MANATEE -- If Tuesday’s conversation in county commission chambers is any indication, there’s a good chance that commissioners will pass a tax increase to hire 20 new deputies included in the sheriff’s budget.
Even though Sheriff Brad Steube dropped his request for 3 percent across-the-board pay increases for his department, some commissioners seemed to be leaning toward increasing taxes even further so that he could give his employees raises.
Steube said he had dropped his request for pay raises after County Administrator Ed Hunzeker included a $1,000 pay supplement for every employee to help offset the cost of their contributions to the Florida Retirement System. He estimated that hiring 20 new deputies would cost the average taxpayer about $10 a year on their ad valorem taxes. That would bring the sheriff’s budget up from $93.6 million to $95 million. In a letter to commissioners earlier this year he had asked for a total of $97.7 million to cover the costs of salary increases as well.
County Commissioner Joe McClash said that the proposed tax increase to hire new deputies is a small price to pay for safety. And that he was willing to go even higher to keep trained deputies in Manatee County by funding a pay raise.
Earlier in the meeting Steube told commissioners that he would forgo pay increases this year and support the $1,000 salary supplement to all employees.
“Although the $1,000 supplement does not assist our employees regarding their future salary, I am not in a position to turn down Mr. Hunzeker’s proposal since it seems to have your support and is funded,” Steube told commissioners. “At some point you will have to address my concerns regarding the pay and compression issues we face ... the fact remains we are losing employees to other agencies because of higher pay.”
Steube said the sheriff’s office has lost deputies to sheriff’s offices in Sarasota County, Pinellas County and to the Tampa Police Department.
After the meeting Steube said he would be satisfied with the increase in staffing and the $1,000 per employee, but if the commissioners were offering, he would take the raises as well. But still he doubted that the commissioners would be willing to fund the $4.1 million increase to his budget to cover the new deputies and the salary increases.
Early this year Steube estimated that a tax increase to cover both pay raises and increased staffing would cost the average taxpayer about $30 a year.
Steube’s top priority is hiring 20 new deputies, 10 deputies to patrol the county and 10 deputies to work at the county jail. Steube told commissioners that even though population has dropped in the county over the last two years, calls for service has increased. He predicted it would only get worse, given all of the new developments the county has approved and have yet to be built.
Several people spoke in favor of the sheriff’s request for additional deputies, including one Orlando resident whose daughter, Jennifer Kesse, was abducted in 2006.
“Until you become a victim you will never understand what that gentleman is asking for,” Drew Kesse said as he pointed at the sheriff. “When making the budget, public safety is the No. 1 thing for the government to do. If he needed half of the county budget, you should give it to him. Put yourself in a victim’s point of view. It’s hell.”
But Al Robinson, a resident of Holmes Beach, said that the sheriff should take a closer look at his resources.
He wondered why a deputy would deliver a civil subpoena or why the judicial center needs four deputies to stand guard at the door.
McClash voted for a tax increase last year to fund raises for staff in the sheriff’s office, but was on the losing side of that vote. This year, it seems the mood on the commission may have changed.
Commissioners Larry Bustle and Michael Gallen seemed swayed by McClash’s call for a tax increase, Bustle asked for options on various increases to the millage rate, what they would fund and how much they would cost taxpayers. Gallen said that he didn’t see an item in the budget more important than the sheriff’s office requests.
Property values and therefore tax revenues continue to decline. Hunzeker told commissioners that it would be difficult to add anything to the budget until 2017, when revenues are predicted to rise again. In his budget proposal, Hunzeker eliminated 54 county jobs. While he did not offer any pay increases for the fifth year running, he did offer the $1,000 salary supplement to help cover the cost of retirement contributions. Other constitutional officers, including the clerk of courts, the supervisor of elections and the property appraiser did not receive budget increases.
Commissioners do not take votes at work sessions. During the budget work sessions commissioners can flag certain budget items for further consideration and more in-depth reports, which they did with the sheriff’s budget.
Commissioner Robin DiSabatino, who is in her first term, urged commissioners to have a referendum to decide whether to raise taxes to increase pay for employees in the sheriff’s office. But because the budget must be approved before Oct. 1, there is not enough time for a referendum and commissioners did not seem to be inclined to pay for a referendum to decide on the sheriff’s budget two years from now.
Carol Whitmore, county commission chairwoman, said that given the economy it isn’t the right time to raise taxes and that if commissioners are seriously considering pay raises for deputies, they should consider them for all county employees.