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East County Wednesday, Jun. 22, 2011 6 years ago

Our View: Safety is the priority


Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube made a persuasive case last week for increased spending, and it appears a majority of Manatee County commissioners are inclined to listen. So are we.

After more than an hour of facts on rising crime, declining response times and losing deputies to surrounding law enforcement officers, not one commissioner openly opposed budgeting the sheriff more money — about $2 million more — to hire 10 more deputies and 10 more jail guards.

The debate instead mostly centered on whether it should be by squeezing other parts of the budget or by raising property taxes. But no one wanted to say no.

It’s easy to see why.

Steube and Comptroller Tom Salisbury painted a compelling picture of a sheriff’s office in critical need as resources and deputies have declined while crime and population have increased. Maybe the most compelling data from Steube are the numbers showing rising crime with falling positions, resulting in slower response time and almost no regular patrols.

Calls for service in Manatee County have increased 18% since 2008, and arrests have risen 8% in that time. But the department has cut 62 positions in the same years. And those are not just bodies. A lot of experience has retired or gone to other agencies, including one captain, six lieutenants, four sergeants and 12 deputies.

Steube says in recent years he has lost deputies to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the Tampa Police Department, the U.S. Air Marshall’s Service and the U.S. State Department.

A deputy who started with the department four years ago made $39,689. Today, that deputy makes the same amount — the same as the new hires that he or she is training. “There is something fundamentally wrong about that,” Steube said.

The results are beginning to show in the crime rate. In 2007, the Sheriff’s Office began an offensive against a multiplying gang problem using RICO investigations and more street and mid-level drug work. The result was a 16% decrease in crime. The decreases have been less and less, however, and the last few months have shown the first increases in crime statistics.

At the jail, the situation is as bad. When the new county jail opened in 1995, the Florida Department of Corrections told the county it needed 217 corrections deputies for the 992 beds. Since then, the jail expanded to 1,780 beds while the number of corrections officers has fallen to 215.

“I’m in trouble. I need your help,” Steube put it bluntly to commissioners.

Manatee commissioners seemed to get it. Some commissioners, such as Joe McClash, favor increasing the property tax rate to give the department 20 more deputies and a 3% pay raise. Other commissioners, such as Robin DiSabatino and Donna Hayes, favor putting the question of a property-tax increase to voters. But that would not happen until November 2012, meaning the real impact, if passed, would be two years off.

Commissioners need to make this decision without waiting to hide behind voters in a referendum. Perhaps a 3% pay raise is too much. But even 1% or 1.5% — when no other county employees are getting increases — plus the one-time $1,000 bonus that all are getting, would go a long way toward bumping morale in a department of the county where morale is critical.

This can and should be accomplished without raising property taxes. It is about recognizing government’s priorities.

When the sheriff and his department are in trouble, the entire community is at risk. Public safety is the easiest, most obvious role of government. It is more important than parks, libraries, economic development, affordable housing, baseball stadiums, public entertainment venues, boat launches, mass transit, code enforcement, community centers, environmental lands, tree protection, lawn-mowing, pest management, nature trails, recreation, public television, visitors and convention bureaus and so on.

It’s not that some of those things aren’t important, but if commissioners are wondering where they can possibly cut to find the money for deputies without raising taxes, the above list is a start. Yes, they have been cutting for several years. But raising taxes is not the solution. Prioritizing is. Government at all levels continues to try to do too much, and this continues to be the time to fund the necessities and cut the non-necessities.

Where do you stand: Should Manatee County’s property-tax rate be increased to pay for more sheriff’s deputies and raises for existing deputies? Or should the County Commission cut other expenses?
Send your comments to Rod Thomson, [email protected].


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