Collier, Lee governments big but not largest employers in those counties

Government entities — ranging from school districts to the military — are among Florida's largest employers statewide.

But that news, revealed last month in a Florida TaxWatch report, comes as no surprise to Collier and Lee county officials who said local governments wear a variety of hats and provide dozens of essential services.

"The public sector is an important part of the economy," said Pete Winton, Lee County's assistant county manager. "We don't just collect money and do nothing with it."

The TaxWatch study found that a government entity is the largest employer in 51 of the state's 67 counties. The study also found that local government agencies were at least one of the county's top five largest employers.

Local governments did not top Collier or Lee counties' top employers list. Instead, in both counties a private company — Lee Memorial Health System in Lee and NCH Healthcare System in Collier — held the top spot, while the school districts in both counties were ranked No. 2.

Collier County government was ranked No. 5 while the Sheriff's Office held the No. 7 spot, according to the report.

"It doesn't surprise me that (government) is in the Top 10," said Len Price, Collier County's administrative services administrator. "If this was private industry no one company would provide all the services. It's like we're a conglomerate."

In Lee County, the county's administration was ranked fourth, followed by the Lee County Sheriff's Office at No. 6 and the city of Cape Coral at No. 7. Florida Gulf Coast University is ranked 10th on the county's 2010 comprehensive annual financial report, but was not listed on the TaxWatch report.

Robert Weissert, the vice president for research at Florida TaxWatch, said the study wasn't meant to say government needed fewer employees. Instead, he said, it was meant to show taxpayers where their money is going.

"People need to be aware that it is something that affects every county in Florida," he said. "It's not that TaxWatch has an opinion on whether there is a problem."

The study comes as Gov. Rick Scott continues to argue that the state's economic future depends on the health of private sector jobs, not government employment.

But experts said they don't necessarily think the high rate of government jobs deters private industries from relocating. Instead, they said education and public safety are high on private businesses' wish-lists when business leaders look to relocate.

"You don't want to go to a place where it's corrupt, where the schools are bad and it's unsafe," said Michael Reagen, president and CEO of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce. "If we have good government in Florida, generally speaking, and they contribute to the economy ... it's a good thing."

It's also good to have a climate that's welcoming to businesses. Reagen said local governments need to ensure they're taking steps to support the current businesses while fostering new growth.

Jennifer Berg, marketing and communications director for the Fort Myers Regional Partnership and Lee County's economic development office, said her office regularly hears from high-end, high-value industries that "education and work force" are critical.

"We have a lot of assets," she said.

And one of those assets, she said, is that Lee County is business friendly. Berg said the county has a long-standing job fund that helps woo companies to the area.

Price said the county has seen a drop in employees in recent years and there's no way to tell whether more government jobs will come online anytime soon. The same, Winton said, goes for Lee County government. Still both expect government employers will continue to top the list of top employers.

"I think this shows government is a major employment sector," Winton said. "That's not an epiphany."

News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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