Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice wants to give all his deputies a $3,000 raise, starting April 1.
Two more increases would follow in the next two years under a proposal Rice has sent to county commissioners. Altogether, Rice's proposal would increase a deputy's starting salary more than $7,700, from $29,000 to $36,705 by October 2004.
"Our deputies are underpaid," Rice said. "They're the best law enforcement officers around, and they don't need to be at the bottom of the pay scale."
As a result, deputies are leaving for departments that pay more, Rice said. Twenty-one left for other agencies between Feb. 1 last year and Jan. 1 this year.
But Rice's request comes at a bad time for the county, some county commissioners said. The county already faces a tight budget year. And county officials fear that state lawmakers will shift millions of dollars worth of state costs to county governments.
"The timing couldn't be worse," said County Commissioner Bob Stewart. "I know we need to stay competitive in the salary range for deputies, but on the other hand, we're under the gun . . . with regards to budget."
Rice's request would cost $3.1-million through September. The initial raise would bump starting salaries from $29,000 to $32,000 and maximum pay from $45,662 to $48,662.
County officials initially estimated that the plan would cost $6.2-million the following year, but complete costs weren't available Friday.
Commissioner Susan Latvala also said it was too early to commit to the plan.
"My thinking on raises for everyone, for everything pertaining to the budget, is on hold until we know what the Legislature does to us," she said.
Stewart said he was especially reluctant to increase salaries in the middle of the county's budget year.
So far, Rice has submitted only a written proposal, but he plans to make a full presentation to commissioners. When he does, Stewart said, "it's going to have to be one of the most compelling presentations I've heard in recent times."
Rice was reluctant to discuss details of the plan Friday, saying he wanted to talk with commissioners about it first. But he said he had asked that the increase start April 1 because "my deputies need the increase, and they need it now."
The $3.1-million would have to come from the sheriff's existing funds, said Commissioner Calvin Harris.
The Sheriff's Office did a survey of 17 law enforcement agencies in Tampa Bay and found that 14 pay more to starting officers. The departments that are lower are much smaller: the Indian Shores, Belleair and Belleair Beach police departments.
Those paying more include the Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, but also such small departments as the Treasure Island, Gulfport and Kenneth City police departments.
Rice's proposed increase would shift Pinellas to rank third among the 17, behind only Tampa and Hillsborough.
Pay of Pinellas deputies falling behind
Deputy salaries haven't kept pace with the growth in the per capita income of county residents, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office says.
STARTING PINELLAS PER
SALARY CAPITA INCOME
1990 $22,965.80 $20,750
2000 $27,689.38 $31,321
_ Source: Pinellas County Sheriff's Office