LARGO — Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri might have earned admiration among his 2,700 employees for his recently announced decision to award them bonuses — the first extra pay that those on the payroll at the county's largest law enforcement agency have seen in five years without raises.
But his largesse is getting mixed reviews elsewhere. None argue the one-time payment this month, equivalent to 4 percent of each employee's salary, is undeserved.
But as Gualtieri prepares for the general election on Nov. 6, some see the diversion of $5 million in Sheriff's Office funds for bonuses to deputies and other staff members as a political maneuver.
The bonuses come in the home stretch of what has been a grueling election campaign for Gualtieri, a Republican who was appointed interim sheriff by Gov. Rick Scott last year. They were announced on the same day that the union representing Pinellas deputies swung its support behind him, after endorsing another candidate earlier this year.
The timing of the announcement "raises questions in my mind," said Scott Swope, a Palm Harbor lawyer who is challenging Gualtieri for sheriff in the general election. "Where was the stipend a year ago? Where was it two years ago? There wasn't one."
Gualtieri, who last month won an expensive, closely contested Republican primary race with former Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice, dismissed suggestions that the bonus is an electioneering stunt. He said the payments have been in the works for months and that he wanted to wait until close to the end of his agency's fiscal year to make sure the money would not be needed elsewhere. The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
"We're trying to take care of our people," Gualtieri said. "It's absolutely not political."
Gualtieri noted that it would have been more politically advantageous to curry favor among deputies when he was facing off against Rice, a better-funded, better-polling candidate than his current Democratic rival. A Republican has won the office of county sheriff in every election since 1980.
"If I was going to do it for political reasons, I would have done it against Everett Rice and not Scott Swope," Gualtieri said.
Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, no fan of Gualtieri's decision, confirmed that it was a long time coming. She said the sheriff alerted county commissioners as early as the spring that he would be giving his employees a bonus, even as they begged him to hold off until next year so all county employees might receive raises at the same time.
"He told us he was going to give bonuses," Latvala said, "and we told him not to."
The timing of the bonus announcement nevertheless created a coincidence. Gualtieri sent an email to his employees informing them of the raise on Aug. 24 — the same day the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, which represents deputies in collective bargaining, issued a letter endorsing him. The union had endorsed Rice in the primary.
Gualtieri acknowledged he had notified the union, which must be told of any adjustment to members' pay, that the bonus was coming. But the bonus was not the result of negotiations, nor was it a factor in courting the endorsement, he said.
PBA Executive Director Michael Krohn said he could not discuss any negotiations behind the union's endorsement of Gualtieri in the general election. He said deputies welcome the one-time bonus, but are still hoping to achieve a permanent raise.
"Of course they're happy," Krohn said. "They have not had raises in over five years, so anything helps. But it does not make up for a general wage increase."
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.