Okeechobee County sheriff seeks budget increase

OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel E. Stephen presented his agency’s 2018-19 fiscal year budget in a town hall meeting on Wednesday, June 27, in the Okeechobee County Historic Couthouse.

The event was broadcast live on the Board of County Commissioners website and can be viewed in its entirety via www.co.okeechobee.fl.us.
During the meeting, Sheriff Stephen outlined his request for the budget.
“With this town hall meeting I want to maintain my transparency, take input and discuss what needs to happen with our agency with members of the community. The budget that I’ve submitted for 2018-19 is a little over a 14 percent increase,” explained the sheriff.
Almost 8 to 9 percent of that increase is to adjust the starting salary of the deputies, and changing the pay has to be consistent through to the rank of lieutenant. Three percent of the increase is due to the recent state-mandated School Resource Officer requirement. Less than 3 percent will be to bring on an additional seven staff members, two on the Criminal Apprehension Team (CAT), an additional crime scene evidence technician along with a detention deputy for the jail.

Prior to the meeting, Sheriff Stephen also addressed the percieved difficulty community members were going to have with accepting the proposal.

“I know the struggle with the 14 percent increase is going to be very hard for people to accept, but the problem is that we are losing our average five or six-year employees to agencies that can provide them with $15,000 more per year. I understand we can’t pay what the coastal agencies do — that we are losing our deputies to — but if I can at least halfway bridge the gap, from currently losing two deputies per month to one per month, that will be a considerable cost savings to the taxpayers of the county and to the agency.”

According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Annual Criminal Justice Agency Profile Report from the 2015 year, with the exception of Highlands County Sheriff’s Office, Polk, Osceola, Indian River, St. Lucie, Martin and Glades County sheriff’s offices all paid their deputies more than Okeechobee. In 2017, Highlands County surpassed Okeechobee, which has maintained a steady $34,000 entry salary.

At the meeting, Sheriff Stephen’s slide show presentation highlighted the four challenges his agency is currently facing in aspects of hiring, employee retention, quality law enforcement personnel and return on investment of new-hire training. The presentation included causation factors in acknowledgment of the current problem the agency faces, noting starting salary differences, the unattractive aspects of the profession, Florida legislation mandating all law enforcement officer organizations increase their presence in the schools, larger agencies that are in close geographical proximity targeting the experienced employees of smaller agencies, and the value of the training and time the taxpayers have put into each employee who leaves for another agency.

By comparison, OCSO has a starting salary of $34,000. The average starting salary from the surrounding coastal agencies that are competing for applicants in the job pool is $45,981 with various attractive incentive, bonus and benefits packages. Excluding the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, the average salary is $42,264. Law enforcement’s unattractiveness to the population according to the presentation is threefold, with negative media portrayals, high mortality rate in the profession and the availability of other, less stressful means of employment.

The presentation by the sheriff also listed training costs. All certified employees are required (at a minimum) to complete 40 hours of continuing education every four years. This minimum does not contribute to their expanse of knowledge but rather their continued proficiency in the basic skills as required by the FDLE. This averages to a cost of $324 per year per employee ($35,640 for 110 employees per year). With the average of the initial training cost at $25,866, yearly minimum training cost of $324 over a threeyear period, and including the base salary of $34,000, the total investment equals $42,946 per year in a new hire employee, excluding benefit package. Every time an employee is lost to another agency after three years of experience for an average of an $8,264 increase in salary, the taxpayers of the county lose $128,838.

Of the 40 nonsupervisor road patrol deputies, 20 have less than a year of experience.

Sheriff Stephen reiterated: “Bridging the gap, I feel, will be cost-effective to the taxpayers and beneficial to the sheriff’s office. By offering an additional $6,000 to our new hires, it will make us competitve with the adjacent counties that our deputies are leaving for. I feel in the long run our sheriff’s office will run more efficiently, effectively and economically.”

Sheriff Stephen explained: “We’re operating as reactive, not proactive. The two CAT operatives will allow us to target high crime areas where burglaries, vandalism, thefts, and traffic violations are reported to occur. The addition of these two positions will benefit our regular shift deputies to for them to be able to answer calls and allow them to be proactive in their duties. If we don’t add to our numbers as the community grows, we are becoming reactive everyday. We know who the burglars are but we don’t have the time to catch them, we know who the dopers are but we don’t have the time to isolate them unless there is an operation conducted on them.”

Mack Whorley addressed Sheriff Stephen, stating: “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. I appreciate every person in here, the problem we have is that there is not enough tax base to pay for the services the people demand. Our problem is we have too many people paying too few taxes. We made a decision several years ago to do away with impact fees. That alone tells me that we are not planning for growth. An impact fee is a tax that somebody who is making the impact pays 25 percent of; because we are afraid we can’t get people to move here they did away with impact fees, and that’s a source that could help you. We’ve got to make better decisions. Noel, it sounds like you did a lot of hard work to get these numbers right, and I appreciate it. I’ve got the same thing in my business of trying to hire good people wehn someone else is able to pay them more money. It’s a tough situation to be in, but often times at my home I’ve had to say, ‘Honey, we just don’t have the money,’ so you might be hearing that.”

Okeechobee City Administrator Montes De Oca commented: “In this community we all work together, and I know everyone will continue to do the best we can. I appreciate the sheriff publicly going over his challenges. The pay gap for the coastal communities continues to grow, and we need to stay relevant while minding our taxpayers’ dollars.”

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