Sheriff Rick Staly has asked the county for $700,000 in funding to raise his deputies' salaries. He may not get it: In a 3-2 vote on Aug. 24, commissioners opted not to commit to fund the sheriff's request.
"There may be ways in the coming year, that we don't know about right now, that some additional funding can be provided to [the sheriff]."
— DAVID SULLIVAN, county commissioner
Instead, they're committing to a flat millage rate while planning to search for possible budget savings that could be redirected to the sheriff.
"That's the maximum amount of money we can come up with right now," said Commissioner David Sullivan, who proposed the motion the board approved at the meeting. "And if we put too many additional reasons on it, it'll just complicate the process. We've got to get this done — got to get a budget going so people can pay their bills, pay their contracts, so on and so forth."
He added, "There may be ways in the coming year, that we don't know about right now, that some additional funding can be provided to [the sheriff]."
"Even now, after we got significant raises in the last couple of years, we're still losing men and women into surrounding agencies."
— CHRIS RAGAZZO, Coastal Florida PBA
Sullivan and commissioners Andy Dance and Joe Mullins voted in favor of Sullivan's motion, while commissioners Donald O'Brien and Greg Hansen voted against.
O'Brien had wanted to reduce the property tax rate by a tenth of a mill while granting the sheriff's request.
Hansen said he thought Sullivan's motion was "a little iffy, a little mushy, on how you're going to get the money to the sheriff."
Staly did not speak at the Aug. 24 workshop, but had appeared before the commission at a meeting on Aug. 15. Dozens of deputies had filled the audience chambers and listened as Staly made his case.
The sheriff said that nearby law enforcement agencies' pay is outpacing the FCSO's, making it harder for the agency to keep the deputies they've spent money to train.
"If we can not be competitive, because you won’t fund it ... you are de facto defunding the Sheriff’s Office, because we can’t attract and retain employees in this competitive market to fill vacancies,” Staly said.
He'd added that he would appeal the county's budget to the governor and cabinet if the county doesn't grant the FCSO enough funding.
Deputies filled the chamber again during the Aug. 24 meeting. But also present were dozens of firefighters and paramedics, there to push the commission not to sacrifice the fire service's needs in favor of law enforcement's.
"I don't want this to turn into an us-versus-them situation, because we support and love our brothers and sisters in green," said Jason Powell, the head of the firefighters' union. "But you need to stop giving in to the sheriff when it comes to his wants and needs for more money. Daily as firefighters we live and work in fire stations that are less than adequate. Some were built in the right-of-way, not even on a parcel of land. They are prone to flooding and had to have to be repaired twice due to mold. We still use them. ... None — I repeat, none — meet the current Florida Building Code."
County Administrator Heidi Petito told commissioners that the FCSO isn't alone among county agencies or departments in needing to raise salaries to keep up with the market.
"We are providing a reduced level of service, because we can't get talent because our salaries aren't high enough," she said. "... Over the last 18 months, we've had 24 employees leave due to salaries. They went elsewhere to get paid more."
The county's transportation department, she said, is particularly understaffed.
Chris Ragazzo of the Coastal Florida PBA — the union representing the FCSO's deputies — warned that the FCSO could become a training ground for deputies who then move to other agaencies.
"It is very important for all of us that you support the sheriff, so that Sheriff Staly is able to provide and hire and maintain the best deputy sheriffs and support staff possible," Ragazzo said. "Even now, after we got significant raises in the last couple of years, we're still losing men and women into surrounding agencies. We're not able to currently keep and maintain those that we need."