Sheriff, county resume pay fight


Published: Friday, January 9, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 5:44 p.m.

Debate over the Alachua County Commission's 2009-10 budget is already beginning where it left off in September - with a brewing battle between the commission and Sheriff Sadie Darnell over pay raises.

Darnell last month gave the county $64,898 that was a dividend from the Florida Sheriff's Self Insurance Fund. She asked that the money be set aside toward raises that were recommended in a study to bring pay to competitive levels - raises that were denied by the commission in September.

"One of my priorities for the upcoming year is to resurface the request for funding for the wage study. It's very important to me for employees of the Sheriff's Office to be paid at least to market level," Darnell said Thursday. "My approach this year will be that I want employees to be considered first. Not just sheriff's employees but all county employees. Before we fund special interest programs, especially new programs, we need to look within and value the employees that we have and do as much as we can to retain them."

The commission discussed the issue Tuesday and agreed to send Darnell a letter saying that it will not put the dividend aside for raises.

Such a practice is against policy, officials said. They added that putting onetime revenues into expenses that recur every year could lead to deficit spending.

"You would de facto be creating an increase in that person's budget based on unknown revenue," Commissioner Rodney Long said.

Darnell fought with the commission last summer when it was developing the 2008-09 budget to get an extra $1.2 million for raises to bring her employees' pay up to competitive levels recommended in a study.

Commissioners eventually decided not to give her the money because of financial difficulties. Instead, sheriff's employees got the same one-time $500 bonus that was given to other county workers.

The Sheriff's Office collects some money through fees and dividends. However, all the money must be turned over to the county to become part of the overall budget.

Darnell said sheriff's staff deserve increased pay as economic troubles continue or worsen because crime typically increases in such situations.

"In these trying times so much extra demand is placed on public safety employees. As the economy gets worse, crime goes up and situations escalate," Darnell said. "My main point in sending this letter to the board was to remind them that during process last year I was repeatedly asked to find funds in my own budgets. I am unable to find the money I need ... so when there are unanticipated sources of revenue I think it's reasonable to ask the commission to set this money aside."

Commissioners noted that the state Legislature is currently in special session to find ways to cut spending because of revenue shortfalls. Additional revenue cuts are likely to be made in the annual session that starts in March.

Given that uncertainty, commissioners said they cannot commit to any budget items now.

"The handwriting is on the wall and it looks terrible," Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said.

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