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Jason Brown: Vero boy set to take on county’s top job

Photo: Incoming Indian River County Administrator Jason Brown.

The best news for incoming Indian River County Administrator Jason Brown is that his longtime boss and mentor Joe Baird plans to leave the country shortly after stepping down on June 30.

Not for good, mind you.  But for long enough to let Brown establish himself as his own man in the big corner office.

“I’ve got 22 places on my bucket list and I’m going to travel,” Baird said last week. Visiting his mother and sister in Scotland is at the top, plus he’s got family strewn around the globe, with lots of catching up to do.

Baird has been a hands-on administrator since he rose out of the Office of Management and Budget to take the post in 2004 – there’s very little that goes on in the county that he doesn’t know about.

He groomed Brown for nearly two decades to follow in his footsteps. That’s why, as his 59th birthday approaches and adventure beckons, he is more than comfortable jetting off and leaving the store in Brown’s hands. “Jason will do a great job,” Baird said with a kind of paternal pride. “He’ll be better than me.”

Brown comes into the job with a very different set of life experiences from Baird, who was born in Africa and lived all over the world, landing in Vero only after graduating from Florida Atlantic University.

Brown was born in the “old hospital” building that is now the old school board building. He attended the county’s public schools and graduated with the Vero Beach High School Fighting Indians Class of 1992 before earning dual bachelor’s degrees in finance and insurance as a University of Florida Gator.

As a kid, he played in county parks and on county ballfields. He spent summers on county beaches, and he saw his parents make a living as small business owners, dealing with the ebb and flow of the economy and with taxes, permits, government fees and regulations.

Now 41 years old with 18 years of service to the county, Brown is married – his wife teaches art at Rosewood Magnet School – and he’s raising his 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter in the same community where he grew up.

When he meets with county employees or sits across the negotiating table from a union representative, many times he’s face-to-face with a man or woman he went to grade school or high school with. “I think it’s better because I know the community and I have a commitment to the community.

“I plan to stay here, this is my home,” Brown said. “The county administrator job is not a stepping stone to something bigger for me so it gives me that long-term perspective. Expedient decisions may not be the best long-term decisions.”

Running an organization with an $86 million general fund budget and meeting the Board of County Commissioners’ expectations in terms of holding the line on spending taxpayer dollars is a challenge Brown says he looks forward to – and one his years as budget director prepared him for.

“Joe’s legacy is his fiscal conservatism, which is a philosophy I share and our community overall shares. We like our low tax rates,” Brown said, adding that among the seven neighboring counties, Indian River ranks second lowest in county general fund tax burden.

As the economy improves and housing continues to rebound throughout the county, Brown said prioritizing spending will become even more important. In the lean years, the county had to pick and choose which capital construction and maintenance projects were absolutely necessary, and many big jobs got put off. Vehicles grew tired. Buildings sagged and leaked. Now, departments countywide are playing catch-up.

“So it’s almost like there’s a pent-up demand for capital replacement, rolling stock and deferred maintenance,” Brown said. Having the discipline to keep department heads and even the Board of County Commissioners focused on taking care of all of those backlogged needs before embarking upon any costly new projects will be a challenge. “We want to be careful about new, recurring expenses,” he said.

Even when analyzing potential changes to county employees’ health benefits as he’s currently doing, Brown said he keeps not only the roster of employees and their families, but the whole county demographic in mind including his self-employed parents and retirees on fixed incomes. “We always have to keep in mind that small business owner who might not have health insurance coverage that’s as good as what county employees have.”

Budget hawk is the part of the job Brown is most accustomed to as he analyzes revenue estimates and departmental spending requests this spring for his final budget as the county’s chief financial officer. Some other parts of the job, he says, are a welcome opportunity for growth. He’s about to be thrust into the proverbial hot seat where he’ll be tugged a dozen directions at once. From the halls of Tallahassee to the aisles of the grocery store, Brown will have people telling him how to do his job.

“My profile has risen and I go to more events. I already went to some events, but I know there will be more opportunities to do that. You need to be out there, people need to have access to you. It’s a good thing and makes government function better” Brown said.

Local residents are accustomed to the back-slapping, jovial style of Baird working a banquet hall or a restaurant or holding court at a local watering hole. “I’m not naturally as gregarious as Joe but I’ve been speaking in public a lot. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone,” Brown said. “I hope I’m easy to talk to and I’m very interested in hearing what people think about county policy.”

Brown ventured to the state’s capital twice this session to experience the legislative process firsthand – once with the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce’s legislative delegation and once with his colleagues from the Florida Association of Counties.

He said he’s a staunch believer in home rule and local government being the best-equipped to serve the local community, but realistically he knows that a lot of choices are made top-down and he must find the best local solution for implementing and funding those changes, policies or programs.

Looking ahead at what his two biggest challenges will be – apart from the budget – Brown said the ongoing battle against All Aboard Florida is something that has united the community in a struggle to maintain the superior quality of life residents expect in Indian River County, and he’ll take his spot on the team with County Attorney Dylan Reingold and the commissioners on the front line of that effort.

The other task on the horizon will be filling some important, high-profile positions as longtime department heads and key staffers reach retirement age and move on.

But first, Brown needs to find and train his own replacement, who he hopes to have on board by late April or May so he can begin his transition to county administrator in June.

“With that turnover (of longtime employees), we’re losing a lot of institutional knowledge,” Brown said.

The local knowledge vacuum being created by those departures may have been the lynchpin that nailed the top job for Brown, as boards often prefer to bring fresh leaders in from outside. Instead, the five commissioners opted for what they hope will be a seamless and successful transition from Baird to Brown, filling in those pivotal mid-management roles with talented individuals, wherever Brown can find them.

There are hopes, too, that new county leadership may help heal the long-term rift with the City of Vero Beach that often has thwarted city/county cooperation. Vero City Manager Jim O’Connor said he’s heard very positive things about Brown from his Finance Director Cindy Lawson, who works with Brown as her counterpart at the county.

“We at the city look at this as a good thing and at an opportune time.  My conversations with Jason have been very good,” O’Connor said. “There are a lot of issues we have to work on together and I think Jason will be a pair of fresh eyes on these policy decisions.”