Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly is not requesting any additional deputies from Palm Coast in next year’s budget even as the population continues to increase sharply–though calls for service are not following apace.
Submitting his annual budget to the Palm Coast City Council this morning, Staly heard requests for more help with “bad drivers” and litterers to maintain quality of life, and answered an extended series of questions from a council member on the paradox between a sharply falling crime rate and a still-rising jail population.
“If you recall, last year, I made an agreement with you that I would not come back and ask for additional deputy sheriffs. So I’m keeping my commitment to you,” the sheriff told the Palm Coast City Council as he submitted his budget to the city this morning.
The city contracts with the sheriff for law enforcement services, paying $7.2 million currently for coverage that includes 48 uniformed deputies and supervisors.
The sheriff is requesting a $747,640 increase in the budget to maintain existing services, account for cost of living wage and sharply increasing retirement rates, plus the contractual increase due deputies under their union agreement, and a nearly 10 percent increase in health insurance premiums.
The current cost of a deputy sheriff, top to bottom, including benefits, equipment and training, is $142,548, though the average salary for a deputy is $53,602.
By contrast, the sheriff has requested $4.1 million and five additional deputies from the county, though those new troops will not go to road patrol, as the sheriff wishes, but rather to the jail.
The jail has a capacity for 404 inmates. It averaged 275 inmates a night last year, but that’s trending up, with occasional nights at 300 or above. Staly is predicting an average of 300 by year’s end.
Not that there won’t be requests for additional deputies in the future, continuing the sheriff’s drive to bring his ranks to parity with what he and a University of North Florida study he commissioned consider necessary levels of policing, after years of fitful additions. “We’re really playing catch up,” the sheriff said. “It’s been sporadic would be the best way to describe it, rather than a steady growth to handle the population increase.”
He underscored the lowest crime rate in a quarter century, making Palm Coast the second-safest city in the state after The Villages, with a particularly startling figure: in 2016, there were nearly 1,900 victims of crime in the county. Last year: 877. “So that’s a significant reduction and people being victimized. calls for service, however, are skyrocketing,” the sheriff said.
The “skyrocketing” is a bit of an exaggeration, going by the sheriff’s own numbers. While the graph he displayed showed the numbers jumping from 2017 to 2022, the graph’s increments made the jump look sharper than it is. In act, calls for service have increased only 2.8 percent since 2017. The Census Bureau’s latest estimate for Flagler County is a population of 126,705. In 2017, the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research had estimated the county’s population at 105,157 (and Palm Coast’s at 82,760; Palm Coast’s population increased to 98,411). That’s a 20.5 percent increase for the county, 18.9 percent for Palm Coast.
Calls for service, by contrast, are increasing at a far slower pace, the county’s demographics playing a part: older people get sicker but commit far fewer crimes: FBI arrest records show that the peak ages for criminals are 25 to 39, dropping dramatically after that, with the 60-and-over set committing half to a third fewer crime than those between 18 and 24, and a tenth or fifteenth fewer crimes than those in their peak-crime period. 85.7 percent of the population in The Villages is 65 and over. In Palm Coast, the proportion is 29.1 percent. It is 21.6 percent statewide.
Palm Coast accounts for 72 percent of service calls. But residents are very satisfied with the service: 92 percent of residents feel safe in the city, according to the city’s own 2021 survey, and 82 percent consider crime prevention either good or excellent.
City Council member Theresa Pontieri asked to what the sheriff attributed the decline in crime even as the population was increasing. “And I ask that question so that we can specifically look at what we should focus funding on and what we should encourage from our friends over at the county to encourage funding on in order to keep engaging in that proactive policing,” Pontieri said.
The sheriff attributed the success to the increasing use of technology, the Real Time Crime Center, the use of license plate readers (LPRs), and staffing that enabled a swing shift. “That’s a permanent shift that comes in seven days a week to handle where the peak volume comes in,” Staly said, “because I don’t need the same number of deputy sheriffs generally at four o’clock in the morning than I do at four o’clock in the afternoon.”
Pontieri pressed the point: why would the jail population be increasing if crime is down 54 percent?
“When they’re in the jail, they’re not committing crimes. And so that’s a piece of it,” Staly said, citing proactive policing, including numerous responses to quality-of-life matters that don’t get logged in through crime databases. “I know it sounds like, okay, crime is down. Why do you need more deputies? Well, crime is down. But we’re still answering all this other stuff, and crime is down because we’re able to apprehend them before they can do 20, 30 car burglaries. They did three, and we got them into the jail.”
