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St. Lucie County sheriff wants raises across the board, including for himself, in new budget

Proposed 20% raise for Sheriff Keith Pearson would increase pay from $199,348 to $238,438
Posted at 5:50 PM, May 24, 2024

ST. LUCIE COUNTY, Fla. — After six months as St. Lucie County's top law enforcement official, Sheriff Keith Pearson is asking taxpayers for more money, despite coming into millions of dollars in savings.

For the first time next year, no inmate medical expenses will come from the sheriff's budget. That is $6.5 million that Sheriff Keith Pearson no longer has to budget for since the county took over that expense.

Still, Pearson's budget proposal for next year, topping $105.7 million, more than eclipses those savings.

The proposal tops last year's budget of $96.6 million — with inmate medical expenses for that year subtracted — by more than 9%.

Added expenses include rising insurance costs, increases in retirement payments and auto maintenance and fuel.

Pearson is also proposing $6,000 raises for all employees.

Sheriff Keith Pearson commented by email on his agency's budget requests.
Sheriff Keith Pearson commented by email on his agency's budget requests.

Pearson declined an interview with WPTV but issued a written statement through his office's spokeswoman, Tonya Woodworth:

"Bottom line, our operating costs have gone up across the board, which has not only impacted our agency but also our employees," the statement attributed to Pearson said. "Our current civilian starting pay is $16 per hour. With the County Commission's excitement of Buc-ee's coming to our community, it is an embarrassment to say that our employees could earn a better wage working there. It is imperative that we provide our employees with a living wage so that they can afford to live in the community they serve and focus on serving and protecting the citizens of St. Lucie County."

"I think the $6,000 is very generous. But at the same time, I think it's a great idea. I don't really have a problem with that," St. Lucie County Commission Chair Cathy Townsend said. "It would definitely put them in a bracket where they deserve to be."

Townsend said she takes issue with and has questions about other expenses in the proposed budget.

"Six thousand dollars for every employee doesn't compare to the $40,000 (Pearson) was asking for himself," Townsend said.

That's a nearly 20% raise for the sheriff, from $199,348 to $238,438.

While sheriff's salaries are set using a formula developed by the Legislature, and based on population, Townsend said, "generally that increase would be a couple thousand dollars."

Of the three divisions under the sheriff's supervision, law enforcement saw the largest proposed increase over last year of roughly 12%. That compares to a 2.5% increase for the judicial division and 6.8% for detention.

St. Lucie County Commission Chair Cathy Townsend shares her thoughts on Sheriff Keith Pearson's budget requests.
St. Lucie County Commission Chair Cathy Townsend shares her thoughts on Sheriff Keith Pearson's budget requests.

Some of the additional expenses in the proposed law enforcement are unclear. For example, Pearson asked to increase the "rental" budget from $813,000 to nearly $1.1 million. He also requested to more than double the "equipment under $5,000" budget from $195,000 to $514,000.

Pearson did not respond to follow-up questions, although his statement cited "purchases that were already made by the previous administration, with the commission's knowledge."

"I do think he's being a little bit — there's a little bit of greed in this," Townsend said. "To have to come up with the money that he's asking for, we're not going to be able to fix our roads, buy equipment that we need, nor take care of our employees, either."

It will ultimately be up to the County Commission to approve the budget after a hearing process. Historically, the commission has made cuts to proposed budgets.

"Everybody knows, you always ask for high, right?" Townsend said. "I think (Pearson) is smart enough to realize, he's not going to get all that."

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