The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) is focusing attention on employees, including expanding its Mental Health Unit and increasing pay for deputies and nurses.
Speaking to county commissioners at a June 24 budget information session, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri called the fiscal year 2023 “the year of the employee.” He said the budgetary increase, absent operating costs that keep the doors open and the lights on, is all going towards people.
“What’s really important this year,” said Gualtieri. “Is that we take care of the people as they’re facing all the fiscal challenges … with inflation.”
The Sheriff’s Office FY23 budget target is $360,752,360, an increase of about $12.38 million over the FY22 adopted budget. Gualtieri noted the PCSO is generating revenue of $41.2 million, primarily from ancillary services provided to the county’s municipalities and housing federal inmates.
Despite soaring costs due to inflation, Gualtieri said he wants to increase the current level of service. Commissioners agreed to permanently fund the PCSO’s Mental Health Unit, consisting of six teams of deputies and Crisis Response Specialists, in FY22, in light of the success of its pilot program. Gualtieri plans to double the unit without asking for additional funding.
“The data and the metrics that we presented last year showed that it was effective,” said Gualtieri. “So, what that’s resulted in, is those teams being able to take calls that the patrol deputies didn’t have to take.”
Even though the county employs a “co-response” model with officers and specialists, Gualtieri said he could reallocate resources from regular patrol deputies, allowing for the expansion without additional funding.
“We’re able to save in one direction and add in another,” he said.
Gualtieri added that he plans to expand the service to the unincorporated area of Lealman within the next 30 days.
“The goal is to eventually expand it throughout the county,” said Gualtieri. “And I’ll continue to use that model of trying to save on one side and move it over to the other to expand this without coming back to you.”
Commissioner Janet Long asked if cities within the county have similar programs, and Gualtieri explained that St. Petersburg utilizes an independent response model. Mental health officials respond to certain situations in St. Pete without the presence of officers.
Gualtieri called both models acceptable and noted higher education institutions are conducting “some really heavy research” into the two methods.
The PCSO provides the Clearwater Police Department with a couple of specialists to team with their officers through a contractual partnership. The Largo Police Department has a similar co-response model with a local mental health service provider.
Gualtieri said there are discussions for Largo to join the PCSO program, and he would like to expand it throughout the county and into cities without mental health units.
Gualtieri said the PCSO currently has 75 openings out of nearly 1,500 total deputy positions, with a vacancy rate of about 5%. He lost 145 deputies in 2021, with more quitting than retiring.
“And probably what’s most concerning about that trend is … that nobody’s leaving for other agencies,” said Gualtieri. “They’re leaving to get out of law enforcement.”
He said he expects attrition with the number of deputies the county employs, but what you cannot plan for are “those that just wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m done with this, and I’m out of here.’”
Gualtieri added that local law enforcement agencies are all competing for “the best of the best,” and PCSO is at a disadvantage with starting pay for deputies around $7,000 lower than the Largo, Clearwater and St. Petersburg Police Departments.
Beginning Oct. 1, the PCSO will increase starting pay to $57,200. While that represents nearly a $6,000 increase, it is still below the aforementioned municipalities. The pay discrepancy between an SPPD and a PCSO sergeant is almost $13,000.
“So, my goal is not to be the highest-paid,” said Gualtieri. “But my goal absolutely is we have to be competitive.”
The PCSO is also increasing its pay for nurses at the county jail, which houses around 3,000 inmates and features a 368-bed medical facility.
“We found ourselves in a situation where it was untenable,” said Gualtieri. “We were getting to a crisis situation because the pay outside the jail … was just skyrocketing.
“We had people leaving left and right because they’re chasing the dollars.”
The increase in nursing pay resulted in Gualtieri’s only budget request, an additional $1.2 million beyond the FY23 target.
Starting pay for licensed practical nurses (LPNs) increased from $47,000 to $55,000, and from $61,000 to $80,000 for registered nurses (RNs). PCSO is also offering hiring and retention bonuses, along with tuition reimbursement.