Sheriff Ken Mascara wants $5 million more for his 2021 budget but found county staff hesitant in current economy

FORT PIERCE – St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara continued to pressure the St. Lucie County Commission Sept. 1 to completely fund his $91 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which is a $5 million increase over his 2020 budget.

During the summer budget workshops, Office of Management & Budget Director Jennifer Hill told commissioners she lacked the resources to completely fund the Sheriff’s proposed budget.

“As we discussed when we went through the allocation process of the county’s resources, once you take into account the amount of revenue reduction and the desire of the Board to reduce taxes, we do not have $5 million available to allocate,” she said July 13. “Similar to what we’ve done in years past, [we took] the amount that was available for allocation and allocated half of that – just under $2 million – towards the Sheriff’s budget. That leaves approximately a $3 million difference between what’s being requested and what’s currently in the recommended budget.”

Nearly $4 million of the Sheriff’s $5 million increase over last year’s budget is slated for raising the salaries and benefits of his officers. He reminded the Board that the additional $3.1 million they gave him for the 2020 budget had not been enough to fund the entire starting salary increase he needed to remain competitive among neighboring law-enforcement agencies. He insisted he needed every dollar of the desired $5,007,521 increase.

“A couple things we could not make work this year,” Sheriff Mascara told commissioners during the same July meeting. “We could not increase the starting pay to $44,500, it went from $43,500 to $44,000, so in this budget we’ve asked for that other $500. We also could not fund the infrastructure for our Information Technology and other assets that we wanted to buy for the Sheriff’s Office. I know public safety is first in government, and for some reason in the last couple of years, we’ve been left behind. If you don’t fund this budget this year, we’re going to be so far behind that public safety’s going to be jeopardized in our community.”

County Administrator Howard Tipton chaffed at the latter comment during that hearing, insisting the Board’s support of the Sheriff’s Office has “been extraordinary.” In 2018, the Commission voted 4-1 to raise property taxes to fund his then request for salary increases and the purchase of new patrol vehicles, a fact Mr. Tipton referred to in his response.

“A lot of the expenses this Board helps to fund may not necessarily count against his budget,” he said. “You funded that 800-megahertz radio system – that was $9 million for public safety – the jail security system [and] the new fleet of 115 vehicles a couple of years ago.”

During a subsequent budget workshop and in the interim, Ms. Hill found enough additional funding to whittle the difference down to less than $1 million, but Sheriff Mascara remained unwavering in his resolve to get the entire amount and addressed the Commission during public comment Sept. 1.

“You know you all were cc’d on the Madam Chair’s email about my budget, but we’re still pretty far off,” he said. “I want to know what we are going to do about it.”

Chairwoman Kathy Townsend, however, was hesitant to violate the Board’s rule of not directly conversing with speakers during the public comment period and asked Mr. Tipton to respond.

“Sheriff, as you know we have our first public hearing next Thursday [Sept. 10], and it’s the first of two public hearings,” Mr. Tipton said. “There’s still a difference between the sheriff’s request and where we are at today. I think you indicated it was still about $800,000.”

“$882,817 to be exact,” Sheriff Mascara emphasized.

Mr. Tipton then told him staff would further study the numbers in preparation for those hearings but offered the sheriff no concrete promises.

“We’ll continue to do that in the coming days and be ready for the budget hearing next Thursday,” he continued. “That would be my recommendation.”

Sheriff Mascara, however, still had ammo in his arsenal for demanding every dollar requested.

“That $882,817 is going to equal 88 percent of personnel costs, which is going to be $775,998 that will not go to the troops,” he said. “The troops go out each and every day representing this Board and me to make sure that our community is safe. Our community is the safest it’s ever been in 49 years.”

Sheriff Mascara closed his comments that evening with one relatively new county citizen’s tale of unexpected help from Deputy Ron Stickney, who noticed a car door open in the driveway and contacted the owner in case a crime had been committed. They discovered the owner’s son had inadvertently left the car door open by mistake and nothing was amiss. The citizen affirmed the deputy’s kindness had convinced him he’d moved to a great neighborhood and that the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office has gained his “full support and confidence.”

“These are the people who you fund to protect our community,” the sheriff concluded in reference to Dep. Stickney. “Just keep that in mind.”

People who’ve lived for a longer time in St. Lucie County, however, might remember Dep. Stickney for a different incident, however. In 2003, he accidentally shot and killed Nathan Tompkins of Indian River County when he said his service revolver misfired while he was simultaneously trying to holster it and handcuff the then 35-year-old who’d briefly led officers on a chase up U.S. 1. Dep. Stickney was exonerated by a grand jury on Oct. 10 of that year to the dismay of the man’s family.

As far as the additional $882,817 Sheriff Mascara was seeking as of Sept. 1, Public Information Officer Deputy Bryan Beaty said Sept. 4 the issue had since been resolved but declined to provide further details. County officials were not available to confirm that on deadline due to the Labor Day holiday. Dep. Beaty, however, believes the public should remember Dep. Stickney for his more recent accomplishments, including finding a woman in 2012 who’d been missing for two days and being named Deputy of the Year in 2013.

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