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Posse may join sheriff in retirement

When Sheriff Charles Dean announced in December that he would not seek another term as the county's top cop, he predicted that a number of his top aides would leave with him.

That changing of the guard could carry a hefty price tag.

This past week, Dean told Citrus County commissioners that about 21 employees _ from captains and investigators to senior road deputies and bailiffs _ may retire early when a new sheriff takes over.

If all of those employees retire, the county would owe them about $250,000 in accrued sick leave and unused vacation time, according to Sheriff's Office estimates.

"It would really put a hardship on the public service in this county," sheriff's Maj. Terry LaCasse said. "A lot of these positions where people would be leaving would not be filled. If you lose those individuals who have the intimate knowledge of the operation, you have to start from scratch."

Dean, who is seeking a seat in the state Senate, told the commission that although he is retiring, he feels responsible for ensuring that the incoming sheriff is not so strapped for cash that public safety is compromised.

"He's going to be running short because I'd have to pay for it, but I haven't planned for it," Dean said Friday.

Sheriff's employees are entitled to 12 paid sick days annually, and they can carry forward any unused time. If they resign with proper notice after one year with the department, they are eligible for 25 percent payment at current salary on accrued sick leave.

The percentage paid increases as employees gain seniority. If they retire after 10 years of service, they are paid 30 percent of current salary; the rate increases to 40 percent after 15 years and 50 percent after 20 years, according to department policy.

Employees also earn cash for unused vacation days, which can be carried forward two years. An employee who resigns in good standing is paid in full for accrued vacation at his or her current salary level.

LaCasse, who has worked for Dean since the sheriff took office in January 1981, is among those who might hand in his badge.

"I may be one to go," LaCasse said. "It's what-if. Maybe all those people won't leave. A $250,000 liability for a new sheriff is substantial."

The department spent about $50,000 in both 1994 and 1995 to buy back sick days from employees who had accrued a large number. Even so, LaCasse said that about half of the deputies eligible to retire, including him, still have more than 1,000 hours each of unused sick leave.

Dean encouraged Citrus County commissioners Thursday to set up a contingency fund for retirement pay. Dean said the $250,000 is a conservative estimate, and officials originally estimated the figure at closer to $328,000.

Although the sheriff administers his own budget, he receives his funds from the county. County budget officials were unmoved.

"If some of these folks retire, they (the Sheriff's Office) will have to do what we would do: search accounts, look for money, make it work," Assistant County Administrator Steve Wylie said. "There was nowhere to go back and set up a contingency fund. We don't have one of our own. It's a tight budget year."

For fiscal year 1996-97, Dean proposed a $13.4-million budget that would include hiring one road deputy and two public safety aides to handle low-priority calls.

mission is likely to support funds for cost-of-living increases, higher fuel costs and merit raises, the county budget staff recommended against hiring new people.

Wylie said that if the need arises, he thinks the sheriff will find the money he needs in his own budget. For one thing, he said, Dean's budget includes money for across-the-board raises and merit increases.

To use all of the money budgeted for raises, Wylie said, Dean would have to award every employee the top merit increase _ 3 percent. Since that is unlikely, Wylie said, Dean should find money there.

"It's natural for any organization to have some attrition and vacancies and delays at filling them at times," Wylie said. "That creates a pool of money."

Also, Wylie said, every year the sheriff returns money. Last year, $400,000 was turned in to the general fund. Sheriff's officials attributed that overflow to money saved in corrections. They said they doubt the office will have a similar overflow in 1996-97.

"I still think it would be extraordinary to think that with the sheriff leaving, 75 percent of those that could retire would," Wylie said.

A turnover would not be unusual during a time of leadership transition, however. LaCasse said that some are Dean loyalists, and others may leave for political reasons or because the timing is right to start a new career.

"There's a comfort zone with the people who have worked with me because they've been here a long time," Dean said Friday. "There may be some who want to stay if certain candidates win."

Already, three captains have left to pursue politics: Oren "Woody" Woodward, who is running for property appraiser; Jeff Dawsy, who is running for sheriff; and Jimmy Hill, who has pledged support to the Dawsy campaign. Woodward took a leave of absence, and Dawsy and Hill are drawing some benefits, Dean said.

Dean has promoted from within to fill those positions. A question remains: How easy would it be for an incoming sheriff to replace almost two dozen supervisors and longtime deputies?

"I don't think I'd be faced with that problem should I be elected," said Republican candidate Henry "Hootie" Wilkins, a former sheriff's deputy. "A very intelligent sheriff would not summarily get rid of people."

Two other candidates concurred, saying they did not plan to fire anyone. Republicans Howard Arnold and Frank Carter said they thought the money for buyouts was hidden in the budget.

"I think it was just a show," Arnold said. "I think it was an actor on the stage, and the audience was the commission."

Carter said he has a plan if he is elected and does not expect he would need the help of the County Commission.

"I have found almost a million in savings," he said. "If I have to spend $250,000 to get them out of there, it's not a problem."

Dean, however, said he thinks candidates are underestimating the impact of a $250,000 shortfall. He challenged candidates who say the money is already there to prepare a budget that adequately addresses what the county needs in public safety.

"It's easy to attack the sheriff's budget. It's political rhetoric," Dean said. "They're blowing hot smoke."