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Just Pay Steve Howard

Take your pick of a triumphant cliché saying and it would all apply to Tuesday’s county commission meeting. After the disaster that was the previous meeting, an appropriate one would be that the night is always darkest just before the dawn. Many commissioners referred to it as the board’s finest hour, even as the meeting trudged through its fifth hour.


I usually roll my eyes at this type of self-congratulating, but it was earned in this case. This meeting had everything. For the first time since I’ve been watching meetings six years ago, Chairman Ron Kitchen - usually among the most opinionated on any issue - became a pseudo-swing vote in the county administrator vote.


Commissioner Scott Carnahan said he was impressed with a strategic plan proposal; a claim that caused Commissioner Holly Davis to all but fall out of her chair. Commissioner Carnahan later laughed about it admitting every other strategic plan had collected dust on his shelf unread.


Other parts felt familiar. Commissioner Carnahan came out swinging on numerous topics. One he was unwilling to budge from, insisting on a unanimous vote to choose Steve Howard as the next administrator, which ultimately happened. Another he was passionately against to begin with, calling the process to reach a proposal for a new Baker Act facility “bullshit” because it excluded current Citrus County Administrator Randy Oliver, but he was ultimately persuaded to proceed to the next step.


The most spectacular part of what the commission was able to accomplish Tuesday was to keep the conversations professional. It wasn’t perfect. Chairman Kitchen still took passive-aggressive digs at his newest colleagues. But it was joyful. At one point, he even allowed the crowd to burst into applause, something that would normally send him into threats of immediate and forcible ejection from the chambers.


Competing ideas were thoughtfully presented. Counterpoints were artfully delivered. Decisions were justly explained, and even if you didn’t agree with the outcome, there was no question as to how or why the commission had moved in that direction.


Three weeks now separate Tuesday from the next commission meeting in which one vital thing needs to happen to continue what was so wonderfully set in motion. They need to pay Steve Howard.


The one point of contention that kept Mr. Howard from immediately swaying Chairman Kitchen was that his salary request was higher than what the board currently felt comfortable meeting and there was a thought that he would back out if negotiations faltered over it.


I don’t want to downplay legitimate concerns that county staff, already suffering from low morale, may take this new increased pay disparity with their boss as a sleight but that can’t be a reason to let top talent get away. An effective county administrator is able to save the taxpayers so much more money than the couple of tens of thousands that they could potentially bicker over that the job essentially pays for itself.


The commission is also not in a strong position to negotiate. Mr. Howard is currently the county administrator of Camden County, Georgia that only has about a third of our population, but the title is more of a lateral movement than a promotion.


The staff replacement after an exodus of over a half dozen top officials will be an onerous task for anyone, but especially on someone learning the ins and outs of our county while simultaneously rebuilding its personnel.


It’s here that the commission could partially take a page from the City of Inverness’ strategy. The city council recently approved a seven year, $130,000 per year contract for their top administrator, which was a number close to the $160,000-ish County Administrator Randy Oliver makes to run a county of nearly $400 million in expenditures compared to less than $63 million in Inverness. But to the City’s credit, the council knew they had their guy and got aggressive paying for him.


I have no problem with the salary because effective administrators are worth it, but the job security is not something Mr. Howard will enjoy like Mr. Williams.


Commissioners change quite a bit compared to the council that has seen the same faces in the majority for a dozen years. These changing personalities combined with an annual evaluation means Mr. Howard should be paid more to offset the lack of job security he has.


High risk means high reward and walking the tightrope of the commission’s will that can change year-to-year is about as risky as it gets for someone moving his young family across state lines to pursue a new opportunity.


The commission is riding high, and rightfully so, but don’t mess it up now. Just pay him.


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