TAMPA — Hillsborough County government leaders pushed hard earlier this year for state legislation that would allow them to opt out of Civil Service Board rules and services.
They succeeded and now have until July 31 to make their decisions. But the heads of some of the largest agencies say they might continue to use Civil Service for recruiting and testing job applicants if the price is right.
One of them is County Administrator Mike Merrill, who said he will formally opt out of the Civil Service system during the July window prescribed in legislation passed May 2.
But not much will change for the 5,000 or so county workers in Merrill’s organization, at least until December, when county government agencies will have another chance to keep or decline Civil Service functions for fiscal year 2015.
“What we are going to do is essentially take the Civil Service rules into our human resources policies and continue using Civil Service ... until we can decide what services we want to do ourselves or contract out,” Merrill said.
Guided by its own board of directors, Civil Service is an agency with 29 employees that helps fill jobs, manage employee records and ensure fair treatment of employees. It serves 21 independent county agencies with nearly 10,000 combined employees.
Some agency heads are moving swiftly to shed Civil Service rules and processes they consider onerous and redundant.
Tax Collector Doug Belden was the first agency head to formally opt out of all Civil Service functions except for due-process protections for employees facing disciplinary action.
Belden and other county officers agreed last year to maintain those employee protections in a revamped law.
Belden said disengaging from Civil Service will save the Tax Collector’s Office about $67,000 a year. Part of those savings will come from contracting with a private vendor for testing job applicants.
The vendor will charge between $6,000 and $9,000 a year for testing. Belden said when he asked Civil Service Director Dane Petersen how much his agency would charge for testing, the cost was $40,000.
“You won’t believe how much money and time I’m going to save on all this paperwork going back and forth and having just one person to deal with instead of three,” Belden said, referring to obstacles his office faced dealing with Civil Service hiring rules and processes.
The sheriff’s office is also in the process of dropping all Civil Service connections except the due-process procedures, said Chief Deputy Jose Docobo.
The department has been doing its own background checks on job applicants for years, Docobo said.
However, those job seekers also had to go through the Civil Service recruitment process.
Hillsborough’s Civil Service law was passed by the Florida Legislature in the 1950s.
It was considered a good-government reform that would eliminate political patronage in government hiring.
But critics say the agency has devolved into a thicket of complicated regulations and processes that strangle efforts to modernize government. For example, at the sheriff’s office, deputies can apply to become detectives twice a year.
In addition to undergoing an internal application process, the applicants also have to go to the Civil Service office and fill out more forms.
“Even though Civil Service has nothing to do with the promotion and selection of detectives,” Docobo said.
“We’re going to be doing that now. That’s just a little thing, but you multiply that by the promotion process for sergeants, lieutenants and others, it was duplicative.”
Last year, Belden, Merrill and Circuit Court Clerk Pat Frank met and decided to ask the county’s local legislative delegation to amend the Civil Service law. The county commission backed the plan.
Petersen lobbied against the changes, which were sure to downsize his agency and drastically reduce its budget.
It seemed he had succeeded when state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, used a parliamentary procedure to shelve the law days before the end of the legislative session.
But Brandon Republican Sen. Tom Lee managed to pull the bill back onto the Senate calendar and it passed on the last day of the session.
Frank, like Merrill, said she’s willing to consider using Civil Service for job recruitment and other services, but Petersen has not offered any cost breakdowns or other details.
“I am opting out, but I might contract with him if he has something to sell,” Frank said, referring to Petersen. “I think he’s just waiting to see what everybody is going to do and hoping they will give him some direction, which is strange to me. He is now in a situation where he is a contractor.”
Petersen was out of town Thursday and could not be reached for comment. In an interview early last week, he said several agency heads have told him informally they want Civil Service to keep providing “essentially the same array of services” the agency now provides.
“By opting out, the organization is no longer required to use us,” he said, “but there are things that need to be done and that organization has the choice to do it themselves, have us do it, or go to a third party. They see us as a better option.”