MCSO receives salary adjustment for entry-level deputies

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In this Ocala Post 2015 file photo, Sheriff Chris Blair speaks to the media about the Bureau of Homeland Security and Professional Compliance.

Ocala, Florida — For the first time in 11 years, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) increased the agency’s starting salary for entry-level deputies – from $28,520 to $32,094. The increase went into effect on January 25, 2015.

Existing deputies received a 3 percent raise on October 1, 2014.

The funding for the salary adjustment was taken from monies that had accrued from approximately 40 vacant positions that the sheriff’s office has not been able to fill. The vacant positions were the direct result of the sheriff’s office not being able to attract applicants under the previous salary structure. And, while the sheriff’s office has been able to save monies through attrition and cutting top-heavy positions, the primary funding source for the salary adjustment was vacancies. Therefore, no additional costs to taxpayers were accrued.

Marion County Sheriff Chris Blair came to the decision as a result of the independent salary survey that was completed on June 26, 2014, by Evergreen Solutions, LLC.

According to the study, MCSO starting deputy pay was 28 percent below its target peer respondents at sheriff’s offices in surrounding counties. However, even with the salary adjustment, it still leaves the sheriff’s office lagging at 13 percent below market for entry-level deputies and 20.2 percent below market on all benchmarked positions throughout the agency. Forty-eight of the 55 (87.3 percent) positions are behind market minimum by an average of 24.6 percent.

What do these numbers mean in layman’s terms? It means if the starting pay stays significantly lower than the market offers, MCSO will find itself losing out to its market peers (higher paying sheriff’s offices) when it seeks to fill a position. Additionally, if pay remains significantly lower than the market, experienced employees could leave for greener pastures.

In fact, that is exactly what has happened. From 2008 to 2013, MCSO has doubled its loss of experienced deputies who had five or more years vested. At that rate, the treadmill of employees leaving was spinning faster and faster, making it impossible for MCSO to fill the vacant positions at the same rate.

As cadets in previous graduating classes with the police academy graduated, MCSO was lucky to have one applicant. And even if MSCO did get applicants, many could not make it through a background check, polygraph, physical fitness test, or drug test.

Since MCSO announced its salary increase in January, it has received multiple applicants. Sadly, in previous years, only one out of every 10 applicants made the cut. The sheriff’s office is hoping these statistics will change.

The salary adjustment, of course, has not come without scrutiny.

Some citizens, including county leaders, do not believe public safety should be a priority. Public safety not only includes law enforcement, but also fire rescue.

Marion County is the 14th most populated county out of the 67 counties in Florida, and most agencies have pay scales based upon population.

In 2013, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the MCSO was in the bottom 10 for deputy salaries even though Marion County has a population of approximately 335,000 residents. The average population for a county in the bottom 10 is 14,464, with the lowest population at 8,618 in Lafayette County. The Lafayette County Sheriff’s Office has a starting salary of $26,000.

The MCSO, however, is not salaried based upon the population in Marion County. As previously stated, even with the salary adjustment, they are lagging by at least 13 percent behind their peers.

However, the Marion County Board of County Commissioners has made sure its salaries were in line with Marion County being 14th in the state.

Records show that if commissioners decreased their salaries and took a hit as public safety has, they would make somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000 per year, instead of approximately $80,000 per year.

According to county documents, not only has the board failed to adequately fund the sheriff’s office, but also the percentage of the total county budget for the sheriff’s office has steadily decreased from 17 percent of the county budget to 13 percent over the past decade. If the sheriff’s office still received 17 percent of the total county budget, its budget would be more than $92 million — or approximately $23 million more than its current actual budget.

But wait, didn’t the sheriff’s office get a $7,442,486 million increase for the 2014-2015 fiscal year budget?

On paper yes, but a closer look revealed some disturbing facts.

According to page 272-273 of the “Adopted Line Item Budget” for fiscal year 2014-2015, the MSTU (Municipal Services Taxing Units) for law enforcement was increased by $7,442,486 million (from $32,096,108 million in 2013 to $39,538,594 million in 2015). But the sheriff’s office actually only saw $1,302,465 million of the increase.

County records show that the Marion County Clerk’s Office has been taking funds from the MSTU to pay for Public Safety Communications, the Tax Collector and Property Appraiser, and something called the “Central Services Cost Allocation,” which was created by the Marion County Clerk of the Court.

The BCC continually tells the public and media outlets that the sheriff’s office received an increase of $7,442,486 million in its budget.

However, the following items were subtracted from the latest MSTU law enforcement budget before the funds ever made it to the sheriff’s office:

Beginning Balance $7,442,486 (What the BCC says the sheriff’s office received)

– Public Safety Communications $806,367

– Tax Collector $166,443

– Property Appraiser $98,549

– Central Services Cost Allocation $376,930

– Reserves $4,691,731

Ending Balance $1,302,465 (What the sheriff’s office actually received)

While Marion County residents are focused on tax increases, they should be worried about how the taxes they are currently paying for MSTU law enforcement are being disbursed. In fact, the percentage of the MSTU for law enforcement tax revenue actually appropriated to the sheriff’s office has decreased from 92 percent in 2013 to 78 percent in 2015. A full 22 percent of the MSTU for law enforcement tax revenue is not being received by the sheriff’s office.

