Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly and County Administrator Heidi Petito dueled in front of a standing-room-only meeting room Monday night over the sheriff’s claim that the county was underfunding him, and the county’s counter that it has increased the sheriff’s budget by 48 percent since 2018, not including spending on facilities like the new Sheriff’s Operations center. But in the end, Petito’s bosses showed readiness to go Staly’s way.
Staly mobilized deputies, other sheriff’s employees and their families to pack the meeting room in a show of force to buttress his appearance before the County Commission and his explicit request to the commission to direct Petito to comply with his request, going along with a set of his proposals to close a $1.3 million gap in his favor.
“Your county administrator is following your direction. And your direction right now is this stupid formula,” Staly told commissioners, referring toa funding formula that divides money between constitutional officers, and that he calls flawed. “And without you directing the county administrator and our staff to throw that formula out the window and be able to negotiate, her hands are handcuffed. I get it.”
But Petito had forcefully pushed back against the sheriff’s interpretation, leaving it to commissioners to decide whether they would take her side or the sheriff’s, a gambit she is almost certain to lose: none of the commissioners, especially the two running for re-election–Greg Hansen and Joe Mullins–want to look like anything less than the sheriff’s biggest fans.
Joe Mullins, the commission chairman, again Monday evening faced several calls from the public to be removed from that position in part because of his recently documented instances of disrespect toward law enforcement. Fellow commissioners, as always, were tin-eared. He chaired the meeting, if far more grimly than usual. He attempted to toady to the sheriff by getting a consensus from the commission that what the sheriff asks, the sheriff will get. Other commissioners didn’t go that far, even as they signaled unwillingness to oppose the sheriff’s request.
“We just got to figure it out,” Commissioner Donald O’Brien said. Commissioner Dave Sullivan said he was leaving open the possibility of staying with the current property tax rate (of $8.4462 per $1,000 in taxable value) rather than lowering the tax rate a few notches, as the commission was inclined to do.
But there was no consensus to override Petito just yet. “We’ve got a workshop coming up,” Commissioner Andy Dance said of the Aug. 24 workshop on the sheriff’s budget–timed, on purpose, a day after the primary election in an attempt to de-politicize the discussion. “And so all this just needs to be taken in and evaluated. So I appreciate the presentation.”
Underscoring what he sees as poor communication from the county, Staly wryly said he only learned from an article earlier that day “that you have a workshop because quite frankly, we were told there was not going to be a workshop in August, which is why I’m here tonight.” There was a smattering of applause, one of the three or four times Staly was applauded as he walked up to the podium or as he spoke (including by Dance and Commissioner Hansen). Mullins never dared invoke the usual commission rule against applause during formal proceedings. He didn’t even rebuke a member of the audience later who piped up, out of order, during commission discussions, revealing how inconsistent the chairmanship can be, depending on who’s in the audience.
The sheriff’s police union had distributed t-shirts before the meeting, and hundreds of sheriff’s employees and supporters filled every seat and crowded the back of the room, spilling into the hallway, as Staly walked up to speak near the beginning of the meeting.
He began by summing up the agency’s achievements and challenges: Crime down 54 percent, calls for service up 8,000 year over year (for a total of 118,000, though just 997 of them were related to crimes). There were 2,777 arrests in 2021, short of the 2018 peak of 3,056, including Baker Acts, which are not considered arrests but are categorized as such on a deputy’s log, considering the time they consume. The jail is averaging 260 inmates per night, compared to 183 in August 2018, as the county’s population continues to grow, and now grows are an accelerated pace.
Then he turned to the budget figures.
“At the beginning of the fiscal year that we’re in right now, 2022, the starting pay for Flagler County deputy sheriff was $39,570.21 not including overtime,” Staly said, “and I want to emphasize this because there has been a lot of misinformation that apparently has come to you, because when I met with you one on one, you were told–at least that’s many of you told me–that my numbers include overtime. They do not include overtime.” That compares with starting salaries for law enforcement officers of between $46,000 and $51,000 at neighboring agencies–Daytona Beach police, St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, Putnam and Volusia County sheriff’s offices.
“So what I had to do was cut off the first five steps of our pay plan so that I could get my starting pay of $46,541,” he said. The step plan is essentially the way an employee’s pay increases each year, in “steps.” So by eliminating the first five years’ steps, a deputy would see no increases in those five years, but would start from a higher pay. “Still low but at least it’s a little closer to being competitive to the agencies around us. We couldn’t wait any longer to raise the starting salaries. And quite frankly, it wasn’t a fair way to do it to our existing employees.” The agency lost 20 deputies and professional employees left the agency ion the past 18 months.
He then cited the way the county raised its firefighters’ pay to what he said was a starting salary of around $51,000, a description and an amount Petito called inaccurate. Firefighters’ pay was increased, she said, but through protracted negotiations with the firefighters’ union, not through merely a sudden budget transfer that the commission approved. “The entry level firefighter EMT had a starting salary of $41,005,” Petito said, “So that’s roughly about $4,000 below your entry level deputy. We do have other positions within the fire department that do pay a little bit more than the entry level. But those salaries are based on the additional level of experience and education needed for those advanced certifications.”
Staly also outlined budget difficulties stemming from fuel price increases, additional costs for inmate meals and health care, employees’ Florida Retirement System contributions (a $430,000 increase), employees’ health care, and his request for five additional deputies, at a cost of $600,000. The sheriff is pulling out of the county’s self-insurance plan, in favoir of “better rates and a better plan” at lower costs.
