Observed: Setting policy through numbers

 

Observed: Setting policy through numbers

 

Date: September 19, 2012
by: Pam Eubanks | Managing Editor

 
 

 

They had tied their hands, and I still can’t figure out why.

The good news is the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners is working to resolve its oversight.
At the 2013 fiscal year budget adoption hearing Sept. 13, commissioners squirmed in their seats after learning how dire salary issues at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office had become.

I’ve spoken to the Sheriff Brad Steube several times on the issue over the last few years. Each time, his message has been the same: He is doing more with less. He’s losing experienced deputies to higher-paying jobs. It costs more to hire and train new deputies than to increase the salaries of the old ones. Because of a freeze on raises, salary compression — long-term employees making slightly more or the same as their more-recently hired peers — has been exacerbated.

The list of funding-related issues goes on.

But, the bottom line is that the sheriff needs more money to keep seasoned professionals in his organization and to make sure his employees are paid fairly.

This year he didn’t ask for a tax increase, he asked the commission to address his need — by whatever means necessary.

In July, commissioners set the millage rate at 6.2993, about 3% below the rollback rate, or the tax level needed to collect the same amount in property taxes as last year.

With that vote, they put a cap on their options, because at the final budget hearing the board can reduce millage rates, but they cannot increase them.

It would have cost the average homeowner $11 annually for a home valued at $150,000. Instead, commissioners chose to eliminate the option that would generate $4 million without impacting county reserves or raising taxes, technically.

As I watched deputy after deputy from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office beg the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners to protect their benefits and correct salary-compression issues, I gained new perspective about the realities of what Sheriff Steube has told me for years.

All the commissioners — although concerned about fairness to the county’s other employees, who still will be getting a 3% increase this year — also seemed to get it, except for Commissioner Donna Hayes.

Hayes’ response was: “We do not micromanage. We are policy-makers. I’m really glad the sheriff heard it, so he can work it out in his budget. You’ll need to speak to the sheriff about this.”

The remark drew gasps and grumbles from the audience, as well as sharp remarks from the sheriff at the end of the meeting.

As Hayes said, it is the board that sets policy.

The board also controls the budget, so Sheriff Steube can ask for a millage increase or whatever he wants but, ultimately, the County Commission decides whether he can have it.

It’s the commission’s policy decision that affects the final numbers and the outcome for its employees.

And, up until this point, the commission has told the sheriff, “no.”

I think last Thursday the board got a much better understanding of how pay freezes and other factors truly were affecting its employees, and now it can make policy decisions to address those issues, for the sheriff’s office and for other departments.

Although the county may have to dip into much-needed reserves to pay for the proposed wage increases at the sheriff’s office, I’m glad to see for the remaining commissioners, the “do we, don’t we” mentality I saw before as they debated millage increases and other options quickly converted into, “We have to do something to fix this.”

Sheriff Steube made salary issues a top priority, even in an election year. He has lobbied the commission time and time again on his employees’ behalf.

As one deputy said: “The only reason people, like myself, have not left is because of Sheriff Steube.”
He got a room full of applause.

I commend the sheriff for sticking out his neck for his employees, for being persistent and seeing this battle through, although there still will be challenges ahead.

And I commend his staff, too, for helping to paint a picture that others were not able to see before. They made the difference.

Send your letter to the editor, community events or story ideas to Pam Eubanks at peubanks@yourobserver.com.

 

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