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LCSO faces possible hiring freeze, cuts to some program funds

By Staff | Jan 30, 2009

A stagnant economy could threaten staffing at the Lee County Sheriff’s Office in the near future.
The agency is considering a hiring freeze or a similar measure, Sheriff Mike Scott wrote to employees in an agencywide memo Thursday. Some programs also could be underfunded, the memo suggests.
“In short, we will increase our focus on core services relative to public safety while decreasing our investments in ancillary interests that are not specific to our primary charge,” the memo states.
Currently, 75 positions in the agency are unfilled, representing nearly 5 percent of the 1,544 current employees. Of the unfilled positions, 28 are for corrections deputies who work in the jail. In the 2008 to 2009 budget, the sheriff’s office was authorized to make more than 80 hires for its jail addition, which opened in November.
Yet, county revenues are expected to drop considerably compared to years past. Lee County Manager Don Stilwell has described the shortfall as a “tsunami,” with more than $45 million in unbudgeted losses this year and $160 million in 2010.
The entire sheriff’s office budget is roughly $161 million for the current fiscal year. The total represents a 2 percent increase from the previous year’s budget, which in turn was an 11.76 increase from the prior year.
Sheriff’s office employees also have seen a steady rise in pay over the years, with a 4.2 percent raise in the last fiscal year and an 8 percent raise the year before. Employees received no raises in the current fiscal year, which began in October.
Last year, Scott described personnel costs as representing 83 percent of the agency’s budget.
Other unfilled positions include court operations deputies, with 19 positions open, and patrol deputies, with 12 openings.
Both Scott and the sheriff’s office declined to comment on the matter.
The memo cited the county’s declining revenues, and noted recent dismal news from public and private sectors, including shortfalls in the state education system and the U.S. Postal Service. Still, Scott promised current jobs would be maintained at their benefit levels.
“Benefits are sacred, and while your job function may change, both will be preserved,” he wrote.
In September, during budget negotiations with the county, the sheriff’s office cut the nationally recognized Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, program before juggling funds to restore it.
The agency also bought out the contracts of some senior employees last year.
Scott has mentioned cutting the Citizens Academy — a free, 10-week program in which Lee County citizens learn the inner workings of the sheriff’s office — as a potential money saver. How much money the move would save and what other cuts would need to be made remain unclear.
According to the memo, cuts in those programs would shift deputies to core services.
The sheriff’s office is not alone. The Collier County Sheriff’s Office is holding back on 60 hires authorized in its current budget, said spokeswoman Karie Partington. Only two information technology positions are being filled.

Steven Beardsley is a staff writer for the Naples Daily News. Contact sbeardsley@naplesnews.com.