County's acting budget director fired


Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 8:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 8:15 p.m.

As Alachua County dives into developing next fiscal year's budget, its head of growth management will be pulling double duty after the recent firing of the county's budget director.

Acting County Manager Rick Drummond fired Rick Mills Jr., the interim director of the Office of Management and Budget, effective March 4 — the second leadership change for the department since September.

Mills, who has worked for the county for more than a decade, took over the budget office after former Director Suzanne Gable departed in late September for another job in Sarasota County that reunited her with former Alachua County Manager Randall Reid.

Mills initially was placed on administrative leave with pay for about two weeks, and his termination took effect at 5 p.m. on March 4, according to county personnel records. At the time of his firing, he made about $88,600 annually.

"Things weren't jelling," Drummond said of Mills' short stint as interim budget director. "I had to make a decision to get some kind of leadership (that was) needed out there."

County personnel records offered no additional reasons for Mills' firing.

Mills previously served as the county's legislative affairs director, in which capacity he managed the county's state lobbying efforts. That position was eliminated under the current fiscal year's budget, which also halved the funding for federal lobbying from about $60,000 to $30,000. Communications Coordinator Mark Sexton took over the state lobbying responsibilities, while Mills moved into the role of budget director.

Mills had experience in the realm of budgeting, having formerly served as director of the Office of Management and Budget for both Alachua County and the city of Gainesville. He also teaches a graduate course on public finance and budgeting at the University of Florida.

Mills said he was shocked by his firing. He said he was informed of the decision on Feb. 18 upon his return to work after spending a week out of the office because he was sick with pneumonia after a recent bout with the flu.

"I've been budgeting for a long time and doing legislative stuff for a long time, and he didn't seem to like the direction either one was going I guess," Mills said of Drummond. "I thought we were heading in a good direction — and then all of a sudden, boom."

Drummond said he had planned to inform Mills of his firing on Feb. 11, but Mills was absent that day and for the remainder of the week because of illness.

Mills had been working on a reorganization of the budget office, which Drummond said will continue as the department is restructured to allow for a sharper focus on budget preparation.

"I guess we had just different ideas about what was getting accomplished there," Mills said. "I mean, from my point of view, I think we were moving in the right direction. But that was his call."

Although he was surprised by his firing, Mills said he is moving on and focusing on his teaching work at UF.

Mills was the city of Gainesville's budget director before the county hired him in 1999 to fill the same position.

But Reid, then the county manager, removed him from that post in January 2002 and offered him a job coordinating the county's lobbying activities instead, according to county personnel records.

Reid wrote in a letter to Mills: "I no longer have confidence in your ability to effectively manage your assigned department."

Reid wrote that he believed there was a mutual understanding that Mills was more suited for a job with fewer managerial responsibilities.

Mills said he didn't remember the 2002 letter from Reid but noted he was doing budgetary and lobbying work while serving as budget director back then. He said he couldn't handle covering both responsibilities, which is why he agreed to take the lobbying-centric position, which he held for the next decade.

Drummond said he decided to return Mills to his former role as budget director because of his experience and because many years had passed since his earlier removal.

"Because of his experience, I was willing to give it a shot," Drummond said. But it didn't work out as he'd anticipated.

"His perception is what his perception is," Drummond said of Mills. "I'm not going to debate it."

Growth Management Director Steve Lachnicht now will serve as interim budget director in the wake of Mills' firing, likely filling that role for the duration of the fiscal year 2014 budgeting process. Lachnicht also will continue to cover his duties for the growth management department.

"The interim director that was in the role, like I said, fell behind in some of the deadlines, and that's why Rick Drummond made the decision to make a change and let him go," Lachnicht said.

Lachnicht said he is focused on managing both departments as the budget office launches into its months-long adoption process.

"I intend to commit myself to pull it through the budget cycle. I think that's pretty much essential right now," he said.

Lachnicht will oversee the development of an initial budget by July and expects to lead both departments until at least September.

Managing his dual responsibilities will be a stretch, he said, but he will have help from Rick Wolf, assistant director of growth management.

"It's a team effort," he said. "And that's a team in a broader sense of working with other departments in the county."

After he had already agreed to take over as budget director following Mills' firing, Lachnicht said Drummond extended a 10 percent pay bump to him as a "generous offer" recognizing the substantial increase in duties he had assumed.

Drummond said he doesn't plan to hire a permanent budget director in the near future because the county is in the midst of a search for a new county manager.

Typically, the role of budget director is the kind of job a new manager would like to select for him or herself because it is an important position, he said.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com.

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