Manatee County sheriff's argument for more deputies strong but strong enough?

July 14, 2013 

Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube presents a compelling case for a sharp increase in his department's budget for 2013-2014 -- enough to boost salaries and hire 20 additional deputies.

This being another year of austerity in the county budget, though, is it a convincing argument for a $7.5 million boost?

In county Administrator Ed Hunzeker's budget recommendation to commissioners, he advises against the $3 million to increase staffing. But he supports the $3 million in pay hikes and $1.57 million to cover the state's mandated contribution from the sheriff's office into the Florida Retirement System.

The thorniest issue for commissioners, then, will be money for new positions -- whether the county can afford the expenditure. Would that require a property tax increase or damaging cuts to services and programs?

Point: As outlined in the "Manatee County Sheriff's Office 2013-2015 Strategic Plan," in 2012 the agency employed 479 law enforcement officers to serve a population of about 256,000 in the unincorporated portions of the county. The ratio of officers per 1,000 population stood at 1.87.

Citing FBI statistics compiled from law enforcement agencies nationwide, the ratio in 2010 was 2.4. The MCSO would need to add 135 officers to reach that mark.

In order to raise Manatee's ratio, Steube's strategic plan calls for an additional 100 deputies over the next five years -- 11 law enforcement officers and nine corrections officers this coming fiscal year and a combined 20 deputies in each of the next four years.

Counterpoint: The sheriff's staffing summary report issued in June 2013 offers statewide comparisons from a Florida Department of Law Enforcement 2011 report that normalizes the figures. That list puts Manatee's ratio at 1.3, the same as Sarasota, Charlotte and Desoto -- 23rd among the state's 67 sheriff's offices.

Among large counties, Lee, Collier, Pasco and Marion each posted a ratio of 1. Hillsborough, Polk and Escambia came in at 1.4. Miami-Dade scored third highest with 2.5 and two very small counties topped the list.

Comparatively speaking, then, Manatee's ratio ranks more in the middle.

Point: Steube discounts ratios as a measure of jurisdictional requirements. Operational workload and deployment with measures including response times for certain calls and peak service times present a more accurate picture.

For example, Manatee is a sprawling county with deputies covering far more territory than Sarasota officers, yet both counties have the same staffing ratio. The MCSO is shorthanded on road patrol, Steube stated.

Counterpoint: None here. His point is solid.

Point: Manatee County's overall crime rate plummeted 15.7 percent last year with big drops in the number of robberies, burglaries and larcenies. Manatee's ranking among the 67 counties now stands at 16th -- a major improvement from fourth highest crime rate in 2007 and ninth in 2011.

To continue that trend, Steube wants additional deputies so the MCSO can be less reactive to incidents as is now the dominant case.

Also, the department is closing more cases, 24.3 percent last year compared with 22.7 percent the year before.

Counterpoint: The agency has performed well. Crime-fighting strategies have been highly successful, including one targeting men seeking sex with children online.

We would expect the sheriff's office to continue that

Point: Public safety has other implications. A safe community attracts more business, Steube told Thursday's Manatee Tiger Bay Club gathering. More business brings more jobs and more people.

Counterpoint: Again, none. This is a strong argument in favor of additional officers. Public safety is also an economic development issue, as Steube noted by describing calls from prospective employers locating here but asking about Manatee's crime rate before making a decision. Sixteenth is not a good mark to report.

Salary hikes: With Hunzeker's recommendation to commissioners, final approval of the compensation increase appears all but certain. Like last year, Steube's point about data showing his deputies are underpaid compared with nearby law enforcement agencies is well taken. As a result, he says, the agency continues to lose well-trained professionals to neighboring counties because Manatee pay is lower and not competitive for many positions.

The commission scheduled an Aug. 1 budget reconciliation meeting. At that time, the county will set the millage rate. Would the public accept a tax increase in order to boost public safety? Would commissioners even entertain the idea, one that counties around the state are debating?

That looks like the make or break question facing commissioners.

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