Staffing for new South County court facilities and creation of third Tactical Squad planned in Sheriff Hoffman’s first budget
During a June 23 presentation to the Sarasota County Commission, Sheriff Kurt Hoffman talked of his plans to add 14 employees during the 2022 fiscal year, but he is asking the county to fund only part of those positions.
Two will be new deputies for Siesta Key, he pointed out, in response to concerns island residents have raised.
“This is a great example about how local governments should work,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler told his colleagues. “The local residents … said they needed some additional resources.”
Referring to Siesta Beach, Ziegler added, “Obviously, it’s our No. 1 tourist destination in the county.”
Additionally, six new personnel — a lieutenant and five deputies — will be assigned to the new 12th Judicial Circuit Court facilities whose construction is underway at the county’s R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice, Hoffman continued. In a June 1 letter to Chair Alan Maio, Hoffman wrote, “We have prorated the full-year costs of these positions anticipating that these vacancies will be filled mid-year with the full impact being realized in fiscal year 2022/2023.”
Five of the 14 positions — a sergeant and four deputies — will make up a third Tactical Squad, Hoffman told the commissioners on June 23.
In his letter, Hoffman explained that those officers will “deal with specific short-term and long-term neighborhood problems such as drug houses, neighborhood disputes, trespassing, and other community-centric issues.”
A fourth Tactical Squad likely could be necessary in his 2023 fiscal year budget, Hoffman pointed out to the board members on June 23.
One new school safety deputy will be added to the department, as well, Hoffman told the commissioners.
This year, Major Brian Woodring, the newly promoted commander of the Sheriff’s Office’s Law Enforcement Division, said, the department has 13 of those deputies.
They work at charter and private schools, Hoffman explained.
Even with the new personnel, Hoffman continued, the Sheriff’s Office has reduced the number of its authorized positions 3.4% since the 2006-07 fiscal year, when the total was 1,050. For the 2022 fiscal year, the figure will be 1,014, a slide showed.
More tellingly, Hoffman continued, the county’s population has risen 19.25% since 2007. That figure represents 72,000 more residents, he pointed out.
Earlier, Hoffman said, he searched for the population data for the City of Sarasota and the City of Venice. The former count is 56,000, he noted; for Venice, it is 23,000. Therefore, he added of the 72,000 extra people, “That’s almost like having two additional cities added to our jurisdiction.”
Moreover, Hoffman noted, the Sheriff’s Office cost per capita without the 911/Public Safety Communications center and Animal Services is $406 a year. Dispatch and Animal Services equal another $45 together, per capita, he said.
For Collier County, a slide showed, the per capita cost is $609; for Charlotte County, $474; and for Manatee, $431.
Hoffman pointed out that his department’s per capita expense is about $1.23, which is less than the standard Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) one-way fare of $1.25. “The citizens are getting their bang for the buck,” he said.
Altogether, Hoffman’s proposed budget for the 2022 fiscal year — which will begin on Oct. 1 — is $131,865,309. That is up 7.6%, compared to the FY 2021 budget, he noted.
Typically, Hoffman told the commissioners, county administrative staff asks him and the other county constitutional officers to try to keep annual budget increases to 3% or less. In his department’s case, he continued, the FY 2022 hike is actually about 3.8%, if one eliminates costs over which he has no control.
A slide noting the Sheriff’s Office’s breakdown by service showed that 58% of the preliminary budget for next year is dedicated to the Law Enforcement Division — $77,390,156.
The Corrections Division has the second-highest share, at 25%.
In response to a question posed by Commissioner Nancy Detert, Major Brian Meinberg, commander of the Courts and Corrections Division, said the average stay in the jail is 37 days. “A lot of that’s due to the backlog in the court system right now due to COVID,” Meinberg explained.
In the early part of his presentation, Hoffman noted that, over the past 11 years, violent crime in the county is down 52%. In 2009, as former Sheriff Tom Knight was beginning his tenure with the department, a slide showed, offenses the FBI designated as Part 1 crimes totaled 9,131. The total for 2020 was 4,363, the slide said. For the first quarter of this year, the figure was 1,050, the slide noted. The latter number compared to 1,123 in the first quarter of 2020.
The Part 1 crimes are murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft.
“If you would have told me in 2009” that the Sheriff’s Office would be able to reduce Part 1 criminal activity by “more than half,” Hoffman added,” I probably would have lost that bet.”
Challenges for the department
Among other facets of his June 23 presentation, Hoffman reminded the commissioners that the results of the county’s last two Citizen Opinion Surveys reflected community concerns about traffic. In the 2019 survey, the slide said, when asked the most important issue facing the county, the top response was “Traffic/Transportation,” as noted by 9% of those who participated in the survey. In 2020, the same issue was cited by 3% of respondents.
