Rising fuel costs a major factor behind budget going up about 14%, Sheriff Hoffman tells County Commission
Even with 19 new positions funded for the 2023 fiscal year, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office will not be back up to the staffing level it had in 2007, Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman noted during his June 23 budget presentation to the County Commission.
In 2007, a slide showed, the Sheriff’s Office had 1,050 positions. In 2023, the number of positions, which had fallen through subsequent years, will rise to 1,036. Yet, during that same period, Hoffman pointed out, the county’s population has been projected to rise close to 24%, from 373,928 in 2007 to 462,769 in 2023. That is based on data from the state’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, he noted.
Moreover, Hoffman said, the ratio of the number of his agency’s officers per 1,000 people in Sarasota County in 2021 was 1.21 per 1,000 residents. A slide compared that figure to the ratios for counties with comparable population figures, as well as to the ratios for the police departments in the Cities of North Port, Venice and Sarasota. The Sarasota County ratio was the lowest. The closest to it, as indicated on the map, was in Manatee County: 1.37 per 1,000 people.
In contrast, the Venice Police Department’s ratio in 2021 was 1.92 per 1,000 residents; for the Sarasota Police Department, it was 3.21 per 1,000 people.
The strategies the Sheriff’s Office uses enable it to operate with fewer positions, Hoffman indicated. A major one is what the agency calls “Intelligence-Led Policing.”
(Erik Fritsvold, a faculty member at the University of San Diego, explains in an online article, “Intelligence-led policing … is a practice that leverages technological advances in both data collection and analytics to generate valuable ‘intelligence’ that can be used to more efficiently direct law enforcement resources to the people and places where they are likely to do the most good. [It] also depends upon enhanced collaboration with community members who have valuable observations and information about possible criminal activity, as well as with other law enforcement agencies.”)
In the aftermath of the Memorial Day shooting on Siesta Key, in which a woman suffered a minor injury, Hoffman said he read in one news account that the Sheriff’s Office was “spread thin.” That is not true, he emphasized. In fact, he continued, 19 deputies were on the island when the incident occurred, and within 2 minutes, eight more arrived on the scene. “Our response time was measured in seconds,” he emphasized, as he saw when he looked at the records of the three calls to 911 Dispatch.
Originally, Hoffman told the commissioners, his staff sought 29 new positions, “all of them valid. … It’s kind of like, ‘Which of your kids do you like the most?’” he added, in terms of choosing which ones to fund for the next fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1.
Four of the new positions will be deputies assigned to handle the residential growth in the eastern part of the county, Hoffman explained. Among the others are civilian support personnel.
For at least two years, and perhaps three, he continued, the Sheriff’s Office leadership has talked with the commissioners about the looming need for extra positions. “So [the request this year] shouldn’t come as a shock.”
Hoffman also showed the commissioners a slide that documented what is called “Part 1 Criminal Activity” — murders, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, larcenies and motor vehicle thefts.
From 2009 through the first quarter of this year, the slide said, such incidents had dropped 58%.
In 2018 or 2019, Hoffman pointed out, Sarasota County had the largest reduction in Part 1 crimes of any jurisdiction in the state with 100,000 or more people.
Budget figures and facts
Overall, Hoffman’s budget request for the 2023 fiscal year is $153,826,543, which marks an increase of about 14%, compared to the total for the current fiscal year. The largest portion of the funds will go to the Law Enforcement Division: $106,491,226, another slide said.
For Corrections activities, $37,004,622 has been allocated, with $8,379,751 dedicated to service in the courts.
However, Hoffman explained to the board members, thanks to the assistance of county staff, “a little more than $900,000” in law enforcement impact fees will be used to cover start-up costs for the new personnel. That was not finalized before he had to submit his budget, he noted.
Nonetheless, he said, given the rise in fuel costs, the Sheriff’s Office may need to keep some of that money in its FY 2023 budget.
Hoffman pointed out that the expense of fuel is one of the “major drivers” for his higher budget for the next fiscal year. “We drive almost 7 million miles a year,” he noted, and the office has to have fuel for its helicopters, its ATVs and its Marine Patrol boats. “This year, the fuel expense went up almost a million dollars,” he told the commissioners.
The cost of ammunition is going up by six figures, compared to the amount the Sheriff’s Office included in its budget for the current fiscal year, he added.
Recently, Hoffman continued, he attended the Major County Sheriffs of America Summer Conference. During that event, he added, he heard about sheriffs parking cars and grounding helicopters because of the hike in fuel prices. “I can’t in good faith park cars, like some sheriffs are around the country. … I just don’t think our community would accept that.”
Jail costs are rising, too, he said.
