No big payout to retain Manatee County's retiring administrator

January 15, 2013 

Manatee County commissioners are hoping to convince county Administrator Ed Hunzeker to forsake a one-time $337,000 check and a little over $6,000 per month in his state pension, all to remain on the job instead of retiring in August 2014 as planned.

The 65-year-old, though, signed up for the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program three years ago. State law requires Florida Retirement System members to leave their jobs for at least six months upon retirement or forfeit the money back to the state. But if commissioners succeed in convincing Hunzeker to remain in his post, the county would be on the hook for all that money.

Manatee taxpayers might take a dim view of that, a very dim view. We certainly do.

In this era of austerity, tight budgets and spending cuts, the county cannot afford such largess -- even with a rebounding economy and brighter revenue forecast ahead. There are too many other priorities and programs that merit funding.

Hunzeker could accept less than full remuneration, but this would still have to be costly to the county.

Last week commissioners voted unanimously to pursue the idea, proposed by Commission Chair Larry Bustle because Hunzeker has performed superbly during his tenure with Manatee.

We certainly agree with Bustle's assessment. Hunzeker has streamlined government during hard times and brought about a management shift that focuses on customer service to residents and the business community.

In the Building Department alone, the once contentious relationship between developers and the county over project approvals has been smoothed out. He also shaved the cost of county employee health care by adopting an innovative and proactive program to improve their personal health.

DROP rules were amended in 2009 to prevent public employees in the Florida Retirement System from "retiring" and returning to their old jobs in 30 days, collecting both a pension and a pay check. The six-month delay rule has curbed that practice. And we certainly agree with that hurdle to the much disgraced double-dipping into government coffers.

But it's a short-term hurdle. Manatee County could conceivably hold the administrator's job open for six months to avoid a payout and even name an interim superintendent. Both options create public relations problems.

Bustle also stated last week this was a "bad time to be changing administrators." That might be so, but this won't occur for almost 20 months -- which should be plenty of time to find a talented replacement. The candidate pool for this plum position in paradise should be deep.

The commission chair argues that Hunzeker has been "under-compensated compared to all the surrounding counties and cities with similar positions." Sarasota County currently pays its administrator about $190,000 while Charlotte County pays $150,000. Manatee's salary stands at a shade under $170,000, right in the middle. The comparisons hardly justify a big payout to retain Hunzeker.

Frankly, we hope Bustle and Hunzeker come up with a creative solution that keeps his valuable talents at the helm of county government. But not one that costs taxpayers a big check.

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