More than half of Manatee deputies signed petitions expressing interest in forming a union. State law requires 30 percent interest among the rank-and-file before a union vote can be called, said Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida PBA.
The Manatee deputies would join 35 of Florida's 67 sheriff's offices who have unionized, according to the Public Employees Relations Commission. The Bradenton Police Department already is unionized, as is the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office and the Sarasota Police Department.
Puckett said he met with a group of Manatee County deputies on Monday.
Their main issue: wages.
“They have gone a long time without raises. There are other issues, but the deputies would like an independent voice,” Puckett said. “This is not a group of deputies who hate their sheriff, or who hate management. They just want more of a voice so they're not ignored by the county commission.”
Earlier this month, Manatee commissioners said they would find a way to spend $1.7 million, and add it to $1.5 million that the sheriff's office has saved, to help boost sheriff employee pay.
Since January of last year, 65 deputies have left for higher pay at other agencies — 10 percent of the workforce, said Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube, who estimated the cost of hiring and retraining a replacement at $100,000 per deputy.
“When that happens, we become a training ground for other agencies,” Steube said. “My question for the county commission is: Do you want to keep paying $100,000 per person, or give us incremental pay increases to get us where we need to be?”
In addition to pay, Puckett said “internal issues” were a driving force behind the unionization efforts.
“The deputies feel like there is unequal treatment in discipline, promotions, things like that,” he said.
Manatee deputies who are organizing the union and could be on an employee bargaining declined to comment.
Sheriff Steube said talk of unions could have been avoided if the county commission would have granted proposed pay increases for his deputies.
“I believe we treat people fair and equitably,” Steube said. “I believe my people and I are on the same page as regards to pay. It's quite evident from the fact that for the last four years I've been telling the county commission we need pay increase and more people, because we're dangerously shorthanded on the road and in the jail.”
During Steube's first year in office, deputies received a 2.5 percent increase. In the years that followed, they received two $1,000 salary supplements and two vacation buy-backs. “But that didn't add anything to their bottom line,” Steube said.
Steube surveyed 14 similarly sized area police agencies and found that the starting salary for new Manatee County deputies, $40,000 a year, was among the lowest.
While deputy pay has remained flat, their workload has not. On average, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office handles 850 calls for service per day.
Things are not much better in the jail. The Florida Department of Corrections, in a 1995 study, told the sheriff's office that the minimum number of certified corrections deputies required to staff the jail was 219.
“I have 213 today, and we've got gangs,” Steube said. “We didn't have that in 1995.”
Next in the unionizing process will be a determination whether the union vote would be by mail or by secret ballot at the sheriff's office, Puckett said.
The actual vote could come next month or in early November. A simple majority is needed to win.
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