“Kudos to Maj. [Brian] Meinberg,” commander of the Courts and Corrections Division, Hoffman said. Meinberg negotiated new contracts for the food and medical care services in the jail, which are tied to the Consumer Price Index. The “increases [are] significantly lower than the 40-year high we see right now,” he added, referring to inflation.
The jail had 942 inmates that morning, Hoffman noted. “We serve 3,000 meals a day in that jail,” he said, and the facility has a 42-bed medical care unit.
Hoffman also commended the agency’s chief financial officer, Lisa Kiesel, who has implemented a five-year plan for contracts, he said, to make certain they are renewed in a timely fashion, instead of in haste, in another effort to control costs.
The sheriff also took the opportunity to tell the commissioners that, in October, Kiesel will be promoted to chief of the agency’s Administrative Division, which would be the equivalent of the rank of major. “She can hold her own with them,” he noted of his senior staff members who are majors.
Continuing increase in responses to traffic crashes
As Hoffman noted early on during his team’s presentation, he does not meet often with the commissioners, so the annual budget presentation affords his staff an opportunity to discuss a wide variety of law enforcement issues and allow the commissioners to ask questions.
One topic that consistently has been included in those budget discussions is the Sheriff’s Office’s role in handling traffic crashes. “[They] are a big, non-criminal time-consumer of law enforcement in Sarasota County,” Hoffman emphasized.
Then Col. Brian Woodring, Hoffman’s chief deputy, explained that the Sheriff’s Office staff “saw a significant spike in [crashes] in 2015.” The County Commission approved five more full-time deputies for the agency as a result of that, Woodring added.
In 2019, yet another significant increase occurred, Woodring continued. Yet, at the same time, the Florida Highway Patrol’s handling of crashes dropped. The Sheriff’s Office asked for six new full-time positions, Woodring said, which the commissioners approved. That allowed the agency to create four new traffic units to ensure traffic coverage 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, he pointed out.
This year, Woodring noted, the Sheriff’s Office has been dealing with about 80% of the crashes.
In talking recently with a Highway Patrol lieutenant for Troop F, which encompasses the area from Manatee County south to Collier County and east to Highlands County, Woodring continued, he had learned that that troop has 143 positions. “They have 43 current vacancies,” he said, almost 35% of the total.
At times, Woodring told the commissioners, only one trooper is available to handle all of Sarasota County over a 24-hour period.
“The sheriff and I talk about this all the time,” Woodring continued. “We can’t in good conscience have a citizen sit on the side of the road for two to four hours, waiting for a trooper to respond and take a crash report.” Thus, the Sheriff’s Office is handling more and more of the investigations, he said, so the individuals or families involved in them can get on their way much more quickly.
“This is important to me,” Commissioner Michael Moran responded. “This board has gone to great lengths — painful lengths, in some cases — to make sure other taxing authorities [pay for expenses for which they are responsible].”
For example, Moran said, county commissioners made the decision years ago that municipalities should tax their property owners for the upkeep of their parks, while the county pays for regional parks.
Moran voiced his frustration with the Highway Patrol situation. “You are handling a responsibility that is at the state level,” he told the Sheriff’s Office representatives. “We’re paying for it as Sarasota County taxpayers.”
“But they can write a check,” he added of the Highway Patrol. “Do you think we should make an effort” to ensure the Highway Patrol covers expenses for dealing with crashes it should be handling, Moran asked Hoffman. “Have we asked, and they said, ‘No’?”
Moran did acknowledge that his comments might have been comparable to touching a hot stove.
Hoffman responded that Moran had done the equivalent of just that. Hoffman said that he ended up seated next to Col. Gene Spaulding, director of the Florida Highway Patrol, at an event in Washington, D.C., this year. Hoffman added, “I’ve never seen a more frustrated law enforcement executive,” in terms of employee recruitment and retention.
“Traditionally,” Hoffman continued, the Florida Highway Patrol “is one of the lowest paid law enforcement positions in the state of Florida.” The situation is not affecting Troop F alone, he added.
However, Hoffman pointed out, Gov. Ron DeSantis did increase state law enforcement officers’ salaries in the new budget, so the Highway Patrol leadership is hoping that that will help with recruitment.
Then Hoffman said, “I don’t know that there’s a mechanism to write the check, frankly, Commissioner Moran. We see a problem, and we address it. … There’s a little bit of tone deafness, I think, at the state level.”
Hoffman added, “I don’t see this model changing anytime soon.”
Nonetheless, Hoffman said, the Highway Patrol will deal with the crashes with serious injuries and fatalities, which necessitate long-term investigations” and which often result in litigation.