South County Sheriff’s Office reopens in Venice on Jan. 4

County Commissioner Rainford had proposed the action during late November remarks to his colleagues

The South County Sheriff’s Office is located in a Venice plaza. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

On Jan. 3 — almost exactly five weeks after Sarasota County Commissioner Neil Rainford brought up the idea during the board’s regular meeting on Nov. 28 — Sarasota County Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman announced the reactivation of the Sheriff’s Office’s South County location.

Located at 4531 Annex Road in Venice, the facility opened to the public on Jan. 4. It is staffed by deputies Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except on holidays, a Sheriff’s Office new release pointed out.

“Residents and visitors in the southern part of the county can utilize this service as an alternative to online reporting or filing in person at our headquarters on Cattleridge Boulevard [in Sarasota],” the release added.

“Residents and visitors have voiced their concern to me about a lack of walk-up services in the south county area for the last year,” Hoffman said in the release.

On Nov. 28, Rainford — who represents District 3, which includes most of Venice — emphasized the commute that his constituents have if they wish to file a report in person or have fingerprints taken. The Sheriff’s Office headquarters on Cattleridge Boulevard is near Interstate 75, in the northeastern part of the county.

Commissioner Michael Moran — now the board chair — and then-Chair Ron Cutsinger voiced full support for Rainford’s proposal.

When Commissioner Mark Smith asked Rainford whether he had talked with Sheriff Hoffman about his proposal, Rainford replied that he had received an email from Hoffman the previous evening, affirming his support for the proposal.

In the Jan. 3 Sheriff’s Office news release, Hoffman noted, “Currently, we are the only constitutional office that does not have a south county presence. I made this decision [to reopen the Venice facility] because 42% of our citizens in need of services come directly from those living south of Clark Road,” Hoffman continued in the release. “These concerns, coupled with the unprecedented growth of south county over the last several years, make this an easy decision,” he said.

Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman addresses the County Commission during a June 2022 budget workshop. News Leader image

Members of the public are able “to file reports with deputies in person for lost or damaged property, frauds and scams, theft, vandalism or forgery, or anything not requiring an emergency response,” the release explains. “All emergencies should still be reported through 911,” the release advised.

Additionally, persons may drop off medications for proper disposal at the South County office, “have [vehicle identification number] VIN verifications performed, conduct child custody exchanges, and post property bonds,” the release added.

Nonetheless, the release noted, the online reporting tool is available through the ‘File A Report’ tab on the Sheriff’s Office website for non-emergency reporting.

“In 2019, citing fiscal concerns, personnel issues, and facility needs,” the release explained, the Sheriff’s Office closed the South County location — “encouraging residents to call for a deputy’s response, utilize our general email address, or head directly to the agency’s headquarters, a considerable distance for some,” the release continued. “Over the years, however, the public’s call to reopen the facility has increased due to the county’s growth.”

“I am grateful for the support we received from all five county commissioners, and going forward, we will collect data and evaluate future growth to determine whether we need to expand additional services or hours of operation in south county,” Sheriff Hoffman said in the release.

In June, Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Rainford to fill out the final term of the late Commissioner Nancy Detert, who died unexpectedly in early April. She was term-limited, so she would not have been unable to seek re-election.

Political question raised

As The Sarasota News Leader noted in reporting on Rainford’s Nov. 28 comments, both Rainford and former Sheriff Tom Knight have filed as Republicans to seek the District 3 seat. Knight was still sheriff when the decision was made to close the South County office.

In late February 2019, when the Sheriff’s Office announced the decision to take that action, a press release quoted Knight as follows: “I am very proud of my staff who continues to look for new and smarter ways to serve the public. If we want to continue to be successful, we have to stay progressive and constantly look for ways to improve. By relieving the south county desk, there will be more boots on the ground and by all accounts, that is something our citizens are always eager to see.”

In response to a question on Nov. 28 from then-Chair Ron Cutsinger, Deputy County Administrator and Chief Financial Management Officer Steve Botelho, who was attending the meeting in the absence of County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, said that county administrative staff could request a copy of the sheriff’s plans for reopening the South County facility. Even if no additional funding from the county was needed for the current fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, 2023, Botelho pointed out that county financial management staff would need to take into consideration any future fiscal impacts of the facility’s operations.

Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho. File photo

When the News Leader this week posed the question to county staff about that funding issue, Communications Department Director Jamie Carson checked and then responded that county staff had not received any request from the Sheriff’s Office for extra financial support for reopening the South County location. The operations are being handled within the current, approved budget for the Sheriff’s Office, Carson added.

In response to News Leader questions about the funding that were posed to the Sheriff’s Office this week, Evan Keats, director of the agency’s Community Affairs Division, provided answers that he said had been given to him by the appropriate staff:

  • “The first year’s operating cost will be $140,650.16 per front desk deputy. We are reclassifying two new [full-time employee] FTE allocations from this year’s budget — from patrol to front desk deputies for the south office.The cost for patrol deputies would’ve [been] $215,549.81 per deputy. That’s a $74,899.65 cost reduction for each deputy, as they have less startup costs than a patrol deputy.”

(Sheriff Hoffman explained to the County Commission during a June budget workshop that a full-time deputy has to be equipped with a vehicle and equipment, so the total expense of a new deputy is compounded by those extra costs.)

  • In response to a News Leader question about the sheriff’s budget presentation in June, agency staff added, “The Sheriff’s Office did make a considerable effort to propose a lean and efficient budget [for this fiscal year] and also made reductions when requested by the board [before the final budget won approval in September]. The budget included new FTE’s for patrol. Upon further internal discussion, a reprioritization of 2 of the new FTE’s was made from patrol to the south county front desk. Additional FTE’s for patrol are still needed and will be addressed in a future budget.”

Many political pundits expect the District 3 County Commission race to be decided during the August Primary this year. As of Jan.11, Knight and Rainford were the only persons seeking the seat. Although Realtor Gregory Wood of Venice was the first person to file to run in that district, he formally withdrew from the race last year without raising any contributions.

Because of a change in state law, campaign finance reports were due only on a quarterly basis for the last two quarters of 2023. The final batch for the 2024 County Commission candidates had to be submitted to Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner and his staff by Jan. 10.

In the reports for the third quarter of 2023 — the first in which Rainford and Knight filed documentation — the News Leader found that Sheriff Hoffman had given Rainford $500, but Hoffman had not provided any contribution to Knight, whom Hoffman served as chief deputy and general counsel before Knight retired as sheriff at the end of 2020, after three, four-year terms in office.