MANATEE -- A move toward "smaller government" came as a big shock to former Manatee County Parks and Recreation Director Cindy Turner.
After 27 years, she was laid off Oct. 8, along with four fellow employees.
It was part of what County Administrator Ed Hunzeker described as a merger with the Department of Natural Resources, designed to save about $250,000 annually.
"I'm in complete shock and disbelief, and I really don't know what happened, I didn't see it coming," Turner said recently.
Asked what reason she was given, she replied: "I really don't know the reason, I was just shocked."
However, she added she had been told it was not "performance-related."
She referred other questions to Hunzeker, who was traveling Tuesday and unavailable for comment.
His stand-in was Nick Azzara, county information outreach coordinator.
"As you know, the county has a longstanding practice of not publicly discussing personnel decisions," Azzara said. "So I cannot answer several of these questions, other than to say the departmental consolidation was the latest in a years-long series of initiatives Manatee County has taken to downsize government and increase efficiencies."
The consolidation resulted in some overlap of services, necessitating staffing reductions, Azzara said.
Hunzeker announced the changes at a County Commission meeting this month.
Savings from reduced salary expenses and increased operational efficiencies will primarily offset reliance on the county budget stabilization reserves, which supplemented the budget by about $17 million this year, Azzara said.
Asked about the wisdom of consolidation Tuesday, Manatee County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino said handling such matters are Hunzeker's job: "I'm confident they'll continue to run the merged department very well."
Hunzeker is always looking for ways to save money, said County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh.
"You're talking about a quarter of a million dollars, and with the economy, it's very important we try to keep coming up with different options in order to save money," Baugh said. "It's only fair to the taxpayer we're trying to do that."
The new Parks and Natural Resources Department is led by Charlie Hunsicker, longtime chief of the Department of Natural Resources. He did not respond to phone messages seeking comment Tuesday.
It was a case of smaller overtaking larger.
As of Oct. 1, the Natural Resources Department had a staff of 33 and an annual budget of $3.655 million with nearly $2 million in personnel costs, according to Jan Brewer, county budget division manager.
As of Oct. 1, the Parks Department had a staff of 95 and an annual budget of $9.7 million, including $4.62 million devoted to personnel salaries, said Brewer.
A third partner in the consolidation was the Department of Property Management, headed by Charlie Bishop, whose employees now manage parks.
The Parks and Natural Resources Department has 60 positions, and Property Management has 170, Azzara said. No additional staffing reductions are expected, he added.
More than 500,000 county residents enjoyed programs operated by the Parks and Recreation Department last year, according to budget documents.
Parks employees oversaw 52 parks, some along beaches, and 42 non-park and other facilities covering more than 1,000 acres.
The Natural Resources Department restored and maintained more than 30,000 acres of county conservation preserve lands and coastal resources; oversaw environmental land acquisitions and land restoration; and developed passive recreational sites.
Its employees also operated a surface- and groundwater-environmental protection program, and oversaw phosphate mining, land reclamation, beach renourishment and boat ramps.
A county press release about the consolidation noted it "could also put to greater use the Natural Resource Department's volunteer network, which provides thousands of hours of donated time to the county each year."
Asked if the county intended to use free labor in lieu of paid employees, Azzara said employees perform daily at a level volunteers cannot match.
"That said, the county relies heavily on its volunteer network and benefitted from the work of more than 3,000 volunteers donating more than 17,000 hours to Parks and Natural Resources last year alone," Azzara said. "The departmental consolidation will not mean reduced service levels to our parks or natural preserves. We hope that the consolidation will bring to our volunteer network a new level of awareness for even more opportunities to work on interesting projects that benefit the entire community."
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.