Hoffman then showed the board members a slide with data about the number of traffic crashes the Florida Highway Patrol has handled since 2012, compared to the number the Sheriff’s Office has dealt with during the same period.
“By my math,” he pointed out, the Sheriff’s Office handled 75% of the crashes in the unincorporated areas of the county in 2020 — 5,103 out of 6,814.
In May, Hoffman continued, he and Major Meinberg attended an event during which they were able to talk with the major of the Highway Patrol group that covers Sarasota County. “They’re down 37 troopers,” Hoffman said.
He and Meinberg wondered about the percentage that figure represented, Hoffman added. As it turned out, the Highway Patrol has 104 troopers assigned to that group, “and they are down 37 positions,” Hoffman emphasized the latter number.
Therefore, he continued, the Sheriff’s Office has made the decision to deal with more of the crashes. He characterized that as a choice of making people “wait for two hours in the hot sun or clear the traffic and get roadways opened up.”
Another aspect of his department’s work related to the increasing county population, he noted, has been the rise in calls to the Public Safety Communications center.
Even though serious crime has declined, Hoffman said, “We’re as busy as we’ve ever been” in terms of 911 calls.
The center handles dispatch for every public safety department in the county — including EMS and firefighting personnel — except for the North Port Police Department, he added. Recently, the Sarasota County School District asked that the Public Safety Communications staff take care of its police department’s calls, too, Hoffman pointed out.
In 2019, he continued, the 911 dispatchers handled 648,571 calls. A year later, the total was 664,376, as shown on a slide.
“Capt. [Daniel] Tutko has projected that we will break 700,000 calls” this year, Hoffman told the commissioners.
Yet another issue that Hoffman characterized as “really becoming prevalent” is fraud.
A slide showed the total number of white collar crime/fraud cases in 2016 was 478. By 2018, that had climbed to 625. In 2020, the figure was 1,044.
He told the board members that his officers still are making arrests in connection with the CARES Act fraud case that he announced in late April, and they are still seizing evidence.
Other fraud cases, he said, resulted from the 2019 data breach of the Florida Department of Children and Families, which affected 2,000 people. Criminals created fake IDs, Hoffman pointed out, which enabled them to steal goods worth several thousand dollars.
Of the 17 law enforcement agencies in whose jurisdictions those crimes occurred, he said, only one — the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office — pursued suspects, arrested them and is prosecuting them. “We seized property that was stolen in Sarasota County.”
In another situation — one he and his staff have called the “Publishers Clearinghouse scam,” he noted — a male county resident lost $63,000. Sheriff’s Office detectives were able to use digital forensics to track down and arrest the perpetrator in Broward County, Hoffman said. They also recovered part of the money.
As Hoffman turned to workforce issues, Commissioner Ziegler stressed the board’s full support for the Sheriff’s Office, unlike communities where the defunding of law enforcement agencies has been a big focus.
Hoffman responded that he recently attended a Major County Sheriffs of America conference in North Carolina, during which he had the opportunity to talk with the former King County, Washington, sheriff. Her elected position was eliminated, Hoffman pointed out.
Staci Pickavance, director of the Sheriff’s Office Human Resources division, told the commissioners, “We are seeing a little bit of uptick in applications from other states.” She named New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Georgia and Michigan.
“We don’t have the robust eligibility list that we used to have for law enforcement,” she added.
When Ziegler asked what recruitment steps the Sheriff’s Office has been taking, Pickavance replied that she plans to work over the next few months “to really get a better story out there” about opportunities with the Sheriff’s Office and to let potential recruits learn more about what the county has to offer.
Hoffman added that deputies have been coming to his department from DeSoto, Charlotte and Manatee counties, as well as some of the surrounding municipalities, because of the salaries the County Commission makes it possible for him to offer, along with newer equipment. One former Manatee County deputy who joined the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, Hoffman said, had talked of having to drive a patrol car with 110,000 miles on it. Now that officer is in “a fully equipped SUV,” Hoffman added. “Those folks are telling me … that they recognize us as the place to come to.”
Pickavance noted that the turnover rate for the department did rise from 7.1% in 219 to 8.8% in 2020, but “I don’t think that was a huge shock for the last year. … We’re still well below the state, county and national [turnover rates].”
She and Hoffman also emphasized that the ethnic makeup of the department’s workforce is reflective of the county’s demographics.
For example, Pickavance said, 19.1% of the new hires in 2020 were Hispanic, while the preliminary 2020 Census data show that the county’s population is 9% Hispanic.
The Sheriff’s Office’s goal, she added, is to keep striving to recruit new personnel at levels in keeping with the ethnic breakdown of county residents.