Sheriff seeking to add 24 new positions in proposed $181-million budget for 2024 fiscal year

Even with low ratio of officers per 1,000 county residents, most serious types of crimes down 56% since 2009, Hoffman tells County Commission

On June 20, during the presentation of his projected 2024 fiscal year budget to the Sarasota County Commission, Sheriff Kurt Hoffman worked to make the case for 24 new full-time positions, even though their hiring is a significant reason that the Sheriff’s Office is seeking an extra $30 million, compared to its current budget.

Hoffman’s staffing request would give him 2.3% more employees than he has this year, based on figures that the county’s Office of Financial Management staff provided the commissioners in their agenda for the budget workshop.

In working on the proposal for the next fiscal year, he told the commissioners, he and his staff originally factored in 47 new full-time positions. They also trimmed out technology upgrades, he pointed out, in an effort to keep the total budget as low as possible and still be able to handle all of the responsibilities the agency shoulders.

Hoffman’s proposed FY 2024 budget is $181,806,610, 20% higher than the $151,439,707 his agency received for this fiscal year, which will end on Sept. 30.

While those were the figures that county staff members included in the slides they had created for the two days of budget workshops this week, Hoffman provided a higher overall figure for the 2024 fiscal year — $185,545,518. (Of that, $128,577,623 has been allocated to the Law Enforcement Division, with $43,925,930 going to the Corrections Division.) However, he pointed out to the commissioners, he receives about $4.2 million from other funding sources — including grants and Impact Fees — which is the reason County Administrator Jonathan Lewis had the higher number in the slides in the agenda packet. The agency also turns over approximately $2 million each year to the county, he added.

(In response to a Sarasota News Leader question about where that $2 million comes from, Dana Judge, media relations specialist in the Sheriff’s Office, reported that that money comes from sources such as alarm fees, the Animal Services Division, civil and records fees, and other miscellaneous revenue, including payments for fingerprinting required for employees in certain businesses and restitution.)

As a result of those factors, Hoffman pointed out, his actual proposed budget for the 2024 fiscal year is $179,291,037, which is about 18% higher than the current fiscal year budget for the Sheriff’s Office.

County Administrator Lewis did confirm that the $181-million figure is what is known as the “certified budget,” or the official figure for the agency for the 2024 fiscal year.

Of the 24 new positions he is seeking, Hoffman told the commissioners, 20 would be law enforcement officers — two of them for traffic patrol. The other four are civilian positions.

“This budget reflects the growth of this county that is kind of smacking us right in the face, for sure,” Hoffman said.

However, he emphasized, he does not request new employees until he has made sure he has filled the agency’s open positions.

Charlotte County has a vacancy level higher than 10% than its Law Enforcement Division, he added.

Regionally, Hoffman noted, agencies have 449 vacancies for law enforcement positions. On the corrections side, he added, the figure is 369.

Further underscoring the situation, Hoffman pointed out that students at the county’s Law Enforcement Academy, which is located at the Suncoast Technical College in Sarasota, are seeing recruitment posters from agencies based as far north as Pensacola and as far south as Key West.

“I currently have no positions to offer in our Law Enforcement Division,” he told the commissioners. No other sheriff’s office in the state has been able to match that, Hoffman noted.

During his recent attendance at a conference in Tampa involving law enforcement personnel, which was supposed to be about the increasing amount of fentanyl being moved into the state after it arrives in the United States from Mexico, he continued, attendees’ discussions devolved into a focus on understaffing. However, he stressed retention of officers is not only an issue for county law enforcement officials statewide, but also for agencies at the federal level.

Diving more into the demands placed on his department, Hoffman told the board members that the largest number of complaints he contends with annually are related to traffic. His officers handle nearly 80% of the crashes in the county, Hoffman added.

As he has noted in the past, the agency’s goal is not to make people — especially older residents — have to wait on the side of Interstate 75 for hours, especially in Florida’s heat, for a Florida Highway Patrol trooper to arrive on the scene of an accident.

