The Hernando County Board of County Commissioners will be considering a Resolution at its meeting this coming Tuesday asking the Governing Board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District to reconsider its intent to move the headquarters of SWFWMD from Hernando County to Tampa as its staff has recommended.
This is an extremely important matter for Hernando County and all the counties in the northern area of SWFWMD including Levy, Marion, Sumter, Citrus and Pasco, as well as the City of Brooksville.
I hope you will consider attending this meeting and show support for your commissioners and the adoption of the resolution. The meeting will be at 9:00 a.m., Tuesday, May 26, County Courthouse Brooksville, in the Hernando County Commission meeting room.
B a c k g r o u n d
SWFWMD started reducing staff several years ago in response to the Recession. Without reference to the extent or manner by which the District carried out the reduction, everyone generally agrees the economy was down and a thoughtful reduction of at least some regulatory and legal staff was appropriate to reflect the reduced economic activity.
At the same time SWFWMD apparently began efforts to develop a long-term business plan that would attempt to determine “where the district was going” and how it would get there. Meanwhile, the Governing Board also began relocating staff to Tampa in the interest of “greater efficiency” and without saying there was any underlying intent to move the headquarters of the District to Tampa, until Friday a week ago.
On that date, May 15, 2015, at 1:22 p.m., the Executive Director of the District, Robert Beltran, issued an email to all district staff via “Internal Communications” saying,
“I wanted to let you know that based on the findings of the District’s Business Plan, there is a presentation and resolution on Tuesday’s Governing Board agenda recommending that the Tampa Service Office be designated the District headquarters or principal office.”
No public notice
There was no public notice this was going to happen. In fact, the Resolution was not shown on the agenda. Nor was it announced anywhere publically that it was going to be recommended to the Governing Board. Neither the resolution nor any reference to it could be found within the 260-page packet of informational materials accompanying the Agenda. It became known only because an anonymous staff member who received Beltran’s email forwarded it to a non-staff member who then forwarded it to me.
Because it was done so surreptitiously, it appears the purpose was to prevent those who will be most affected by the move from learning about it and having an opportunity to let their positions be known; or, it was mistake so egregious that it now demands the entire matter of relocating major district services and operations to Tampa should be abandoned and the completed relocations reversed.
Hernando County’s Legislative Delegation steps up
Senator Simpson appeared before the Governing Board that Tuesday to voice his position firmly against the move, face to face with the Board members; and Representative Blaise Ingoglia registered his opposition to the district’s proposed action in a media release jointly issued by Senator Simpson and the Representative.
The real plan
The district’s orchestrated response, repeated over and again by board members and staff, is that there are no immediate plans to move existing staff from the Brooksville location and, thus, they reasoned to Senator Simpson, Hernando County and City of Brooksville representatives who also attended the meeting, there will be no economic impact. Both staff and District Governing Board members disingenuously and conveniently never mentioned the impacts already caused by relocating to Tampa the hundreds of management and technical service positions once housed at the headquarters building in Hernando County, including: Well Construction permitting staff; Environmental Resource permitting staff; Water Use permitting staff; Regulation Production And Administration staff; Executive, Administrative and Support staff; Field Compliance staff, and; Legal staff.
It was an intentional deflection meant to mislead. However, by implying accurately that there would be no economic loss because there would be no further reduction in current payroll levels, the claim was also a de facto admission that significant economic damage is occurring and will continue to occur as a result of the hundreds of employees already removed to Tampa.
This appears to have been the strategy all along. Make the moves slowly over a period of time and justify them as being in the interest of greater efficiency during a global recession. Then make the claim once completed that it only makes sense to designate the Tampa field office as district headquarters because most of the staff and operations are already there.
1. Tampa is most Centrally located site
a. Better access for public and Governing Board
Comment – It appears the real reason for the move is to provide easier access for Board members to get to meetings. Over the years, the district has constructed three major offices: Brooksville, Tampa and Sarasota. Each of these buildings were designed to accommodate meetings so the Governing and formerly existing local Basin Boards could meet and engage the local citizenry; the basin boards of that area would always hold their regular and special meetings in the closest office; and the Governing Board could meet in any of them from time to time as gestures of good will to move government and its decisions closer to the affected public. The district covers some 10,000 square miles. It is not good will to indicate the Governing Board will always meet in Tampa because it’s convenient for Board members. Any location for million dollar public facilities is not for the convenience of Board members. It is for the convenience of the public. Board members are temporary. The public and the facilities built to deliver services to them are permanent.
