LARGO — The "We're Hiring" sign has lingered on the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office website for months.
Then, in October, agency employees received the first wage increase they've had since 2008. That same month, the Sheriff's Office announced it is offering $3,000 bonuses to experienced candidates who apply for patrol positions and are hired.
The raise and bonus were part of the agency's plan to cope with upcoming retirements, retain seasoned personnel and lure experienced officers to balance out the large number of new hires in the agency, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.
"It's a huge challenge," he said, adding he plans to present his staffing challenges to Pinellas County commissioners later this year. "I need their help. I cannot do this by moving money around and squeezing the ball along. It just isn't there anymore."
Employee salaries had not been increased since 2008, when the Sheriff's Office slashed several units and positions because of budget cuts.
The 4 percent raise they received in October was offset by higher health insurance and retirement costs, Gualtieri said.
And because of the long-standing pay freeze and lack of a step plan that would raise officers' salaries every few years, some newer hires are earning the same or more than personnel who have worked at the Sheriff's Office for years.
"We have situations where we have field training officers that are making less money than our recruits," the sheriff said. "It's a mess."
Starting salaries for new deputies have been kept at roughly $41,000 to cope with the disparity in wages, but that creates a different challenge: Other Tampa Bay agencies offer higher starting salaries.
At the St. Petersburg Police Department, new officers start at nearly $45,000 per year, while officers at the Tampa Police Department begin at more than $47,000. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office also offers roughly $45,000 to new deputies. These agencies all have step plans.
The step plan in Pinellas was eliminated by former Sheriff Everett Rice, Gualtieri said.
Late last year, a deputy resigned and said he was transferring to the Tampa police force. His reason for leaving: no step plan. About four other deputies have resigned since then.
"We're losing people," the sheriff said.
Last year, Gualtieri created several programs, including the DUI, warrant and special victims units. But staffing the units took months. Filling detective positions means more patrol positions remain vacant.
Of the 406 deputies and corporals who work in patrol, about 50 percent were hired between 2011 and 2013. The Sheriff's Office expects 35 other deputies to retire next year.
"How do we as an agency deal with the fragile state of having so many new and inexperienced people all at one time?" Gualtieri said. "We can't put people through the door fast enough."
This month, 26 deputies were sworn in to work in patrol and detention deputy positions. Another 21 recruits are currently enrolled in the 21-week law enforcement academy.
To attract more applicants, the Sheriff's Office recently posted several videos highlighting different positions at the department on its website.
And to lure more experienced personnel, the agency is offering the $3,000 bonuses to job candidates hired for patrol positions who have three or more years of law enforcement experience.
The Sheriff's Office will also cover moving expenses: $3,000 for out-of-state moves, $1,500 for moves within Florida, and $500 for moves within Manatee, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
Gualtieri said his office is interviewing some applicants with previous experience at agencies like the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and the St. Petersburg Police Department.
Michael Krohn, executive director of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, said the bonus initiative is a "good idea."
"It's great that you can get them in the door," he added. "But how can you keep them?"
The union, which represents nearly 600 of the roughly 2,700 Sheriff's Office employees, has heard some concern from members regarding the lack of a step plan at the department.
"Is it something that definitely affects their long-term decisions to stay?" he said. "Yes."
Laura C. Morel can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.