Sheriff Brad Steube wants his staff to expand with growing population.
It might have sounded strange, but Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh was making her point.
“The problem is that Lakewood Ranch has the lowest crime rate of anywhere in Manatee County,” she said. “But it doesn’t mean it will always stay that way.”
Baugh was explaining why Manatee County hasn’t funded an expansion of Sheriff’s Office deputies so it would have greater numbers to patrol the North District, which includes everything east of I-75 to the DeSoto county line and everything north of the Upper Manatee River.
That’s a huge area. Driving the peripheral edges of the zone is more than 150 miles around.
The Sheriff’s Office divides Manatee County into three districts, West, East and North.
Each district is divided into eight zones, with one squad per zone. Each squad has a lieutenant, a sergeant and six to
eight deputies to cover the zone. Only one or two deputies are on active patrol in the North zone at any given time, depending on the shift.
“If one is sick, you’re down to five,” said Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube. “Maybe one’s on vacation, then you’re down to four.”
Fortunately for the department, the North district accounts for about 7% of the county’s total crimes. However, presence has been an issue.
A string of vehicle burglaries occurred in Greenbrook and Parrish the past few months, and while most occurred because the burglar found unlocked cars and had easy access, more patrols might have helped prevent the problem.
“It’s tough to feel that short-handed,” said Capt. Robert Mealy, who is in charge of the North district. “Some days we’re going call to call and can’t have the luxury of doing a real patrol.”
Mealy is concerned the lack of manpower to respond to a growing community will result in a longer response time. The Sheriff’s Office, throughout the entire county, gets about 1,000 calls for service a day, and while the North district may not be the biggest contributor to those calls, the more people who live out east the more calls will come from the area.
“The Sheriff’s Office needs to grow with the community,” he said.
The Lakewood Ranch area is expanding rapidly but since the economy slumped in 2008, the number of Sheriff’s Office deputies hasn’t grown in proportion with it.
When the recession hit in 2008, the Sheriff’s Office had to cut $5 million out of the annual budget.
“A majority of my budget is people,” Steube said.
Every year since 2008, Steube has asked the county to fund more deputies. Some years, he has added staff for the jail at Port Manatee, but he hasn’t hired additional deputies to patrol.
In the 2014-2015 budget year, Steube hired two new deputies, but they were grant-funded. He also hired two school resource officers, which were half-funded by the Manatee County School District. Those additions helped.
In the 2016 budget year, he asked for 12 new deputies to deal with the population increase but didn’t get the funds. The Sheriff’s Office budget was $118,271,464 in 2016 and the projected 2017 budget is lower at $115,246,309.
However, that 2017 budget figure is more than $9 million greater than 2012.
“He’s gotten increases in his budget, but what he chooses to do with it is up to him,” Baugh said.
Baugh said she pushed to get more funding for law enforcement last year, but most of the county’s commissioners focused on funding indigent health care, which they deemed a more pressing issue.
As Baugh said, the low crime rate in East County doesn’t scream for more deputies.
That doesn’t mean county officials don’t recognize the need with the population booming. The Sheriff’s Office just opened a new station on State Road 64 near Interstate 75 and will have quicker access to the Lakewood Ranch area.
The former substation on U.S. 301 in Ellenton was closed.
Steube said he has dreamed of being able to hire enough deputies to open a new zone that would alleviate some of the strain on patrol units that service the North district.
That isn’t possible at the moment.
The Sheriff’s has offered overtime shifts to deputies to patrol adequately, but it isn’t enough.
Some of those developments in east Manatee County have taken action. Communities like Waterlefe, Heritage Harbour and GreyHawk have hired off-duty deputies to patrol the neighborhoods.
In Waterlefe, the community has held an agreement with the Sheriff’s Office for almost five years to send off-duty deputies to patrol the neighborhood for a specific number of hours a month. They never come at the same time or day of the week to keep it random, said Ken Bumgarner, chairman of the Community Development District.
The deputies monitor speeding and stop sign violations, as well as survey the area for general suspicious activity.
“They do a very good job, they’re very helpful to us,” Bumgarner said.
Bumgarner said Waterlefe decided to hire those off-duty deputies to increase law enforcement presence within the community, just as a preventative, proactive measure.
“Our county is growing and our Sheriff’s Office is not keeping up with that,” Mealy said.
Even when the county gets a Sheriff’s Office position to fill, it can be tough finding qualified personnel. Adjacent counties pay more.
As the county gets ready to launch its budget cycle, Baugh said the needs of the Sheriff’s Office will remain a priority for her.
“As long as we’re growing, we’ll need more deputies,” she said. “We need to look to (the Sheriff’s) expertise for guidance for what we need.”