially deep spending cuts that may be imposed by the state.

County officials are acknowledging for the first time that the property tax reform proposals the state is considering are likely to require layoffs. The question is how many.

"We have come to a point where I believe it is in the best interest of the county and our employees to place a freeze on hiring, " Bean said in a memo to department directors last week.

With the decision, Hillsborough joins several governments that have instituted some form of hiring freeze in the Tampa Bay region, including Pinellas, Hernando and Citrus counties, and the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and New Port Richey. Others are considering the move.

In Hillsborough, the step does not apply to employees of constitutional officers such as the sheriff and property appraiser. But it still means one of the county's largest employers is no longer taking on workers.

About 5, 400 full-time employees report to the county administrator. As of last month, about 400 positions were open.

Bean could not be reached Tuesday. But her top deputy, Wally Hill, said keeping positions open should reduce the need for layoffs. It will give the county the ability to shift some employees to positions that require similar skills, such as clerks, analysts and engineers.

"If some of the more severe property tax reform proposals occur, we expect many county employees to be laid off from their jobs, " Hill said. "By instituting a hiring freeze, that allows county employees other opportunities to find a job."

Legislators meet for 10 days starting June 12 to tackle property tax reform proposals, each of which would roll back revenue for local government. Hillsborough County budget officials say revenue may be cut anywhere from $46-million to $217-million, depending on the proposals, which are in flux.

Whatever proposal emerges would require voter approval, leaving open the question of when reforms will go into effect.

Hillsborough's hiring freeze applies to all but essential employees, with "essential" being construed narrowly, Hill said. For instance, firefighting positions are not off the hook as they are in some other governments with freezes in place.

It's an exercise that all local governments should be considering, said Rob Turner, Hillsborough's property appraiser. Though it doesn't apply to him, he said his budget proposal for next year cuts two positions from his staff.

His proposal increases spending about 3 percent, largely due to the costs of health insurance and workers' compensation benefits set by the administrator.

"We're trying to go on a light diet, as well others should in anticipation of leaner times, " Turner said.

Staff writers Alex Leary, Janet Zink, Will Van Sant, Asjylyn Loder, Michael Donila, Greg Hamilton and Jodie Tillman contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or 813 226-3387.