MANATEE -- Manatee County sheriff's deputies showed up in force last week to protest the county budget, saying it was inadequate because they have fallen behind financially after five years without pay raises.
After comparing data from neighboring counties, they may have a point.
A salary comparison chart compiled by Sheriff Brad Steube's office listed Manatee County last among 15 neighboring law enforcement agencies, showing a starting deputy here making $39,689.
The most generous salary was listed at the much-larger Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, at $45,950 annually; followed by the Tampa Police Department, at $49,863; Clearwater Police Department, $47,806; St. Petersburg Police Department, $46,887, and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, $44,380.
The county's paramedics are voicing similar complaints. EMS charge paramedic James Kidd told commissioners during Thursday's final budget hearing that, after five years in the job, a bartender making just under $12 an hour working for the county's convention center would still outearn him.
"Your life is in my hands, and I make less than 12 bucks an hour; I make less than this bartender right here and I think that's sick," Kidd said.
After hours of listening to complaints, the Manatee County Commission approved a motion that would provide $1.7 million to sheriff's office employees to remedy "pay compression" -- that's when more experienced workers fall behind newer ones in pay.
The board also unanimously approved a motion that called for no changes to workers' benefits this year, before it formally approved the $464 million budget requiring no tax increases for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.
So how bad is bad when it comes to local salaries?
Hillsborough County is facing similar budget problems for next year -- entering the fifth year in a row in which employees have gone without raises, according to a budget message from County Administrator Michael S. Merrill.
Among the options for board consideration is a voter-approved referendum for general obligation bonds to fund parks and recreation projects, he wrote.
"By way of example, the owner of a $165,000 home (with a homestead exemption of $50,000), would pay an additional $25 per year for 10 years to pay for $80 million in parks and recreation projects throughout the county ...," Merrill wrote.
However, his proposed budget also calls for a $1,200, one-time salary adjustment for employees designed to partially offset increased living costs, he wrote.
As far as Manatee County EMS workers go, James Kidd's comment, which shocked some commissioners, appears to be correct, according to union organizer Richard Griffin.
Of the 123 EMTs and paramedics -- 10 short of a full staff -- starting pay for an EMT is $9.47 an hour and for a more experienced "charge paramedic," $11.89 an hour, Griffin said.
"I've been there over nine years, and my current hourly rate is $12.93 an hour," he said.
Several EMS workers complained that under current benefit rules, they are penalized financially for taking vacation time.
Griffin said he loses hundreds of dollars in each paycheck because of changes in overtime work rules.
"Most people who go on vacation have to stay in town, and work to offset when we went on vacation -- it defeats the purpose of going on vacation," he said.
Attrition is rampant: The EMS department has lost 19 employees since January, and one more is leaving shortly, Griffin said.
Both sheriff's deputies and EMS workers are being courted by unions: The former by the Police Benevolent Association, and the latter by the International Association of EMTs & Paramedics.
Commissioners plan a workshop session to address salary issues for all 3,100 county employees, probably next month at a large venue, such as the county convention center, said County Administrator Ed Hunzeker on Friday.
Hunzeker said there's pay compression throughout government because very few people have gotten any type of pay raises during the recession, which dried up revenue that the county depends upon for its operation.
"A person hired today for any job in county government will make the same amount as someone who has been here six years," he said.
In the private sector, there may be pay compression, but nobody knows it because salaries remain private, Hunzeker said.
He emphasized at the budget hearings that, because of savings in healthcare expenses, a 3 percent raise for every county employee is already built into the budget.
However, each constitutional officer, such as the county clerk or the supervisor of elections, must figure out how to accomplish raises from the money already set aside for them, Hunzeker said.
At the beginning of the budget process early in the summer, several county commissioners advocated more money in the budget, with a small millage rate increase, perhaps, for employee pay raises.
It didn't happen, and by Thursday night, the millage rate had already been set, and no tax increases were possible for any reason. The board voted unanimously to approve the budget as it was.
But there was a consensus to find money elsewhere for employees.
"This is necessary funding for our public safety," Commissioner Michael Gallen told the standing-room-only audience at the final budget hearing at County Administrative Center. Funding public safety is not politically popular, he added, but said he would make an unpopular decision for the betterment of the community.
"If I'm booted out of here, I did something to help you and the community," he said to applause.
One speaker who seemed out of place in a roomful of county workers demanding government raises was Dean Mixon, owner of Mixon Fruit Farms, long affiliated with the anti-tax group Tea Party Manatee.
He noted that the county employs some very compassionate, dedicated people.
"I think there are some things you need to look at, at the 11th hour," Mixon told commissioners. "We are dependent on them, as we think they do a great job."
"You have a very difficult situation you're up against, but if there is any way, I would love to see you come up with a way to help them out," Mixon said.
"I've learned a lot here tonight and appreciate the time, thank you."
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @Sarawrites.