Manatee County sheriff’s budget increase warranted

Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube listens as the Manatee County Commission considers putting an infrastructure sales tax referendum on the ballot, and how those funds would be allocated, during a meeting Tuesday.
Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube listens as the Manatee County Commission considers putting an infrastructure sales tax referendum on the ballot, and how those funds would be allocated, during a meeting Tuesday. gjefferies@bradenton.com

Manatee County commissioners went into their annual month-long recess last week but not before hearing from the county’s constitutional officers and department directors on budget proposals. For years, Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube has battled with commissioners over staffing and salaries — both low compared with law enforcement standards and pay scales in nearby jurisdictions.

This year so far, county commissioners expressed support for 21 additional positions, including eight patrol deputies, four corrections deputies, six dispatchers, two forensic analysts and a public records clerk. County Administrator Ed Hunzeker recommended eight deputies and eight school resource officers for middle schools in his $568 million 2016-2017 county budget blueprint. Last year, he didn’t recommend any new staff.

In his original 2016-2017 budget proposal, Steube requested 37 new positions. But that would still leave the sheriff’s office far below FBI standards for law enforcement officers per 1,000 residents. The MCSO would need to add 92 deputies to reach one FBI average ratio, Steube noted in his presentation to commissioners two weeks ago. The 37 leaves him far from that mark, and commissioners’ response indicates that is not going to happen.

But Steube agreed to lower his request to the 21 that commissioners supported unanimously. Still, should more funding for personnel be forthcoming?

The personnel situation is worsening as the population increases. Even with an additional eight patrol deputies, the MCSO will be dispatching fewer officers per 1,000 residents than last year. Plus, the department employs the identical number of dispatchers as in 1990 — this with an additional 690 calls for service on a typical day.

The sheriff also asked for $2.5 million for salary increases, a 4 percent raise for current employees, and more funding for the required pension contribution. Pay has also been a perennial pitched battle with commissioners.

Steube often cites the departure of deputies to jurisdictions with higher salaries, this after the MCSO has spent a great deal of time and money training many of those officers — a lost investment. That should not be allowed to continue.

Staffing and salaries are issues across county government. Neighboring counties pay better, and Manatee County departments continue to lose employees over low pay. The public works, parks and public safety departments all addressed this issue during a June commission budget workshop. As the county grows, demands for services increase, too. But the county workforce plunged by 20 percent — 300 positions — during the recession. The impact continues to be felt.

But county revenue pressures stymie solutions. Manatee County must address an imminent deficit expected to arrive in two years when the general portion of the budget stabilization reserve fund is forecast to be depleted. Last week, commissioners approved placing an infrastructure sales tax on the November ballot, which would allow property tax revenue to be directed to other priorities.

A portion of the revenue from the extra half-cent sales tax would be dedicated to the MCSO. The county’s “wish list” of projects from the infrastructure sales tax revenue includes public safety and law enforcement, with funding for facilities and equipment. That is just one of the justifications for passage of the November referendum.

Steube called the commission’s support “a step in the right direction.” True, this is a positive turn of events. Last year, the MCSO didn’t get any new deputies, extending the department’s frustration with commissioners.

As the county progresses through the budget process — the next meeting is Aug. 2 — public safety should be front and center, as commissioners have indeed conveyed. The MCSO should finally get some long overdue relief as the job of law enforcement becomes more demanding as the population increases.

This year should establish a new trend, one far friendlier to the sheriff’s office.