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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Can’t get alarmed about deputy exodus

There’s an old tale that’s well remembered by longtimers here at your favorite daily news source, although it’s not been told with the same frequency or gusto in recent years, possibly the result of shifting fortunes in the newspaper business, possibly the prime-time players having moved on. Anyway, it goes something like this:

One of the news departments was in almost open rebellion after discovering their rivals at the other end of the bridge were being paid substantially more, even though our guys routinely stomped them on breaking news and had achieved near-parity in the all-important journalistic awards category. A deputy managing editor was sent to quell the unrest.

After explaining the difficult realities of working for a subsidiary of a company that not only was headquartered 800 miles away, but also had shareholders to satisfy, the assistant boss — demonstrating his limitless potential in management — shrugged, “Besides, suppose we raised your pay to match theirs. Then their publisher would just raise their pay, and we’d be right back here where we started.”

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That story leapt to mind last week when Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco revealed agencies in neighboring counties, suddenly eager for seasoned troops, had put a bounty on experienced deputies. Pinellas was offering a $3,000 signing bonus and help with moving expenses, topping the $2,000 bonus offered by Polk, and Nocco, not unreasonably, felt like he’d been fitted for a bull’s-eye.

Once again, neighboring rivals were disrupting harmonious relationships back home.

Nocco is hardly the first sheriff to complain about the pay imbalance between Pasco and its southern neighbors, nor are current county commissioners the first to note that all they do is allocate the agency’s budget, and how it’s allocated is entirely the sheriff’s discretion.

To this every self-respecting Pasco sheriff has dramatized the minuscule share of the overall budget accorded law enforcement, and commissioners have responded that the sheriff gets about 55 percent of the only portion of the budget over which they have influence.

Ultimately, outside observers have to conclude that all the principals are between rocks and proverbial hard places.

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Now, it’s no secret that in such matters my sympathies tend to lie with the sheriff and his deputies, for at least a couple of reasons. First, because folks who wear the badge perform a most dangerous duty. It astounds me we can find anybody to take the risk deputies do for less than six figures, let alone that starting pay of $17.82 an hour produces waiting lists of willing candidates.

Second, because maintaining the peace is the first responsibility of local government. If law-abiding residents don’t feel safe, everything else government aspires to encourage — commerce, culture, recreation, education — implodes like Hewlett-Packard Buildings 7 and 8. Appropriators’ foremost duty, then, is to make darn sure law enforcement has money enough to do the job.

That said, we’re unconvinced Nocco’s latest complaint sounds any Klaxons we haven’t heard before, and those previous alerts were generally overblown.

Not for the first time, Nocco grumbles that Pasco is leaking deputies to counties and cities just across the border. In the four years that ended with 2013, deputies jumping ship have totaled 34. Add three more resignations already in 2014, and Nocco frets the trickle will become a dam break.

But everything is context, and the context in this case is the Pasco sheriff’s office employs 541 law enforcement deputies, and last year, the highest on record, 10 of them took other jobs. That’s 1.8 percent of the force. You have to figure that many would leave based on considerations that have nothing at all to do with pay: opportunity for promotion, new scenery, different class of criminal, better access to Krispy Kreme.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d like to see Pasco’s troops paid better, on general principles. But, as a respecter of a free market in which not all forces are financial, I’d have to say the fact that more than 520 deputies resisted temptation last year is strong evidence Pasco offers perks a fatter paycheck just can’t buy.

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