“We are asking the city to fund six additional deputies,” Flagler County Sheriff’s Chief Mark Strobridge told the Palm Coast City Council this morning. Strobridge’s appearance was made necessary by resistance, so far, from the city to go along: after enthusiastically agreeing to increase the number of deputies contracted by the city by five in 2017 and benefiting from a historically low crime rate, the city has other priorities.
By the time the council approved its tentative tax rate for next year, it adopted the rate recommended by the city administration, the same rate in effect today. It’s a tax increase, because thanks to property values rising by 9 percent in the city, revenue will increase by more than $2 million. But all the increase is spoken for, with the city adding almost 10 positions in various departments. If the city were to approve adding even one additional deputy, it would have to cut something else in its current budget.
The city’s current contract for law enforcement services with the sheriff’s office calls for 28 deputies, including a school resource deputy, two corporals, three sergeants and a commander. The city paid the sheriff’s office $2.7 million in 2016 and the same amount in 2017. The bill went up to $3.34 million in 2018, when the city agreed to the addition of five deputies assigned to a traffic unit. In 2019, the contract called for a $167,000 increase, and a similar increase for the coming year, but no additional deputies.
The new deputies would be assigned to what the sheriff’s office is calling a “power shift,” a squad that would work during peak service hours. Behind the scenes, Sheriff Rick Staly has been trying to push city officials to approve his request, but with little success. The city is also declining to add to its fire department’s ranks for now.
“We’ve got to look at the whole picture,” Council member Jack Howell said this morning. “We have to prioritize big time. Stormwater, I feel we taxed the people last year to enhance the cleaning of these swales and other areas that have been an issue. But I hold law enforcement very dear, and I understand the need, there’s no question about it. But we also have to sit down and scratch our heads to figure out the prioritization.” He didn’t rule out some concession, but, he said, “we’re going to have to do some serious realignment, if we can.” He asked what it would cost if the city were capable of funding three deputies. The answer was $330,000.
Council member Eddie Branquinho, a retired cop from Newark, sought to ingratiate himself with Strobridge and law enforcement and back-handedly rebuked Howell’s comment about responsibility for swales. In between having a little water coming into my house and a thief coming into my house, a robber coming into my house, I’d rather have the water, to be honest with you,” he said. “So without going to raise taxes, I’m going to have a meeting with the city manager if he allows me that time, and go for as much as we can to help the sheriff, you could count on me 100 percent.” But he said he’d go that route “as long as we don’t go crazy and don’t raise taxes.”
Council member Nick Klufas, who was chairing the meeting–Mayor Milissa Holland was absent due to her daughter’s illness–was curious about one-time technological spending the city could provide as opposed to permanent additions to staff, such as helping the sheriff with a planned real-time crime-fighting unit.
“We’re facilities-challenged,” Strobridge said. That’s hampered the agency’s ability to develop a “real-time crime center,” which would enable deputies and detectives to work on existing technology to address a crime potentially as it is developing.
Council member Bob Cuff challenged Strobridge with a different kind of skepticism: “Promising us if we give him six now he won’t ask for [any more],” Cuff said, “that’s a little bit like you give me a puppy this year and I won;t ask for anything for my birthday.” He asked what the final number would be if the city were to be at the ratio the sheriff is looking for.
Strobridge said a rough number would be “40 more people.” That’s based on recommended ratios by law enforcement associations. The city is at 1.62 per 1,000 resident, compared to an Association of Chiefs of Police recommendation of 2.5 per 1,000, an average of 2.28 per 1,000 in the state, and more than 3 per 1,000 in Bunnell and Flagler Beach. “The sheriff’s goal,” Strobriudge said, “is to get us to about 2 per 1,000.”
The city’s population is verging on 90,000. That would mean a corps of 45 deputies–20 more than in the current contract (or an additional cost of $2.2 million).
“My concern is that the sheriff has what he needs to keep the community safe and be an effective force,” Cuff told Strobridge. (The sheriff was at a conference out of town.) “But the five deputies last year, six deputies this year, ‘I won’t ask any more next year but that means I’m going to need 10 more the following year.’ You know, unlike some money we spend, every deputy that gets added to our contract is essentially an eternal expense. I can;t see any city council member voting to cut the number of deputies in the sheriff’s contract any time in the future. So I’d be very interested to see what the comprehensive plan with the county and what the projections are. ”
The sheriff has also been seeking additional staffing from the county. The sheriff’s request from the county includes three additional deputies and three support personnel–two in the 911 center and one evidence technician. (144,000 calls came into 911 last year, the majority from Palm Coast.) Strobridge spoke of the “heavy” county investment in a new operations center to be built in Palm Coast, at a cost of between $12 to $15 million. The sheriff’s office sees that project as a benefit to the city, and wants the city to do its part in return. That part would be funding more deputies. He dropped a hint about what would happen if the city were to go off on its own, without the sheriff providing contracted services: “The county does not have to provide services within the city limits,” he said, citing a 1984 Supreme Court decision.
“Crime reduction is not yet crime elimination,” Strobridge said, “and I’m quoting the sheriff by saying it is not time to take the foot off the gas. We can’t lose our gains that have been significant.”
He spoke of the surplus generated by the current budget cycle, and without asking for an increase in taxes (which the city is (proposing anyway) he said the city should consider applying some of its expected revenue increase to the sheriff’s request. “If there’s an opportunity to fund three or four of those positions with any potential surplus, the city has, it would help us to maintain the momentum.”
But when the council got around to discussing–and approving–its proposed property tax rate, the sheriff’s matter did not come up. By the time it approves the budget at a pair of hearings in September (the first is on Sept. 4), it may lower the property tax rate, but it may not set it higher than the number it chose today–$4.6989 per $1,000 in taxable value, or $587 for a house valued at $175,000, with a $50,000 homestead exemption.