There’s a new city manager in town.
And this city manager–Matt Morton, who took over in Palm Coast in April–is challenging Sheriff Rick Staly’s second request for additional cops in three years at a time of record low crime, including a 22 percent drop in crime just last year.
Morton wants such requests to be based on more analytical evidence. It is the first time in memory that a local city or county manager is predicating such requests on evidence beyond officer-to-population ratios and growth figures, such as increases in calls for service, two metrics central to the sheriff’s request, or more general rationales such as keeping the low-crime momentum going. “It is not time to take the foot off the gas,” the sheriff has said. “We can’t lose our gains that have been significant.”
That’s fine, Morton said, commending the sheriff for the crime drop. “But it’s just as logical a conclusion to say, it’s a statistical anomaly that crime went down 22 percent if we’re not peak staffed,” he said. “How else do we explain it? Are you telling me that we’re doing 122 percent of the workload with 60 percent of staff? So I think understanding that from a workload analysis is where I’d like to get eventually.”
Staly is requesting six additional deputies to add to the city’s contract for 28 sworn deputies for “enhanced” policing in the city, or what would be a roughly $660,000 increase to the $3.5 million budgeted for law enforcement, a 20 percent increase. Population and calls for service have grown, but not nearly at that pace.
Morton did not include the increase in the budget he submitted to the council. No council member proposed altering the budget, even though some council members were open to accommodating the sheriff by adding at least some of the deputies he’s requesting. Staly being out of town on Tuesday–he was teaching at the Sheriff’s Association’s Commander’s Academy–the sheriff’s Chief Mark Strobridge made a pitch for the increase before the city council. The pitch included a discussion of officer-to-population ratios. If applied at 2 officers per 1,000 population–the ratio Strobridge said the sheriff favors–the ratio calls for Palm Coast to have 146 deputies. Between those it already has and those assigned to the city outside of the contract, Strobridge said it would need “40 more” to be near the target, citing ratios recommended by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Morton did not speak during Strobridge’s presentation. That evening, Morton sent an email to council members explaining his rationale and attaching documentation–an academic paper outlining the shortcomings of various metrics, including ratios, and citing the same international association itself describing such ratios as “totally inappropriate as a basis for staffing decisions.” Another document, by ICMA, was titled “5 Myths About Police Metrics.”
Morton told council members he was basing his approach on his experience as a manager of police departments in Washington State for a decade and a half, where he managed smaller cities. “No uniform benchmark exists to ever know how [many] officers per 1,000 achieves optimal public safety in any city in the United States, let alone Palm Coast,” he wrote council members. “Our case in point is that the Sheriff tells us call volume is up, yet crime is historically down (22%). This shouldn’t be happening if the number of officers per 1000 is a definitive or reliable metric for staffing.” He also questioned reliance on calls for service, as “not all calls are created equally.”
“I believe until we see a comprehensive, data driven workload analysis, we will always be open to the argument that there are not enough resources allocated to Law Enforcement and it will be hard to find a reliable baseline for ongoing resource allocation,” he concluded.
In response, Strobridge emailed council members to quote Morton’s own documentation, which says in part that “‘Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted method for conducting a workload-based assessment,’ which,” Strobridge went on, “is what he now requests of us.”
The line Strobridge quoted is accurate, but incomplete. “Even with shortcomings,” the same paper notes further on, “allocation models based on workload and performance objectives are preferable to other methods that might not account for environmental and agency-specific variables.”
In a pair of separate, 40-minute interviews Wednesday, Morton and Strobridge detailed their approach.
“The sheriff and I have a mutual goal: ensuring we have an appropriate number of law enforcement resources dedicated to keep our community safe, and keep crime in check, all those good things,” Morton said. “We share the goal. So for me, being a data-driven guy, which is kind of the bent I come from, OK, how do I get beyond the anecdotal events, how do I get beyond the stories and all the anecdotes or the feel-good stories or the one-offs, and how do you get your head around–just like you do with everything else we do–if I’m going to pave roads, I can tell you how much asphalt is going to cost, I can tell you how many miles I can do with the dollars. I have a performance based measurement.”
Morton is proposing that the sheriff conduct a one-year study of all dispatch activities (through the computer-assisted dispatching system, or CAD), analyzing the what, where, when, why and how of manpower usage. The approach was developed by the International City/County Management Association’s Center for Public Safety Management to arrive at a more evidence-based method of deciding what staffing is needed.
“That’s just one metric out of a multitude of metrics,” Strobridge said. “And how many workforce studies were done for those other positions that he’s put into the budget for this past year. There’s other new positions within the organization, and how many other–and they’re all non-public safety, for the most part. There’s one over in fire–was there a valid workforce study?” In fact, Morton spoke of doing just that: “That is how I approach things, again, whenever I can. Do we do it wholesale, 100 percent of the time? No,” he said, before describing at length the revamp of his budget that led to reallocations and staffing decisions.
New in town, Morton is fully aware that he is “poking the bear,” in his own words, by questioning a sheriff who can be prickly when challenged (“his biggest police department has been a rinky-dink police department,” Staly said in an interview late Wednesday evening). But he’s not picking a fight, he said, nor is he looking to lead Palm Coast in the direction of its own police department.
“We don’t want a police department. We value what the sheriff brings to the table for a lot of reasons and we’re happy to partner with the sheriff like we do now on an expanded level,” Morton said. “We just need to know, and they should want to know, the county should want to know, the county sheriff should want to know, are we appropriately deployed, are we appropriately staffed, are we assigning enough resources, and if not, then that’s the basis for an adjustment. Not this nebulous–well, we think, like Mark said yesterday, I was shocked, ‘we think 40 more officers will do it.’ Wow. Wherever do you pull that number from? How are we arriving at that conclusion?”
