The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is planning to give employees a roughly 3 percent raise next year, the first wage increase for the agency's staff in at least five years.
The starting salary for a sheriff's deputy has held steady for years at $41,000, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said, but that low entry wage is beginning to hurt the agency. Hit with an unusually high attrition rate this year, the agency is struggling to fill positions and is discovering that some of the most desirable applicants are being lured away by higher-paying law enforcement agencies.
In Hillsborough County, starting deputies can make $44,335, according to the agency's website. In Tampa, a beginning police officer can earn a minimum of $46,384, and in Clearwater, $44,471 is the base pay for a police officer.
"We're way behind," said Gualtieri, who is considering raises in the range of 3 to 3.5 percent. (That would not affect his salary, which is set by the state.) For an entry-level deputy, a 3 percent raise would mean a beginning salary of at least $42,230.
"It's not that we're losing people because they see higher wages elsewhere," he said, noting that much of the attrition has come from retirements. "It's that we can't attract people and that's a big problem," he said, voicing the same complaint shared by Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala, who is planning to give his employees a similar raise next year.
Worse than the low wages, Gualtieri said, is the fact that his agency does not have a clearly defined pay ladder. If a deputy leaves the Sheriff's Office to work in Clearwater and returns five years later, he gets a pay increase for the experience he has brought back to the agency. But the colleagues he worked with who chose to stay with the sheriff would, in all likelihood, still be making $41,000 a year.
The result is that some lieutenants are making less than sergeants. And some sergeants are making less than the deputies they've trained.
"All of that's got to be fixed," the sheriff said. "It's a big morale problem."
Gualtieri's proposed pay increase did not make it into the $215.7 million budget he submitted to the Pinellas County Commission for approval. He said he is still working on how much raises will cost the agency. But his budget request is likely to go up by another $3.8 million regardless, owing to increased contributions to the state's retirement system.
As it stands now, the sheriff's proposed budget for fiscal year 2014, which begins Oct. 1, is a modest increase over last year's. Though some new positions have been added, most of those are deputies assigned to patrol St. Pete Beach, which now pays the Sheriff's Office for protection.
But within the agency, Gualtieri is planning new assignments for some of the staff he already has.
Following a series of stories in the Tampa Bay Times last year that highlighted concerns with the way deputies track fugitives, the sheriff is creating a special squad devoted to the job, reversing a decision to cut a similar unit in 2009. Composed of four deputies and one sergeant, the Violent Offender Warrant Unit is projected to cost $480,000.
Gualtieri said he also recently reinstated the DUI unit, which the agency's leaders cut in 2008 to save money. That squad consists of five deputies and one sergeant who are dedicated to cracking down on drunken drivers and enforcing traffic laws.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.