Former county manager offers parting advice

By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007

Steve Spratt's last day as county administrator was Friday. He resigned Sept. 11 in a shakeup of county government sparked by the county's controversial June purchase of land owned by Property Appraiser Jim Smith.

Spratt, 52, became county administrator in 2001 after 25 years with Miami-Dade County. He stepped down after it became clear he had lost the backing of the Pinellas County Commission.

Shortly before his colleagues took him out for a farewell lunch, he sat down to answer questions from the Times about his time with Pinellas and the issues the county may face in years to come. Former County Administrator Fred Marquis, who begins work Monday, was named interim administrator while a permanent replacement for Spratt is selected.

What surprised you most about Pinellas County when you came here from Miami-Dade?

One of the things I underestimated is the conflicts between the cities and the county. There seemed to be a constant feeling of cities being challenged and threatened by the county and a need to assert their power.

What was remedied during your time as administrator?

One is our finances. The county finances were stressed. So I went to work strengthening the finances, making sure that we built back up adequate reserves and trimming expenses, avoidable overhead expenses. So that's one area. There wasn't much comprehensive planning done. We now have a comprehensive strategic plan. So I think we are much better focused.

What looms as a critical challenge for the county?

We've got to keep the economy strong. Transportation is integrally part of that. We've got to keep working on public transit. Right now we've got a transit system that essentially is targeted to the transit dependent, primarily people who don't have any other way to get to work or school. We've got to start building service that attracts the choice rider.

What's the Pinellas County of your dreams like 20 years from now?

Generally a place where people can feel good about raising families. They can feel safe, they can enjoy the natural beauty of this peninsula on a peninsula. It's affordable. There are good education and employment opportunities.

How about the Pinellas County of your nightmares 20 years from now?

We've got beautiful beaches, national award-winning beaches, but a family from Ohio or Michigan can't afford to come. We've not kept up with transportation improvements. The housing is too expensive. We haven't invested in social services.

What was most trying about being administrator?

Working through the changes in county government. Shortly before I got here, we converted from a five-member at-large commission to a seven-member, mixed single-district/at-large. We had a new commission that had new ideas for the county government, wanted to move in different directions. To some extent, I was part of that change. I was hired as a change agent.

County Commissioner Karen Seel said recently that the values of Pinellas citizens are basically Midwestern, meaning residents are largely conservative, resistant to change and prize frankness. She said you had difficulty navigating this mind-set. What's your response.

I certainly would agree with a Midwestern influence. I can agree with a resistance to radical change, too dramatic of a change. On the other hand, I think that there are changes that the community has been looking for. So while there is certainly some resistance, there are other changes the community expects. And navigating that? My nature is to try to move quickly on solutions. Government is often accused of moving too slow. So I think what I may be guilty of is trying to move quickly to address problems. Someone once told me, "Steve, you've got the right idea and you're moving in the right direction, but you've got to let the rest of us catch up with you."

Where should your successor focus his or her energy?

Probably first up is budget management. With the advent of tax reform legislation, it's going to become more difficult to balance budgets and meet the expectations of the community.

What's next for you?

I'm looking forward to taking some time off. This is a job where you are on call 24/7. That adds a lot of personal stress, and I think this is an opportunity for me to recharge. And then, you know, I'm just going to basically pursue opportunities where my practical experience and knowledge can be of help to somebody. And somewhere in there I want to spend more time with my family.

How do you think county government is doing?

County government is in good shape. And I think there has been a lot of good progress made in the last six years. I think we are providing a lot more responsive services to new issues in a way we never had before. We've got solid plans on where we are heading. We are connecting better with neighborhoods. We're stronger financially. There's a lot of different aspects that I feel very positive about as I leave.