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Hillsborough sheriff plans to restore cash benefit to 3,500 workers

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's top law enforcement official says he refuses to let his employees take the hit for a state mandate that they contribute toward their pension costs.

Sheriff David Gee confirmed Tuesday that he is restoring a cash benefit his 3,500 employees used to receive to help defray insurance costs in an amount that will roughly equal the 3 percent pension payment.

The result is that an effort to cut the state tax burden will be partly borne by local taxpayers instead. The cost: about $5.2 million annually.

Gee said after three years of frozen wages, he could not swallow asking patrol and jail deputies and their civilian support staff to absorb what is effectively a pay cut. He said that is especially important since he has been leaving hundreds of positions vacant, requiring everyone to work harder.

"I feel like I have a contract with my employees," said Gee, who weathered then busted a brief unionization of his workforce a few years ago. "I think they've done their part and I think it's time to stick up for them for what's reasonable."

He said the payments are made possible through savings from keeping positions vacant as well as a lower-than-anticipated required annual payment to the state pension fund.

Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank says that she, too, is trying to mitigate the pension payment with one-time bonuses for her staff. A spokesman for Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober said his boss is considering a similar move.

"We realize the hardship of the times we're all in," said Mark Cox, Ober's chief of investigations. "But we're also concerned about losing our valued employees."

The maneuvering is sure to draw the ire of some taxpayers who have demanded tax relief. It also is certain to spark resentment from other government employees who have weathered three years of wage freezes, unpaid furlough days and layoffs — with those remaining being told to do more for less.

"I'm sure I'm going to hear it by the end of the day: Where's ours?" said Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner. "I'm just going to have to deal with it."

Turner said his budget for next year includes a 5 percent spending cut, another year of frozen wages and the elimination of two positions through attrition.

County Administrator Mike Merrill has presented a budget to county commissioners that includes the elimination of 449 more jobs from a workforce of about 5,000. Remaining employees will see no raises for a fourth straight year — except for select union workers — and no bonuses.

Merrill has floated a proposal to let employees with at least 80 hours of accrued paid vacation time to cash in up to 40 hours to mitigate the pension payment. He said he and his staff looked into offering bonuses, but couldn't justify it with steep cuts being made.

"It doesn't make it easier, for sure," said Merrill, of telling his employees they will have to make do, again, while other local government workers get bonuses or raises. "It certainly doesn't help to motivate people."

Tax Collector Doug Belden, Public Defender Julianne Holt and Supervisor of Elections Earl Lennard, each elected officials with their own staffs, also will not give out raises or bonuses.

Gee was largely unapologetic for treating his employees differently. He said some other unionized police forces have continued to receive step or other pay increases through the economic hardships of recent years while his employees have not.

Meanwhile, he said he is holding about 400 positions vacant even though his agency deploys far fewer law enforcement officers per capita than, say, Tampa.

His staff has largely been spared layoffs and Gee refuses to relinquish positions, instead returning about $40 million annually to the county, largely thanks to the money not spent on vacant jobs.

"I'm not willing to give up the positions because I think we need to hire them," Gee said. "I've got patrol squads that used to have 12 or 13 people that now have eight or nine. It's to some degree a public safety issue."

The result is that his budget has stayed largely flat in recent years. Because law enforcement accounts for roughly a third of the county's operating costs, and tax revenue is down sharply, other departments from parks to animal services have been whittled dramatically.

Gee said the offset is made possible not with a direct raise but by restoring what is known as a cafeteria plan benefit his employees used to receive until a few years ago. The benefit is essentially a stipend employees are paid that they can put toward insurance premiums or deductibles, or simply pocket.

The benefit will be set at 3.25 percent of an employee's pay, generally less than the $210 monthly other county employees already get, said Chief Deputy Sheriff Joe Docobo. For a mid-level detective making $2,837 every two weeks, that equates to $63.84 in each paycheck. A mid-level senior secretary grossing $1,094 every two weeks would get $27.89.

Payments would begin at the beginning of July to coincide with the pension contributions.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough sheriff plans to restore cash benefit to 3,500 workers 06/14/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 14, 2011 11:40pm]
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