Sheriff seeking no new personnel for the 2018 fiscal year, but rising health care and retirement expenses among reasons for 2.85% budget increase

Crime has decreased 53% in the county over the past eight years, with command staff working to make the best use of its resources, sheriff and chief deputy say

A graphic shows employment figures for the Sheriff’s Office over the past years. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

Over the past eight years, overall crime has decreased 53% in Sarasota County, largely a result of the intelligence-led policing philosophy that has been the hallmark of Tom Knight’s leadership as sheriff. That is the best record in the state, Major Paul Richard, who heads up the Sheriff’s Office’s Law Enforcement Division, told the Sarasota County Commission during its June 20 budget workshop.

Yet, “We’re not just throwing personnel at problems,” Col. Kurt Hoffman, the chief deputy and general counsel for the office, pointed out to the board. Richard and his division work hard, Hoffman continued, to put officers in the areas where they are most needed.

“We’re busier than we’ve ever been,” Richard told the commission.

Sheriff Tom Knight (third from right, on the left) and his command staff make their presentation to the County Commission on June 20. Rachel Hackney photo

For example, Richard said the department is handling over 70% of the traffic crashes in the unincorporated parts of the county because of the reduced number of Florida Highway Patrol personnel. “It’s a quality of life issue.” Instead of making county residents wait by the roadside for a trooper to show up, Richard continued, sheriff’s deputies are assisting them. “We don’t see any end to [this trend].”

Nonetheless, Knight is not seeking an increase in personnel for the 2018 fiscal year. “We’re in good shape” with the current level of positions, he told the board.

Since 2009, Knight said, the personnel level in his office has decreased 3%; over the past 11 years, the number of authorized positions in the Sheriff’s Office has dropped 7.3%. However, more deputies are on the roads than in the 2008-09 fiscal year, he added.

Last year, Lisa Kiesel, chief financial officer for the Sheriff’s Office, reminded the County Commission, it approved the addition of six deputies to staff. Those were needed for a new patrol zone created for the area east of Interstate 75, she added. For the 2015 fiscal year, she noted, the Sheriff’s Office won approval for funding of an additional traffic unit.

For the current fiscal year, the office has a total of 973 people on staff; 426 of them are sworn law enforcement officers, 349 are civilians and the remaining 196 are certified corrections employees. The change proposed for the 2018 fiscal year, according to a chart the group showed the commission, would reduce the number of sworn officers by one — to 425; civilian staff members would number 348, with certified corrections staff at the 200 mark.

Rising expenses

A chart shows the breakdown of allocations by division in the Sheriff’s Office for the fiscal year 2017 and 2018 budgets. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

A large portion of the 2.85% increase in Knight’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year is linked to rising workers’ compensation, health benefits and retirement expenses, Kiesel, pointed out.

The health care expense has risen an estimated 92% from 2009 through 2018, she noted, while workers’ comp costs have climbed 118%. Retirement expenses are up 28%.

The increase in the Florida Retirement System expense for FY18 has been projected at $493,760, Kiesel said, with the health care cost up $471,950 and workers’ compensation rising by $165,829. Those are among mandated changes that reflect 1.2% of the increase in the FY18 budget, she noted.

When Commissioner Michael Moran — who was just elected to the board in November 2016 — asked for clarification that the Sheriff’s Office has no control over the health care and worker’s compensation costs, Kiesel replied, “Correct.”

Kiesel further explained that the law enforcement expenses make up 58% of the proposed FY18 budget of $110,321,464, with the Corrections division accounting for the next highest amount: 26%.

The total of step salary increases is expected to go up by $869,056 in FY18, according to a chart Kiesel showed the board. Along with that expense, she continued, other essential items in the proposed budget include $169,850 for maintenance of the office’s Bell helicopter, which has been used for firefighting as well as pursuit of criminals.

“That is the only air unit this county has for any capacity,” Knight noted.

A chart provides statistics representing the Sheriff’s Office’s workload. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

Another $162,000 has been designated for more DNA analysis, Kiesel said, to enable the Sheriff’s Office to pay for an extra 100 tests per month — for a total of 300— to try to solve more crimes in a timely fashion and prevent others that would be perpetrated by the same individuals.

Richard explained that while the Sheriff’s Office is capable of handling what he referred to as “touch DNA” — evidence left at property crime scenes — the State of Florida will not accept its results for prosecutorial purposes. Therefore, Knight added, the department contracts with a private lab to handle the evidence.

Richard told the board that, based on the arrest of one burglar, 30 fewer crimes would occur in a month.

Kiesel also pointed out that the average percentage change in the Sheriff’s budget from 2008 to 2016 is 2%. Moreover, she added, the Sheriff’s Office’s funding accounts for about 10% of the county’s entire budget.

In addition to the revenue provided by the county, Col. Hoffman pointed out, “We do an excellent job” looking for other sources of revenue. The department secured $707,148 in the 2016 fiscal year, he said.

It also generates “a considerable amount of revenue,” he added — from restitutions, its Animal Services operations, and the housing of federal prisoners, for example.

Hiring and retention

A graphic shows trends in benefit expenses for the Sheriff’s Office. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

In regard to personnel, the Sheriff’s Office staff puts a lot of time and effort into recruiting and retaining a “high-quality workforce,” Staci Pickavance, the department’s human resources director, pointed out, including “continually reviewing our salaries and benefits and trying to be as competitive as possible.”

Competition for new employees is keen among law enforcement agencies, she told the board.

Although staff attends numerous recruiting events during the year, Pickavance said, word of mouth from employees is a significant factor in the effort to hire new staff.

Of the 583 applications the department received in 2016, she continued, thorough evaluations narrowed them to 198 candidates who met the specific job requirements. Of those, she said, 78 were hired.

Furthermore, she told the commissioners, the turnover rate among staff declined from 7.7% in 2015 to 6.5% in 2016. Deleting the number of people who retired, Pickavance noted, actually put the 2016 turnover rate at 3.2%.

Conversely, she pointed out, the turnover rate for county employees overall was 10.7% in 2015 and 9.7% in 2016.

As for diversity in the Sheriff’s Office: Pickavance showed the board a slide illustrating that “we’re definitely going in the right direction.” For example, she said, 10% of new hires are Hispanic, while the 2010 Census showed that Hispanics made up 8% of the Sarasota County population. African American employees represent 9% of the new hires, she added, while the county’s African American population was 5% in the 2010 Census.

Regarding gender, Pickavance continued, “I was very happy to see this number”: 53% of new hires are female, with the 2010 Census showing 48% of county residents were female. “That’s huge,” she added, noting that law enforcement traditionally has been dominated by male employees. About 14% of the law enforcement officers in the Sheriff’s Office are females, she said, and four of the command-level positions are held by women.