CLEARWATER — Like a lawyer delivering a closing argument, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri made his case for a $15 million bump in his budget on Thursday.
The starting salary at his agency is below most in the area. Good employees are fleeing for better-paying agencies. Radios and patrol cars are reaching the end of their life-spans.
"I can assure you these are not wants," Gualtieri told the County Commission during a two-hour budget presentation. "These are absolute needs."
The board's response, as Commissioner Susan Latvala put it: "We'll do the best we can."
Gualtieri's request didn't come as a surprise. The sheriff has been warning officials for more than a year about the needs. Last month, he submitted two budgets. One of the spending plans meets the $235.6 million target the county set for him. The other was $15 million higher.
On Tuesday, the sheriff came armed with a 67-slide presentation to break down the request and the costs.
The biggest need, he said, is to increase deputies' base pay, bring salaries up to market rates, and correct gross inequities among employees with varying experience.
Gualtieri offered examples of how a lack of wage increases during the recession helped create severe pay disparities.
A deputy with seven years' experience and another there for three months both have a salary of $43,000. Five deputies with 22 years experience all earn different salaries, ranging from $59,000 to $68,000.
The same problem plagues the supervisory positions. In some cases, supervisors are earning less than subordinates. Experienced training deputies are earning less than their new recruits.
"It's causing huge morale issues," he said. "It's terrible."
The Sheriff's Office starting salary of $41,284 has not changed in six years, falling behind most nearby agencies large and small, including police departments in Clearwater and St. Petersburg. Even tiny Belleair's police department is several thousand dollars higher.
The lack of a structured pay plan that rewards employees based on their experience means some deputies will never reach the top of the pay scale, even after 25 years of service.
"There's no way to know whether and how you get from entry level to top level," Gualtieri said. "How do you make life's financial planning decisions?"
The Sheriff's Office invests in new employees by paying for their training, then they leave for other agencies that offer higher pay and structured pay plans.
Gualtieri's solution is a 16-level, bell-shaped 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.
Rather than fix the problem in the 2015 budget, Gualtieri offered a two-year option that would cost $6.6 million next fiscal year and $12.4 million the following year.
In the first year, the starting pay would increase to $45,000. By 2016, all 1,500 sworn employes would be at the proper pay level based on their experience.
Gualtieri said the annual cost of the plan in future years will be roughly equal to a 3 percent annual cost-of-living increase. Employees would not receive merit increases under the plan.
Gualtieri also wants $3.3 million to eliminate similar problems among the ranks of about 800 nonsworn employees by creating a market-based range for each position and providing a 3 percent increase.
The agency also has several million dollars worth of critical need for new portable radios, computer equipment, a fingerprint system and patrol vehicles, Gualtieri said.
The county expects a general fund surplus of $3 million to $4 million and also has about $10 million in a separate contingency fund. But there are other needs, including several million dollars worth of countywide hardware and software upgrades.
"I think it's essential we do at least part of this," Commissioner John Morroni told Gualtieri. "We have to stop the drain of your folks going to other cities and counties. It's time to put up or shut up."