CLEARWATER — Reassured by two years of rising property values, Pinellas County leaders plan to use $15 million in contingency funds to meet funding requests from the sheriff, the supervisor of elections and other county departments.
Commissioners gave preliminary approval to a plan by interim County Administrator Mark Woodard to use money that was squirreled away in last year’s budget in anticipation of a possible downturn as the nation’s economy inched out of the recession. Now, with property values rising this year by an average of 5.6 percent, Woodard said the county can be more confident the economy is recovering and property values will continue to rise during the next few years.
The biggest beneficiary would be Sheriff Bob Gaultieri, who asked commissioners for an extra $15 million to implement an annual pay scale system that rewards deputies and other ranks based on experience, and to replace dated cruisers, radios and other equipment. Under the plan, the sheriff’s office would get $10.7 million, and Woodard said Gaultieri also may use roughly $900,000 available from a federal law enforcement trust fund.
“I’m very happy, I’m very grateful,” Gaultieri said. “Now, it’s a matter of looking into what it is and what we can do with it as far as meeting all our needs.”
Gaultieri warned commissioners recently that five years without a pay raise had left his office struggling to compete with neighboring law enforcement agencies that offered higher pay and better benefits. His proposed pay plan will cost about $23 million over two years. He said his priority will be updating equipment.
“It will go a long way to fixing a number of issues, but we’ll have to prioritize,” he said. “The number one priority has to be operational needs — the things that keep us moving ... . The next priority is the pay plan.”
Commissioners asked Woodard for reassurances that Gaultieri’s pay plan, which would award most officers a raise every year until they reach the top of their pay scales, would not saddle the county with an ever-increasing expense.
Other requests that would be met include $2 million for the Business Technology Services department to upgrade aging technology and to make up staff pay where it lags behind market rates.
The Supervisor of Elections’ office would receive $433,000 for additional staff, and the Property Appraiser’s office an additional $123,600 for new cars and additional work brought about by the flood insurance crisis. Roughly $500,000 would go toward improving the level of dental care for the county’s indigent population.
The contingency funds Woodard identified are separate from the county’s reserve or rainy-day fund, which in 2015 will be set at $85 million, equal to 15 percent of its general fund.
Additional savings would come from drastically reducing the use of consultants, which under previous administrator Bob LaSala included contracts for communications strategy, meeting facilitators and leadership training. The county spent $1.2 million on consultants during the past three years. Woodard said the county has enough in-house expertise.
Tribune staff writer Stephen Thompson contributed to this report.