Pontieri said she wasn’t questioning the need for more deputies, but “as we’re trying to anticipate budgetary needs,” she asked, “what should we look at as far as metrics go to determine what it is that your agency is going to need from us?”
Staly made reference to a joint county-city meeting in coming days on how to fund public safety–actually, an operational meeting between the Palm Coast city manager, the county administrator and Staly on July 13. The meeting is administrative, and not open to the public. He said he hopes to discuss at that meeting how to fund law enforcement based on population and calls for service.
Pontieri was formerly the Sheriff’s Office’s attorney. They did not have a happy parting in 2021, and today was the first time the two addressed each other in their official capacities at the council since Pontieri’s election last November. It isn’t unusual–it is, in fact, almost routine–for Pontieri to ask the sharpest questions from the dais, regardless of the presenter.
Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin had his own request of the sheriff: a five-year plan to “reduce bad driving” with programs the agency and the city could try together, and to “raise the awareness on littering offenses. I mean, maybe we we just make it so severe that nobody will consider doing it.” Alfin did not go full-Singapore on the proposal (litterers there face fines in the thousands of dollars and could be drafted into embarrassingly public clean-up posses). ” It’s not that I expect the sheriff to be out there, you know, with the grabbers. But together we can form initiatives to again, raise that bar on awareness and let the public know that in fact, we are listening and we do work together,” Alfin said.
“I just want to correct the mayor on one thing,” Council member Ed Danko said. “I know firsthand that if you see someone littering, you will pull them over and give them the option to go pick up the litter and put it back in their car.”
“I enjoy doing that, too,” the sheriff said.
Council member Nick Klufas embedded a subtle ask of his own in his praise: “I know it’s a contentious thing, but about electric electrification of fleet vehicles for sheriff’s operations across the country,” Klufas said, hoping for a local replica. “There’s an opportunity for the city and the county to potentially have some type of a beta or prototype program. But I know that our sheriff and our staff are always looking for opportunities like that.”
“We have actually looked at that, especially for our COPs,” Staly said. “We have hybrid vehicles with the COPs, but unlike a private citizen that gets tax credits, so far it is not cost-effective for us to do that. But we have looked at that, believe it or not.”
As has been routine over the last few years, the sheriff only got praise from the council, as did Chief Daniel Engert, who heads jail operations, and Chief Mark Strobridge, the chief negotiator of all agreements.
The presentation was an occasion for the sheriff to highlight the agency’s work over the past year and beyond, and discuss crime trends.
Residential burglaries are up, but the majority of those burglaries are taking place in properties under construction. The sheriff is required to log those are burglaries, even though the properties are not yet inhabited. It’s a felony to burglarize a construction site. Domestic violence is also up.
The sheriff noted the agency’s accreditation record–for the jail, for the agency as a whole, for the jail’s medical operations, and for the 911 dispatch center (which answers 99.7 percent of calls within 15 seconds or less) as its makes its way to a five-diamond agency. Every accreditation adds a diamond. It can add yet more. “What accreditation does is it makes sure that your agency is delivering with the most professional and cutting edge,” Staly said. “Not only policies, but technology use to serve the community that they serve. So to me, it’s very important to do that.”
He put additional emphasis on deputies’ wages, which are falling behind, especially in comparison with other public safety employees, he said. “We’re in the bottom third of what’s really being paid around the state,” he said.
“We didn’t do too good in 2022 for traffic fatalities,” Staly said. “They were up to 28 from 17 in 2021. And we analyze this all the time, and there’s just no pattern for these traffic fatalities. What we can tell you is, distracted driving plays a significant portion. And we see that increasing–distracted driving crashes this year. And we can tell you that the state roads are the most dangerous, whether that’s interstate 95, U.S. 1, State Road 100.”
Some of the incidents on I-95 happen to take place in Flagler, when they could just as possibly happened across county lines, but the fatalities are recorded in Flagler. The agency now has some 13 traffic units mostly in Palm Coast.
The sheriff highlighted the agency’s success in securing lucrative grants that offset local costs, and other recent developments, such as enabling deputies to have access to live video from the scenes where residents are calling for help, rapid DNA testing at the time that an inmate is booked, a new biometric system at the jail, and so on.
The jail continues to add trade-education programs, such as HVAC and electrical trades, working in cooperation with Flagler Technical Institute, the school district’s adult education arm. That helped land the jail the 2023 American jail Association’s Innovation Award.
Budget 2023 Palm Coast Final