After three decades of overseeing thousands of misdemeanor probationers in Pinellas County, the Salvation Army has been given the boot, replaced by another agency:
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
"It could be the best thing that ever happened to Pinellas County," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger.
The shift comes amid concerns raised by county officials about the Salvation Army's management of the roughly 3,000 Pinellas misdemeanor probationers and the organization's use of the $55 monthly fees probationers pay for oversight of their cases.
Before accepting the new role, the Sheriff's Office reviewed the Salvation Army's finances and discovered the nonprofit was giving its state headquarters 12 percent of the fees collected from probationers.
In 2012, for example, the Salvation Army collected more than $2 million in fees but ran a $37,000 deficit on probation services, the Sheriff's Office said. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri learned the Salvation Army had funneled about $250,000 of the funds it collected to its state headquarters.
Furthermore, there was a "constant dispute" about how much probationers owed, Dillinger said. Instead of logging the probationers' fee payments into a computer, the Salvation Army wrote them down on paper.
Correctional services officials at the Salvation Army did not return calls or emails for comment Monday.
In 2011, an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times determined that the Salvation Army, often portrayed as a penny-pinching nonprofit that pours all its resources into charitable work, owned a $12 million Florida headquarters in Lutz and dozens of homes in the Tampa Bay area, part of its largely tax-exempt $75 million real estate portfolio.
The Times also reported that former Hillsborough Commissioner Jim Norman was on the Salvation Army's payroll, making $95,000 a year before he retired in 2010, and that Salvation Army officers, who are ordained clergy, live rent-free in homes that cost as much as $300,000.
About two years ago, Dillinger, along with other officials including Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, met with Gualtieri to discuss transferring oversight of misdemeanor probationers to the Sheriff's Office.
Misdemeanor probation services had not gone out for bid in about 30 years, but county officials worried that asking for bids would attract private companies.
"I was very reluctant to embrace the idea of a for-profit corporation coming in and doing it," McCabe said.
So they approached the Sheriff's Office about taking over. At first, Gualtieri said, he was "not crazy" about the idea.
"I didn't want to go into something that was a fiscal disaster," he said.
But on Sept. 1, Gualtieri stepped in and assumed oversight of misdemeanor probation cases. The state Department of Corrections continues to oversee felony probationers.
The Sheriff's Office has set aside about $1.5 million in its 2014 fiscal year budget to fund the program. If every one of the roughly 3,000 probationers in Pinellas pays their $55 a month for probation services, the Sheriff's Office could collect nearly $2 million.
"It will at least be cost neutral," Gualtieri said, adding "it could actually result in revenues that exceed operating costs."
In the process of assuming control, the Sheriff's Office discovered some other issues with the Salvation Army's oversight. Probation officers were only available on weekdays, which could be a challenge for probationers who are employed. The Sheriff's Office plans to include a Saturday shift.
Gualtieri also criticized the nonprofit's "one-size-fits-all" approach to supervising those on probation. Some probationers must be closely monitored, the sheriff added, while others could qualify for moderate supervision. Probation officers at the Sheriff's Office will assess the risk of each probationer, determined by several factors, including the type of offense and their criminal history.
Also, the Salvation Army did not use electronic monitoring, which Gualtieri said his department's probation officers will use on a case-by-case basis.
Probationers will also be eligible to take life and job skills training.
Misdemeanor probation programs differ across the Tampa Bay area. Although Pasco and Pinellas share a public defender and state attorney, Pasco launched its own probation program in 1993. In Hillsborough, the Salvation Army has managed misdemeanor probation for decades, and Hillsborough State Attorney's Office spokesman Mark Cox said they don't plan to switch.
"We're very happy with them, and we continue to be happy with them," he said.
The Pinellas Sheriff's Office hired most of the Salvation Army's misdemeanor probation employees for its 28-person probation staff.
About 10 employees weren't hired. Some didn't apply and others had issues in their background that did not meet Sheriff's Office criteria.
The new probation unit is on 49th Street N near Largo in the same building that houses the jail's video visitation center.
"It was a tremendous amount of work, but I think at the end of the day we're going to be better for it," Gualtieri said of setting up the new program. "What we want to focus on is making sure that the people successfully complete probation. We don't want to see them again."
Contact Laura C. Morel at email@example.com or (727)445-4157.