Sheriff's top brass get another big pay boost

By Mike DeForest - Investigative Reporter

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. - Less than two years after Osceola County Sheriff Russell Gibson awarded his command staff with large raises as high as 37 percent, members of that same leadership team recently received another big boost in their paychecks of several thousand dollars, a News 6 investigation has found.

Gibson's 16-member command staff consists of his agency's highest paid and highest ranking sworn law enforcement officers including the chief deputy, majors and captains.  

The command staff also includes some civilian positions such as the agency's chief management officer, general counsel, assistant general counsel and information technology director.

Records show Gibson's command staff received significant raises in 2017 that pushed their salaries to the greatest amount allowed by the agency, known as "top out."

According to an internal document outlining the agency's pay schedule, the "Command Staff are not eligible for raises" until 2021 unless they are promoted to a higher-paying position.

Yet those same members of the sheriff's leadership team recently received an additional pay increase, records show.

In September, Osceola County Commissioners approved more than $74 million to fund the Sheriff's Office through fiscal year 2019.   

That new budget included a $5 million increase from the previous year to help pay for school resource officers required by state law in the wake of February's deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Records show the added funds were also used to increase the pay of all Osceola County Sheriff's Office employees by 5 percent.

Most of the agency's nearly 800 employees including deputies, crime scene investigators, records custodians and administrative assistants have received that recent five percent increase in the form of a raise boosting their hourly rate.

About 122 employees who have reached the top of their position's pay scale were given a single, lump payment equal to five percent of their salary.

Those so-called "topped out" employees include all members of the sheriff's command staff.

For the chief deputy who earns $142,000 a year, that extra payment amounted to an extra $7,100 in her October paycheck.

The agency's chief management officer and general counsel, who are each paid $135,000 a year, received a $6,750 bump in pay last month.

Combined, the 16 employees who comprise the sheriff's leadership team were given a total of $87,450 in additional payments, an amount greater than the starting salaries of two new deputies.

Gibson, who did not receive any extra payments himself since his $154,000 salary is set by the state Legislature, declined to be interviewed for this story.

An agency spokesperson told News 6 that they believed the command staff was entitled to the same pay increase as other, lower-ranking Sheriff's Office employees.

"The Board of County Commissioners approved a budget for the Sheriff’s Office which included a 5% increase for ALL employees," Major Jacob Ruiz wrote in an email.

News 6 contacted all five of Osceola County's commissioners to inquire whether the Sheriff's Office statement was accurate. Only one responded immediately.

"The Board of County Commissioners approves the Sheriff's Budget as a whole but it has no control over how the funds are allocated within that budget as the Sheriff is a Constitutional Officer who is free to establish those priorities on his own," Commissioner Cheryl Grieb said in response.

Grieb did not indicate whether the sheriff informed commissioners about the large pay increases he gave his command staff last year.

In 2017, just months after Gibson was elected sheriff, the leadership team received raises that skyrocketed them to the top of their positions' pay scale, records show.

Six captains who were earning nearly $88,000 a year suddenly found their salaries jump 13 percent to $99,000 annually, records show.

Two majors received a nearly 37 percent pay increase when their $88,000 salaries were boosted to $120,000.

Chief Deputy Martha Gens, who had been earning $77,000 as a sergeant prior to Gibson winning the election in 2016, was originally paid $120,000 when the sheriff tapped her to become the agency's second-in-command, records show.

Months later, the chief deputy's salary jumped to $142,000 as part of Gibson's move to "top out" the Command Staff's pay.

In an email, the sheriff's spokesman explained why the agency needed to increase the compensation of its highest-ranking leaders.

"Command staff pay was evaluated after taking office and when compared to surrounding agencies, adjustments were made to reflect a more appropriate pay," Ruiz said.

Since every law enforcement agency has different budgets, staffing levels and community sizes they serve, it can be challenging to make comparisons.

News 6 asked the sheriff’s spokesman what other agencies were queried during the pay evaluation, but he did not respond.

"Command staff is not protected by career service and can be fired at any time without reason given," Ruiz added.  "We had captains making one dollar more a year than lieutenants that they supervised, and that alone was impetus to change the command pay.  Given the added responsibilities and the risk of losing their job, one dollar more is not appropriate for that."

As for the latest pay increase given to the command staff, Ruiz described it as a "one time payment reflecting the increase in funding from the (Board of County Commissioners)".

Records obtained by News 6 show about 100 Sheriff's Office employees at the top of their positions' pay scale received similar 5 percent "top out payments" in October 2017, including most members of the command staff.

The agency spokesman did not respond to questions from News 6 asking whether the command staff could receive another 5 percent payout next year if county commissioners maintain the agency's current funding level.

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