BROOKSVILLE - Hernando County plans to hire a public communications specialist to help shoulder the demanding workload of government operations and act as a backstop to the administrator.
The new person, already budgeted for the 2013-14 fiscal year and approved last Tuesday by county commissioners, will tentatively make $38,400 and assist newly hired public information manager Virginia Singer and administrative assistant Tina Duenninger.
County Administrator Len Sossamon said taxpayers have asked for more transparency in government and this hire will allow Singer and Duenninger more time to be proactive in the community and facilitate the speedier dissemination of important information to the media.
"That's what we're trying to do is get the word out," Sossamon said.
Sossamon said Duenninger has to work the occasional overtime and long hours to ensure that the biweekly county commission agenda gets out by Thursday, five days before each meeting.
But not everyone is happy with the new position.
Former County Commissioner June Ester said the combined salaries of the three individuals, whose duties all overlap with public relations, is $142,000 - not including benefits - and is a waste of taxpayer money.
Especially, she said, since for so long only two people have been doing the job.
"I think it's absolutely ludicrous," Ester said. "To spend that much money on public relations, especially right now when taxpayers have the lowest opinion of government as a whole."
Ester said she doesn't understand why Singer is making almost the same amount as Frazier - who made $66,000 - when she hasn't done this job before and she also needs an assistant.
It's especially surprising, she said, when county commissioners not that long ago were considering downsizing the communication department due to budget cuts.
Assistant County Administrator of Budget and Business Development George Zoettlein said Singer, unlike her predecessor Frazier, will be somewhat handicapped because she won't have the help of video production manager Rick Foti and his assistant Richard Johnson.
They will be folded into the technical services department.
Zoettlein said Frazier used to rely on Foti to put together the public service spots on government broadcasting.
"(Duenninger) has so much work and can't keep up with it," Zoettlein said. "She's overloaded. It's a lot for one person to do."
Duenninger makes $40,352 and Singer makes $63,500.
County Commissioner Jim Adkins said he will ask staff for current workloads of Duenninger and the schedule for Singer when she starts work Monday and see if this third position is needed.
"I want to look into it," Adkins said. "Just because it was approved (on the budget) doesn't mean it's going to happen."
But Sossamon calls the timely release of the agenda of vital importance for staff, county commissioners and the public. It is all Duenninger can do to make sure that deadline is met.
And if Duenninger takes a vacation day, the problem is exacerbated, he said.
Singer's duties have also been expanded from being the public relations spokeswoman for the county to making sure the county's long-range strategic plan is being implemented, Sossamon said.
Also, Singer will be working with the administrator on the Restore Act funding, which is money Hernando County will get from the BP oil spill two years ago.
Sossamon said Singer will help draft the job description of the new position once she comes on-board Monday.
County Commission Chairman Dave Russell calls the proposed hire "rational, prudent and needed" to help alleviate the large workload, especially of Duenninger.
At one time, Russell said there were three secretaries and one intern doing all of Duenninger's duties. Due to cutbacks, those positions were either eliminated or re-assigned.
Plus, he said, Duenninger has to prepare the calendars of all five county commissioners, the county administrator and the agenda.
"Tina's got her hands full," he said.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes said at this time he supports the administrator's decision to hire extra help for Duenninger and Singer.
Singer will be asked to take on more responsibilities and Duenninger is slammed, so it makes sense, he said.
County Commissioner Nick Nicholson said the extra position is probably a good idea because county staff has been cut back so much and there is too much of a burden on the existing administrative assistant.
County Commissioner Diane Rowden agrees the workload of the county administrator and the county commissioners is too big to be handled by one person and it makes sense for backup.
"Tina has been absolutely slammed with public records requests and that's time consuming," Rowden said.