NEW PORT RICHEY — The Pasco County Sheriff's Office has turned over screening duties at the entrance of the West Pasco Judicial Center to a private contractor.
Wackenhut Corp. now has guards at the courthouse doors herding visitors through X-ray machines, which frees up bailiffs to work in courtrooms, where state law requires certified law enforcement officers to be posted.
Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll says the move is a money saver.
"We can have two Wackenhut security officers for the cost of one bailiff, approximately," he said.
Wackenhut has been under contract with the Sheriff's Office since last year to provide security, on an as-needed basis, when jail inmates go to the hospital. The courthouse screeners were added in March. The money for two full-time screeners for the last six months of this budget year — about $79,000 — is coming from an open bailiff's position. Their pay starts at $13 an hour.
Next year, Doll said, the agency wants to fill that position and replace another bailiff who is planning to retire. So Sheriff Chris Nocco, in his budget request to the County Commission this week, called for an additional $200,000 for next year's Wackenhut contract. Overall, the sheriff's proposed budget is about $3 million less than the previous year's.
The Wackenhut guards, who for now are working only at the New Port Richey courthouse and not in Dade City, are armed with 9mm Glock handguns and undergo 80 hours of training before beginning work. At least one armed deputy remains at the courthouse entrance with them at all times, Doll said.
An increase in court cases — from foreclosure hearings to pain pill busts — has resulted in overtime expenses to pay bailiffs. Doll said retired bailiffs were being called to help fill the gaps. Hiring Wackenhut has alleviated some of that, he said.
The company, based in South Florida, has a checkered past with area law enforcement. In 2009, a Wackenhut guard working in Hernando County was fired for sleeping during his break at the government center. And last year, former Pasco Sheriff Bob White terminated a contract with Wackenhut after one of its guards, working at the Juvenile Assessment Center, struck a young inmate.
Doll defended that decision this week and said that otherwise, "they have a long history of satisfactory service with law enforcement."
The contract expires in September but has an automatic one-year renewal clause, which calls for a "minimum 3 percent automatic increase in the labor and non-labor bill rates for the renewal year."
Does that indicate a 3 percent raise for the private guards, while Pasco deputies are seeing no pay increase?
Doll said the 3 percent is "just an increase that would go to Wackenhut. They're a corporation — they can do with it what they want."
He added that the renewal and the increase are negotiable.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.