Manatee Commission Addresses County Administrator Salary Increase

BRADENTON — At a regular meeting on Tuesday, County Administrator Scott Hopes, along with the Manatee County Commission, sought to put an end to debate or questions about employee wage and salary increases that seem deviate from those described in the adopted FY22 budget.

Sometime after 8:00 p.m. the day before the meeting, an item was added to the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting—item number 38, Discussion and explanation of employee compensation for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2022. However, when the meeting was held in the morning, the item was removed from the agenda when the agenda updates were read.

Commission Chairman Kevin Van Ostenbridge told council that he and the county administrator had added the “last minute” element because they had anticipated the issue raised during the commissioner’s comments. Van Ostenbridge then turned to Commissioner Misty Servia and asked if she felt the item was necessary for discussion and whether she personally intended to raise the issue in her comments at the end of the meeting.

After Servia clarified that she hadn’t asked for the point to be added and that she had no intention of addressing the issue, Van Ostenbridge said: “Okay, in that case, I going to remove it from the agenda because I don’t think it’s necessary.”

Two hours into the meeting, Commissioner Reggie Bellamy again addressed the issue. Bellamy explained that he had received emails and calls from members of the community with questions about the issue and that he had planned for the issue to be addressed at the meeting. After hearing Commissioner Bellamy, the Chairman returned item 38 to the agenda.

When the meeting resumed after the lunch break, Administrator Scott Hopes addressed the board and the public regarding his decision on how employees – and himself – would receive raises in pay and salary during the current fiscal year.

“I believe over a week ago an article posted online by a writer questioned the 3.9% pay increase we gave employees over four months ago” , began Hopes. “There were interesting questions, concerns, allegations, political attacks and whatever you want to call it.”

Hopes went on to explain that the problem seemed to have arisen because of the language related to the initial recommended budget. He described how the budget process included September hearings before the final approved budget. Hopes told the commission that the final budget included a 3.9% salary increase for county commission board employees, as well as constitutional offices.

The September hearings are available for review on the county’s YouTube channel and contain no open discussion of the 1% change in performance pay (PFP) and the adjustment to 2.9% pay levels. Trustee Hopes told the board on Tuesday that the changes were – in fact – written into the final budget they approved.

Hopes also said that at the time of his decision to revise the June 9, 2021 budget message recommendation of 1% PFP and the 2.9% adjustment in compensation levels to the general salary increase of 3.9 %, the decision was made in consultation with the Director of Human Resources then in office. Former human resources director Kim Stroud, who had worked for the county for more than a decade, was removed by the administration in August during the budget process. Ashley Burton – the county’s director of compensation – assumed the role of acting director of human resources when Stroud was fired. Burton has since left his position with the county to take up a position with the manatee sheriff’s office.

Contrary to his remarks at a Feb. 1 meeting where he alleged he didn’t know “who was floating” one of the raises tied to the 2020 minimum wage requirement passed by Florida voters, the administrator acknowledged that the minimum wage requirement had been discussed early in the budget process.

“If the concern is that this decision was not the direction of the board, then I take responsibility and accountability for the decision,” Hopes offered. “As county administrator, I take full responsibility and accountability for the implementation of council directives.”

Hopes reiterated that the CFO is aware of his intention to forego the PFP and instead initiate a 3.9% blanket wage increase for all county employees. He reiterated from his explanation at the Feb. 1 meeting that the decision to do so was driven by considerations related to the economic climate and the impacts of the pandemic. Hopes concluded his comments by telling the commission that if they held any concerns directly related to him personally receiving the raise, “then that’s an issue for the board to address.”

Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she had no problem with the administrator also receiving the raise, citing another contract worker, the Port Authority manager, who also received it . “You’re new and everything,” Whitmore told Hopes, “and you get the raise,” Whitmore continued, “I might have some concerns about that, but I’ll talk to him (Hopes). Only he can possibly do what I think.” Whitmore said she would prefer not to share those thoughts in a public meeting, but intended to follow up privately, citing her preference not to encourage or create “drama”.

Commissioner Misty Servia thanked the administrator for his comments and emphasized her belief that whenever a question of this nature is raised by the public or the press, the county must respond with answers. “I don’t think there was anything nefarious that happened. I think there was a little communication breakdown,” she said. “I think the public deserves to know the truth in plain language and if there’s a question then please let’s answer it.”

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh expressed her opinion that the council should improve things such as ethics and transparency. “I’ll just go back to what I touched on a few times in the commissioner’s comments, which was ethics and transparency. I think as a council we need to work on that,” Baugh said.

Baugh then referenced a conversation she had with the county administrator about the subject and how she expects him to report “certain things” to council to help with those matters. . Baugh added that she felt the issue of general wage and salary increases – and whether the administrator was subject to them – had been exaggerated, stating that Hopes’ contract entitled her to the increase.

“Those of us who voted for his contract probably should have realized that it was in there, that he would probably get the raise.” Baugh continued, “I wasn’t thinking specifically, oh, he was going to get a cost-of-living increase,” she then corrected to say, “not a cost-of-living increase, but a raise. That doesn’t mean to me.” never came to mind.”

Baugh also shared his generally positive view of the administrator’s performance and work ethic, saying, “He deserved the raise in my opinion.”

Commissioner Bellamy echoed some of his colleagues’ comments about the importance of communication. “My biggest concern was the protocol,” Bellamy said. “Was there anything that was done that we weren’t aware of? I felt a public explanation was needed after the report.”

Bellamy then acknowledged Hopes’ willingness to acknowledge the concern and take responsibility, thanking him for doing so.

Commissioner Satcher encouraged the public to keep in mind that it is election season and publications may be trying to get clicks and sell newspapers. He reminded that there are two sides to every story. “I just want to point out that if you’re home, take this with a grain of salt.”

“Is it worth our time, and yours, to take care of every little hassle?” Satcher added, appearing to address his comment to the public.

“When people bring their concerns to the public, of course we look into them,” Van Ostenbridge offered. “This is what we do.”

Van Ostenbridge mentioned his efforts to confirm reports on the matter among department heads, asking if the reports were legitimate. “I don’t think it’s something that needs to be discussed in a public meeting,” Van Ostenbrige said. “He can easily be manipulated behind closed doors.”

“I would encourage my fellow board members not to give too much credence to what looks like an alt-left tabloid,” Van Ostenbrige advised the board.

After concluding his comments, Van Ostenbridge proposed to close the debate on the agenda item. Servia and Whitmore spoke against his motion to do so, noting that they were still on the board with additional comments to add. The motion to allow debate to continue was put to a vote, but failed 4-3, with Commissioners Van Ostenbridge, Baugh, Kruse and Satcher voting to close debate.

Although Council closed discussion on the agenda item earlier in the meeting, Commissioner Servia returned to the subject during the Commissioner’s remarks before the adjournment. Servia begins with the comments she was unable to make when the debate on agenda item 38 was closed.

“We are accountable to our taxpayers,” Servia said. “That’s our main job. I don’t want to downplay this topic like some people have.”

Servia described a process she undertook after reading the reports on the matter, followed by verifying the accuracy of the reports.

“I couldn’t find any wrong facts (in the report) when I spoke to our CFO and our staff here,” Servia said. “I just want it out.”

None of the commissioners responded.

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William M. Mayer