It should also be known that when the Public Safety Communications Center was created more than two decades ago, the funding was always paid from the countywide budget. However, when the BCC decided to take over communications, it began deducting a significant portion of funds from the MSTU for law enforcement.

Since Sheriff Blair took office in 2013, the “Central Services Cost Allocation” budget was increased from $64,896 to $441,826 for the 2014-2015 fiscal year budget, which was deducted from the MSTU.

To try and understand exactly what “Central Services Cost Allocation” was, Ocala Post reached out to Michael E. Tomich, CPA, Budget Director for the Marion County Clerk of Court.

Tomich wrote in an e-mail:

“The payment from the MSTU for Law Enforcement fund for Central Services Cost Allocation serves as a reimbursement to the countywide General Fund for the cost of support services provided for the Sheriff Patrol and Criminal Investigation functions. Such support services include pro-rated amounts for Finance, Budget and Auditing as well as for the County Clinic and Facilities Management. An annual cost allocation study is performed by outside specialists in this field who utilize various distribution factors appropriate to each of the services provided. Cost allocation is similarly assessed to numerous other functions in the County including Transportation, Building Permits, Fire Rescue, Water & Sewer Utilities, Storm water Improvements and numerous other MSTUs for Recreation, Roads, Street Lighting and General Services.

The benefit of cost allocation is to all taxpayers of the County in that it ensures that the total cost of a service that is provided to limited areas of the County is fully funded by those taxpayers in the service area. The MSTU for Law Enforcement operates in limited areas of the County, primarily those areas outside of city limits. Allocation of countywide General Fund costs for support of the MSTU for Law Enforcement serves to provide tax equity among all County taxpayers.

The vast majority of the recent increase in cost allocation is due to the inclusion of charges for Facilities Management. This recommendation from our cost allocation consultant provides that the cost for maintenance of buildings and grounds attributable to the MSTU for Law Enforcement will no longer be funded by all County taxpayers. Rather, such costs are now equitably shared with taxpayers within the service area of the MSTU for Law Enforcement.”

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Taxpayers are led to believe that the taxes they pay for law enforcement are actually going to law enforcement, but as Ocala Post discovered, that is not true.

Residents pay into the MSTU for law enforcement just to have the funds stripped from the sheriff’s office budget and utilized for other county functions.

“The MSTU for Law Enforcement operates in limited areas of the County, primarily those areas outside of city limits.” What if the sheriff’s office should make a traffic stop, serve a warrant, arrest a drunk driver, or provide helicopter support within the city limits?

“Cost allocation was proposed to the County Commission by our office as an organized method to properly share costs in replacement of numerous ad-hoc cost sharing transfers among funds that were taking place at the time. Cost allocation is a widely accepted practice to resolve funding equity issues,” Tomich said.

But just because it is “accepted,” does that make it right?

According to public records, the sheriff’s office is charged $1,615,557 million for facility management, from which a portion is also taken from MSTU for law enforcement. The county’s total Facility Management budget was $6,057,935 million.

Some of the charges included in the $6 million Facility Management budget are: General & Administrative Costs, Work Orders, Maintenance Staffing Costs, Maintenance & Supplies, Utility Services, Custodial Services, Pest Control, Landscaping and Lawn Services, and Courier Services.

The sheriff’s office utilizes inmates for landscaping and lawn maintenance, labor for painting and other projects, and janitorial services. The sheriff’s office also has its own courier, pest control services, and is the only constitutional office that pays its own utilities. The $1,615,557 million charged to the sheriff’s office from the cost allocations is only for Work Orders, Staffing Costs, Maintenance & Supplies, and Lawn & Landscape Services.

The cost of the county’s internal auditor is also allocated and deducted from the MCSO’s budget in the amount of $38,911. A spokesperson from the sheriff’s office said they do their own financial statements as well as pay their own auditor, so they are not sure why they are required to pay for the internal auditor.

Tomich told Ocala Post that charges would be costs of maintenance not performed by inmates. According this document, it would appear that some of the aforementioned costs are being deducted from the budget even though inmates performed the work.

Many surrounding counties do not seem to have this issue. The BCC within those counties recognizes the importance of public safety, including fire rescue, and makes sure there is adequate funding for public safety employees as well as safety equipment.

In 2014, Ocala Post reported that the Marion County Fire Rescue (MCFR) and the MCSO were having vehicle issues. The MCSO has had patrol vehicles “break down” while en route to calls, and MCFR while transporting patients to a hospital.

In one instance, a MCFR unit caught fire while it was in the ambulance bay at a local hospital. Another unit arrived and extinguished the fire.

Is it okay that citizens lives are being put at risk?

Is it okay for deputies and firefighters, who put their lives on the line every day, to be approached and offered food stamps, while commissioners ensure the budget is plentiful enough for their own salaries?

While a sane person could agree that public safety should be the number one priority in any county, some of the elected officials in Marion County seem to disagree.

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