Darnell, others lament lack of raises

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, shown in this April 23, 2013 file photo, met with Alachua County commissioners on Thursday.

Matt Stamey/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, August 15, 2013 at 6:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 15, 2013 at 6:27 p.m.

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell sat with county commissioners Thursday morning during the commission's most recent round of budget talks, debating how best to address her office's financial needs moving into the next fiscal year.

She asked for some funding increases but also offered things she was willing to eliminate from her proposal, acknowledging there isn't enough money to cover it all this year.

She said she was willing to cut $602,936 from her certified budget request. To reach that figure, she would withdraw her requests for funding for the sexual predator task force for a savings of $226,815 and for an anti-gang deputy to save $71,829, among other cuts.

"It's made me sick, actually, to have to remove it," she said of her request for task force funding.

The sheriff's adjusted budget request asks for an additional $450,000 for next fiscal year's budget compared with the current one, but a Sheriff's Office staff member pointed out that the department must deal with rising Florida Retirement System costs and anticipated increases in other expenses that exceed that figure.

The sheriff emphasized the importance of providing raises for county employees, citing low employee morale and personnel departures as evidence of that need.

The county's initial budget proposal for fiscal year 2013-14 included an across-the-board 3 percent raise for employees working for the board and for the constitutional officers, but the raise was removed this week from an updated version of the budget as a cost-saving measure.

Darnell's deputies know their brothers and sisters in other area law enforcement agencies have received raises in recent years while they have gone without, Darnell said.

"They talk about it in the hallway. It has dragged morale down," she said.

Her employees are still jazzed about their jobs, she said, but they need to be shown they are valued.

If raises aren't possible this year, Darnell suggested the county at least find a way to lower health care costs for workers.

Although commissioners — sans Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson, who was absent — didn't discuss raises much during Thursday's meeting, Commissioner Lee Pinkoson did say he hasn't given up on the raise issue yet.

Supervisor of Elections Pam Carpenter, like Darnell, asked the commission to try to provide raises during her brief budget presentation Thursday afternoon.

Carpenter said she made reductions to her proposed budget in order to support raises for employees and feels strongly that the county should follow through with them.

During Darnell's presentation, the law enforcement municipal services taxing unit, or MSTU, was a key point of discussion. County staff said the MSTU will have a deficit of about $950,000 at the end of this fiscal year.

For the past two years, projected tax revenue estimates related to the law enforcement MSTU were higher than the revenues actually collected, which is a key factor in the deficit, Finance Director Todd Hutchison said.

County Manager Betty Baker said she had decided to move forward and work on solving the problem rather than look back and try to figure out where to place blame.

Another MSTU-related issue involves the money paid by the Alachua County School Board, which has a contract with the Sheriff's Office. That funding is meant to be split 50/50 between the law enforcement MSTU and the county's general fund but has been going completely to the general fund since around 2008, Hutchison said. The county currently plans to implement the 50/50 split for the upcoming fiscal year.

At a couple of points during Thursday's meeting, Darnell emphasized her belief that the county should focus on funding core services such as law enforcement first and then pay for other, less-vital programs as finances allow.

Commissioner Mike Byerly countered that he feels residents want the local government to provide other services in addition to core ones, which is why he and the other commissioners were elected last year after spending much time on the campaign trail discussing their views on the budget.

"There are other things this community wants as well," he said.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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