Bertha Henry took over as Broward County administrator at what must have seemed to her the worst possible time. She had spent 30 years working up to a top position in local government only to reach it in 2010 in the middle of a crippling recession. Rather than setting ambitious new goals for the county, she had to focus on minimizing the recession’s impact on her workforce. “Many of our employees were the only breadwinner in their families,” she says. “I did not want to add to the growing list of the unemployed.”
Henry implemented a series of strategies to protect her workers. Like a lot of places, Broward County instituted a hiring freeze and had to downsize some departments. But Henry made sure the county had taken inventory of the affected employees’ skills so she could avoid layoffs and fill vacant slots. When service cuts were inevitable, she tried to trim where citizens would least notice. She looked at data showing which days were busiest at local libraries, and then closed neighborhood branches on the days with the lightest use.
Henry studied accounting in college, and her first job was as a budget analyst for the city of Miami, where she grew up. Later she held multiple posts in local government in Florida and Ohio. But strict financial management has been a consistent theme throughout her career. Three years ago, Broward became one of only four Florida counties to receive AAA bond ratings from all three credit rating agencies.
Over nearly a decade as county administrator, the 62-year-old Henry has left a lasting mark on the Fort Lauderdale metro area, particularly when it comes to infrastructure and economic development. Due to her efforts in building a new runway, the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport has become the fastest-growing airport in the country, and recently added four international airlines. She engineered a deal to keep the area’s pro hockey team, the Florida Panthers, from declaring bankruptcy and leaving the state. Under the contract she worked out, all of the $86 million in new public investment for the team goes toward capital improvements and operating costs for the arena, meaning that if the team ever left, the county would still own a valuable asset. The deal allowed the county to refinance its bond debt for the arena and get a lower interest rate.
A good example of Henry’s management style was her intervention in a dispute over ride-sharing rules. Two years ago, the Broward County commission passed regulations, including a fingerprinting requirement for drivers, which prompted Uber and Lyft to suspend operations in the county. Henry crafted a compromise that satisfied both the regulators and the private companies. The amended law required criminal background checks for drivers, but not fingerprinting, and instead of a rule that would have made the county responsible for forcing drivers to be insured, she arranged to have the ride-sharing companies verify that their drivers have insurance. As a result, Uber and Lyft came back. This year, the Florida Legislature enacted rules that supersede what localities already had on the books. Nonetheless, Dan Lindblade, who heads the Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, says Henry still deserves credit for brokering the deal. “That takes a unique leader,” Lindblade says.
-- By J.B. Wogan
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Content provided by Comcast: Robert Traynham's Newsmaker interview with Bertha Watson Henry - Thriving After Economic Instability.