Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco's push for better salaries for his deputies is a logical, but poorly timed pitch that fails to account for a streak of dim government budgets that left the wages of nearly all public employees, not just law enforcement officers, frozen for five years.
Nocco, in a press conference last week, said he feared an exodus of deputies to nearby agencies, particularly to the Pinellas Sheriff's Office. The starting salary for a first-year Pasco deputy is approximately $39,500 annually for officers working 85 hours every two weeks. By comparison, neighboring counties pay higher wages for 80-hour pay periods, and offer differential pay for nights and weekends, more opportunities for overtime and now sign-on bonuses. In some instances, the compensation can add up to an immediate $10,000 raise for an employee, the sheriff said.
Nocco sounded the alarm, and asked county commissioners for future financial considerations, however, with just four vacancies among his 541-officer department and a relatively small turnover of just 30 salary-related resignations since 2010. It's tough to drum up a compelling case with numbers like that.
These aren't new arguments. As far back as 2000, Sheriff Lee Cannon paid $5,000 bonuses to fill vacancies and lobbied commissioners for above-average raises. Sheriff Bob White successfully argued for raises of 6 percent or higher for his staff in two consecutive years.
Similarly, commissioners have been relatively sympathetic to Nocco's fiscal requests. In 2011, commissioners allocated enough money for the department to hire 23 new staffers, most of whom focused on combatting prescription drug abuse. That approval came a year after commissioners eliminated 60 full- and 11 part-time jobs from their own departments and started charging fees to avoid further layoffs among its parks and recreation staff. The austerity has been a matter of routine beginning in 2008. Since the real estate market collapse resulted in plunging property tax rolls, commissioners have reduced some transit routes and increases fares for the county bus service, turned to the private sector to help keep its elderly nutrition program afloat, cut operating hours at library branches and recreation centers, and ran its fire department at a deficit requiring an unforeseen property tax increase last fall.
In the current budget, commissioners authorized about half of the $6.2 million spending increase sought by the sheriff, which included 3 percent raises for his employees. They weren't alone. All county workers received 3 percent salary boosts in the current budget, their first raises in six years. Unfortunately, it only equaled the 3 percent payroll deductions legislators have mandated since 2011 toward the state retirement system.
In other words, sworn law officers aren't the only ones with flat earnings. Everyone would like raise, but the list of under-appreciated public employees is a long one. Deputies' pay shouldn't be the only consideration when Pasco County starts calculating its personnel costs for 2015.