Sheriff tells County Commission he doubts he will need to increase personnel in his 2018 fiscal year budget

Comment comes as Tom Knight offers his and his staff’s continuing assistance to the board members, including two newest ones

(From left) Major Jon Goetluck, Major Paul Richard, Sheriff Tom Knight, Col. Kurt Hoffman and Major Jeff Bell appear before the County Commission on Dec. 13. News Leader photo

Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight has told the Sarasota County Commission he probably will not need funding for extra personnel in his 2018 fiscal year budget.

He made that observation on Dec. 13 as he and his command staff members met with the board, primarily as a means of introducing themselves to the new county commissioners, Nancy Detert of Venice and Mike Moran of Sarasota.

Knight invited all the board members to call him at any time to ask questions about crime in their districts or in the county as a whole.

Joining Knight at the table were Col. Kurt A. Hoffman, chief deputy and general counsel; Major Jeff Bell, commander of the Courts and Corrections Division; Major Jon Goetluck, Administrative Division commander; and Major Paul Richard, who heads up the Law Enforcement Division.

Since 2008, Knight pointed out, county crime has declined 49%. He was elected to his first term in 2008.

During his budget presentation for the current fiscal year, Knight asked for 10 new positions, including a new chemist for the office’s Forensics Lab and a new school resource deputy. The majority of the extra personnel were necessary because of the increased residential growth and traffic in the eastern part of the county, Richard explained to the board on June 23.

During his Dec. 13 presentation, Knight joked that Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho — who also serves as the county’s chief financial management officer — would “probably faint” upon hearing Knight’s 2018 budget prediction.

Knight added that Hoffman probably would have preferred Knight not comment on future staffing needs. Nonetheless, Knight continued, he might even be able to reduce the number of personnel in his office during the next fiscal year. “Hopefully,” he said, “we can hold on for a couple more years” before asking for more positions. “Unless something changes dramatically,” he added, “we should be OK.”

Seasonal crime

The County Commission sits in session in November. Rachel Hackney photo

Knight also took the opportunity on Dec. 13 to warn the board members about the “transient” offenders common in the county at this time of year. Given the number of elderly residents who make their homes in the community during the winter season, he continued, “this becomes a bit of a criminal breeding ground, if you will.”

Criminals will work in teams, he pointed out: One will distract a homeowner at the front door while the second person tries to enter a rear door and burglarize the house. “Unfortunately, as our population increases a little bit, so does [that type of] activity.”

He asked all the commissioners to help him spread the word that if any of their constituents see or hear anything suspicious, they should contact the Sheriff’s Office right away. Referring to incidents that happen on weekends, for example, Knight said he reminds the public himself, “‘Please don’t wait until Monday morning to [report something suspicious].”

Sheriff’s Office personnel have been getting the word out to residents, too, about the need to keep their car doors locked, he noted.

The Gulf View Estates area (middle right and lower right) is outside Venice. Map from Google Maps

Then Knight talked about a group of alleged thieves who had traveled into Sarasota County recently from Pinellas County. “They hit us down in Gulf View Estates and Jacaranda [in Venice],” Knight said.

Sheriff’s deputies arrested four people in connection with vehicle thefts in that area, he added.

The report the office issued on Dec. 12 said that a man and three juveniles were charged with Grand Theft Auto involving a number of incidents in the Tampa Bay area.

Thanks to the consolidation within his office of dispatching services for all the county’s municipalities — except the City of North Port — Knight explained that his personnel knew about the first call that came into the Venice Police Department involving those suspects. “This is a classic example of how consolidated public communications work,” Knight pointed out.

Video taken by the Sheriff’s Office’s helicopter show two deputies arresting a suspect near Interstate 75 close to Venice in early December. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

With the assistance of the Sheriff’s Office’s Aviation Unit, Air-1, Knight told the commissioners, deputies on the ground were able to make the arrests.

The Sheriff’s Office report noted that Patrol and Tactical Unit deputies followed the vehicle with the suspects as it headed northbound on Interstate 75. After the driver lost control and hit a barrier in the median, deputies were able to arrest the man and the three juvenile suspects a short distance from the crash scene, the report added.

One suspect hid in a ditch, Richard pointed out on Dec. 13, so the helicopter pilot was able to direct deputies to that person’s location. “Thank goodness he wasn’t armed,” Richard said of the suspect. Nonetheless, Richard continued, the Air-1 assistance enabled the deputies on the ground to be prepared for that possibility.

Commissioner Charles Hines mentioned a video the Sheriff’s Office staff had shown the board members in the past, with the Air-1 pilot directing deputies on the ground to the exact location of a suspect hiding around the corner of a house. “That really, to me, showed how worthwhile [the helicopter] was,” Hines added.

“This most recent arrest is very similar to that,” Richard responded. The pilot “literally is saying, ‘[The suspect] is 2 feet to your left’ [to deputies walking beside the interstate].”

(To watch a Sheriff’s Office video showing that part of the incident, click here.)

Equipment and facilities

Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo

As for the helicopter: As he had mentioned during his June budget presentation, Knight told the commissioners on Dec. 13, “It’s breaking down a lot.” He knows the board has a number of funding priorities, Knight continued, so he hopes to keep the aircraft operational for a while longer before having to replace it.

The department purchased the 2005 Bell 407 in 2005, Community Affairs Director Kaitlyn Perez told The Sarasota News Leader in June.

Still, Knight added, it is the only air unit “in the whole county. … It really showed its value [in the Venice auto thefts case].”

Moreover, Knight noted, the helicopter is used to dump water in fighting major fires threatening county property.

As he wrapped up the presentation, Knight again encouraged all the commissioners to call him at any time. Some board members have preferred to talk with him more regularly than others, he noted. For example, he said, Commissioner Carolyn Mason, who stepped down from the board in November because of term limits, spoke with him four or five times a week about issues regarding District 1, which she represented.

“I don’t know how much you want to know,” Knight said. “I think it’s important that you do know.”

He also welcomed them to tour any of his office’s facilities.

Hines pointed out that he took advantage of the latter type of invitation early during his first term on the board. “Seeing is believing,” Hines added, referring to limitations with some of facilities that have led Knight to seek commission approval for new office space. (County Administrator Tom Harmer explained earlier during the Dec. 13 meeting that he was working with Knight and Knight’s staff on the potential purchase of a building on Cattlemen Road that would alleviate some of the problems the Sheriff’s Office has been experiencing.)

Hines noted that, having attended a number of Florida Association of Counties meetings over the years, he has heard members of other boards talk about dealing with their sheriffs. The Sarasota County Commission is very comfortable with Knight and his staff, Hines said. “Other people [in other areas] aren’t so lucky.”