LARGO — In an effort to bolster a force he says has become unseasoned, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is offering a $3,000 signing bonus to any law enforcement agent with three or more years of experience who agrees to become a patrol deputy with his agency.
While signing bonuses have been used by police departments in areas as diverse as the Pacific Northwest, Kentucky, and San Diego — usually to lure new recruits — Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies by and large haven’t had to offer them.
Gualtieri said one reason for the bonus is his agency offers lower salaries than many other agencies, including the St. Petersburg, Tampa and the Clearwater police departments. The starting salary for his deputies is roughly $41,000, while a new Tampa officer makes $46,000, and one in St. Petersburg makes $44,488.
“Financially, we’re not competitive,” Gualtieri said. “We need to figure out a way to get the best of the best in the door.”
Another problem is the relative inexperience of the people Gualtieri does have.
For example, of the 406 deputies and corporals on his force — the men and women who are on the street handling calls — 210 have been hired since 2011 to replace a massive exodus of retiring deputies, Gualtieri said. And of those, 118 were hired in 2013.
“We have a lot of very inexperienced people,” Gualtieri said. “We need to get experienced people in.”
In addition to the $3,000 signing bonus, Gualtieri is offering to pay moving expenses — $3,000 if the applicant is from out of state, $500 if from Hillsborough, Pasco or Manatee counties, and $1,500 from other Florida locations.
None of the other larger agencies in the Tampa Bay area offers signing bonuses or moving expenses for new or seasoned applicants. Typically, they offer to pay a recruit’s way in a police academy.
As of now, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office isn’t even considering experienced — or pre-certified — candidates, said Col. Jim Previtera.
The Pinellas sheriff’s office is also an unattractive place of employment, Gualtieri said, because of its lack of a structured step-plan, through which deputies have a good idea how their salaries will increase on a year-by-year basis — and how their salaries compare with their colleagues at the agency.
One of Gualtieri’s predecessors, Everett Rice, did away with it years ago, he said.
Deputies also had their salaries frozen during the economic downturn, Gualtieri said. Officers at other agencies did not experience the same type of wage freezes because the governmental entities that employed them were legally obligated to continue giving them raises because of contracts.
Pinellas deputies eventually received a 5 percent pay raise, but it was offset by an increased contribution to the state pension system and to Social Security, Gualtieri said.
Since the signing bonus first was offered in October, there hasn’t been much of a response, the sheriff said, though he added his staff is publicizing it in statewide police union publications.
“We haven’t given anyone the bonuses or moving expenses as of yet,” Gualtieri said. “It’s too early to know whether this is going to help.”
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