2. Site for Governing Board meetings
Comment – Yes, this is true. The building was originally built so it could be used regularly by the several basin boards of the Tampa bay area and the Governing board from time to time. It can and should continue to be used by the Governing Board perhaps on a rotating basis with the Sarasota and Brooksville offices. There is no justification, however, for consolidating staff in Tampa when a multimillion dollar facility designed and built to house them already exists in Brooksville. The moves to Tampa that seem almost whimsical have likely consumed most if not all the available space there which was never intended to accommodate headquarters staffing levels. Remember, the relocations that have occurred happened during a time when the staff was reduced by 40%, according to Paul Sentf former SWFWMD chairman. If most space is taken now at that level, once the economy becomes reenergized the District will need to begin hiring again - that is if it intends to return to carrying out its statutory duties - and then the “need” will be to build another bigger and better but duplicative District headquarters in Tampa. This is practically an unavoidable, terribly wasteful and ill-advised scenario if the headquarters staff isn’t moved back to the building intended for them in Hernando County.
3. Consolidations have already occurred
a. No immediate plans to move additional staff
Comment – This is hardly comforting in light of the damage already done to the residents of Hernando County, its sister counties north of Tampa Bay, and the City of Brooksville. It is also a disingenuous claim in light of the relocations already perpetrated which are causing and will continue to cause compounding economic losses to the area for years to come. It will not be a one-time loss.
4. Tampa is fastest growing area
Comment – The fastest growing area doesn’t mean the only growing area. A rising economy will lift all boats. There will be an increasing need for effective and responsive resource regulation and management from Marion and Levy counties on the north, to Charlotte and Sarasota Counties on the south of SWFWMD. Resource management and regulation is not necessarily needed most in the “fastest growing” area. There are huge problems to be resolved throughout the district that will require the District’s concentrated attention. In fact, there seems to be little relationship to the Tampa area perhaps being the fastest growing and the argument that the district’s headquarters should, therefore, be located there. Agricultural interests will necessarily be concerned that the focus of the district is now, as former chair Senft put it, on the “bright lights of the big city.”
5. Largest educated labor pool
Comment – This point should actually be offensive to all the counties not considered part of the “educated labor pool” to which it mysteriously refers. It also ignores the fact that good, steady, important jobs that pay reasonably well, combined with reasonable benefits and a reasonable retirement program, will always be able to attract talented employees to do complicated tasks. It also reflects a serious lack of knowledge of actual SWFWMD experience during a number of very serious economic ups and downs. It is not location near a university that brings qualified candidates. It is a host of other factors. During good economic times, for example, when technical consulting businesses are flourishing and professional salaries are higher than those a government organization can pay, higher qualified candidates will be more difficult to attract. When opposite conditions exist and consulting opportunities are on a down turn, better qualified candidates gravitate to government jobs that are less affected by temporary economic conditions and provide steady income with much greater reliability for their families. Highly technical positions will not be filled by new university graduates and new university graduates can be easily attracted to good job opportunities no matter the location.
6. No reduction in quality of services
Comment – Not sure what the point is here. There would certainly be no reduction of services caused by the District headquarters remaining in Brooksville. There must be concern that loss of services was a possibility by being located in Tampa. For over 50 years there has never been an issue with delivery of services caused by the District headquarters being in Brooksville. In fact, as offered by James Kimbrough of SunTrust Bank at the Tuesday meeting, in many cases it has been an advantage by offering neutral ground for powerful urban governments to meet and resolve expensive legal battles over resource related issues. The so-called Tampa Bay Water Wars, which was, in fact, a decades-long series of historic, precedent-setting legal battles, is a prime example.
7. Majority of the district staff will be retiring over the next ten years
This is a red herring argument. While the statement may be true, the fact is no additional hiring will take place until vacancies actually occur. When there is an important vacancy, the recruitment process will typically be nationwide, not up and down Tampa’s Fowler Avenue. Filling vacancies will be easy or difficult in each case as it always has been, depending upon the level of expertise required, the economy, and the nation-wide availability of that particular expertise. Actually, many of these vacancies will likely have nothing to do with STEM positions and simply represent normal turnover that might be expected within an agency over such a long time frame. Consider that the district just fired some 40% of its workforce. Now it is suggesting there will be a problem filling vacancies in five or ten years so it’ll have to move the headquarters to Tampa! Nonsense.
This whole exercise of moving the majority of District staff from an existing multi-million dollar state of the art facility in Brooksville to Tampa will ultimately prove to be a monumental waste of time, energy and public dollars if allowed to proceed. It has been handled unprofessionally and purposefully out of the public eye. The arguments used to justify the move are weak and appear politically contrived. The legislature, the county commissioners of all the northern counties of the district, and the public should be outraged.