Saturday, February 17, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas County leaders plan changes to Veterans Services Office

CLEARWATER — Early last year, military veterans and their advocates packed the Pinellas County Commission chambers and demanded action.

The Veterans Services Office that helps veterans navigate the federal bureaucracy to secure their benefits was understaffed, forcing veterans to wait too long and crippling the department's ability to reach out to veterans to make them aware of what's available to them. Temporary workers were brought in to help cut a backlog, but the problem is back, the Rev. Bob Swick told the County Commission during a budget workshop on Tuesday.

"We're back to where we were 18 months ago," said Swick, chairman of the Tampa Bay Veterans Alliance. "The fact of the matter is, people within our county don't even get into the system because the allocation right now doesn't allow the Veterans Service Office to fulfill its mandate. It's unconscionable."

Interim County Administrator Mark Woodard was already on top of the issue. Last week, Woodard sent a memo to commissioners outlining changes in store for the office. He elaborated on the plan Tuesday.

"I don't think we have well served our veterans over the last 18 to 24 months," Woodard said.

Among the changes:

• The office will become a separate program and budget reporting to Lynda Leedy, the executive director of Health and Human Services. As part of a past reorganization, the office had been tucked into the county's health program, with five layers of management between the office manager and the county administrator.

• Two veteran services officer positions that have remained vacant for months will be filled as soon as possible to bring the total number of full-time officers to five. One of those positions is a manager who will report directly to Leedy.

• The office will get another full-time administrative support worker to take some of the paperwork burden from veterans service officers so they can focus more of their time on service and outreach.

Bruce Moeller, Woodard's chief of staff, said it takes on average of 48 hours to return a veteran's call. The average wait time to see a service officer is about a week.

"We still think we can do much better than that," Moeller said.

Woodard said he is also including another $150,000 in next year's budget for the department to add personnel.

At least two commissioners, Norm Roche and John Morroni, said they'd like to see the budget bumped up more than $150,000 next year. The investment will pay off in benefit dollars flowing back into the county, Roche said.

"I think you hear the consensus of the board is that we want to get it fixed this time," Commissioner Ken Welch said to Swick and two others in the audience who spoke about the issue.

"We're smiling," Swick replied.

Commissioners also put a smile on Sheriff Bob Gualtieri's face Tuesday by directing county staffers to include an additional $10.7 million for his agency in the budget.

Last month, Gualtieri told the board he needs about $19 million over the next two years to increase the starting salary and address severe pay disparities among both sworn and civilian employees. His solution for sworn employees is a 16-level pay system that provides smaller salary increases in the early years, moderate increases in the middle years when it's crucial to retain deputies, then smaller increases in the later years.

Gualtieri said the agency also needs about $4 million to replace aging radios, computer equipment and patrol cars.

The board agreed in principle to tap a contingency fund of about $10 million to put toward Gualtieri's request and several other priorities, including: $2 million for the county's Business Technology Services department; $500,000 for the indigent dental care program; $433,000 to help the supervisor of elections in an election year; and $250,000 for the public defender's jail diversion program.

"We need to do what we can to make sure our Sheriff's Office is competitive in the region," Commissioner Janet Long said.

Gualtieri said he was thrilled and thankful. Now he has to crunch numbers to decide how to use the money if it holds through the budgeting process. He said critical operational needs must come first and the rest can be used to implement part of the pay plan.

"I've said repeatedly that it took a long time to get into this situation and it's going to take a long time to fix it," he said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

Comments
Prosecutor: Death penalty was ‘designed’ for cases like Florida school shooting

Prosecutor: Death penalty was ‘designed’ for cases like Florida school shooting

The 17 counts of premeditated murder against Nikolas Cruz are the type of case "the death penalty was designed for," according to the Florida prosecutor in charge of trying the confessed school shooter.But Michael Satz, the longtime Broward state att...
Updated: 18 minutes ago
Florida, angry and grieving, takes gun protest to streets

Florida, angry and grieving, takes gun protest to streets

PARKLAND, Fla. — Thousands of angry students, parents and residents demanded stricter gun control laws Saturday as new details were revealed about the suspect accused of shooting and killed 17 people in a Florida high school. The rally, held in downt...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Police find dead man in Tampa apartment

TAMPA — Police found a dead man inside an apartment in the 5200 block of Sonora Court Friday after 3 p.m.Who the man is or how long he’s been dead is unclear at this time, police said. The victim appears to have been killed in some sort of "homicidal...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Parkland vigil and rally scheduled for Saturday night in downtown St. Pete

Parkland vigil and rally scheduled for Saturday night in downtown St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG — A group of activists were scheduled to host a rally in downtown St. Petersburg on Saturday night, demanding lawmakers pass gun control legislation.Organizers said the rally, scheduled for 5 p.m. at Williams Park, was planned in respo...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Divided Congress unable to act on guns, immigration despite public pressure

Divided Congress unable to act on guns, immigration despite public pressure

It’s been five years since the guns and immigration debate collided at the same time on Capitol Hill. This time, the results were even more unproductive.In early 2013, weeks after a gunman killed 20 students and six educators at an elementary school ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Trumpeter is the highlight of a concert featuring ‘West Side Story’ themes

Trumpeter is the highlight of a concert featuring ‘West Side Story’ themes

TAMPA — Leonard Bernstein would have turned 100 this year. The Florida Orchestra performed two of his works Friday, the second of which paired the dances from West Side Story with the overture to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.The orche...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Woman hit, killed Friday along Memorial Highway

TOWN ’N COUNTRY — A woman died after she was hit by a minivan along Memorial Highway on Friday night, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.The 53-year-old woman, whose identity was not released, was trying to cross Memorial Highway f...
Updated: 2 hours ago
White nationalist appears to disavow connection with shooter

White nationalist appears to disavow connection with shooter

PARKLAND, Fla. — A white nationalist appears to have lied to The Associated Press and other news organizations when he claimed that Florida school-shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz was a member of his obscure group.Law enforcement officials have said the...
Updated: 2 hours ago
How killer’s path through a school left 17 dead in six short minutes of terror

How killer’s path through a school left 17 dead in six short minutes of terror

It was Valentine’s Day across America.At an all-American high school in a green and placid Broward County suburb strung with waterways and golf-course communities, that innocent fact would take on dreadful significance well before the day was out.Bet...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Hillsborough rethinks its strategy for struggling schools

Hillsborough rethinks its strategy for struggling schools

TAMPA — "Elevate," a Hillsborough County School District initiative that was to focus on seven troubled schools and use them as models for dozens more, is becoming but a memory as the district seeks instead to support all schools equally."We’re more ...
Published: 02/17/18