Manatee County administrator Ed Hunzeker earned a raise

January 29, 2013 

Why would someone forfeit a fat retirement bonus check to remain on the job? For Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker, the answer is simple. His passion for serving a community and accomplishing great things has not diminished with age.

The 65-year-old is giving up a $337,411.83 lump-sum retirement benefit due upon his previously announced retirement date of Aug. 31, 2014, to continue to direct county government -- should commissioners approve the new contract today.

Previously, the Manatee County board of commissioners unanimously agreed to allow Chairman Larry Bustle to negotiate a contract with Hunzeker to forestall his departure -- and for good reason. The unanimous vote signals the commission's confidence and appreciation for his job performance.

His accomplishments are many and support the commission's desire to retain his services so he can oversee his key initiatives for the future of the county -- especially implementation of the "How Will We Grow?" blueprint for the next two decades plus.

Hunzeker's new contract calls for a significant raise, from $169,124.80 to $203,845. While that gives some taxpayers heartburn, the elevated salary is not unreasonable in comparison with other Florida county administrators. Volusia County pays its administrators in excess of Hunzeker's new contract, and Sarasota County's scale is in the ballpark at $190,000.

The private sector would pay more for a chief executive in charge of a company with 1,600 employees. And Hunzeker's new contract only matches the one that the former county administrator, Ernie Padgett, earned six years ago, so the bar's already been set.

To his credit, Hunzeker refused to accept annual pay increases while county employees did not receive any during the rough economy. Those workers will get one this fiscal year.

Hunzeker will not be double-dipping -- that is, picking up a pay check and a pension at the same time. That terrible practice was impeded by the Legislature in 2009 when the rules for the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program were changed. DROP allows government employees to schedule their retirement five years in advance and to bank pension checks into an account payable upon the date they scheduled to leave the job. Hunzeker signed up at age 62 with the 2014 retirement date in order to secure the DROP payment.

Under the old Florida Retirement System rules, state workers could retire and return to work for the state in 30 days -- thus, double-dipping. The 2009 law changed the time span to six months, effectively curbing the practice.

But DROP rules held Manatee County liable for Hunzeker's DROP payment should he remain employed by the government. So the county administrator agreed to forfeit the payment. That's a surprise. This Editorial Board strongly opposed county liability for the DROP payment while agreeing Hunzeker has been a very valuable leader. His rejection of the check makes this new contract most acceptable.

Hunzeker has worked wonders for Manatee County. He trimmed the budget by more than $140 million and reduced staff by more than 300 during tough times. He won commission approval for economic development incentives to businesses that promised to provide new jobs -- and only performance-based jobs that paid above the county average. He instituted a government management transformation focusing on positive customer service to taxpayers and businesses. The concessions at both Coquina and Manatee public beaches improved markedly under his direction. He empowered Animal Services to implement a no-kill policy, the first in Florida and a role model and inspiration for other counties.

Manatee County would be hard pressed to replace Ed Hunzeker with someone as capable and visionary. Is he worth an extra $34,720.20 a year? In a word, yes.

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