Further, Hoffman pointed out that, with the necessary equipment and vehicle included, the expense for a new deputy just out of the Law Enforcement Academy these days is about $205,000.

Hoffman also explained that, based on the population growth the county has been experiencing, he estimates he will need another 100 to 125 new law enforcement employees over the next five fiscal years. The 20 he is seeking in his FY 2024 budget, he noted, is the beginning of that process.

Hoffman presented the commissioners a slide showing that the ratio of Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office personnel per 1,000 county residents is 1.21. In comparison, that graphic said, in comparison, the figure for the Sarasota Police Department is 3.21 officers per 1,000 city residents.

His goal, Hoffman said, is to try to raise the Sheriff’s Office ratio to 1.66 deputies per 1,000 residents by the end of the next five fiscal years. That figure, he added, is the average for sheriff’s offices in the state.

Hoffman did note that in the 2024 fiscal year, if the commission approves his budget, he will have 1,060 full-time employees. In 2007 — before the start of the Great Recession — the number for the agency was 1,050. “I think we’ve been very frugal in terms of how we’ve deployed our folks out in the field.”

He underscored the latter remark by pointing out that the total number of what the FBI used to classify as “Part 1 crimes” — the most serious incidents, including murder, rape, aggravated assault and vehicle theft — is down 56% since the 2009 fiscal year.

He would have lost, Hoffman added, if he had bet 14 years ago that the drop in the number of those crimes would have fallen more than 50% by 2023.

And yet, he pointed out, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office has the lowest cost per capita of law enforcement agencies in the region, at $490. The regional average, he added, is $616. In Manatee County, his chart said, it is $513.

Higher medical expenses for inmates and other cost factors

Yet another major reason for the increase in his 2024 budget, Hoffman noted, is higher expenses, partly related to inflation. For example, he said, even though his office is using a state process that allows him to take advantage of the lowest costs, the agency is paying almost $10,000 more for each new Chevy Tahoe for an officer. His 2024 budget, he added, includes the purchase of 15 to 20 of those vehicles.

Hoffman also told the commissioners that he and his staff are continuing to try to complete contract negotiations with Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH) staff for inmate medical care in the coming fiscal year. “That population in the jail,” he noted, “is not a healthy population.” People have to have MRIs done, for example, he continued, and surgeries. Additionally, Hoffman said, his Corrections Division staff has had to deal with “a significant amount of pregnancies,” in the past few years.

“Just a few weeks ago,” he continued, “we had nine inmates in the hospital at one time,” which was an unusual situation.

Not all of the care inmates need can be provided within the jail, he pointed out.

“The prices at SMH — for whatever reason — are higher [than those at] other hospitals,” Hoffman added. Yet, Sarasota Memorial has the ability to allow Sheriff’s Office personnel to remain with inmates and even permits those inmates to be handcuffed to fixed objects in some cases, he said.

At one point, he continued, he did look into the potential of using Doctors Hospital of Sarasota. However, Hoffman said, that facility is farther from the jail, which is in downtown Sarasota, and Sheriff’s Office personnel would have more difficulty dealing with inmate security there.

He really had hoped to have the contract finalized before the appeared before the commissioners that day, Hoffman stressed.

Other major drivers for his higher budget, he continued, are an uptick of more than $3 million for the Florida Retirement System (FRS) for his employees and the cost of fuel. “We drive approximately 7 million miles a year.”

The Sheriff’s Office policy, he told the commissioners, is to keep patrol officers on the road, even as fuel expenses climb.

Hoffman also pointed out that costs related to the operation of the jail keep rising. For example, he said, “I think folks forget that we serve over 1.1 million meals a year …”

He praised Major Brian Meinberg, commander of the Courts and Corrections Division for the agency, for working so hard to keep the jail expenses as low as possible.

Although the operational capacity of the jail is 836 inmates, Hoffman pointed out, “We’re at 997 inmates today.” One day last week, he said, the figure was 1,007.