Top bosses in local government across Florida may have seen the last of one public service perk: extended pay and benefits for not working.
Severance pay is at the center of the ongoing back-and-forth over Pat Bean's future as Hillsborough County administrator.
But with the state suffering from record unemployment and layoffs common at the local government level, the spotlight is shining brighter on compensation for executives, said John Daly, director of the USF Public Administration Program.
"A county administrator puts himself at peril if he's seeking an increase in compensation relative to the past," said Daly, who has studied government pay in Florida. "I think we'll see county commissions look closely not at salaries but at the perks."
Some members of the Hillsborough County Commission want to fire Bean, their county administrator since 2003. But some are reluctant to pay the cost: $448,846.
Most of that money is the year's salary and benefits Bean negotiated as a severance package when her contract was renewed in 2004. The balance is leave time she has accrued, a benefit available to other county employees.
Bean's severance arrangement is among the most favorable among top executives in Florida's seven most populous counties, according to Tribune research.
Six months' severance is the deal for appointed county administrators in Broward and Pinellas counties. There is no severance in Miami-Dade, Orange and Jacksonville-Duval, which are led by elected mayors.
Only in Palm Beach County does the administrator, Robert Weisman, appear to have a sweeter severance deal: Pay and benefits through the end of his contract in 2014 in the event he's terminated.
Weisman has worked for the county since 1980, and as administrator since 1991. Bean went to work for the county in 1977 and became administrator 26 years later.
"I think you'll see a maximum of three to six months in the future, as opposed to a year," Daly said. "This is money that could provide for probably three or four positions which are being lopped off."
Severance packages are just one of the perks top executives enjoy in Florida's biggest counties. Daly predicts closer scrutiny of any compensation above and beyond what's available to other employees in a government workforce.
Right now, these perks can include cash contributions to a deferred payment plan for retirement, health insurance with no premiums or deductibles, monthly expense accounts, and either free use of a car or a car allowance.
The main compensation, though, remains salary. Some county executives are seeing a small reduction in salary consistent with budget-cutting furloughs for all county employees.
Broward administrator Bertha Henry will lose five days of pay this year, for example. So will Pat Bean, but her cuts come against the backdrop of a raise she gave herself and other top administrators. That action, in part, is how she ran afoul of the commission.
Overall, Daly expects executive salaries in Florida's county governments to stay flat.
How executives' salaries are figured in the state's biggest counties doesn't necessarily track with the population of the county, the workforce they lead, their time in office, or how many of their citizens also live in cities and towns that have their own executives.
The elected county mayors tend to get paid less. Whether they're a bargain for taxpayers, Daly said, depends on their skills as administrators - and on whether they actually run day-to-day operations or delegate them to another high-paid administrator.
"Elected county mayors also have the challenge of running political campaigns and being visible to the public," Daly said.
An ongoing campaign to add Hillsborough to the list of mayor-led counties figures in Bean's employment contract: She's out of a job as county administrator if voters some day are presented with the county mayor proposal and approve it.
The highest-paid executive among the top seven counties is Henry in Broward, at $290,000 per year. The lowest-paid is Mayor Richard Crotty in Orange, at $149,944.
But calculated on a rate per 1,000 county residents, administrator Robert LaSala in Pinellas is highest paid at $240, and Mayor Carlos Alvarez in Miami-Dade is lowest at $90. Bean receives about $190 for every 1,000 residents in Hillsborough.
What county commissions feel they can afford - a decision informed by public pressure - plays more of a role in executive pay than a county's population, Daly said.
That may help explain why the administrator in Pasco County, John J. Gallagher, receives $34,000 a year less than James L. Ley in Sarasota County, even though Pasco has 50,000 more people.
"What is the sensitivity of a community to pay increases?" Daly said. "If it's a less economically developed county, you may see more pressure to keep costs down, with people saying, 'If I'm making $32,000 a year, why is the guy running the county getting 10 times that?"