“Right now it is prickly. We may be hiding or obfuscating that it’s prickly. But it’s uncomfortable, right? It’s got to be uncomfortable for the county, it’s got to be uncomfortable for the sheriff,” Morton continued. “Not trying to pick a fight, what I’m saying is, if Sheriff Staly believes that he is that undercapitalized and that perpetually over the arc of time even predating him, that the sheriff’s been underfunded, let’s get to that definitive benchmark, let’s come together as a county, a city, a sheriff’s department, all of us together. If he doesn’t like this idea, fantastic. Let’s figure out how we get to that baseline data that we all need to know what direction, what levels, how fast, how slow, left, right. We need to move to make sure we’re getting this done right.”
To Strobridge, the baseline data and the analyses are in place.
“I’m not saying that I disagree with some of the things that he’s saying,” Strobridge said. “I’m saying we have got to look at the totality of the circumstances and where we’re going. The idea in and of itself that growth does not equal increased requirements is ridiculous. If you have increased access to your parks, you have got to clean them more often. It takes more workload to do that. That’s just an automatic. It’s silly to think that growth does not equal increased services in any community. If that were the case, they wouldn’t have to hire people to do economic development, they wouldn’t have to hire people to do these other things.” He added: “The only metric that you have to base it on today is growth, and that’s not a bad metric to base it on.”
The sheriff’s office isn’t opposed to a long-range study that may parallel Morton’s approach, Strobridge said, with some caveats. The workforce study would be necessary “for the entire community,” Strobridge said. “This should not be a comprehensive plan just for the city of Palm Coast. This should be a plan for law enforcement services in the unincorporated areas of Flagler County as well as the city of Palm Coast.” But, he said, the sheriff’s current request is to stay ahead of growth’s demands. “This kind of study does not get done overnight, and we will already be behind, as we are today, if we don’t move forward. There’s a time to do that type of plan, but not at the cost of not funding what is necessary to do the job.”
Other caveats: Workload, mandatory staffing levels and union contracts impose certain limitations–such as 12-hour shifts. Changes in contract are possible, but difficult. “All the things that he spoke to you about are good things,” Strobridge said, “but we have contractual limitations that won’t allow for some of those things to change, because they have financial impacts to the individuals.”
As the sheriff spoke of an incident developing in Palm Coast’s R Section late Wednesday night, he enumerated the more than a dozen units called to the scene and spoke of the deployment as an illustration of how such incidents can strain the agency, with four calls for service at the time lined up and waiting for a response because of the concentrated action in the R Section. That action soon ended, with a search for two auto theft suspects ended in favor of a different “tactic,” the sheriff said.
Staly said he’d spoken individually to four of the five council members (the mayor, who’s been at her daughter’s bedside in a hospital, did not return his calls) and all four had given him the impression that they’d be willing to consider the addition of three or four deputies if six weren’t possible. At Tuesday’s meeting, Council member Eddie Branquinho, a retired cop, was leaning that way, Jack Howell seemed sympathetic as well, asking what it would cost to fund three positions, but Nick Klufas and Bob Cuff did not say they’d go that route. (Mayor Milissa Holland was absent.)
Klufas didn’t return a call before this story initially published Thursday. Cuff in an interview today said he recalled speaking with the sheriff on Monday, and of his support, but not of putting any kind of number of what he would support, if he would. Rather, he reiterated his skepticism. “His request didn’t really provide any more detail other than we need six more deputies, and that’s because the population is growing and because we’re still understaffed compared to other agencies,” Cuff said, “which to me–I assume there’s more to the story than that, but that’s pretty much what we were given. I’m not against him having more deputies, but even with the increase in property values, that doesn’t mean we have free money floating around.”
Cuff, too, is very skeptical of basing deputy additions on ratios. “I’m open to suggestions,” Cuff said, but the lack of detail gives him pause. “I’d like to have something a little more than ‘give us six deputies this year, we won’t ask you for more deputies next year.’ I’d rather have a longer range plan if everybody agrees we’re going to need more staffing from the sheriff’s office.”
It’s not clear if the debate is over. The sheriff made his request. The council did not make a move to amend the budget. Morton is standing by his approach, and will continue to “push back just on the number because I don’t want to just keep throwing millions of dollars in additional officers,” Morton said. “Personally I don’t believe in ratios. That would be my starting point.” Beyond that, “just like I do with every other base allocation that we do, there’s got to be: what is our performance measure.”
From Strobridge’s perspective, “there is no more discussion to be had unless they ask for additional information,” he said. “The decision now lies with the city council. I brought forth information based on my experience and training, workload, growth and other factors that developing this power squad would be a great benefit to the continued reduction of crime in the city of Palm Coast. Now the decision lies with the city council. This is not us against the city manager. I respect his opinion and I would love to engage in a comprehensive growth plan to provide public safety services to the community.”
If nothing else, Morton’s approach has made that much clear: that all sides are aware of a much-needed comprehensive plan–and that the city manager will treat the sheriff’s contract the same way he does any other contract with the city, or any department within the city.
Does Morton feel confident of having the council behind him on his approach with the sheriff? “No,” he said without hesitation. “I have stated my position to council and said from where I sit today, recognizing that this could not be well received, as your manager, trying to do my job ethically, just like Rick is trying to do his job to the best of his ability ethically, I’m just saying this is my position, and that’s how I hope I always do my job, is come to the table with good information, the best informed decision I can make.”