Under pressure to match a bonus the Pinellas sheriff plans to award his staff, the County Commission is leaning toward offering its employees a similar deal.
At the board's Thursday meeting, a majority of the commissioners said they would support a $1,200 one-time bonus for employees next fiscal year, as well as three additional days off. This payment would come at the same time that the board plans to raise property taxes to help absorb a $25 million budget gap.
Careful to describe the money as a one-time payment rather than a raise, commissioners said that Sheriff Bob Gualtieri's surprise decision to offer his staff a bonus left them with no choice but to follow his lead.
Gualtieri sent a letter Aug. 24 saying that after years of fiscal strain, he intended to reward his employees with a 4 percent salary bonus. A few days later, notes from unhappy public employees began to fill commissioners' email accounts.
"Have you seen the letter to the deputies regarding a cost of living one-time raise? So unfair," wrote one employee to Commissioner Norm Roche.
Commissioners had known that Gualtieri was planning a one-time bonus, but did not expect him to announce it so soon and without consulting them. Over the weekend, Roche proposed giving each employee a $1,275 bonus, which was then lowered slightly.
"Bob Gualtieri has put us in a difficult position," Commissioner Susan Latvala said Thursday. "It would be terribly unjust to let this happen for the sheriff deputies and not give our employees some sort of one-time stipend."
Like their counterparts in the Sheriff's Office, Pinellas County's roughly 2,800 employees have gone at least four years without a raise. Giving them a bonus will cost the county about $3.45 million, money that could be taken out of reserves, said County Administrator Bob LaSala.
Part-time employees would receive a smaller bonus, he said, and it would not apply to county commissioners.
All but two commissioners, both of who are running for re-election this November, said they would support giving employees a bonus.
Commissioner Nancy Bostock said she would have a hard time explaining to taxpayers why the commission was simultaneously raising tax rates and giving staff larger checks.
"No matter how much you call it a one-time allocation, employees expect it the next year, so it's very hard to sell it as one-time only," she said. "I'm concerned we're setting ourselves up for an ongoing cost."
Commissioner Karen Seel said it was time to reward the county's employees, many of whom make about $50,000 a year. "These are the ones who are working hard to put bread on the table," she said.