ACSO gets extra salary boost, refutes report

The Alachua County BOCC approved a request for $2.7 million to Alachua County Sherriff Clovis Watson Jr. for salary increases on Tuesday.
The Alachua County BOCC approved a request for $2.7 million to Alachua County Sherriff Clovis Watson Jr. for salary increases on Tuesday. (File photo by Seth Johnson)
Photo by Seth Johnson

The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) voted against a staff recommendation on Tuesday and opted to give $2.7 million in one-time funds to the sheriff’s office in order to boost salaries and combat vacancies.  

The funds come on top of a 7% salary increase that the BOCC approved earlier this fall in its 2022-2023 budget for all county employees. The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) salary increases will benefit both sworn and non-sworn employees, and the allotments will place starting salaries for ACSO deputies above surrounding agencies.   

The funds for the 7% increase, aimed at fighting inflation, were given in September, and Sheriff Clovis Watson Jr. said the department has waited to apply all the funds. He said the department must negotiate salary changes with the union, and he didn’t want the payroll department to make multiple adjustments.  

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“Every penny that you give us this year will go solely to the employees of the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office—not for capital, not for anything else operational,” Watson said at Tuesday’s meeting. 

However, at Tuesday’s meeting, officials had to clarify what they described as misunderstandings between the BOCC and ACSO after an article in the Gainesville Sun said the sheriff had simply withheld the funds from employees. 

Multiple public commentors addressed the article and said the BOCC should force the sheriff to apply the 7% increase. 

ACSO Capt. Kaley Behl
Courtesy ACSO Kaley Behl

The article headline said Watson “chose not to give employees 7% raise despite having funds to do so” and said the BOCC wants the sheriff “to account for millions of dollars intended for employee raises that never made it to their wallets.”  

Watson told the BOCC that the ACSO still has the funds and will disperse them. He called the article factually inaccurate and said the department has just waited to allow for other considerations.  

“Every employee of the ACSO will receive the 7%,” Watson said. “There was some alluding as to where did the money go. The money is in the bank.”  

In an interview, ACSO spokesperson Kaley Behl said the BOCC’s goal to increase salaries for all employees continues moving forward within the department. And because of the sheriff’s request on Tuesday and the BOCC’s approval, the increase will be larger.  

According to Watson, the ACSO gave the 2.5-4% step increases as obligated before waiting until Tuesday’s meeting to ask for additional funds. Following Tuesday’s decision, the ACSO planned to hand out the remaining funds so that each employee received at least a 7% raise.    

Behl said the ACSO is contractually obligated to fund a step increase each year, so the department first tackled that obligation with the unions. If sheriff’s office had applied all the funds immediately, Behl said the eight-employee payroll department would need to adjust paychecks to different scales multiple times.      

She said the ACSO payroll department has already started sending the 2022-23 step increases, which she said is the earliest ever release of those funds. 

“The sad part of this [misunderstanding] was we actually gave money faster than we’ve ever been able to give it before,” Behl said. 

Now, ACSO can apply the remaining funds from the 7% increase along with the $2.7 million extra, Behl said. 

Alachua County staff recommendation 

Alachua County staff recommended the BOCC not approve the funds. County manager Michele Lieberman said staff worried about giving one-time funds for a recurring need. She said the need to send the ACSO more money, on top of the 7%, would likely lead to an increase in taxes.  

However, Commissioner Ken Cornell pointed to the ACSO’s fiscal stewardship as a reason to approve the funds.  

The ACSO had a $4.8 million surplus from the 2021-22 fiscal year that it would send back to the BOCC. According to a sheriff’s office letter, the majority of the funds, 70%, come from retirments and vacancies. 

Ken Cornell
Courtesy of Alachua County Ken Cornell

In the previous budget cycle, ACSO returned $2.6 million. Cornell said the department returned more than $2 million above what was expected.  

“When we got out of our budget cycle, I was thinking of a number a couple of million less than that number,” Cornell said. “And I would like that money to be put into the pockets of our employees and our folks that are serving Alachua County.” 

Cornell said the department didn’t try to spend the money at the end of the fiscal year in order to return less. Now, he said the BOCC can allocate a portion back to the department for the additional increase.  

He added that vacancies are a problem for law enforcement around the country. A higher salary will help ACSO attract and retain employees.  

ACSO vacancies and salary 

Behl said the department has struggled to remain competitive because of state benefits applied to fiscally constrained counties. Gov. Ron DeSantis recently increased starting salaries for deputies in these counties, like Levy, Gilchrist and Union, to $45,000.   

Behl said those departments deserve the salaries and need the help, but the state-financed raises also place more pressure on the ACSO with its starting salary of $42,000. 

County staff reported that the starting salary for a Marion County deputy was $47,000 as of Oct. 1. A union employee added that Clay and Columbia counties have starting salaries at more than $50,000.  

The funds approved Tuesday will place the ACSO around the $47,000 mark, and Watson said his goal is $50,000.  

At Tuesday’s meeting, Chief Detective Lance Yaeger pointed out that neighboring, fiscally constrained counties respond to fewer calls for service. He said it makes sense that employees would transfer to a bordering county where they earn more and risk less. 

He presented the following numbers for different types of responses between August 2021 to August 2022 and compared those to neighboring counties.  

Armed disturbance calls 

  • ACSO: 120 
  • Others: 6  

Armed robberies calls 

  • ACSO: 23  
  • Others: 4  

Shots fired calls 

  • ACSO: 385  
  • Others: 67  

Domestic disturbance/dispute calls 

  • ACSO: 1,304  
  • Others: 76  

The ACSO currently has 867 employees with 539 of those sworn officers. The office has around 182 vacancies, forcing overtime and extra funds to pay for it.  

Communication and moving forward 

Commissioner Anna Prizzia said communication with ACSO has been faulty, and she felt frustrated with how the conversation had played out. 

Alachua County Commissioner Anna Prizzia
Courtesy of Alachua County Anna Prizzia

“I feel like there’s a level of communication missing in our relationship,” Prizzia said at the meeting. “And I’m just going to say that here and now. I’ve tried—it doesn’t seem to be communicated well.” 

Prizzia said when the BOCC sends a chair letter, Watson needs to respond directly instead of addressing the issue in a mass email to all ACSO employees. She also pointed out that ACSO received the largest portion of the county’s property taxes.  

But Prizzia said she supported the motion for two reasons. Her first reason was that the county won’t need to compensate by increasing taxes. 

Danielle Judd, chief of staff for ACSO, said the office will work to prevent Alachua County from needing an increase.  

“I feel very confident that when we come back to you next year, we are not going to put you in a position where you’re going to have to increase taxes,” Judd said.  

Second, Prizzia said she wanted to support a positive impact on ACSO employees’ mental health.   

Multiple ACSO employees spoke during public comment about the need for financial security when working a high-stress job. 

“I know there are ways that we can be efficient with this money, and I want us to work together to figure that out,” Prizzia said.  

The motion included a clause for ACSO staff and BOCC staff to work together on next year’s budget to adjust for the salary increases.  

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When agencies and departments in the county wind up with surplus in their accounts after having declared their budgets were necessary, that surplus should be returned to the taxpayer. It shouldn’t be finagled and spun around trying to find new ways of spending more than they already did.