Sheriff Plans Show of Force, and Threatens Appeal to Governor, Over Budget Stalemate With County

Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly and the Police Benevolent Association, the union representing deputies, are organizing a show of force that would pack the county commission’s chambers this evening in hopes of swaying commissioners to give the sheriff more than the additional $4.45 million they have so far providing for next year’s budget.

“I will be presenting my budget request to the County Commissioners and I believe they will vote to direct the County Administrator on what to do,” the sheriff wrote to all deputies and staff at the agency by email on Friday morning. “YOU NEED TO BE THERE along with your friends and family. The Commissioners need to understand the community supports your raises. (They recently and quietly gave to their firefighters so they need to treat our employees like they did their firefighters).”

He told deputies and staffers that they would have to attend “on their own time.” He added: “In the past 5 years I have always been able to negotiate a budget without asking you to get involved, but this year it is a stalemate. If this fails my only option is to appeal to the Governor and Cabinet, which I will do.”

The sheriff is requesting an additional five deputies, focusing more this year on raising wages of existing deputies, especially starting pay. The starting pay for a deputy sheriff if just over $46,000, some $5,000 less than for a starting firefighter.

“The sheriff wants more money than is available in the budget and he’s trying to press his issue,” Commissioner Dave Sullivan said. He was aware of the evening’s show of force, but said if it was intended to intimidate commissioners, it would not work–“not with me,” he said.

A decision is not expected tonight: the county has scheduled a budget workshop on Aug. 24, purposely a day after the primary election, to remove as much of the political element from the equation as possible. Two commissioners are running for re-election: Greg Hansen and Joe Mullins. The Hansen race (against Janet McDonald and Denise Calderwood) will be settled on Aug. 23, because the three Republicans are the only candidates running, making their primary an open one: all voters, regardless of party affiliation, get to vote, and the winner will be the next commissioner regardless. That’s not the case in the Mullins race. The embattled commissioner faces a Republican opponent in the primary (Leann Pennington), but that race’s winner faces an independent in the general election in November (Jane Gentile-Youd).

Still, the commission will vote on the budget before the next swearing-in of commissioners in November, should seats turn over at all. Some commissioners–namely, Mullins, who has been caught on video threatening the job of a law enforcement officer, who has falsely claimed he had the support of two local retired police associations, and who told yet another trooper that “I run the county” –cannot afford to look like anything less but the sheriff’s vassals at this point, guaranteeing their vote whatever the sheriff were to ask. (Mullins in the last few days flashed himself on Facebook with his portrait as if haloed by a sheriff’s badge, alongside paroxysms of puffery for anything in uniform, plus a picture of himself with Staly. Mullins had seemingly ignored a statement the sheriff released a day earlier disavowing candidates’ attempts to glum on to him or pretend they have his support by showing pictures of themselves in his vicinity.)

The county funds all constitutional officers’ budgets, requiring each officer–the sheriff, the clerk of court, the tax collector, the property appraiser, the supervisor of elections–to submit a budget request annually. The county commission negotiates with each constitutional officer to get to a final number. It is often routine, or limited to give and take on the margins, making this year’s stalemate unusual. When the two sides reach an impasse, Florida law provides for an avenue of appeal. Constitutional officers can make their case to the Florida Cabinet or the governor, although that’s very rare, and talk of it is generally tactical.

The difference in budget numbers between the sheriff and the county is “part of the discussion and some of that will come out tonight but it’s fairly significant,” Sullivan said. “He is getting over $6 million more essentially than last year, and that doesn’t include things like the Sheriff’s Operations Center and a lot of other things. But he’s making his case and he has the right to do that.”

Chief Mark Strobridge, who handles budget negotiations, said “they’re not offering us a $6 million increase.”

According to the sheriff’s numbers, the 2022 budget was $38.3 million, including $5.7 million from Palm Coast and $8.12 million for the jail. At a May meeting, the county presented a “base budget” for the Sheriff’s Office of $28.5 million, excluding the Palm Coast contract or $3 million from a sales surtax that funds the jail. The sheriff was asking for $32.2 million. The county was prepared to provide $34.2 million, leaving a difference of $2 million. (See those numbers here.)

The numbers were revised in light of better-than-expected revenue projections, due to increasing property values ​​and the commission’s decision to keep the property tax rate flat, which would yield a substantial increase in tax revenue. In July, the county listed a total, currently adopted budget of $31.5 million, and a tentative 2022-23 budget of $35.9 million, an increase of $4.45 million. (See those numbers here.)

The figures do not include construction costs for the new Sheriff’s Operations Center.

In an email of his own to sheriff’s staffers, Strobridge said that “County Administration is fighting Sheriff Staly in giving pay raises to the men and women of FCSO.”

Sullivan disputes that claim, too, saying the sheriff is personalizing the issue. That’s not how it works, Sullivan said. “We don’t tell him how to spend his money individually,” Sullivan said. “What we can say is: this is the maximum amount of money we can provide right now, it’s up to you where you put your money. We have to be very careful about the Board of County Commissioners being forced into–this piece of money goes into this budget, that piece of money goes into his budget.” In other words, the sheriff can award raises to deputies with the lion’s share of the money, foregoing other items for now. Overall, Sullivan said the sheriff would get upwards of a 15 percent increase in his budget, close to double above inflation, which has itself been complicating budget matters significantly.

“Inflation puts extreme pressure on the budget, we’ve already decided we’re not going to increase the millage rate, so anything less than that, it’s just hard,” Sullivan said. There are further complications: the sheriff, Sullivan said, is leaving the county’s health plan to rely on a separate plan, and will also have an IT department independent of the county’s, which had previously provided IT services to the Sheriff’s Office (and to Flagler Beach).

“County Administration is fighting Sheriff Staly, claiming they don’t have the money, which we know is false. It’s all about setting priorities,” Strobridge’s email reads. “All the Sheriff is asking is for the County Commissioners to treat our Deputy Sheriff’s as fairly as they just treated their fire fighters/paramedics. Just a few weeks ago the Commissioners quietly gave them a pay raise retro-active to last October. The starting pay for a Flagler County Firefighter/Paramedic is now just over $51,000.00. The current starting pay for a Deputy Sheriff is just over $46,000.00.”

Staly in his presentation to the commission tonight will highlight the halving of the crime rate on his watch, the increase in calls for service (and projections of a rapid increase in population in coming years), but also the recently accelerating attrition rate. “In the last 18-months 20 sworn and support employees left to join nearby agencies for significant pay increases after being trained by FCSO,” the presentation states. “Until recently, it was rare that an employee would leave FCS for other law enforcement agencies.”

The Police Benevolent Association plans to hand out t-shirts made for the occasion this evening. “WE REALLY NEED TO PACK THE ROOM and WEAR THE TEE-SHIRTS,” Strobridge wrote. “We need you to show the Commissioners you have the Deputy’s back (and Sheriff Staly’s). We need to let the Commissioners know they need to pay our deputies as their/your life depends on it because it could.”

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