Hillsborough Commission votes down 1 layoff, EPC furloughs
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07/28/10 Kate Bradshaw
WMNF Drive-Time News Wednesday | Listen to this entire show:

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Hillsborough County may be in the thick of another tough budget process, but at least one employee will get to keep her job. County Land Use Ombudsman Maricela Medrano is known for being a liaison between the county and the Latino community. Her job was on the chopping block when Interim County Administrator Mike Merrill presented his budget to the Board of County Commissioners.

"We have a number of folks, who are hard working and have been laid of before, in the last round and in this round. I think it would be disrespectful to those employees to single one person out in this process."

Public outcry ensued across a broad demographic spectrum. While the Latino community lauded Medrano for helping non English speakers navigate the county, native English speakers pointed to her ability to make complicated land use issues understandable. Commissioner Kevin White was one of the four on the board who voted to keep her on.

"I think it would be a disservice to PGM and our county to eliminate this position at this time, when we have such a wonderful, smooth operation going. I think to disrupt that would be more disruptive to county government, as well as to PGM."

Commissioners Hagan, Ferlita, and Beckner also voted yea on a motion to save Medrano’s job. Commissioner Al Higginbotham said the ailing real estate market had diminished the county’s need for a land use ombudsman. Commissioner Jim Norman said those who supported keeping the position were politically motivated to do so.

"This can not turn into a free for all political process of hand selecting employees that we're going to be politically motivated to savor or fire. We've had the same kind of thing. people coming in here saying fire, fire, fire! We don't take any action on that. We leave it up to the administrator."

Medrano’s job was one of 73 that Merrill had proposed to eliminate to help close a 65 million dollar hole in the county budget. At a recent budget hearing the commissioners flagged several other cuts in the county budget. One was a cut in arts council funding of more than $200,000. Commissioner Beckner said adequately funding of the arts would generate revenue for the county.

"As we look at the economic impact that the arts has on the community and the value that it brings, this also isn't just about restoring funding just to the arts counsel, this is about also continuing to support the organizations that also are funded by the Arts Counsel, which are vital to our community. So, I really believe that with the economic impacts and what they do as a whole for our community, it warrants that we restore at least $200,000 in funding. That would be my motion."

Commissioner Norman, a stalwart tea party force on the commission, agreed with Beckner.

"I'm probably not the arts guy on the board, but what my conversations with Mike Merrill were all about was with a lean, lean budget you have to have investments, your items that have the highest returnable investment. To scrub this budget to see how many our investment is bringing back: 5-1, 4-1, 3-1, whatever it is. The fact that we have a positive cash flow on those investments. And Mike, I had that conversation with. I think that's where we try to recover our economy. The government can't get us out of these problems, but organizations like this or other investments that we're making."

The commission, with the exception of Commissioners Mark Sharpe and Al Higginbotham, also voted down furloughs within the county Environmental Protection Commission aimed at saving the county $227,087. Higginbotham said he supported the furloughs because he thought the EPC was ignoring the budget process.

"My vote today would be no, but it's not for lack of supporting the environment, but send a message that we've got rules in a process to work with the administrator and the budget folks, and lets do that."

The board also approved a lower millage rate for the county for fiscal year 2011. The aggregate rate will now be 10.75 mills, or $10.75 for every one thousand dollars of a property’s taxable value.

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