He reserved his sharpest criticism for the funding formula through which the county parcels out dollars among the five constitutional officers–the sheriff, the tax collector, the property appraiser, the clerk of court and the supervisor of elections. Staly blamed “the previous county administrator,” meaning Jerry Cameron, for the formula’s flaws, which he said was not based on just numbers since it excluded $3 million in revenue from a local sales surtax. The formula, he said, currently gives the sheriff’s office a 30 percent share of any new tax revenue, almost half the share in Putnam County. He asked the commission to throw out the formula.
“So right now we’re about $1.3 million apart if the millage rate remains the same as it is today,” he said. He made the following proposal “to avoid an appeal to the governor and cabinet”: defer the request for five additional deputies to fiscal year 2024, reducing the difference by $600,000. Reduce his request for an inflation (or cost of living) raise of 7.5 percent to 6.5 percent, but take the money from that “saving” and apply it to salary raises to all deputies and 911 dispatchers in the form of an across-the-board $2,000 increase. That would bring starting deputies’ pay to $49,700, before overtime.
He is also asking for an increased appropriation of $700,000 in addition to the existing formula. “And I’ll tell you where the money is. The [County Commission] received an additional $1.54 million unexpected increase when their property valuation was finalized. Where did it go?” He also wants to exempt the Sheriff’s Office from the paying the consequences of any property tax rate reduction. Put another way: if a property tax rate reduction reduced expected revenue, the county would have to subsidize the difference in the sheriff’s budget.
When Staly was done, Petito, sitting at the side desk where she usually sits, responded to the sheriff’s claims point by point, calmly, as always, but with an evident undertow of exasperation, if not fury. “It is my responsibility as the county administrator to ensure that our board as well as the public has accurate information,” Petito said. She first corrected the record on firefighters’ pay, citing what she said was inaccurate information disseminated in internal emails at the Sheriff’s Office through emails mobilizing the troops for Monda’s meeting.
“Number two, the email that had gone out claimed that the board’s budget actions have denied a pay increase for sheriff’s personnel,” Petito continued. “This is simply not accurate. Through the board. we provide lump sums for law enforcement, inmate facility and bailiffs which are used at the courthouse. It is up to the sheriff’s discretion on how he chooses to pay his employees or the benefits that he negotiates through their collective bargaining agreement.”
“Number three, the email was also you know, again urging the community to come out due to the county denying their pay increases. That is not a decision that the board has made or a decision that the board can make we simply receive a proposed budget without any significant detail,” Petito said. “There is no detail as far as how many positions or how much how much the salaries are. And it is not our position, nor has it ever been our position to modify, amend or decrease at that line item or sub object level. We don’t simply do that we can’t.” She cited $2 million the county still pays in support services for the sheriff, from fleet maintenance to facilities maintenance to utilities–costs that don’t appear on the sheriff’s side of the ledger.
Petito had come prepared with a presentation of her own. She displayed a bar graph that showed the huge increase in the sheriff’s budget from 2018 to the proposed budget for 2023–a sheriff’s budget rising from $27.8 million in 2018 to a proposed $43.4 million this year, a 56 percent increase that, by any measure, is the steepest increase–in real dollars and proportion–in the sheriff’s budget’s history. That’s the total budget, including Palm Coast’s share, which has doubled to $7.5 million in the tentative 2023 budget. (Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin was in the audience, sitting immediately behind Staly.) Excluding Palm Coast’s share, the county’s share has gone from $24.2 million in 2018 to a proposed $35.9 million, a 48 percent increase. Petito said the population increased 11 percent during the same time span.
The figures don’t include the capital projects the county has funded for the Sheriff’s Office. Those add another $42 million in spending–for the jail expansion, a substation, an evidence building, a jail camera system, and the new operations center currently under construction.
The sheriff later retorted sharply that it was the county’s responsibility “to provide adequate facilities for the sheriff. Who the hell knows what adequate definition is, but that’s what the law says, okay? So you’re required to do that. Not the sheriff.”
Petito also disputed the claim that the county administration had not been willing to negotiate. “As you know board, we’ve been attempting to work with the sheriff’s office through chief Strobridge,” Petito said, “trying to work in collaboration of an interlocal agreement that would provide a mechanism for the sheriff to recapture any unused budget from year end. And that would allow him to utilize that savings or that excess funding as part of the cash carry forward process for the following year. We have not been able to reach an agreement with the sheriff on that interlocal agreement.” The budget, she said, “is still a moving target. We do have one more workshop coming up where we can iron out these details. I’d like to thank the sheriff for his presentation tonight. This is the first time that I have actually seen their proposed methods to help close the gap. Prior to this evening, that information had not been shared with me. This gives us something to work with.”
It was only when Staly and Petito were done with their presentations that the commission discussed or rather fumbled to the next steps, threading the needle between needing to flatter the sheriff without looking like it was undermining its administrator.
“I would rather us I would rather we use the points that you made in terms of where we can close the gap,” O’Brien told the sheriff, suggesting that now that Petito had seen those numbers, perhaps a resolution could be found before the Aug. 24 workshop.
“It’s new information for the administrator,” Dance said, saying he had “all the confidence in the world that there’s something that we can do moving forward. Don’t need to negotiate here on the dias tonight. But we’ve got a few days to work on it.”